The player migration of this year’s free agency saw a number of moves that shook up the league and thrust teams back into title contention. But one team that went relatively under the radar are the defending champions themselves: the Milwaukee Bucks.
Right off the bat, the Bucks weren’t projected to make that many moves. The Bucks found themselves strapped for both cash and assets after having most of their money tied down to their core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. Many wondered how the team, which fielded a seven-man rotation in the NBA Finals, would seek to improve its pieces heading into next season.
Away from the Russell Westbrooks and DeMar DeRozans of free agency, though, the Bucks quietly made smart moves in hopes of setting themselves up for success in the coming season. Already, the 2021-22 NBA Season is looking like one of the most competitive in recent memory. And even so, a repeat for the Bucks is entirely within the realm of possibility thanks to general manager Jon Horst’s moves.
With the free agency period coming to a close, it’s a safe bet the most of the National Basketball Association’s rosters are set in stone from here on out, save for a few filler pieces to round out league requirements. Here’s a look at how the Bucks retooled their roster and how their new pieces can help them defend their title.
Bobby stays home: A+
That the Bucks got fan-favorite Bobby Portis to stay home on the cheap is perhaps one of the best front office moves so far this offseason solely because of its value.
After a brief stint with the Knicks, Portis put in the most efficient season of his career with the Bucks, putting up 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds on 20.8 minutes per game. The 6-foot-9 big was also among the best shooters for his position, as evidenced by his .523/.471/.740 shooting splits off the bench. Quite simply, Portis could start for most teams, and having him come off the bench proved to be an advantageous luxury for the Bucks.
The two games the Bucks played versus Atlanta with Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined all the more accentuated his value. Though it was their total team effort that handed them the decisive advantage, it’s tough to imagine the Bucks making it out of the Eastern Conference without the hustle and steady shooting of their super-sub in Portis who saw two starts in a row.
With his legacy as a Milwaukee Buck secured, leaving would have been the logical thing to do. After all, Milwaukee could only offer him $5.9 million at most with their taxpayer mid-level exception. The writing seemed to be on the wall when he opted not to exercise his player option for his second year. Offers from other teams, including the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat, came not long after.
Nobody saw it coming when Portis signed a two-year, $9 million dollar contract to stay with the Bucks.
As they say, the rest is history. The addition of Portis guarantees immediate depth for the Bucks, who went home with the Larry O’Brien trophy almost solely off their size.
— ESPN (@espn) July 18, 2021
Bucks trade age for versatility and depth: B+
If it wasn’t a fact before, it is now: The Bucks got shooters. With the departure of PJ Tucker and Bryn Forbes, the Milwaukee Bucks responded by stockpiling 3&D wings wholesale in separate low-risk high-reward moves.
Where they lose the veteran presence and premiere, switchable defense of Tucker, they gain the hard-nosed play and near-elite wing defense of Grayson Allen. And where the elite shooting of Forbes once was, now stands the offensive versatility of a taller shot-creator in Rodney Hood. As the cherry on top, the Bucks also landed George Hill, perhaps one of the best backup combo guards in the league despite his age.
Allen—who shot 39.1% from beyond the three-point line while holding opposing guards to 38.6% shooting—should be a more than capable replacement for Bryn Forbes, the fourth-best three-point shooter in the NBA this season, but also one of its worst defenders.
Hood on the other hand is a 36.7% three-point shooter for his career. He’s not as prolific a shooter from deep, but he can handle the ball and create his own shot on offense, while his 6-foot-8 frame allows him to hold his own on the other end in ways that 6-foot-2 Forbes may never sniff.
Hill was the best shooter in the NBA during his last year with Milwaukee after shooting 46.0% from distance. He’s a skilled defensive guard who has never had any holes in his game and who is still more than capable of putting in productive minutes at the backup guard position.
— NBA (@NBA) November 7, 2019
Given the injury history of a player like Hood and the age of Hill, there is room for error, to be sure. But it’s tough to imagine that none of these moves will work in the defending champions’ favor moving forward.
Young Bucks leave optimism for future: B
The Bucks also signed forward Semi Ojeleye, a raw, physical specimen with all the tools to be a contributor at the forward positions. Basketball fans should know him well for the defense he played on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2018 playoffs.
Ojeleye is a better shooter than Tucker while having the potential to take on his role as a stout, do-it-all defensive presence. Tucker took on the toughest matchups night in and night out, and while it’s yet unclear if Ojeleye can be that kind of defender, the potential is certainly there. The 240-pound Ojeleye ranked third among Boston Celtics players who played at least ten minutes per game in defensive rating while shooting 36.7% from behind the three-point line.
On the other hand, the Bucks’ draft moves were initially a head-scratcher until fans saw who they got. Where G-Leaguer Isaiah Todd was still on the board at the 31st pick, the Bucks traded said pick for the 54th and 60th spots instead. These picks eventually became Sandro Mamukelashvili and Georgios Kalaitzakis.
Mamukelashvili impressed at his NBA debut at the team’s Summer League matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. The 54th overall pick put up a double-double in his first minutes as an NBA player with 11 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, one block, and a steal. Put simply, the 6-foot-11 point-center all but cemented his place in the league despite the small sample size.
Kalaitzakis, who played with Thanasis Antetokounmpo for Panathinaikos Athens, is also a playmaker with good size and touch. The 6-foot-8 point forward can stroke the rock, initiate the offense from the top of the key, and create his own shot. He’s still extremely raw, but there is clear potential in the 60th overall pick.
Jordan Nwora finds Sandro Mamukelashvili rolling to the bucket pic.twitter.com/NpDwAT7luM
— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) August 10, 2021
But it’s also what you didn’t do: F
For all the moves that general manager Jon Horst made to prop up the defending champions, it’s hard to look past losing PJ Tucker.
Regardless of potential regression, any team that wins a Larry O’Brien trophy should be locked down to run it back the following season, hard stop. Never mind that the lost piece was one of the most integral parts of the championship run.
Bucks ownership seemed to think differently, though. Just look at Tucker’s goodbye message to the city of Milwaukee.
P.J. Tucker posts on Instagram “today took a hard turn on the road of my career” then goes on to write a heartfelt message to Milwaukee, ending with:
“WE WILL ALWAYS BE DAWGS! 🖤” pic.twitter.com/1ul2vUCV2t
— Stephen Watson (@WISN_Watson) August 3, 2021
Nothing is conclusive, to be sure, but a cursory glance between the lines should tell you that Tucker wanted to stay in Milwaukee.
It’s hard to overstate the role Tucker played in this title run for the Bucks. The old aphorism ‘Defense wins championship’ was best personified this year in the undersized forward. Incendiary scorers like Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, and Bogdan Bogdanovic all converted less than 34% of their shot attempts when Tucker was the closest defender. When he played, the team’s net rating rose by +7.78 versus when he was on the bench.
In his absence, it is yet unclear if 26-year-old Semi Ojeleye can fill Tucker’s shoes. Bucks fans should hope so, as Tucker was an elite defender who routinely hounded the opposing team’s best wing scorer. As it stands, the Bucks roster just doesn’t have that kind of blend of defense and size.
The defending champions can absolutely repeat
Last year’s demolition and subsequent reconstruction of the roster was already impressive, but Horst has done another fine job at keeping the Giannis-led Bucks competitive with smart basketball moves that just make sense.
Wherever one might stand on the loss of Big Dog Tucker, the ultimate goal still is to contend for an NBA title.
And with all the moves he’s made thus far, it’s clear Jon Horst has made that happen once more.