The Bucks’ NBA title has implications for Lakers

Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday, July 21 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

The images of the Lakers’ 2020 title still feel so clear, and some of them were familiar as the Milwaukee Bucks wrapped up their first NBA title since 1971: There will always be championship shirts and hats, and goggles for champagne celebrations, and the hoisting of trophies into the air.

But the context of winning in one’s own home felt so different, and in a way, reviving. While it might not be on its face safe for some 65,000 Milwaukee residents to be celebrating in the streets en masse, it was understandable after a year-and-a-half of caution, of fear, of confined isolation. It’s still clear, too, in my head, the smoke drifting from LeBron James’ cigar last October as he savored his fourth career championship with his third franchise. Giannis Antetokounmpo, 10 years his junior playing for the team that drafted him, spit after taking an ill-advised inhale – the taste ending the season on top is still new to him.

In one sense, the NBA is back – back in home markets, back in front of crowds, rising back to its former popularity with less existential worries about the pandemic, presidential elections and other challenges that made basketball seem small by comparison. In other ways, Milwaukee triumphing over the Phoenix Suns felt like an inflection point that could change the power balance in the league.

A couple of thoughts from the postseason that was, and how they apply to the Lakers:

1. Is winning where you were drafted more desirable now?

Just a decade ago, there were few franchises in more dire straits than the Bucks, who were playing in an outdated Bradley Center and practicing in a building owned by the Catholic Church. They did make the playoffs often enough, but between 1989 and 2018, they only advanced past the first round one time, constantly treading water in mediocrity.

Things started changing when they hit the lottery with Antetokounmpo, who surpassed all reasonable expectations from that 2013 Draft (15th overall) as a spindly teenager, and also with dynamic ownership from the Lasry family, which infused money and bold moves into the franchise. It’s the biggest sports success in Milwaukee since … ever? (Yes, the city has won an NBA title before, but back before the NBA was the globally relevant league it is today.)

The franchise validated the five-year, $228 million supermax contract that Antetokounmpo signed last summer, an offseason of hand-wringing and worrying that the Greek Freak might not be satisfied with his situation in Wisconsin. But Antetokounmpo wound up taking direct shots at other stars who have left for bigger markets before him on Tuesday night.

“That’s my stubborn side,” he said. “It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. … I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it, and this is the way to do it, and we did it.”

The constant anxiety of small-market teams piping up that the NBA isn’t fair to them is exhausting and more than a little circular: No matter how hard one tries, Indianapolis will never be Miami, and young multimillionaires will never see those cities the same way in terms of appeal. But for one thing, small markets have been successful before given savvy drafting (ever heard of Tim Duncan?), and furthermore, the NBA has created financial incentives for stars to stay in their markets, and there is no better example than Antetokounmpo.

One wonders if this will drive certain superstars to stay with the teams that drafted them and hope to follow in Giannis’ footsteps. Some very good players who come to mind: Portland’s Damian Lillard, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Washington’s Bradley Beal. Devin Booker looks to be in a great situation now in Phoenix, but if the Suns struggle to repeat the kind of success that vaulted them into the Finals, he could wind up on that disgruntled list quickly.

Sometimes, all it takes for a trend to catch is a blueprint. It happened in 2010 when LeBron left Cleveland for Miami, kicking off an era when stars felt empowered to pick their markets and their teammates. Could Antetokounmpo’s story provide an enticing counter to that way of doing business? And if so, does that hurt teams like the Lakers who often prey upon markets with a superstar who wants out of town?

2. Who will swing the big trade that pushes them over the top?

The last three champions all had distinct styles from one another, with the biggest common thread perhaps being how defensively sound they are. But the means of putting a title roster together was similar in at least one way: swinging a huge summer trade.

The Raptors cashed in their chips for Kawhi Leonard despite knowing he might never stay in Toronto, creating a memorable one-year run. The Lakers shipped out most of their young core for Anthony Davis, who was the perfect complimentary star to James in 2020. Now the Bucks are on top thanks much in part to the two-way contributions of Jrue Holiday, the subject of more than a little skepticism when Milwaukee sent out a boatload of compensation to acquire the borderline All-Star.

Even teams that didn’t win, but progressed far got there with a trade. Phoenix is a great example, morphing from a non-playoff team to Western Conference champion after dealing for Chris Paul. The Atlanta Hawks were similarly strung out before deals for Clint Capela (last season) and Bogdan Bogdanovic helped drive them to a different stratosphere of competition.

Expect those pathways to drive aggression this summer as a number of teams who lost in the playoffs this season might see themselves as One Big Move from winning it all. Maybe the move that wins the 2022 championship has already happened: Brooklyn surely wants to see what Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden can do together when healthy, and Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Khris Middleton will surely be formidable next season, too. But clearly, fortune favors the bold here, so expect teams to make bold moves.

That includes the Lakers, who will be challenged to add another big-name superstar due to assorted economic factors but will be motivated by James’ shrinking title-contending window to find a third star. The Undefeated reported that the Lakers are in the hunt for a difference-making point guard (not a surprise the way Dennis Schröder underwhelmed in the playoffs), with a list of names that includes Russell Westbrook and perhaps (a longshot) Chris Paul. As Rob Pelinka has shown before, he’s not afraid of making a big trade.

3. Has Giannis taken the baton?

It was Bucks in six this year, but the series was really won in Game 5. Antetokounmpo’s closing effort of 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots is historical legend, but nothing will sear the memory of this run like the game-sealing, fast-break alley-oop from Holiday.

It struck me that James, 36, was watching that moment courtside, attending as he said in support of Paul, his longtime friend. But seeing photos of his view of the play, which was better than most, gave me a chill, as if it were a newly retired Michael Jordan watching Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal win subsequent championships and feeling the sun might be setting on his era.

Clearly, James is a long way from done. He was widely considered an MVP candidate before getting hurt in March, which lends credibility to the idea that he could be playing high-level basketball until he’s 40 years old. From the Lakers’ perspective, it’s also positive that James recently said on the Smartless podcast that he wants to retire as a Laker, giving whatever he’s got left to the franchise.

But all reigns end, no matter how great they are. What it always felt like Antetokounmpo was lacking was self-confidence on the game’s biggest stage, which is often a growing pain for an emerging star. Shaq was 27 when he won his first championship. Michael Jordan was 27. James was 27.

Antetokounmpo is 26, and his clinching effort is a sign of how he’s grown under the brightest lights. And while it’s difficult to repeat in the NBA, winning a title once gives players and teams a sense of how to get back to the top. If James wants to get back on top for the fifth time, he might have to go through the Greek Freak, whose legacy is only beginning to unfold.

— Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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