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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s loyalty paid off. Will other NBA stars follow suit?

(AP Photo / Paul Sancya)

For a while, it seemed as if Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to become one of the biggest free agents in free agency if the NBA’s landscape remained stagnant.

Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks were turning into the team that was “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” coming up short in the postseason after a stellar regular-season campaign.

The organization won 60 games during the 2018-2019 regular season, and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. A year later, they won 56 games during a regular season that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in unimpressive fashion.

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As the postseason losses piled up, NBA fans questioned what was next for the “Greek Freak.” Rumors began to swirl about him potentially forming, or joining, a superteam through free agency, with franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and more entering the conversation as potential landing spots.

For fans in Milwaukee, it seemed like they would eventually have another disgruntled superstar on their hands if things continued down the same path, reminiscent of Aaron Rodgers’ frustration with the Green Bay Packers.

Instead, Antetokounmpo did something that seems unthinkable when discussing modern-day basketball. He remained loyal.

In December of 2020, Antetokounmpo signed a five-year, $228 million contract extension, tying him to the Bucks for years to come with the option to opt out after the fourth year of the extension.

“This is my home, this is my city,” Antetokounmpo posted on social media. “I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”

The deal prevented a nightmare scenario for the Bucks, which would’ve seen Antetokounmpo hit free agency at the end of the 2020-2021 season.

Flipping the situation on its head, the Bucks managed to make the summer of 2021 historic for a different reason.

After an impressive run through the Eastern Conference side of the 2021 NBA Playoffs bracket, the Bucks finished off the Phoenix Suns in six games to win their first NBA championship in five decades.

Throughout the NBA Finals, Antetokounmpo put up massive numbers. In the series-clinching sixth game, he dropped 50 points, adding on 14 rebounds and going 17-of-19 from a free throw line that gave him fits throughout the postseason.

He became the seventh player in NBA Finals history to record a 50-point game, and did it all while battling through an injury.

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With his historic effort, Antetokounmpo proved that he made the right decision when he signed his new deal in December of 2020.

“It is easy to go somewhere and win a championship with somebody else, it’s easy,” the 2021 NBA Finals MVP said after his team won the title. “I could go to a super team, do my part and win a championship. But, I did it the hard way.”

That “hard way” helped fulfill a promise that Antetokounmpo made all the way back in 2014.

“I’ll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship level team,” he wrote on Twitter seven years before leading the team to an NBA title.

As crazy as it all may seem to an outsider, Antetokoumpo’s path to glory truly is the “hard way” in today’s era.

LeBron James didn’t stick around with the Cleveland Cavaliers in his first stint with the team. Instead, he chose to take his talents to South Beach to pursue titles with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.

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A few years later, James would rejoin the Cavaliers, win a championship, and eventually leave once more to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kevin Durant didn’t stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder to pursue championships with Russell Westbrook. Instead, he chose to head to the Golden State Warriors and win his titles with players that had already hoisted a trophy without him.

Even after winning with the Warriors, Durant decided to form another superteam on the Brooklyn Nets.

Kyrie Irving didn’t stay with the Cavaliers after winning a championship with James, and backtracked on his decision to stay with the Boston Celtics, as well.

James Harden forced his way out of the Western Conference, leaving the Houston Rockets to join Durant and Irving in Brooklyn.

The list goes on, and moves that used to be considered big splashes in the NBA turned into more of a drip in a bucket.

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With so many players opting to leave in what is now a common approach, Antetokounmpo’s decision to stick it out with the Bucks and see the team’s vision through is somehow an outlier.

Now that such a big name has seen the light at the end of the tunnel with his initial team, could other superstars across the league follow suit?

Names like Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Denver Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid come to mind.

Others on less successful franchises like Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, and New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson join the converation, as well.

Doncic was reportedly frustrated with the Mavericks during the 2020-2021 season, and could become an unrestricted free agent in 2023. Embiid has quite the case to pursue opportunities elsewhere once his five-year extension runs out in 2023, as well.

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Jokic and Murray have had success together in Denver, but fell short in the 2021 NBA Playoffs after Murray went down with a knee injury towards the end of the regular season. Once their deals come up, would they want to seek greener pastures, or try to push the mountainous Nuggets to the next level?

Guards like Young and Morant are in similar situations with their respective franchises, just a year apart as far as draft classes are concerned. Both teams are fringe playoff squads at the moment, and both will need their star point guard to have continued success in the future.

Then, there’s Williamson.

Just two years into his NBA career, the former Duke star reportedly has family members wanting him to leave Pelicans amid frustrations with the Pelicans, and the franchise even found a new head coach for the 2021-2022 season as Williamson continues to mature.

Out of all of the players listed earlier on, Williamson seems like the next candidate to follow the James or Durant approach in free agency.

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Time will tell what kinds of decisions those players make, and each of them find themselves in a variety of situations and at different points in their respective careers.

But, the timing of Antetokounmpo’s championship run, and his loyalty to the city he’s called home since he was drafted, could help change the course of a slew of careers across the NBA.

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