The Pressure is on the Milwaukee Bucks to Find an Identity
There are two different lenses in which you can view the Milwaukee Bucks. On the one hand, they struck gold by drafting a superstar in a small market. That superstar is, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo who has established himself as one of the best players in the game already and is still improving. Milwaukee has done what it can to surround him with as much as talent as possible. They made aggressive moves like trading for Eric Bledsoe and teaming him up with other young stars like Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton. The moves were good on paper, and they were meant to make the Bucks good now not later. Now, the Bucks are 37-33 and the eight seed in the Eastern Conference. From night to night you don't know what you're going to get from this Bucks team.
Some nights their immense athleticism, length and talent are on full display. They have beaten some of the league's best this year; they have also lost to some of the worst. Head coach Jason Kidd was fired midseason, and while interim coach Joe Prunty has done a nice job, the team still lacks an identity. The clock is ticking in Milwaukee faster than they would like to admit. They need an identity soon, and this is an essential postseason for them.
Milwaukee is strapped for cash and doesn't have a lot of future draft picks. They only have a second-round pick from Dallas in this year's draft. This is their team for the foreseeable future unless they make drastic moves. Parker is the most significant decision. He has been solid since his return from an ACL injury but is still finding his way back. You see explosive dunks, but you also see a player who is lost defensively. Milwaukee is still tinkering with different lineups to maximize his strengths. Parker will be a restricted free agent this summer, and how he plays in the playoffs will be huge. Signing a player with his injury history is a scary risk, and maybe one the Bucks don't want to take if he underperforms in the playoffs.
Kidd being fired, injuries and inconsistency have all been factors in the Bucks inconsistency. The Bledsoe trade caused the Bucks to adapt on the fly, Parker has only played 18 games and last year’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon has missed the previous 23 games. Maybe it's hard to criticize the Bucks for underperforming when we have yet to see the Bucks at full strength yet. Giannis, Parker, Brogdon, Bledsoe and Middleton are the best five but that lineup has not played a game together this season. So while the Bucks aren't looking very inspiring heading into the postseason, they do have an ace up their sleeves.
Brogdon should return soon and once he does the Bucks can unleash this lineup, which features Giannis at center. Jon Henson and Tyler Zeller (who has been solid since coming over) are both solid backup centers, but both struggle to rebound, which is a big reason on why the Bucks are 26th in that category this year. Thon Maker has regressed and maybe the worst rebounding big in the league. I am not giving up on him, but he should play behind Zeller, Henson, and Giannis at center for now. Giannis at the center will be more used in the playoffs, but it is not the answer to all of their problems. The Bucks need to do more to fix their holes and maximize their chances of success in a crucial postseason.
Milwaukee has the worst point differential of any Eastern playoff team, and sadly their record is better than it should be. Let's start with the strengths of the Bucks. Thanks to Giannis they live in the paint and are 10th in finishing at the rim and 7th in the midrange. Since they live in the paint, they get to the line a ton, good for fourth 4th in the NBA, but the Bucks are not a good shooting team. Which is why Jason Terry has been playing recently. Milwaukee is 23rd in three-point shooting. They rely on points in the paint, free throws, and transition points.
Milwaukee is eight in transition and gets a lot of their points off turnovers. The frenzied trapping has calmed down since Kidd's departure, but the Bucks know they still need to force turnovers. They are third in forcing turnovers, and fifth in converting those turnovers into points. They have to do it on defense, and they need it for easy points on offense. Milwaukee is not good enough defensively on its own. They are 18th in defense, mainly because they hack a ton trying to force turnovers and opponents feast on the offensive glass. Milwaukee is also 19th in defending the three-point line another consequence of an aggressive defense. Henson, Maker, and especially Giannis are each solid rim protectors, but as a team Milwaukee is average at protecting the rim.
This is a lot of holes to plug. Too often if the Bucks don't force early turnovers, opposing teams either take an uncontested three pointer, or the Bucks are forced to foul. Other times when Milwaukee does have a good defensive possession, an opponent securing an offensive rebound and scoring on the extra possession negates it. Their transition defense is also average, which is kind of inexcusable because they don't chase offensive rebounds at all.
Not all of these problems are solvable now or in the postseason, but the Bucks can negate some of them. Matchups will also be huge in the playoffs. Milwaukee is the second worst defensive team in the East; only Cleveland is worst. Playing Toronto, who is highly explosive, would be a problem but playing a weaker offensive team like Philadelphia who turns it over a lot would be a lot better. Indiana would be a tough matchup for the Bucks. The Pacers protect the ball and don't turn it over. The Pacers have also run circles around the Bucks in their games this season by making a ton of threes. Cleveland would present problems by getting to the line a lot, and keeping Milwaukee off, which ironically is the Cavs one defensive strength. Oh, and they have LeBron. LeBron and the Cavs dominated the Bucks last night.
Washington would present problems on the offensive glass for the Bucks, but the Bucks should live at the rim against the Wizards 25th ranked rim defense. Milwaukee has also won twice in the nation's capital this season. A beat up Boston is vulnerable, but Boston is still good and has done a nice job on Giannis this season. He has scored, but it has been on a lot of shots. Boston would eliminate the Bucks transition game, and their three-point shooting would be a problem, but there are some things to like in this series.
One the Celtics won't exploit the Bucks biggest weakness, and that is rebounding, they are not a good rebounding team either. Plus the Celtics foul a lot, and the Bucks should get plenty of opportunities at the line. Boston's offense is also not high powered so that it won't put as much pressure on the Bucks hit and miss defense. Boston and Philadelphia would be the best matchups for the Bucks, especially if the Celtics continue to be this banged up.
Unfortunately, right now according to ESPN, the Bucks are projected to finish eight, which would mean a first-round date with Toronto. The Bucks pushed them last year and had played them tough this season, but it is hard to see them winning that series. Milwaukee's eight of their last thirteen is against playoff contenders. They can’t continue to mess around with lottery teams as they did with Atlanta or losing games like they did this week at Orlando.
Two coaches, injuries, and inconsistency led to lots of different lineups, and the Bucks are still tinkering. Milwaukee's best lineup in net rating this season that has played at least 15 minutes together is Giannis, Henson, Middleton, Tony Snell, and Matthew Dellavedova. Delly should be back soon and can help. The key to this lineup is three willing and able catch and shoot players around Giannis, plus a roll partner with Henson. This lineup has only played 47 minutes this season but has a ridiculous +42 net rating.
Henson is a wild card and needs to be huge for the Bucks. The Bucks rebound better when he and Giannis are in the game together. He needs to play significant minutes and stay out of foul trouble. Brogdon coming back will help the defense. Him with Bledsoe, Middleton, and Snell with either Henson or Giannis at the center is a functional defensive group. That lineup with Henson has an impressive 121 defensive rating. If they want to hide Parker on defense, one move may be subbing him in for Giannis and surrounding him with Bledsoe, Henson, Middleton, and Snell.
Obviously, there will need to be some offense for defense trades, and the Bucks needs to decide what their crunch time lineups are. Giannis, Brogdon, Middleton are the three locks. They are two-way players who can do multiple things. If the other team is playing a traditional big, then bring in Henson and Bledsoe to round it out. I would bring in Snell with Bledsoe for smaller lineups. I don't trust Parker's D in big-time playoff minutes. How the Bucks mix or match their lineups in the playoffs will be fascinating.
The Bucks can't have an embarrassing non-competitive 4-1 series loss this year. They need to show Giannis, the fans and the nation they are heading in the right direction. They don't have to win a series, but they must be competitive. Improvement from within is crucial, because it is likely not coming from outside. Sterling Brown looks like a find and a nice two-way player. They need Thon to take a step next season, and hell, Giannis is still improving.
However, they are expected to win now, and no move will be more significant than there head coach hire this offseason. David Fizdale is the logical choice, and the Bucks can't afford to get this wrong. Otherwise, the Giannis leaving clock may start to tick. The Bucks don't have an identity, but they can take steps the rest of the season and the playoffs to creating one. If they can do that, then the future remains bright if not more changes may come.