While I am a Minnesota Timberwolves fan first and foremost, let me say this: It has been incredibly satisfying to follow the Milwaukee Bucks during this incredible playoff run.
The Bucks’ success is a win for small-market teams everywhere. In the era of player empowerment across the American sporting universe, many small-market teams have been subjugated by the fear of losing their star players. The allure of warmer climates and bigger cities can be enough to draw players away if they do not find success immediately.
Despite all of their winning, the Green Bay Packers seem to have a problem with keeping their superstars happy. This is, of course, recency bias’ finest work. However, two of Green Bay’s biggest stars from the last two decades have had issues with the franchise. For one of them, it led to his eventual departure to an NFC North rival.
The end of Brett Favre’s tenure in Green Bay was sloppy, to put it lightly. Growing unhappy at the lack of team success and championships, Favre went through the Favrian motions: retire, unretire, play for a bad team, retire, unretire, repeat ad infinitum. The guy played until his body couldn’t physically step on a football field, but he made sure to distance himself from the Packers as much as possible until his eventual retirement.
The parallels between the end of Favre’s time in Green Bay and the beginning of what seems to be the end of Aaron Rodgers’ tenure are uncanny. This is, of course, well documented. The speculation is endless as to why Rodgers is dissatisfied with the Packers’ front office. But through all of this Green Bay drama happening simultaneously during the Bucks’ success, one aspect of sports culture stands out: Winning cures everything.
There was speculation that the Bucks’ superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, would try to force his way out of Milwaukee after their previous playoff exit. The rumblings came back to the tried-and-true superstar excuses: They didn’t have any help around them, the coaching staff wasn’t up to snuff, etc. While there may be some truth to some of these sentiments, the noise certainly raised alarms in the Bucks’ front office. They knew that changes had to be made in order to ensure that their generational player would stay, no matter what.
So what did the Bucks do? They sold the farm for bonafide contributors who would push them over the hump in the playoffs.
They took Eric Bledsoe, attached future first-round picks to him, and dealt him to the New Orleans Pelicans to acquire Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee also picked up P.J. Tucker in the middle of the season, who is just the kind of player that championship-caliber teams look to have on their roster. The result of these maneuvers? The Bucks are facing the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks weren’t afraid to make big moves in order to keep their superstar happy. Bucking a decades-long tradition of team-building philosophy, the Packers would be wise to follow in Milwaukee’s footsteps to keep their superstar(s) happy.
Big free-agent/trade splashes are not exactly the Packers’ modus operandi. Green Bay has long ascribed to a draft-and-develop philosophy to bet on the scouting talent of the franchise and keep costs under control. Former general manager Ted Thompson was masterful at keeping the roster competitive throughout his tenure with this method.
It would appear that Brian Gutekunst is applying more of a win-now philosophy to Green Bay’s roster construction strategies. I have previously written about the positives and the negatives of Gutekunst’s approach.
Signing Za’Darius Smith a couple years back has proved to be masterful. Marcedes Lewis has been a steadfast presence in Green Bay. Devin Funchess, despite not suiting up for a regular season game in two years, has looked solid in camp and is poised to have a standout year alongside Davante Adams.
Green Bay’s most recent free-agent class shows that Gutekunst and Co. are all-in on competing for a championship with the current roster. “This year, the way I look at it is, we were able to sign the No. 1 running back on the market [Aaron Jones], the No. 1 left tackle on the market [David Bakhtiari], and the No. 1 defensive tackle on the market,” Gutekunst said. “They just happened to all play for us, which is great.”
However, the instant impact of free agency has not necessarily lined up with a timeline that some of the recent Packers drafts have provided. The early rounds of the 2020 draft were filled with players who failed to make an instant impact on the team, with Jordan Love, AJ Dillon, and Josiah Deguara all having extremely limited or no playing time last season. These players could still be excellent for the franchise moving forward, but they were all clear whiffs regarding immediate impact.
Green Bay drafted for the future in 2020. As the incumbent superstar (and our Giannis parallel), Rodgers has been left in limbo regarding how he perceives the Packers’ franchise values his contributions and ability to win in the looming twilight of his career. While immediate help has been available in the draft and by trade, Gutekunst has appeared more focused on the future.
For as successful as the Packers have been, the problem with this stratagem becomes this: Regular-season success can only mean so much if it comes at the expense of championships. In American sports, championships trump nearly every other measure of success. In most scenarios, a ring or a ‘chip is worth mortgaging the future for.
The opportunities have been there for Gutekunst to make a splash. The Tennessee Titans acquired Julio Jones via trade for pennies on the dollar to help out Ryan Tannehill. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Tom Brady sweepstakes and let one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston walk. The Bucs then traded for Brady’s favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest is history.
The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up two No. 1-overall picks to get Kevin Love to help LeBron James win a championship. The Los Angeles Lakers gave up three quality young pieces and some draft capital to bring in Anthony Davis to help LeBron win a(nother) championship. You get what I’m saying.
The Bucks saw the value in this philosophy when they traded all of those first-round picks to get Jrue Holiday. If they win the NBA Finals in July, everything will have been worth it. Those future picks will be an insignificant blip on the radar so long as Giannis gets to hoist a trophy in Milwaukee.
Aaron Rodgers deserves that same privilege. While I have previously expressed that Gutekunst has done a largely good job so far, the opportunity for him to make more moves that help the team in the present and make his superstar happy have been staring him directly in the face. The communication breakdown between him and Rodgers has been disappointing and has directly contributed to the rift between the two.
The clock is ticking for Gutekunst to make a big move to ensure Rodgers retires a Packer. Otherwise, they are rolling the dice on Rodgers suiting up in green and gold this year. If he does play in Green Bay, anything less than a Super Bowl win is another lost season for the Hall of Fame quarterback. The pressure is on Gutekunst to ensure another lost season does not come to pass.