Because he’s the reigning MVP, because he plays in Milwaukee, and because the 2019 summer was defined by NBA stars switching teams—one of whom previously and publicly talked about how he wanted to stay—Giannis Antetokounmpo will face intense scrutiny over his forthcoming free agency decision in 2021 until he signs what will surely be the largest contract in the history of the league. He’s still under contract with the Bucks for two full seasons, and he’ll be eligible for an extension worth a quarter of a billion dollars next year, but that’s where Anthony Davis was at the start of last season. Antetokounmpo knows the questions about his future will only increase with every quote he gives the press, so he’s been careful not to say anything.
Here’s how he touched on the matter at Bucks media day:
I think it’s disrespectful to my teammates to talk about my free agency and what I’m going to do. When the time is right we’re all gonna talk about it. I don’t think the time is right right now. [...] I’m not gonna talk about it a lot this season, and I’m not gonna try to address it.
That’s the most definitive comment he has issued on his 2021 free agency, and it mostly tracks with everything he’s said about enjoying Milwaukee. Which is why a report from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel yesterday that featured a quote from Antetokounmpo about the possibility of leaving town was probably so alarming for Bucks fans. The Journal-Sentinel cited an unreleased report from the Harvard Business School’s Anita Elberse and Melcolm Ruffin about the Bucks’ turnaround from having the league’s worst record in 2013-14 to the best last year, and the role that transcendent superstars like Antetokounmpo can have in small markets like Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s full quote is as follows:
“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture. So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”
Antetokounmpo issued the quote in the spring, before his team went to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the authors of the study gave the Journal-Sentinel a copy of their work last week, just before the 2019-20 season began. “It’s not uncommon for us to get people to say things that they haven’t said anywhere else because these are in-depth interviews,” Elberse said.
One day after his months-old comment made waves, Antetokounmpo addressed it today and denied ever saying what he is quoted as saying:
Antetokounmpo reiterated his media day stance, that he was solely focused on winning a title and that he would not talk about his free agency, and he explained once again that he didn’t give the quote to the Harvard study:
“As I said, the last — what is is called quote, paragraph — it’s words that I didn’t use,” he said. “Underperforming or whether or deciding, all those words I’ve never used in my life. As I said, I’m not going to talk about it. There are going to be stories that come out – I said that, I said this – but I’m not going to get into it at all.”
Bucks co-owner Jamie Dinan spoke to the Journal-Sentinel about Antetokounmpo’s quote, and said that while he doubts the player was misquoted, he claimed “researchers needed conflict” to sell the study as a teaching case. “There’s no case here if he’s like, ‘I’m a hundred percent signing next year,’” Dinan said. “I wasn’t in the room when he said it, so I don’t know if they goaded him a little bit to kind of get some conflict.”
He also noted the interview was probably recorded, though neither Elberse nor Ruffin responded to the Journal-Sentinel’s request for comment about Antetokounmpo’s denial. The full quote is also not on the first page of the study, and it doesn’t seem to be inexplicably blocked by an image of Giannis.
Whether or not Antetokounmpo said this, the substance of the comment isn’t entirely controversial. Why wouldn’t he consider signing for another team with better fortunes if the Bucks regress and seem bound for a bleak future? Every star player thinks that. The Bucks know that, too!