2016-17 result: 42-40. 6th in the Eastern Conference. Lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Toronto Raptors in six games.
Transactions: The Bucks are coming off a season that will likely forever alter the course of their franchise simply because it was the year that Giannis Antetokounmpo broke through in a major way to become one the best players in all of basketball and emerge as the heir apparent to the title of best player in the Eastern Conference is rumours of LeBron James heading West after this season are true.
Giannis emerged as a once in a lifetime generational talent while setting records on his way to winning the league’s Most Improved Player and changing the entire conversation for the team.
Now every move and every decision that the Bucks make has to be done with keeping in mind the reality that they are a small market team with a generational superstar in a league where they almost exclusively end up in major markets.
Even the organization’s own history serves as a cautionary tale as the last time they had a player this good was when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started his career in Milwaukee and brought the franchise their sole championship in 1971 before leaving for Hollywood in 1975 and winning five more with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s
History isn’t on their side in that regard. Giannis says he wants to stay beyond his current contract – which ends in 2021 – and I believe that he genuinely does, but a lot can change over the next four seasons and the Bucks need to continue to build and develop a team worthy of a future MVP and the best team that the franchise has seen in over forty years.
The process had to begin at the end of last season.
It was largely Antetokounmpo’s otherworldly talents that put the Bucks in the playoffs despite being without Khris Middleton for the first half of the season and losing Jabari Parker for the second half. Two devastating injuries that should have crippled the team, but didn’t.
Instead the Bucks earned the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and played the Toronto Raptors in a tough six game series that saw the Bucks almost complete a comeback from a 25 point deficit lead by Giannis and his 34 points. They came up just short and the loss had to sting. That’s exactly where you want a young team to be.
The Bucks will learn from it and come back stronger, hungrier and out for revenge. The sting of a first round exit is something their young core never wants to experience again and the organization’s role is to do everything in their power to build a contender around their young talent in order to fulfill that promise.
That is if the organization can get itself together first.
The Bucks had to have been caught off guard when John Hammond – the man who acquired and developed the talent who lead the Bucks including Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton – was leaving the organization to take over the Orlando Magic. That is not the kind of departure you expect to see in a young organization on the rise and it could not have come at a more crucial time for the franchise as Hammond left just before the draft and free agency began.
After a much speculation, Milwaukee caught most observers by surprise by passing over more obvious choices, such as Hammond’s former assistant Justin Zanik, in favour of director of basketball operations Jon Horst.
Horst was a surprise candidate that is rumoured to have resulted from an internal power struggle among the Bucks ownership group. He was selected despite the availability of many more experienced candidates and just days after his hiring, David Griffin announced his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Getting the job in spite of a more experienced field of candidates increases the pressure and scrutiny that Horst could face if the Bucks don’t continue to improve and head in the right direction, however a lot of that pressure will be mitigated by the fact that he was ultimately chosen for his salary cap expertise. As the Bucks are a team with a lot of issues in that area, the new GM will be looked to manage those issues going forward.
A job that began with the decision to waive Spencer Hawes using the stretch provision. The Bucks parted ways with “The Needle” largely to avoid paying any luxury tax as the $6.2 million he was due this season would have put them over the top and without it they sit $2.5 million under the cap.
Milwaukee also parted with veteran Michael Beasley who opted not to return to Milwaukee in favour of signing on with the New York Knicks. B-Easy was a solid veteran presence off the bench for the Bucks who will be missed next season.
Returning, however, is sharpshooter Tony Snell who exceeded all expectations last season where he was viewed as a short-term replacement for the injured Khris Middleton when he was acquired last summer but instead became an integral part of the Bucks’ offense. Snell shot 40.6% from beyond the arc last season and his offensive rating jump by 21 points as he hit career highs in every per game category. In addition to his offensive prowess, Snell bolstered the Bucks’ D and formed the team’s most efficient line-ups when sharing the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Thon Maker down the stretch.
Snell’s performance in his first season in Milwaukee resulted in him being a very sought after commodity in the modern NBA game: an excellent 3-and-D wing. Rather than risk losing him to free agency, the Bucks signed Snell to a 4 year, $46 million deal on the first day of free agency which gives them a key component of a championship-level team without breaking the bank. A huge step in the right direction for the franchise after giving out cap crippling contracts to Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic last off-season.
Jason Terry is also returning to Milwaukee for his second year with the Bucks and 19th NBA season. The 40 year old provides veteran leadership and championship experience and his work mentoring the young Bucks resulted in them voting him as “best teammate” in the player’s association’s Player’s Choice awards. Jet also has something to offer on the floor as well with his 42.7% mark from three point range being the second highest on the team last season.
22 year old James Young, a 2014 first round pick of the Boston Celtics, joins the Bucks after failing to land a spot in Boston. He’s played the majority of his career with the Maine Red Claws in the G-League where he averaged 18.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 40.6% from three point range. Young should be able to compete for a roster spot on the Bucks this season.
Veteran guard Brandon Rush was signed to a training camp contract and if he makes the team will bolster the front court rotation. Joel Anthony was also signed to a training camp deal and is hoping to catch on with a team for his 11th NBA season
Gerald Green was another late signing who can offer the Bucks athleticism and depth at the wing position. The 31 year old could really fill the Michael Beasley role quite nicely off the bench.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 17th pick in the draft, the Bucks selected D.J Wilson out of Michigan who stands at 6’10” with a 7’3” wingspan because of he does as the Bucks value length seemingly above all else in young talent considering how well it’s worked out for them so far.
Wilson was a late bloomer with the Wolverines as it took him a long time to grow into his body but he’s blossomed into a skilled perimeter threat who can fit into the lengthy Bucks’ front court with a solid shooting stroke that saw him hit 37% of his threes last season. He’s also a solid ball-handler who can dribble exceptionally well for a man of his stature and also has above average instincts when it comes to facilitating.
He’s an elite finisher inside as he connected on 73% of his 100 attempts around the basket and has the footwork, speed, mobility and soft touch to work well inside at the NBA level. On the back-end, his athleticism and length also allow him to switch on pick and rolls and fight through screens. Wilson does need to work on his strength and establishing himself as more of a physical presence especially against NBA bigs and become more able to throw his body around and fight for boards down low.
For a team that prizes positional versatility and has the patience to let Wilson develop, it’s a great pick in that they’ve got a player who fits into their system incredibly well and the depth to allow him to properly develop. Wilson could thrive as a modern NBA big man.
After striking gold in the second round last season with their selection of Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks hope that history will repeat itself after sending cash considerations to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to take SMU guard Sterling Brown with the 46th selection in the draft.
Brown is a lengthy guard who shot 45% from three point range in his senior year and excels in catch-and-shoot opportunities. However, his most NBA-level skill is his excellent defense which saw him checking the opposition’s best player in most situations. Brown’s footwork, length and physicality allow him to keep ahead of quicker players but also challenge bigger opponents. He’s an intense competitor who isn’t afraid to put his body on the line to make a stop and also crashes the defensive glass for rebounds.
3-and-D wings are an essential commodity in the current NBA and Brown projects to develop into a solid one for Milwaukee.
Outlook: Giannis Antetokounmpo was challenged this off-season by Kobe Bryant to take his game to an MVP-level. I have no doubt that the the end of the season his name will be given serious consideration in the MVP race.
Giannis is coming off the best individual season by a Buck since Kareem played for the team. He became just the fifth player in NBA history – after Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen Kevin Garnett and LeBron James – to lead his team all five major statistical categories as he put up 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals. He also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all five of those categories on his way to winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
Here’s the thing: he’s only 22 years old. To have that kind of leap is incredible, but what’s even more incredible is just trying to fathom what the Greek phenom’s potential is, because it’s seemingly limitless. He’s already pondered whether or not he can become the first player to win the most improved back-to-back. That’s the kind of leap he’s planning on taking his game and when he puts his mind to something, he will do it.
There is nothing that is out of reach for Giannis. He began his life having to hustle on the streets to have enough to eat and sharing his first pair of basketball shoes with his brother (I wrote about Giannis’ life and unlikely rise to NBA stardom HERE), and now he’s a top ten talent in the NBA who is a consistent jump shot away from being in the same conversation at LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
In an era where position-less basketball is the goal of every team, Giannis’ incredible skill-set in every facet of the game is invaluable. He can play any position on the floor. Despite standing at 6’11” he handles the ball like a point guard with the same court vision and ability to facilitate. He’s also incredible finisher and one of the most exciting and dynamic players to watch attack the basket. Defensively he can everything from chasing down an opposing player to lay down a huge block to protecting the rim to locking down an opposing player one-on-one. There are virtually no weaknesses in his back-end game and his otherworldly length allows him to challenge just about anyone.
If this performance in the playoffs last year was any indication, Antetokounmpo will have an even bigger impact on the Bucks this season. He took his game to yet another level averaging 24.8 points, 9.5 boards, 4 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.7 blocks on 53.6% shooting. What should really put the NBA on notice though was his 40% from three point range in the postseason. If he comes close to that accuracy from deep over an entire season, opposing defenses will have little hope.
Expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to be in the MVP conversation next season.
Thon Maker is anther young physical marvel looking to make a big leap in this coming season. The 20 year old just scratched the surface of what he will become in his rookie year and his per 36 minute totals give a good indication of where his game could go with 14.5 points, 7.3 boards and 1.7 blocks. The most impressive stat is his 37.8% from downtown. In an era where spacing means everything, having a player over 7’1” who can knock down three pointers is a huge asset.
In order to figure into the rotation, Maker will have to develop more strength on the post and make himself more of a physical presence in order to asset himself for boards. That should come as he continues to physically mature and put in work in the weight room. He’s also got to continue to play with a faster pace in order to earn more minutes. Maker did show a lot of promise in this area as 12.8% of his points were scored on the fast break last season and he’s incredibly mobile for his size.
The South Sudan-born big man has reportedly been in the gym all summer and working on his both his stroke and his ability to create his own shot. If Maker can develop into a bigger piece of the rotation in his second season, the Bucks are going to be be able to hang with any team in the league in terms of their ability to space the floor.
Reigning rookie of the year, Malcolm Brogdon should have an equally impressive rookie campaign. He’s really the poster child for why the league needs to place more value on four year collegiate athletes as he came into the league with a poise beyond his years and his emergence was a huge reason why the Bucks were able to get back into the playoffs.
Brogdon is a key piece of the team’s offense as he put up 10.2 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 boards per game on 45.7% shooting including 40.4% from three point range, but it’s his positive impact on his teammates that really makes him invaluable going forward. When paired with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks offense outscores opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions (as opposed to 2.8 points per 100 possessions in Giannis-led line-ups without Brogdon) When he shared the floor with Khris Middleton, Middleton’s 3 point percentage shot up by 11.7% (from 38.3% to 50%) with a similar impact for Tony Snell (38.4% to 48.9%).
The man known as The President (because of his resemblance to Barack Obama) impacts his teammates in such a profound way because of the spacing he’s able to create on the floor with his own range, his gifts as a facilitator and his own ability to play off the ball and get himself into position to shoot off the catch.
His size, smarts and length also make Brogdon an excellent defender and he ranks among the best in NBA guards against opposing ball handlers on the pick-and-roll. He’s also a difficult one-on-one match-up for opposing guards because of his physical gifts which can often neutralize much speedier opposing guards.
26 year old Khris Middleton missed most of last season with a torn hamstring but his return could not have come at a better time on the heels of Jabari Parker being taken out for the year with a torn ACL. Middleton came back and sparked a 19-10 run to close out the season and propel the Bucks back into playoffs and was brilliant during it as he averaged 14.7 points on 45% shooting including a team high 43.3% from three point range to go along with 4.2 boards 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals.
Having Middleton for an entire season will be a huge boost for the Bucks. He’s an excellent ball-mover and provides great offensive versatility alongside Brogdon and Giannis. His post game is also exceptional for a swingman and his patience and ability in the pick-and-roll gives the Bucks another incredible option to throw at opposing defenses. Not to mention his elite level outside shooting.
Defensively, Middleton is very gifted and is able to fight through or shed screens, pressure ball handlers and make switches with ease. He’s able to contest shots and also pressure the ball with his 6’8” frame and length. His ability to defend both opposing guards and wings give the Bucks invaluable defensive versatility which is much needed in an era of position-less play.
If Middleton is able to stay healthy through the entire season, the Bucks will be able to challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Heat is also a big question mark surrounding Jabari Parker. Hearts around the basketball world broke when he went down for the season (check out my reaction HERE). He was in the midst of his best NBA season yet averaging 20.1 points per game off 49% shooting, 6.2 boards and 2.8 assists. His absence was likely a big contributor to why the Bucks lost to the Raptors in the first round as his ability to attack the rim and generate offense from the perimeter.
A healthy Parker will add another dimension to the Bucks offense and with Middleton and Giannis gives them three top options that will be difficult for any opposing defense to shut down. Jabari had also added range to his game as he was shooting 36.5% from three point range after increasing his attempt rate by a factor of seven. If he develops into another long-range option for Milwaukee, he could mitigate any explosiveness lost while he adjusts back to the NBA game very well.
All reports indicate that the 6’8”, 250 pound former Blue Devil is well ahead of schedule in terms of his rehab and we should see him by just after the All-star break. If he’s joining a fully healthy Bucks squad his return could put them boost them into the top four East seeds and into a first round playoff victory.
Milwaukee’s second unit will continue to be bolstered by Greg Monroe who played at a Sixth Man of the Year clip for the Bucks in his reserve role for most of last season but ultimately didn’t get a nomination for the award. Monroe averaged 11.7 points, 6.6 boards, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals off the bench for the team last season (or 18.8 points, 10.5 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.8 steals on a per 36 minute basis) and anchored the bench with his interior presence and excellent ball handling for a big man.
Monroe exercising his player option may have not been the best outcome for the Bucks financially but was the best possible outcome for their bench. If Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova can play at a level approaching their generous contracts next season, Milwaukee will enjoy a solid and reliable second unit.
Overall, how far this team will improve this season is tied directly to how far Giannis takes his own game. Given that I see him in the MVP race, I envision big things for Milwaukee. Brogdon is a second year player with veteran-like stability, a healthy Khris Middleton could get all-star consideration and Thon Maker is poised for a big leap. Not to mention the boost the team will get when Jabari Parker returns.
Most importantly, the East is significantly weaker in the bottom half than even last season. Three playoff teams have kicked off rebuilds and three all-stars have headed West. For a team one the come-up like the Bucks that’s a huge reason to be excited. Milwaukee is poised for a big climb up the standings and they have the talent to get there.
Every key piece is back as is coach Jason Kidd. Consistency really matters in the league and in a Conference where most teams are defined by their subtractions rather than their additions, the Bucks are a young team that’s only going to get better and kept its core intact.
I anticipate a huge jump in the win total and for them to battle it out with the Raptors and Wizards to determine the 3rd through 5th seeds in the conference with a potential re-match with Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.
This time the Bucks will win.
Prediction: 47-35. 4th in the Eastern Conference. First round playoff victory over the Raptors before a competitive second round series with the Celtics or Cavs.