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Has Giannis Antetokounmpo changed? And if he has, what does that mean for his future in Milwaukee?

Those are the questions NBA executives have been pondering since Antetokounmpo openly discussed in two different interviews recently about potentially not re-signing with the Milwaukee Bucks.

This is the same Giannis who once showed his commitment to Milwaukee by becoming a part-owner of the city’s baseball team, the Brewers. The same Giannis who relished “taking the hard way” by spurning free agency to re-up with the Bucks and win the franchise’s first championship in 2021. The same Giannis who has philosophized about the importance of staying present and understanding that losing does not necessarily equal failure.

For the first time, though, Giannis is openly flirting with the idea of leaving Milwaukee. He has announced he’ll take a wait-and-see approach on signing a contract extension, and he is pointing to the importance of winning as the reason.

“I would not be the best version of myself if I don’t know that everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going for a championship, everybody’s going to sacrifice time away from their family like I do,” he told The New York Times last month. “And if I don’t feel that, I’m not signing.”

That he thinks that way doesn’t surprise rival executives. What does surprise them is that he publicly shared it with two years remaining on his current contract, and — because of how maximum salary extensions are calculated — a full year before anyone would expect him to sign one. It’s understandable that he might be thinking about his future, but it’s odd that he would do so in a way that could pose a distraction for the upcoming season.

“He’s right,” said a rival Eastern Conference GM, “If I’m him I tell the Bucks, ‘Hey, you’re going to do what you’re going to do, and you heard me, I want to win. If I think we’re going to win, great, and if not, I’ll do you a favor, and you can trade me for a bunch of picks.’ But it does surprise me that he said it out loud.”

Giannis wants to see Bucks committing to chasing another title

Giannis wants to see Bucks committing to chasing another title

Saying it out loud would suggest Antetokounmpo is not fully present or focused on the task at hand. It suggests that winning is more important to him than he suggested in April after his 1-seed Bucks suffered a first-round upset to the Miami Heat.

Asked if losing the series meant the season was a failure, Antetokounmpo snapped, “It’s a wrong question. There is no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you’re able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Sometimes other people win. And this year somebody else is going to win, simple as that.”

Back in 2021, with his team on the precipice of winning its first title, he also said, “When you focus on your past, that’s your ego … When I focus on the future, it’s my pride … I try to focus on the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s setting no expectations. That’s going out there and enjoying the game, playing at a high level. It’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.”

So, has Giannis’ mindset changed?

“I have heard that he’s not the same,” said the Eastern Conference GM. “There was a naivete, a freshness to him. People change over time. I think he’s changed a little bit. It’s not like we’re talking about him being an awful human being. That’s not it. But I don’t think he’s the Giannis of three, four, five years ago. He’s been far more outspoken. You never heard about him and his brothers in the business world. This summer there’s been a lot more of that. There are a couple of people [who] have said to me they have looked at what LeBron James and his group has done, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, we need to get our s— together. We can dictate where we want to go and what we want to do.'”

Granted, the Bucks have undergone some changes that raise questions about their urgency and ability, to go all-out for another title. They replaced their championship-winning coach, Mike Budenholzer, with a neophyte, former Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin. Billionaire owner Marc Lasry sold his 25% stake to Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. At face value, neither move could be considered an upgrade.

Giannis draws interest from Lakers, Knicks

Giannis draws interest from Lakers, Knicks

Despite those developments, Antetokounmpo reiterated he’d like to spend his entire career in Milwaukee — just not at the expense of winning more rings. That’s why one Eastern Conference assistant GM believes his comments about leaving are merely a lingering reaction to having lost to the Heat, a massive upset that was aided by Antetokounmpo injuring his back early in Game 1 and not playing the next two games. After roaring out of the gates 9-0, and at one point going on a 16-game winning streak to post the league’s best record (58-24), losing to the Heat seemed inconceivable. Yet they did, and in a convincing fashion.

“That happening to him in the first round is the reason for the stance he’s taking, which is, ‘I’m not saying I’m not coming back, but I need to see which team we are,'” the assistant GM said. “Are we a first-round exit team? Or are we really a Finals team that just happened to lose in the first round for different reasons last year? I actually side with the fact that they just had an unexpected unique kind of situation that had them lose in the first round. They could very well go to the Finals or conference finals this year, and if that happens it would be pretty hard for Giannis to leave.”

To be clear, Antetokounmpo didn’t say the Bucks have to win another title for him to stay, but that he simply needed to see that everyone was as committed as he is to chasing another title. Several executives still took his recent comments as putting the franchise on notice. Whether it was seeing Stephen Curry reach a higher status by claiming another title in 2022, or the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic asserting himself as the league’s best player by taking the 2023 crown, Antetokounmpo suddenly feels a pressure to lift another Larry O’Brien trophy.

“I think he now knows, ‘Look, I can dictate a lot of things,'” the Eastern Conference GM said. “‘I think I’m the best player in the world. I’m going to be measured upon how many championships I win.’ Small-market Giannis is no more. He’s global now. It would not surprise me if he asked to leave. Two years ago I would’ve said he’s closer to Tim Duncan than he is LeBron James, whereas now I think it’s vastly different.”

This is what suddenly makes this season so pivotal if the Bucks want Antetokounmpo to stay. Their chance to snare another title may never be better. Milwaukee retained its championship core, re-signing three-time All-Star Khris Middleton and defensive player of the year runner-up, center Brook Lopez.

Giannis on Bucks’ early playoff elimination: ‘It’s not a failure’

Giannis on Bucks' early playoff elimination: 'It's not a failure'

Meanwhile, their top Eastern Conference rivals all have suffered shake-ups. The Philadelphia 76ers are at odds with point guard James Harden; the Heat lost two starters, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus; and the Boston Celtics lost super-sub Grant Williams in free agency and traded starting point guard Marcus Smart to acquire Kristaps Porzingis.

But outside of Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have an old core. Middleton turned 32 in August and injuries have aged him beyond that. Lopez is 35. Jrue Holiday, who has a player option for next season, is 33.

“That team has run its course and is a year or two away from aging out of contention,” said a Western Conference executive.

Nor does Bucks GM Jon Horst have a treasure chest of draft picks or young talent on enticing contracts with which to upgrade his roster.

“What are they going to do?” asked the Eastern Conference GM. “Who are they going to trade for? It’s not like they have a whole bunch of picks or a whole bunch of salaries that people are dying to take on. Are they going to extend Jrue? If they do, I don’t think that’s a guarantee that Giannis stays.”

The question is, what would guarantee that he stays? That’s impossible to answer without first knowing who this new version of Giannis Antetokounmpo is.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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