Controversy is raging inside the Milwaukee Bucks locker room. Lines are being drawn, positions defined. Everyone must take a side: Are you with Giannis Antetokounmpo or against him?
"Nuh-tella? Or New-tella?" Giannis asks sternly, like a prosecutor needling a reluctant witness, his question directed at no one in particular and everyone at once on this early December evening.
The subject of this dispute is Nutella, the sweet Italian spread. The debate is comically intense.
Thon Maker, the Bucks' cheery young center, insists the first syllable is pronounced "nut," owing to the source of the creamy confection (hazelnuts). That's how they say it in Australia, says Maker, who spent his formative years Down Under. This sends Giannis, a native of Greece—where they most definitely do not say it that way—into a mild tizzy.
There's a lot of murmuring and postulating until finally a media member hands Giannis a cellphone displaying a website that states the answer clearly.
"NEW-tella," the site indicates. "NEW-tella," Giannis declares aloud, repeating the word for effect. "NEW-tella. NEW-tella."
With that, he hands back the phone and posts up before the assembled media to discuss the Bucks' raucous 115-92 rout of the Detroit Pistons—a victory punctuated by two tasty highlights from Antetokounmpo: a blistering dunk over Pistons star Blake Griffin and, a few minutes later, a soaring swat of a Griffin floater.
The interview is brief and breezy as Antetokounmpo downplays his theatrics and doles out praise for teammates—starting with Eric Bledsoe, who scorched Detroit for 27 points.
By night's end, the Bucks would boast a 16-7 record—their best start in 28 years—placing them firmly in the mix of Teams Vying to Fill the LeBron Vacuum in the NBA's Eastern Conference.
Moods are bright. A whimsical debate over condiment pronunciations is about the only sign of tension.
It's early yet, perhaps too early to seriously ponder championship runs and award campaigns, but the Bucks are clearly blossoming in their first year under coach Mike Budenholzer. Their offense has been modernized—all high-efficiency drives and three-point attempts—and their defense simplified and sharpened.
For the first time since he arrived in 2013, as a gangly, largely anonymous and undeveloped teenager, Antetokounmpo is a legitimate MVP candidate. And the Bucks—who last won a playoff series in 2001 and finished a ho-hum 44-38 last season—are projecting the look of a title contender.
"Definitely. I feel like we definitely got a shot," Antetokounmpo says. "I think now we have the talent. It's just in our hands to put the effort and energy into every game, and we definitely have a shot."
These are giddy times in Milwaukee. The Bucks have stocked the roster with shooters and athletic wings to fully exploit Giannis' driving and playmaking and to maximize Budenholzer's fluid offense. They are buoyed by rollicking crowds at Fiserv Forum, their glistening new $524 million arena, which sits catty-corner from an equally impressive, $31 million state-of-the-art training center.
And they have Antetokounmpo, a transcendent talent with the height of a center, the ball-handling skills of a point guard, the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the ferocity of a Doberman.
Everything here speaks to a renewal, the start of something special, something enduring.
But what if it was all temporary, a tease? What if this new golden age were cut short just two years from now with Antetokounmpo's departure for Los Angeles, or New York, or Miami?
Let's be clear: There is no reason to believe that will happen. By all indications, Antetokounmpo is happy in Milwaukee, personally and professionally. He might very well build a Hall of Fame legacy right here, on Lake Michigan's west bank, stacking trophies and titles for the next decade and becoming the greatest player in franchise history. He just might.
And yet if there is anything we have learned about today's NBA, it's that nothing is permanent or predictable, least of all the career trajectories of All-Stars.
Stars move freely and often now—more so than in any prior era. They leave as free agents or force trades while still under contract. They leave bad teams for good teams, and good teams for great teams. They join contenders or create new contenders by joining forces with their friends. They form superteams. They seek out bigger stages, brighter lights, warmer weather.
They leave to escape dysfunction or disappointment. They leave without guilt or even much backlash. Because leaving is the new normal.
When LeBron James ditched Cleveland for Miami in 2010, it was considered basketball heresy. But it kicked off a virtual superstar exodus. Since then, nearly a dozen other franchise stars have left their teams, either through free agency or forced trades, while still in their primes.
The list includes Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. Oh, and of course, James himself has changed teams twice more.
It is, to be sure, a uniquely perilous time to be an NBA general manager.
"A hundred percent," says former Cavaliers GM David Griffin, now an analyst for NBA TV and NBA Radio. "Players have more power than they've ever had. And they've learned how to flex that power. They've learned how to utilize it, and how to leverage it. Big-picture, that speaks to why you have to build something that is unique. Because you can't think you're going to do just business as usual and have it work anymore."
It's fabulous if you're an NBA superstar. It's nerve-wracking if you're a team that employs one. Especially if that star is within a year or two of free agency.
"It's a very tenuous feeling," says a team official whose franchise lost its star recently.
Today, that anxiety is most acute in New Orleans, where the Pelicans are hovering around .500 and gradually squandering an MVP season from Anthony Davis. The Pelicans are fast approaching a moment of truth with their 25-year-old superstar, who can become a free agent in 2020.
On July 1, the Pelicans can offer Davis a so-called "supermax" extension, worth $239.5 million over five years, according to calculations by Bleacher Report cap expert Eric Pincus. If he signs it, all is well. If Davis rejects it, it would signal he intends to flee in 2020—thus forcing the Pelicans to preemptively trade him.
That same scenario will unfold in Milwaukee on July 1, 2020, when Antetokounmpo will be eligible for the supermax, a year ahead of his own free agency. That means, for all practical purposes, the Bucks have about a year and a half to make their case.
If the entire discussion sounds premature, understand this: Rival executives, particularly those in major markets, are already plotting to chase Davis and Antetokounmpo, whether in free agency or via trade. They're gathering tradeable assets and freeing future salary-cap room. Those names are circled on dry-erase boards across the league.
The clock is ticking. In today's NBA, the clock is always ticking.
Practice has long since ended at the Bucks' training center, where "FEAR THE DEER" is inscribed in massive, all-caps lettering above the courts. But Antetokounmpo is still dishing out assists.
How, he is asked, did the Bucks make such a big leap this season without adding a single star to the roster?
"We definitely add some pieces," he says, enthusiastically name-checking Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton as if they were 10-time All-Stars instead of journeymen.
Then he names Budenholzer, who does in fact rate as a star among head coaches, and who, according to Giannis, "gives every player on the team confidence to play their game and the green light to shoot the ball. That's big."
The Bucks are currently on a 56-win pace with the NBA's second-ranked offense (up from 10th last season) and the fifth-ranked defense (up from 18th). They shoot more three-pointers (40 per game) than any team other than the analytics-happy Houston Rockets.
None of this is an accident. When Budenholzer interviewed for the job last summer, he articulated a clear vision: a five-out offense, with Antetokounmpo orchestrating and skilled shooters around him.
So general manager Jon Horst went out and snatched Lopez, the best three-point-shooting center on the free-agent market; Ilyasova, whose shooting helped fuel the 76ers' resurgence last season; and Connaughton, a low-volume shooter who nevertheless had hit 37 percent from the arc in his last two seasons with Portland. With the 17th pick in the draft, Horst selected Donte DiVincenzo, who converted 40 percent of his threes in his final season at Villanova.
"It can't be said enough how important they've been," Budenholzer says.
That Hawks team is instructive. It was considered a low-ceiling group with just one established star (Al Horford) and a newly anointed All-Star (Paul Millsap), but no transcendent players. By midseason, the Hawks had four All-Stars as Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver each earned their first selections to join Horford and Millsap.
In an era dominated by superteams—the Warriors in the West, LeBron's Heat and Cavs teams in the East—the Hawks briefly provided an alternate model. They provided hope. And maybe that's what Budenholzer and Horst are constructing in Milwaukee: a contender built with one supreme talent, surrounded by the right high-level role players.
Lopez has made a single All-Star Game, back in 2013. Khris Middleton hovers on the fringes of the All-Star discussion. But Antetokounmpo doesn't have a surefire co-star, which could pose a challenge when it's time to face Toronto's one-two punch of Leonard and Kyle Lowry, or Philadelphia's triple threat of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, or Boston's starry lineup (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Horford, Jayson Tatum).
The lack of co-stars in Cleveland is what drove James to take his talents to South Beach eight years ago. It's driven much of the superstar market ever since.
But Antetokounmpo seems wholly uninterested in superteams, and wholly unconvinced he needs one.
"You don't have to have a lot of [stars]," he says. "I definitely think that, because I think we have great pieces in this team, and every guy in this team knows what his role is and is having fun and is enjoying his role. And that comes from the coach. You know, if the coach gives you confidence, gives you the green light and tells you what your role is and you accept it as a player, and you're happy with it, that's big for every team. I don't think anybody on this team wants to do more, wants to do less."
He adds: "When you have a team like that, all the guys play hard. And definitely we can be a team that just come out of nowhere, because nobody expect the Milwaukee Bucks to win the East. Or to have this start that we have so far. But we gotta keep getting better."
Two nights later, in a game billed as a potential Finals preview, the Bucks would lose at home to the defending champion Warriors, 105-95, despite a 22-point, 15-rebound effort from Antetokounmpo. Two days after that, he'd drop 19 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in a victory over the Raptors.
The Bucks have gone 4-2 so far against the four other top teams in the East (including Indiana). And they did thump the Warriors in Oakland earlier this season. Whether they're truly title-ready will be determined next spring, but they've earned a place in the discussion.
Antetokounmpo is averaging 26.8 points and career highs in both rebounds (13.1) and assists (6.0) per game. ("Looking like Wilt Chamberlain some nights," says former teammate Jason Terry.) He's scoring more efficiently than ever, mostly on point-blank layups and thundering dunks, thanks to all the open driving lanes created by Budenholzer's offense.
Antetokounmpo just turned 24, made his first All-Star team two years ago and has yet to win a playoff series. But he speaks with the clarity of a veteran when it comes to career goals.
"Definitely, I want to be one of the best players to ever play the game," he says. "That's why I play the game, that's why I work hard every day. I don't take days off. But at the end of [the] day, it's all about winning. … And I know that if I'm in that mindset—I'm not chasing stats, I'm not chasing individual awards—I know it's going to come. Because I have enough talent, I have great teammates that are going to help me achieve all that stuff by winning."
Anthony Davis was introduced to a warm and booming ovation Dec. 10, which was odd since the Pelicans were playing in Boston that night. This is the NBA in 2018.
If Davis becomes available in trade next July, the consensus around the league is that the Celtics, flush with talent and draft picks, will be the best armed to make a deal. The Lakers will also give chase—a fact underscored by James' recent remarks to ESPN that playing with Davis would be "amazing." (Worth noting: The two also share an agent, James' friend Rich Paul.) When it comes time, half the league could be in pursuit of Davis.
If Davis becomes available, it will be because the Pelicans have failed for seven years to get him the help he needs.
Davis has been an All-Star for five years running and one of the most dominant players in the league. But the Pelicans have posted just two winning seasons during his tenure with one playoff series victory. They have squandered draft picks and cap room and generally handcuffed themselves at every turn. Their boldest (and riskiest) move—a midseason trade for All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in 2017—went bust when Cousins tore his Achilles last season.
The Pelicans did well in landing Nikola Mirotic last winter and Julius Randle in July, but the team has suffered without point guard Rajon Rondo, who they let leave in free agency. They're currently 12th in the West at 15-16. That is not a formula for keeping a superstar happy.
Even if the Pelicans rally this season, the danger is that Davis "is still gonna look at the future and say, 'My future is most likely better somewhere else than here,'" says one rival executive.
The Pelicans' best hope is that Davis is persuaded by money. Only New Orleans can offer the $239.5 million supermax. If Davis were traded, the most he can earn with his new team is $205.3 million on a fresh five-year contract.
The NBA has for decades tried to induce stars to stay with their teams through financial incentives—Bird rights, longer contracts, higher raises—but the power of those inducements has faded in recent years as salaries have skyrocketed in proportion to league revenues.
Not long ago, a free-agent star might take a cut from $120 million to $90 million to leave his team. But today, Davis can sacrifice more than $34 million by turning down the supermax and still walk away with $205 million—enough to buy a small Bahamian island. The sheer riches available in the NBA's booming economy make the sacrifice less onerous.
Contending for titles, or simply seeking happiness in whatever form that takes, now drives players more than any quaint concept of loyalty to a team or city—and sometimes even more than money. So the mission for every executive who has a superstar is fairly straightforward.
"I think all you do is build the best and most sustainable championship platform that those [stars] can attract other guys to," Griffin says. "It's about making him believe he can win with you. They don't need to give Anthony Davis control. They need to give Anthony Davis players."
There are other factors. Player contracts are shorter than ever, by the NBA's design, which means stars reach free agency more often and thus are always in position to exert leverage. And sometimes, even winning isn't enough. Irving left a championship team in Cleveland. Hayward left a rising power in Utah. Durant left the Thunder after coming within one game of the NBA Finals. Sometimes, players just want to move.
"I don't think player movement is necessarily bad," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says. "The downside isn't to me when a player moves at the end of his contract—we all understand that's a possibility. It's when a player is in a position to force a trade before his contract is over."
Although NBA officials may cringe at that trend, Silver notes there is a benefit for the teams, who get the chance to reload by making a trade rather than lose a star for nothing in free agency.
"This is far from a perfect system," Silver says. "I think this is one of these issues where clearly we can get better. But I think it's in a pretty good place right now. I think that the combination of both player mobility and a team's ability to rebuild faster through a trade process, and not just through the draft, is productive for the league."
At 35, Jon Horst is the youngest general manager in the NBA—and in some ways the perfect representation of the Bucks franchise at this stage: youthful, adept, optimistic, unjaded.
While rival GMs speculate about Antetokounmpo's future and the pressure on the Bucks to keep him happy, Horst stays stubbornly fixated on the present. After all, Antetokounmpo is signed through 2021.
"The truth is, it really isn't the biggest thing on our mind," Horst says. "The biggest thing on our mind is how do we take a step from last year to this year and continue to improve? And if we do all the right things along the way, and we take the appropriate steps … it will take care of itself."
Of course, this time next year, Antetokounmpo will be in the same position that Davis is in now—with just months to go before either accepting or rejecting a supermax. The moment of truth for Milwaukee is closer than anyone wants to acknowledge out loud.
But Bucks officials are quietly doing the work to keep their superstar happy and thriving and surrounded with the right talent. Earlier this month, Horst offloaded the onerous contracts of John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova in a trade that brought back veteran guard George Hill and freed up future cap room.
Prior to the deal, the Bucks were facing a potential $190 million payroll (including luxury tax) next season. Now they expect to be closer to the tax threshold, around $132 million, even if they re-sign their four key free agents: Middleton, Bledsoe, Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon (restricted). Indeed, the savings should help the Bucks keep that core together.
Hill is under contract for $18 million next season, but only $1 million is guaranteed, giving the Bucks additional flexibility next summer. If they chose to re-sign only Middleton, the Bucks could conceivably create the cap room to chase an All-Star free agent.
"We have multipositional players, we have tradeable contracts, we have some good young players," Horst says. "And we have targeted years going forward where we can have some cap flexibility as well. So I like where we're at, happy where we're at, but I think we have the ability to grow."
But even if they never land a second star, the Bucks might be OK. Those who know Antetokounmpo best say he's simply built differently than many of his peers. He isn't dazzled by Hollywood or Broadway, nor consumed with expanding his brand. He routinely declines in-depth interview requests, preferring his focus remain on the court.
Antetokounmpo bought his first house in Milwaukee this past summer, a subtle sign of his comfort here. Houses can, of course, be resold, but Antetokounmpo affectionately calls Milwaukee "my American home."
The Bucks may have one other subtle advantage in their quest to keep Antetokounmpo: his Greek roots.
As several people around the league noted, Antetokounmpo didn't grow up playing on the AAU circuit and therefore is not as conditioned to the superstar model as his American peers. Moreover, he's not part of Team USA, which has fostered so many of the friendships that later turned into NBA partnerships (see: the 2010 Miami Heat).
"It does give Milwaukee a big advantage that Giannis is not around All-Stars all summer," one rival executive says.
Along those same lines, and in defiance of the NBA's new-age fraternalism, Antetokounmpo has repeatedly turned down invitations to work out with other stars. He sees no point in sharing anything with his rivals. Nor is he likely to seek out a superteam.
"Never," says Jason Terry, who played the last two years alongside Antetokounmpo before retiring. Terry adds he would "never in a million years" expect to see Giannis join forces with other stars.
"Giannis, his DNA, his makeup is, he has the ability to carry a team to the championship level himself," Terry says. "I think he's still enjoying the challenge of trying to take on the world's best, like LeBron, head to head. Trying to take on guys like KD head-to-head. And he's really enjoying that matchup and embracing it. I mean, he wants to be the best player in the NBA. I've heard him say that on multiple occasions."
What if Antetokounmpo didn't need another star? That may sound ludicrous in this era of superteams, but that era is showing some cracks.
The Warriors are getting older, and they could lose Durant next summer, or the summer after that. The LeBron-era Cavs already crumbled, as did the Lob City Clippers. The Celtics have questions surrounding Horford (age), Hayward (injury) and Irving (free agency). The 76ers have the talent—Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons—but their chemistry is still evolving, and they still have to re-sign Butler next summer.
After that? A batch of two-star teams, each with uncertainties. The James Harden-Chris Paul Rockets already look rickety. The Raptors are built on an aging Kyle Lowry and a pending free agent in Kawhi Leonard, who could flee to L.A. next summer. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but they need to at least win a playoff series before being considered a superteam.
So maybe the Bucks' near future isn't about chasing that second star, or a third or fourth. Maybe it's about building the right team, the right culture, the right environment to nurture the star they have.
Could Giannis buck all modern trends? Stay with one team? In a small market? And win championships without a co-star? They do call him the Greek Freak for a reason.
"We want to build something sustainable," Horst says. "We want to compete for multiple championships over a long period of time. … I think if we just take all those kind of intentional, organic steps along the way, I think we can position ourselves to have long-term success. And Giannis is the key ingredient to that. You gotta have one of those. We have one."
All they have to do is keep him.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His work has been honored by APSE each of the last two years.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.