At this time last summer, the Milwaukee Bucks, were among the NBA’s most intriguing teams. Led by an up-and-coming superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, it was hard to estimate the club’s true ceiling.
The team went from Eastern Conference dark horse to Eastern Conference favorite, winning an NBA-best 60 wins last season. Unfortunately, Milwaukee would fall in six games to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite those results, many still see the Bucks as the Eastern Conference’s best team.
This offseason has been a wild one in the NBA, and has changed the landscape of both conferences. While the Bucks have not made as much noise as some teams this summer, they have still had a solid offseason. Although they lost Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers, Milwaukee has done its best replacing him, signing the likes of Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver.
The Bucks also brought key players back in George Hill and Brook Lopez, in addition to re-signing their All-Star Khris Middleton. Team General Manager Jon Horst has continued to make sure the team will have depth as well, with many under the radar pickups in Robin Lopez, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender, and Frank Mason.
But as the dust of the offseason begins to settle, and the start of the new season is on the horizon, the question remains: are the Bucks still the favorites in the East?
Deciding if the Bucks are still the conference favorites begins with a deep look at their own roster, which starts with the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Having Giannis does more than just guarantee Milwaukee’s return to the postseason. You know what you’re going to get from Giannis, and as long as he stays healthy, he turns this Bucks team into a contender.
Khris Middleton is the Robin to Giannnis’s Batman, and signing him at the start of free agency was expensive but essential for this team. He is a solid all-around player as well as a big time scorer when needed, and his chemistry with Giannis is a key for this team. Coupled with Eric Bledsoe whose contract was extended during the season, the Bucks have their big three back for another year. Brook Lopez brings an important veteran swagger to the team, too.
Four of five starters from last season are back, but the Bucks did lose Malcolm Brogdon in a sign-and-trade with the Indiana Pacers. While the Bucks did get a couple draft picks in return for him, Brogdon will be missed. He was a calming presence for the team, someone who was always poised and very clutch in big moments. Brogdon was an exceptional shooter and excellent attacker of the rim, and now the Bucks will have to face him four times a year.
However, as mentioned, the Bucks have done well to replace Brogdon’s on the court presence. Wes Matthews is a veteran guard who should fit well into head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Kyle Korver played several years for Coach Bud in Atlanta, where he was groomed into an All-Star. Although aging, both still provide the three point shooting this team desperately needs. Re-signing George Hill should not be overlooked either; He was clutch for the team in the playoffs last year and showed he could fill in for Brogdon down the stretch while he was out with injury.
The team has also brought in some underrated signings in Robin Lopez, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Frank Mason, and Dragan Bender. None of these names are eye-openers but each will provide solid depth to the main core the team was able to mostly keep intact, and with the exception of Lopez each is still young and holds potential.
The Bucks roster looks as good if not better than last year. But now the question is what does their competition in the East look like?
Let’s start in division. The Bulls and Cavs still appear to be no match, and the Pistons have not done a whole lot to make anyone think they will vastly improve on their eighth place conference finish last year. The main threat will be the Pacers, who now have Brogdon and will get a healthy Oladipo back sometime during the year. With Oladipo playing last year, the Pacers kept pace with the Bucks, and with much of the supporting cast back in Indiana, it would appear they will again be the main challengers in the Central Division.
Ultimately though, the biggest challenges the Bucks will face in 2019-2020 will be from the Atlantic Division. The Brooklyn Nets may not be great this year, but we all know what they did in the offseason with acquiring Irving and Durant. They will still have a competitive upstart team this season though, and it’s quite possible we are talking about them as conference favorites at this point next year.
The Raptors are defending conference champions and a team the Bucks were not able to get past despite holding a 2-0 lead in the conference finals. However, for the second year in a row the best player on the Eastern Conference’s best team has left for Los Angeles. The team still has a lot of talent and will be formidable as always, but without Kawhi, the defending champs are not a serious threat to repeat, let alone make it out of the East.
Brad Stevens’ Celtics are always a team that has a chance. They lost Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, but replacing them with Enes Kanter and Kemba Walker is nothing to sleep on. Tatum and Brown are still getting better each game and this young Boston team could sneak up on the East. However, they still don’t seem to be a match for the Bucks roster wise, and it would be a surprise if the boys from Brew City could not take them down in a seven game series once again.
Chris Szagola of the AP
The biggest competition in the East this year will be the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid and Simmons are staples of the roster, but resigning Tobias Harris and bringing in Al Horford has given this team championship contending potential. The Bucks had some struggles against Philly last regular season, and although Kawhi Leonard prevented us from getting a Bucks/76ers conference finals last May, it is very likely we could see this matchup coming up this year.
With all of that said, the Bucks still look like the favorites in the East. They have the conference’s and quite possibly the league’s best player, a deep roster with an intimidating starting lineup, and now have deep playoff experience. There are some good teams that stand in front of them, but none seem at quite the level the Bucks are on at this point in the offseason. Health and luck are always involved, but if everything holds true, Milwaukee could very well enjoy their first Finals appearance since 1974 come next June.