'This is my city'
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA reporter
With one tweet, Giannis Antetokounmpo ended months of agony for himself.
The 26-year-old won't have to answer for every facial expression throughout the season. He won't be hounded for his reaction whenever the Milwaukee Bucks lose a big game. He won't be part of the rumor mill that swallows up players whole and spits them out emotionally exhausted and physically drained.
On Tuesday morning, Antetokounmpo posted a photo of himself in a Bucks uniform and announced he had agreed to a five-year contract extension with the franchise.
"This is my home, this is my city," he wrote. "I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next five years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it."
It's a sigh of relief for Antetonkounmpo, a man who values privacy. And it's even better news for the NBA.
A superstar chose to stay in a small-market.
In a league where top players often opt for the bright lights of big cities and the exposure and financial windfalls that accompany them, Antetokounmpo chose to shirk that trend.
All big-market teams.
But Antetokounmpo, whom the Bucks selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, chose to stay put. He reportedly agreed to a $228 million supermax contract, the most lucrative deal in league history.
If Antetokounmpo hadn't signed the extension, he would've been the biggest free agent to hit the market in years. Last season, he averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists, ranking third in the league in both scoring and rebounding.
He became the third player in NBA history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, alongside Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. It was his second straight MVP award.
If he entered the free market, it would've been a circus.
Instead, it was a coup for small-market teams that often struggle to retain top talent in the era of player empowerment.
Antetokounmpo, who is from Greece, didn't choose to go to a glitzy city with coastal views. He's not worried about Milwaukee's ability to attract elite free agents. He's not wondering if his brand will suffer.
He believes in himself and the pieces around him. And he wants to focus on basketball. Period.
Other players have found success that way.
Tim Duncan turned the small-market San Antonio Spurs into a destination team, leading them to five NBA championships and 19-straight playoff appearances, a streak they grew to 22 after he retired in 2016.
Dirk Nowitzki spent his 21-season career with the Dallas Mavericks – a big-market team, but not the biggest market team – leading them to an improbable championship in 2011 over the stacked Heat, who had James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
In a sense, Duncan's and Nowitzki's titles meant more than players who won them by ditching comparatively overlooked markets to team up with superstars.
In a way, it earned them more respect. More credibility.
That was never clearer than when James won titles with the Heat alongside Wade and Bosh in 2012 and 2013. Many questioned whether he could achieve that level of success on his own without being flanked by two other Hall of Famers.
Many thought he didn't truly prove himself until he won a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
The two titles Durant won there – in 2017 and 2018 – have often been discounted, despite the excellence of the Warriors' on-court chemistry and off-court salary cap management.
Antetokounmpo won't have that issue.
He chose to stay.
The Bucks tried to do their part, too, most notably acquiring Jrue Holiday in a four-team trade in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and three future first-round picks. Holiday is a skilled defender and playmaker who gives the team an upgrade at the point guard position.
Milwaukee also deepened its bench and nearly got its hands on an elite offensive weapon in Bogdan Bogdanovic, but that deal was botched.
The league does well when its big-market teams are successful. But it's just as essential to have intrigue and competition spread across the country in a manner that's not completely lopsided.
Antetokounmpo made a statement Tuesday.
Even though the Bucks have failed to compete for a championship despite their lofty expectations the last few years, Antetokounmpo thinks they can be contenders.
He wants to prove that.
If he does, it will be a resounding way to cement his legacy. No one could question him. No one could point to whom he teamed up alongside. No one could say anything at all.
It's a win-win for Antetokounmpo, really.
He quieted all of the noise during the season.
And any that could come after it.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA reporter for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News.