LOS ANGELES — While the future is uncertain for the entire NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks were already facing one of the most crucial tests in franchise history.
Atop the league with a 53-12 record before the current suspension of play due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bucks have a lot riding on the season. All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo has just one year left on his contract at $27.5 million for 2020-21. The franchise can offer him a supermax extension this summer, which he'll certainly take if he's fully committed to staying in Milwaukee. If he doesn't, the team has to consider the likelihood that the reigning MVP will leave as an unrestricted free agent in 2021.
In preparation for that contingency, several teams like the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks have endeavored to clear their books to have enough cap room for Antetokounmpo (and possibly a second maximum salary slot).
The Los Angeles Lakers can make room for him, provided LeBron James is willing to take a pay cut. The Golden State Warriors recently traded for Andrew Wiggins from the Minnesota Timberwolves, adding another first-rounder, in addition to their own in the upcoming draft, that could be used as trade bait should the Bucks look to make a move instead of outright losing Antetokounmpo like the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Kevin Durant in 2016.
Suffice it to say, at least from the Bucks' point of view, the jackals are gathering.
Antetokounmpo can silence the noise by taking the designated veteran extension (supermax), which would pay him 35 percent of the 2021-22 salary cap. The most any other suitor can offer is 30 percent. Normally, this massive decision would be made in July, but the NBA's hiatus has everything in limbo.
More significantly, the economics of the COVID-19 shutdown are unknown.
The Bucks have 17 regular-season contests remaining. Will games be canceled? Will the season pick up at all? Will it return in an abridged format, possibly with no fans in attendance?
While the season cannot technically be delayed beyond June, when players' contracts roll over, the league and the players union can agree to whatever they see fit to salvage as much of the 2019-20 season, both economically and logistically. That might mean games deep into the summer with the draft, free agency and summer league pushed back as late as the fall. Neither side can unilaterally make sweeping changes, but united, they have the power to do so.
But whatever the answer, the league will undoubtedly take a financial hit, and roughly half of that loss will be passed onto the players, likely in the form of a lower salary cap. For instance, if the league loses $1.2 billion dollars, the cap could drop by $20 million; a $2.4 billion loss would theoretically translate into a $40 million dip.
The league currently has a $115 million salary-cap projection for 2020-21. Imagine that plummeting to $75 million.
Given that so many players are under contract next season, the players would be set to earn far more than their approximate 50 percent share, which in turn could lead to a substantial drop in the 2021-22 salary cap, even if revenue has a strong rebound next season.
Before the current national emergency, the league's projection for 2021-22 was $125 million, which would enable the Bucks to give Antetokounmpo a massive $253.8 million extension starting at $43.8 million. The most another franchise could give him in free agency would be four years and $161.3 million ($37.5 million in the first season).
The prospect of a supermax wasn't enough to keep Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans, Kawhi Leonard with the San Antonio Spurs or Paul George with the Indiana Pacers. But with the cap climbing so high in our pre-virus reality, that was going to be a lot of money for Antetokounmpo to turn down.
But if the cap takes a significant hit, the financial difference between Antetokounmpo staying and going would drop along with it.
Several competing executives couldn't wait for the postseason to see if the Bucks could advance beyond the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were stopped by Leonard and the Toronto Raptors last year. They hoped anything but an NBA Finals appearance—and possibly a title—could sour Antetokounmpo on Milwaukee.
In other words, those executives praying for the Bucks to have an early exit will immediately become the biggest fans of whichever team advances to a second-round series against Milwaukee (the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers or Philadelphia 76ers, based on the temporarily frozen standings).
It's also worth noting that the NBA and NBPA can mutually agree to artificially put the brakes on the cap to prevent such a jolt to the system. The unknown makes any prediction far cloudier. The impact on the Bucks and Antetokounmpo could be significant in either direction.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are contractually committed to their core with Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, George Hill, D.J. Wilson, Donte DiVincenzo and Thanasis Antetokounmpo all under contract for next season. Robin Lopez has a player option for $5 million, as does Wesley Matthews for $2.7 million.
Trades are always a potential factor. But as constructed, Milwaukee has the best team in the league by record.
The Bucks will get a first-rounder from the Pacers for this past offseason’s Malcolm Brogdon sign-and-trade. Based on a $115 million salary cap, the team will have roughly $126 million committed to 12 players, not including free agents Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver, Marvin Williams and Sterling Brown (restricted). That's not far off from the estimated $139 million tax threshold, provided the team lets go of Ersan Ilyasova's final non-guaranteed season at $7 million.
If the cap and tax drop significantly, Milwaukee will face luxury taxes. But so might most of the league, which is why the NBA and union may step in to temporarily rewrite some of the rules.
Bucks fans are protective of Antetokounmpo, and understandably so. If he's the loyal superstar they believe him to be, then they have nothing to fear. The economics of the NBA suspension will work itself out. Hopefully, the team will have a chance to win the title because that means basketball will have resumed.
But for those competing against Milwaukee with dreams of snagging arguably the best player in the league, the hope is real, and their moves to date reflect that.
What comes next is anyone's guess. Basketball isn't the priority given the state of the world. But if and when normalcy returns, the eyes of the entire NBA will be on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.