There was a brief period of time, probably about eight minutes, when LeBron was trying to recruit Chris Bosh to Cleveland. (In fact, this might not have happened at all. LeBron is a prodigious retconner, but let’s live in his truth for a spell.) This was the summer of 2009, presumably before LeBron, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade had committed to joining up in Miami, when the Cavs were a regular season juggernaut prone to playoff spaz attacks in which the team seemed to realize, all at once like an adult with a mortgage and countless regrets learning they were adopted, that their fortunes relied on solid play from the likes of Mo Williams and Sasha Pavlović.
Bosh had grown restless in Toronto; he knew he was leaving one way or another. Swinging a deal for him would have been huge for a franchise whose final, unsuccessful attempt at providing LeBron with a championship-caliber supporting cast was acquiring a 33-year-old Antawn Jamison. Instead of crafting an Eastern Conference answer to Kobe and Pau, the Cavs landed a guy who put up 12 and 7 in their era-ending series against the Celtics.
Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanović are as good as the Bucks could have hoped for, given what they had to trade. Not quite the addition of a young Chris Bosh, but far from Antawn Town. Everyone is guessing as to what Giannis makes of the Bucks after their disappointing performance in Orlando, equipped only with the vague sense that he’s less cynical than other superstars—or merely more patient—and a drumbeat out of Milwaukee that insists he’s leaning toward signing his supermax extension before the season starts. The deals for Holiday and Bogdanović make sense no matter what. If the Bucks think Giannis is on the fence, they might as well give him a couple extra reasons to stay, and if they’re pretty sure he’s staying, why not give him two more good teammates. All these twin maneuvers indicate is that Giannis hasn’t told the Bucks he’ll be gone next summer. In matters this delicate and important, whims shift behind a veil, and almost everybody is left in the dark until the last minute. You’ll remember that LeBron informed the Cavs that he was leaving on a TV show.
The popular portrait of Milwaukee as a frozen hamlet on a big lake persists, and any defense of it reads as parochial midwestern scoldery, but take it from someone who was raised in the northeast, lives in Chicago, and doesn’t have a dog in this fight: there are many charmless clusters of buildings and people in this region, gray and glass monotony indistinct from the cornfields and flat rural nothings they interrupt, with commercial corridors that break your heart with their genericized approximations of Brooklyn quirk and San Franciscan upper-crustiness. Milwaukee isn’t like that. It is comfortably its own thing, an attractive medium-sized city with union-made bones, lots of cool old buildings, breweries and restaurants that are alternately fancy and just plain good, and a college population constantly refreshing its blood. Whether it’s the perfect place for a 6-foot-11 Greek-Nigerian MVP—well, there is only one of those in the world, but he does appear to like the place. It’s how he came to know America, and fall in love with fried food.
Is Holiday, Bogdanović, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, plus a smattering of youngish role players and aging ring-chasers enough for him? With Giannis in the middle of it, that’s a really nice crunchtime five. If Mike Budenholzer revises his defensive principles and gives his best players more minutes in the playoffs, that would help the Bucks at the margins. And Giannis himself has room to grow as a shooter and playmaker. None of this is as straightforward as, say, deciding to play with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Due to the franchise being based where it is, and the way the roster has been constructed up to this point—the false choice between paying Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon looms large—Giannis is going to have to make peace with the fact that winning in Milwaukee is going to be more difficult, more dependent on contingencies of health and luck and coaching and developing the 28th pick in the draft into a decent rotation player, than it would be in a big market. If the longer odds and a connection to the town’s particular charm make that process more rewarding, then good for Giannis. If he’d rather be in Miami or Dallas, that’s fair too.
On a sentimental note, he shouldn’t run away from Jrue Holiday, who just wants to play in a few Conference Finals games, and promises to improve on Eric Bledsoe’s annual drowning-in-the-shallow-end act. Holiday’s sort of a lesser Jimmy Butler, in the sense that he’s a winning player who has through little fault of his own not been afforded many opportunities to win. And now he might show up to a contending Bucks team to find out the frontman is on his way out the door? Unfair. This is his story too, even if as a sidekick. But that’s how the league works, revolving around the movements of six or seven guys. If you’re anybody else, you merely hope to catch onto the right squad at the right time. A 34-year-old Antawn Jamison put up 18 a night on one of the saddest basketball teams you’ll ever see. Yeah, the time is crucial. There’s either a lot left in Milwaukee, or it’s getting very late.