A cursory glance at NBA social media betrays popular sentiment surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks: that they are destined to fall apart postseason after postseason due in part to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s inability to adjust his schemes and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s limited offensive package—both valid assessments the team has done little to prove wrong.
It’s a reputation that is not undeserved, considering how the team—at one point on pace to win 70 games—has not been able to translate their regular season success to any significant progress in the playoffs. But while they are not without merit, the legitimate criticisms over the Bucks’ past performances should not cast a shadow over the job Bucks GM John Horst has done at putting a winning team around the Greek Freak.
This writer contends that the Bucks are severely overlooked despite them setting themselves up for success quite well. It’s plain to see that after their moves this offseason, they may very well have cemented themselves as a lock to represent the Eastern Conference. Here’s why.
They addressed problem areas
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the Bucks’ decision this offseason to replace Eric Bledsoe, whose playoff woes are well-documented, with Jrue Holiday. Through his three seasons with Milwaukee, the Bledshow in the playoffs averaged 13.1 points, 3.9 boards, and 4.6 assists on meagre 41/25/73 shooting splits—not pleasing numbers at all for a starting point guard.
Year after year, Bledsoe’s postseason performances drastically departed across the board from his steady regular season play, which saw him post norms of 16.3 markers, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.3 dimes on 48/34/75 shooting through three seasons, per Basketball Reference.
All of this goes back to his shooting ability (or lack thereof) and playmaking skills (or lack thereof.) Whether a consequence of his slow release or general shot mechanics, opponents have historically been comfortable with leaving the 6-foot-1 guard wide open on the perimeter in favor of building the vaunted “Giannis Wall” to stop his superstar teammate from barrelling into the paint. This has always seemed to affect him mentally, leading to tunnel vision on drives and many other boneheaded plays. Often, this has cost the team entire playoff series.
Holiday, on the other hand, brings competent perimeter shooting, a more well-rounded offensive game, top-level passing, and even better defense as one of, if not the best on-ball defender in the league.
They got shooters—real ones
Milwaukee didn’t just upgrade at the one spot, either. Speaking of perimeter offense, the 2021 iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks have something past teams from Cream City did not: they’ve got shooters.
Through the past two seasons, the Bucks ranked consistently among the top five in three-point attempts, but only ranked in the upper 20s in three-point field goal percentage.
It’s the phenomenon of the capable-but-just-okay shooters from range. Though the likes of Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and Sterling Brown are very much capable of knocking down shots from deep, they are, for the most part, serviceable at best with shooting percentages of 33.6%, 33.1%, and 32.4% for the season, respectively—all well below league average.
Littering the perimeter with wings sporting numbers like these does not and very obviously did not bode well for a simplistic five-out Bucks offense that relied heavily on Giannis drives to generate open looks for three-pointers who were coached under a “let it fly” mentality.
But the Bucks turned its singular perimeter threat in Kyle Korver into a younger and more dynamic Bryn Forbes and turned Sterling Brown into potential elite sniper Sam Merrill, a career 42% shooter from distance over four years playing for Utah State.
To lead the new-look “Bench Mob,” Milwaukee also turned George Hill into DJ Augustin, an equally reliable and more offensively dynamic creator in the clutch, albeit with a sizable defensive drop-off.
They got younger, deeper, and more athletic
Another problem area that the Bucks’ performance betrayed was their defensive limitations, having stuck with Budenholzer’s drop coverage scheme for practically the entire year. This offseason saw them take a decent leap defensively, albeit limited by the signings of Bryn Forbes and DJ Augustin.
The Bucks turned a slow and aging Ersan Ilyasova into Jordan Nwora, another promising athletic sharpshooter who shot 40% in his last season in Louisville and who has serious defensive potential on top of being a sniper. Forbes, a career 40% shooter himself, doesn’t need much daylight to get his shot off and may be the team’s “Baby Korver” should the 39-year-old sharpshooter decide to end his illustrious career.
The Bucks also turned Wesley Matthews into a taller 3&D wing Torrey Craig, who was routinely put in charge of defending the opposing team’s best wing during his time playing under Mike Malone in Denver.
Lastly, they also turned Robin Lopez into a nimbler and more offensively diverse Bobby Portis, a well-rounded center who brings energy and rebounding every time he steps on the floor, and who has never once been on a playoff team.
Assuming the Bucks field a starting lineup of Holiday, DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez, with Craig still coming off the bench, it’s hard to imagine any team in the league scoring on them with ease.
With these additions—all five of whom minus the rookies could be set to play heavy rotation minutes—expect the new-look Bucks to finally hit their marks once they let the basketball fly this coming season and bring their shooting numbers up as a team.
Giannis is here to stay
Entering this offseason, the question of Giannis’ looming contract extension was objectively the most sought-after storyline in the NBA world. And it wasn’t looking good.
After another humiliating playoff exit, it was, for a time, hard to imagine Giannis signing on for another five years. The signs of his coming departure were there. His body language had changed compared to years ago, his facial expressions much more cold and corporate. He constantly dodged the topic whenever he spoke to the media, relegating it to a matter handled solely by his agent rather than a decision that was up to him and only him.
With the specter of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency looming over the team, fans surmised that the uncertainty would affect the team’s locker room dynamic, and consequently, their on-court play too.
Now that the Greek Freak has committed his next five years to the time, questions surrounding Giannis moving forward should now pivot to his development as a player, and how much he has worked on the limitations that have held him back in the past.
Through three pre-season games, his newfound shooting routine looks to be much better now, and fans should expect his percentage to go up with it. On the other hand, his three-point shooting form does not attract optimism; his elbow is still too low and sucks a lot of the power away from his shot, hence his repeated airballs.
To be sure, there were most definitely a few missteps along the way, too, on the part of John Horst. Who could forget the botched sign-and-trade involving Bogdan Bogdanovic? The spitfire shooting guard was viewed by many to make the Bucks an instant finals contender once news broke of the potential acquisition, and was difficult to rebound from once his deal fell apart.
Signing Pat Connaughton—who averaged 5.6 points per game on a meagre 46% from the field in the playoffs over his two seasons with Milwaukee—was an absolute head-scratcher for the most part, and many Bucks fans viewed the decision as a simple ploy to get his workout buddy Giannis to sign with the franchise, and one that had nothing to do with basketball.
But the biggest blunder of them all, at least for this writer, is the failure to fire head coach Mike Budenholzer after two disappointing playoff exits for the same reasons. From his lackluster playoff rotations to his inability to deviate from his schemes, it is clear that Budenholzer may not be the tactician the team needs to win it all.
Milwaukee might be an ECF lock after this offseason, and nobody is talking about it
Bucks fans should be concerned that from here on out, it’s all on the shoulders of Budenholzer to make the pieces work—something he has not once been able to do in his coaching career thus far, despite significant mid-season upgrades like Nikola Mirotic and Marvin Williams.
It seems as though the botched Bogdanovic deal is destined to haunt the Bucks offseason, and for good reason. But this has also caused most fans around the league to overlook the competent moves that Bucks GM John Horst has made in constructing a better roster around the all-world talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
All this is to say that the Bucks, who were once on the verge of a historic season, addressed a number of issues holding the team back from greatness in seasons past, while still maintaining their starting core and bench depth.
It’s time the league take note and fear the deer.