June 13, 2017
The Milwaukee Bucks Got Next
Written by: Ben Steinmetz
When this story started, it was to be solely based upon the rise of Giannis Antetokoumpo and how he would take his place as the next face of the NBA. I watched Game 1 of the Bucks-Raptors playoff series and found my initial inspiration. Here was a player who could captivate an audience in a way that was reminiscent of Durant early in his career. Surely the internet had yet to read enough Greek Freak articles, and surely I could find an angle that was unique, controversial, and insightful. With all this in mind I purchased reasonably-priced nosebleed seats for game 3 of the series and anxiously anticipated my opportunity to witness the rise of greatness. Seeing the Bucks in person, though, led me to seek an entirely different angle.
I arrived a few minutes after tip-off and the house packed with a raucous Bucks’ crowd. Having grown up a fan of both Cincinnati pro sports and Purdue University college sports, I can always respect a tortured fanbase, and the Bucks’ fans definitely qualify as a tortured fanbase. This is a franchise that has only won three total playoff series since the 1986-87 season, and has managed only ten playoff appearances in the past twenty-six seasons. During those twenty-six seasons the Bucks’ best Eastern conference finish was second in 2000-01, and besides that they haven’t finished better than sixth. But coming off of a blowout victory in Game 1 and a narrow loss in Game 2, the Bucks faithful were out in force in support of their team. “Fear the Deer” may sound like a weak slogan (it’s easy to equate to Sandlot catcher Ham Porter’s “Bambi? That wimpy Deer?”), but when shouted from a strong conglomerate of rowdy, drunk Bucks fans it began to effectuate its intended intimidation. It stands to mention that the world-renowned beer town that is Milwaukee had served its fans well prior to the game. The line at tip-off was Milwaukee -2.0, but in that atmosphere you could not have possibly set the line high enough in favor of the Bucks.
When the Bucks jumped out to an early lead on the back of Khris Middleton’s shooting, the Bucks fans could smell blood in the water. Whipped into a frenzy, 20,000 fans rose to their feet for every big play and showered Greg Monroe with chants of “MOOSE!” Giannis started slow, deferring early on to Middleton and Monroe, before landing a few long jumpers and getting some buckets on cuts and in transition. In the second half the Freak impressed by blocking a shot with his elbow and abusing Patrick Patterson for a dunk on a drive. The Bucks hammered the Raptors from start to finish, and looked like the superior team in all facets of the game, finishing with a 104-77 blowout win.
Game 3 certainly indicated just what the Bucks are capable of and hinted at the talented core they’ve developed. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the rest of the series showed why the playoffs are treacherous for young and inexperienced squads. The Raptors took the series 4-2 when the Bucks’ offense largely abandoned them after Game 3. A superior bench, more experienced playmakers, and a willingness to fight small-ball lineup fire with small-ball lineup fire put the Raptors back into the driver’s seat and into the second round. However, as Games 1 and 3 showed, the Bucks have within their roster the capabilities to be unstoppable on any given night.
This season Giannis continued to be a revelation, and this playoff series gave him the opportunity to display his alpha dog chops. First, let’s revisit his regular season: He scored at an elite rate in PnR as the roll man (1.43 PPP) and on cuts (1.5 PPP). He was very good in transition, scoring 1.28 PPP. With that said, he was below the league average as the PnR ball handler (0.81 PPP) and in isolation (0.77 PPP). In the playoffs, he played 40 mpg and averaged 24.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4 apg and 3.8 stocks per game (steals + blocks) while shooting 53.6% from the floor, with a true shooting percentage of 60% (League average is 55%). His performance displayed potential growth in each offensive dimension. Moreover, he was an unstoppable force in transition and a deflection and block threat every time down on defense. In Game 3 he demonstrated well-known athletic strengths and a smooth, if inconsistent jumper, while also highlighting his weaknesses like free throw shooting and passiveness in the halfcourt offense. This series was a bit of a microcosm of The Freak’s season, as he showed both breathtaking abilities on both ends of the floor as well as the flaws that still hold him back from being one of the top 5-7 NBA players. For the season Giannis shot 27% from 3, and defenders were all too eager to back off of him both during the regular season and playoffs. Much of his offense in the half-court still comes from cuts and rolls to the hoop and while he’s become a threatening presence off of the ball he will need to improve his offensive initiation abilities to be alpha. His free throw shooting and passing improved during the regular season, but it was disappointing that in the playoffs his free throw shooting was slightly better than a coin flip and he couldn’t replicate his passing success from the season. The prominent issues of the playoffs could, of course, have a lot to do with experience, tired legs (he played an insane 40.5 MPG), and the pressure of the moment.
Carrying the Bucks was certainly a lot for a young player to take on, particularly one who has seen his star rise fast and whose expectations four years ago have paled in comparison to his actual results. With all this being said, what is the ceiling for Giannis? It’s fair to say that he could become the best player in the league. He’s reminiscent of young LeBron and young Durant, and his year 4 stats match up favorably with both of those stars. Starting in year 5 Lebron posted PERs greater than 30 in 4 of his next 6 seasons and a VORP over 10 the next 3 seasons.
Does Giannis have that next-level type of leap left in him? The biggest key will be figuring out his shooting. Already he’s a tremendous transition attacker with superb body control for a 6’11 player. Defensively he controls large sections of the floor with his length — he held players to 41% shooting — and he’s a solid rebounder at both ends. If he can become a league-average three point shooter, or even just an above-average midrange shooter most defenders will be hopeless to defend him. The abilities are there, and with his contract extended through 2020/21 the Bucks have wisely hitched their title hopes to The Freak.
But what of the rest of the Bucks roster? How do you take a team that finished 6th in a weakened Eastern Conference and bowed out of Round 1 in 6 games to the summit? Part of the Bucks’ struggles this season can be attributed to injuries. They lost Khris Middleton for 53 games this year and, upon his return, Jabari Parker almost immediately went down with an ACL tear. Barring injury concerns, Giannis-Parker-Middleton is a very solid core. Both Parker and Middleton can play off of Giannis’ playmaking abilities, and can also take turns making plays with their jumpers or off of the dribble. It helps that all three are multi-positional players who can defend a wide variety of player types. In addition, promising rookies Malcolm Brogdan and Thon Maker look like the types of players who can capably round out a starting lineup. Brogdan was a revelation as a second-round draft pick, and Maker combines promising length and athleticism with an underrated jump shot. Those two are also in keeping with the multi-positional or even positionless nature of this core. The dream for this squad going forward would be for all players to be able to switch all screens with little to no drop-off in on-ball defense. It is far from crazy, and maybe even practical to think that a Brogdan, Middleton, Antetokoumpo, Parker, Maker lineup should win a championship.
The rest of the roster is an entirely different story. At this time the Bucks owe John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Mirza Teletovic over $62 million combined over the course of the next two seasons. Spending roughly one-third of their cap on rotation guys, some of whom had extremely limited roles in their playoff series against the Raptors, is not exactly a recipe for success for the Bucks. In the series with the Raptors Henson and Teletovic combined for 49 minutes total, and yet they’re set to make a combined $22 million next season and $21 million the year after. With an expected salary cap in the $103 million range over the next few seasons the salaries of these three players are creating an undue strain on the roster. Paying Dellavedova, Henson, and Teletovic prevents the Bucks from bringing in one additional slashing guard or defensive-minded big man that would make this Bucks team more dynamic. In 2016-2017, the Bucks were bottom 20 in both ORB% and DRB%. While excelling in shooting the ball (7th in eFG%, 6th in 2P%, and 10th in 3P%). With the direction the NBA is headed they may also want to increase their 3PA rate (they were 24th in 3PA). They also turned the ball over at the 10th highest rate. Clearly the improvements that they need to make are minor in terms of statistical changes, but they could stand to add depth that allows their second units to succeed at a rate similar to the starting lineup and allows them to hold up during the inevitable periods of a regular season when starters go down with injuries.
Going forward the Bucks hold all of their first rounders, and also have the rights to a handful of late second-round picks. In this upcoming draft they’re slated to pick 17th and 48th, and with a deep draft full of potential role players in those ranges the Bucks could find one additional piece. Given that they have a star player in Giannis, and two additional players in Parker and Middleton who seem qualified to be the type of second and third options a championship caliber team can rely on, the Bucks need only to add a few complimentary pieces in the upcoming drafts. With the 17th pick, they’re in range for several high upside big men who could conceivably form a solid rotation with Maker, such as Justin Patton or Zach Collins. The Bucks have also started to put rumors into the media that they would want to improve their jump shooting, which means guys like Luke Kennard or TJ Leaf would be good fits at this draft position. They could additionally take another swing for the fences at high upside picks like OG Anunoby, Frank Ntilikina, or Harry Giles and hope that they’re able to develop that player in a similar fashion to Giannis or Maker. With their second round pick they could try to land a player like Josh Hart, who is similar in many ways to Malcolm Brogdan, or try to land a playmaking point guard like Frank Mason, Monte Morris, or Nigel Williams-Goss. The nice thing if you’re the Bucks is that it’s much easier to find rookies who can fill a role if you’re set long-term in your starting five.
The future is bright in Milwaukee. This team has the makings of a title contender, and the core of Giannis, Parker, Middleton, Brogdan, and Maker lends itself to near-endless possibilities on the defensive end. The Bucks management is already intending to resign Tony Snell, which would give them a solid and interchangeable six man rotation with few weaknesses. After the 2017-2018 season Greg Monroe comes off the books and frees up significant cap space should the Bucks allow him to leave. Additionally, the Bucks could trade some combination of Teletovic, Dellavedova or Henson along with an unprotected first rounder or two to a team like Kings or 76ers, in a similar fashion to how the Warriors sent two unprotected firsts and some of their unwanted salaries (Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush) to the Jazz in 2013. It’s scary to think that the Bucks could pull off a deal like that and then prior to signing or matching Jabari’s max or near-max deal they would have enough cap space to add one more player at the fringe starter/rotation level of salary. After that they can fill out the remainder of their rotation with cheap older veterans chasing a ring and recent draft acquisitions. Based on what I have seen of this team and this roster, however, they’ll be a title contender without even going that far. Give the Bucks a healthy roster and one more season of unprecedented improvement from The Greek Freak and they should capably rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. In any event, I most likely lucked into one of the last affordable Bucks’ playoff games for the foreseeable future. Consider me officially on the Bucks bandwagon, and FEAR THE DEER!