2019-20 Team Obituaries: Milwaukee Bucks
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
You didn't expect to see the Bucks' obituary this early, did you? Few people did, and somehow it's only the 23rd weirdest outcome of the 2019-20 NBA season.
What happened to the Bucks last season defied the odds too. Going all-in on shooting around Giannis Antetokounmpo, coupled with the hiring of head coach Mike Budenholzer, resulted in a well-oiled machine throughout all of 2018-19. Antetokounmpo won the Most Valuable Player award, Budenholzer won Coach of the Year, and they finished with the best record and net rating in the league by a longshot.
Giannis and shooters was a very effective strategy, as was a defensive coverage that used the Greek Freak as a free safety. The system was still above average without him, but he made it a dominant force that blew everyone out.
Then the playoffs came. They smothered the Detroit Pistons in Round 1, took care of the Boston Celtics in Round 2, and were a few bounces away from a 3-0 lead over the Toronto Raptors in Round 3. But the Raptors eked out an overtime victory to make it 2-1, and won the next three to slay Goliath.
Part of the problem was that Giannis was mitigated. Kawhi Leonard's strength, lateral quickness and enormous hands made him a solid antidote for the MVP, as did Giannis' own limitations outside the paint. Add in some lackluster outings from Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, and the Bucks seemed to be neutralized on offense.
The front office's reaction? To bank on what got it this far, and save money while doing so. Malcolm Brogdon, arguably Milwaukee's third best player in the playoffs, hit free agency and agreed to a four year, $85 million deal with the Indiana Pacers. Milwaukee opted to sign-and-trade him for picks rather than keep him outright.
Bledsoe's extension late last season had a lot to do with this. Keeping both and George Hill wasn't possible without luxury tax ramifications, and Bucks' brass had no intention of facing those. Using their 2019 first round pick as a sweetener to get off Tony Snell's deal was more evidence of that.
The organization banked on a few things going right in 2019-20: Giannis becoming good enough that no mere mortal could impede him; Bledsoe undoing past playoff shortcomings; Hill filling the void Brogdon left behind; and everyone else getting better after another year in Budenholzer's system.
Most of that came true. Antetokounmpo took another leap in his age-25 season, dropping 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a night in just 30.4 minutes per game. He also put up monster numbers defensively, like a 4.1 defensive box plus-minus (led the league), 5.0 defensive win shares (also led the league), and 1.0 of each steals and blocks per game.
Middleton had an excellent season of his own. Averaging 20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists doesn't scream "No. 2 option on a championship team," but his red-hot shooting from every area of the floor sure does. Middleton shot at least 45% from every range inside the arc and 41.5% beyond it. He had one of the best and most balanced shooting seasons ever.
After inking a contract extension to stay in Milwaukee, Brook Lopez took a leap too. He was as great a rim protector as anyone this season, and especially vital in the team's drop coverage scheme. Of anyone who defended at least 200 shots close to the rim this season (within six feet), Lopez allowed the second-lowest field goal percentage to opponents; only his partner in crime (Giannis) prevented those shots at a better rate.
The offense was great for a second straight year, averaging the most points per game and ranking eighth in offensive efficiency. But the Bucks weren't exactly snipers around Giannis, only ranking 18th in 3-point percentage; they just took a ton, finishing fourth in the league in 3-point attempts.
The defense was even better. Lopez and Antetokounmpo were a dastardly duo in Milwaukee's system; the former stopped a ton of shots at the rim, and the latter used his absurd size and athleticism to swallow everything else (while also stymieing opponents at the rim) like an All-Pro free safety. Lopez made the All-Defense 2nd team, and Giannis became just the third player to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
The Bucks allowed the most 3-point attempts in the league, but the fewest shots at in the restricted area. Their math game won out, as they finished with the best defensive rating in the league (again).
The playoffs were a different story on both ends. Questions were already surfacing about how the Bucks would create offense in crunch time, and the postseason made those concerns a reality.
The Orlando Magic weren't a problem in round one. They were a nice story, but had no answer for Giannis. Talent won the day there.
When the talent gap closed in round 2, the balanced shifted. The Miami Heat had one of the few "Giannis stoppers" in Bam Adebayo, and he made the back-to-back MVP's life miserable.
Around him, Milwaukee's lack of perimeter shot creation was on display all series. None of Middleton (20.3 points per game on 50.7% true shooting), Bledsoe (11.7 PPG) or Hill (9.5) provided enough juice to lighten Giannis' load. One wonders how Brogdon would have done on this stage.
The defense was even more frustrating. Time after time Miami created open looks out of Milwaukee's drop coverage, and time and time again Budenholzer refused to make adjustments. Miami generated 113 points per 100 possessions against Milwaukee's defense, as every hole in the fortress was exacerbated.
The Heat won the series in convincing fashion, taking the first three games and then sealing the deal in Game 5. All the critics of the Bucks were proven right; Giannis and Middleton isn't enough.
It's not often that the team with the best record for two straight seasons is in panic mode, but that's exactly where the Bucks are heading into the offseason. Antetokounmpo has one more season under contract before unrestricted free agency, and no one would blame him for signing elsewhere.
Once LeBron James darted for Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference opened up again in a way it hasn't in a decade. The Bucks stepped in as the kings of the regular season, racking up wins in convincing fashion throughout the six-month slog. But the last two playoffs have seen two different champions out of the East—and neither has been the Bucks.
Add in the location factor, and there are myriad reasons for why the reigning MVP could leave Milwaukee. The organization has accepted that he'll hit the open market in a year, meaning that the time is now to go all-in around the second-best player in franchise history.
In a way it's sort of freeing for the club. It has one last ride with a very very good player, meaning next season is all about winning with Giannis.
The best way to pull this off would be getting a real shot creator on the perimeter. An alchemist who can create offense out of nothing; an improvisator who can make stuff happen on the fly.
Unfortunately, those guys don't grow on trees. They're few and far between, and rarely available for cheap. Milwaukee will have to pay a pretty penny for anyone who comes close to filling this archetype.
Chris Paul comes to mind and would be cheaper than most considering his contract. But that contract is the problem; unless the Bucks want to set the world on fire and trade Middleton, the only way to match his salary would be to send out Bledsoe, Lopez, Hill and something else. That makes them objectively worse.
Zach LaVine makes a modest $19.5 million next year and the year after that, but he comes with his own warts. He's not a plus playmaker or even an average one. His defense has rarely been a positive. He's never been a part of a winning team.
The defense would definitely improve in Milwaukee, but the playmaking would be a concern on the biggest stage. Gambling on him getting better around superior talent isn't a terrible bet (his best teammate ever was Karl-Anthony Towns as a neophyte), but it's certainly risky.
A different type of hazard comes with Victor Oladipo. His injury concerns are legitimate, as is his impending free agency in a year—the same juncture as Giannis'. He is the definition of a swing-for-the-fences move for the Bucks, who are on the exact same timeline as their franchise player's.
Why would the Pacers trade him, you ask? Their situation is much different than the Bucks'. If Oladipo does not agree to a contract extension before the start of next season, they have to get what they can for him. Otherwise they risk losing him for nothing, a possibility that's very high in a market like theirs.
Milwaukee could also lose its franchise player for nothing, but the team is at least good enough to fight for a championship next year. The same can't be said for Indiana. The Bucks need an alpha scorer, and the Pacers need to salvage what's left of theirs. A trade centered around Bledsoe (his salary alone is enough to satisfy trade rules) and a first round pick could sway Indy.
There are avenues for the Bucks to get better without draining themselves long-term, but they must act swiftly and shrewdly.