The Milwaukee Bucks’ Finals Victory Proves the Supermax has its Place
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a unicorn. Not because he’s a seven-footer who can handle like a guard. Not because he just put up historical performance after historical performance in the Finals. No; in the age of player mobility, he is a unicorn because of his character. Just a year ago, after losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Bubble, fans and media alike pleaded for Antetokounmpo to force his way out of Milwaukee and join a big market team. His response: signing a supermax with the team who took a chance on him at 15th overall. A year later, he’s now an NBA Champion; and that is the best thing possible for the NBA. Why? Because the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship proves that the supermax has its place in this league.
The Supermax and its History
In theory, the Supermax is a great idea. What better way for a small-market team to incentivize their star to stay than being able to offer him more money than any other organization? The rule that was created in large part due to Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City, has been widely talked about. However it has seldomly been used and, until this year, has never accomplished its intention. Anthony Davis flat-out refused the offer while still with the New Orleans Pelicans. Kemba Walker was not offered the deal despite qualifying for it, then was promptly traded by Charlotte to the Boston Celtics. Rudy Gobert opted not to sign the supermax and took a pay cut, out of fear the contract would cripple the Jazz‘s cap space.
To this point, six players have signed a supermax: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Antetokounmpo. Of those six, three are no longer on the team they signed the deal with (Westbrook, Wall, Harden). Curry hasn’t achieved anywhere near the same winning success as he did when on a more team-friendly deal. Lillard may join the aforementioned three as rumors swirl about his time in Portland possibly coming to an end. That leaves Antetokounmpo as a unicorn once again. The first player to win a championship while making supermax money. The first positive outcome in a sea of negative.
The Supermax for the Small-Market Bucks
It’s no secret that Milwaukee does not have the size, pedigree, or cap space as the league’s giants. The city is home to a team that for years knew nothing other than a cycle of middling playoff futility followed by a rebuild. They exemplified the plight of every small market team who has ever existed: not being able to attract marquee free agents and losing their best players to other, more attractive suitors. Many thought they might have to go through that same process with Antetokounmpo. Yet the supermax may have saved them in the end.
To the outside eye, Antetokounmpo seems to care about winning more than money. That was why people thought he may choose to force himself out of Wisconsin. Yet with his loyalty to the team that drafted him, combined with the fortunate fact that the Bucks did have a solid team already, he became the sixth supermax recipient. The contract is exorbitantly large, and the Bucks already have Khris Middleton signed to a max and Jrue Holiday making upwards of $30 million in 2022. Outside of the annual mid-level exception, the cap relief for the Bucks will be minimal.
However, that is not what’s important in the big picture. The Milwaukee Bucks showed that even a small-market team can retain a star through the supermax, still put a competitive team around him, and win a championship with him as their centerpiece. It may not have worked out with the first five deals, but it’s possible. Very possible.
The Future of the Supermax
The future of the Trailblazers with Damian Lillard being paid the supermax looks bleak, as does Golden State with Curry. So of the six current earners, only Antetokounmpo’s looks like a success story. Down the road, players like Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic will be worthy, and likely demanding, of a supermax contract.
There’s already been reported rifts between Doncic and management, so that could turn into an Anthony Davis scenario if Dallas is not careful. The Nuggets are a great team, so Jokic signing a supermax there is smart for both parties. Embiid’s decision likely hinges on the team Philadelphia puts around him, as his motivations seem to be cut from the same cloth as Antetokounmpo’s. Can any of these guys win a ring while making a supermax, given the team around them? It’s tough to say. However, this season the Bucks proved it is not only a viable path to a chip but a path to sustaining relevance.
Antetokounmpo may have just played the best basketball of his life in the Finals, which is scary to think about given his age. He is only 26, and the core around him still has the potential for several more years of production. Not often does a small-market team find themselves in title talks year after year, but the supermax has set Milwaukee up for just that. As a result, a door has been opened. Teams can win this way. The supermax does have its place. And it may become a greater trend in the NBA’s future. Just as the rule had intended.
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