The playoffs continue to rage on, but there are 25 teams sitting at home with nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs, tinker with their fantasy football teams, and wait for next season to start.
For their sake, we wanted to look ahead with the next edition of the OFFSEASON BLUEPRINT series. In each, we’ll preview some big decisions and make some recommendations for plans of attack along the way. Today, we’re looking at the Milwaukee Bucks.
step one: plug your ears and get back to work
There’s no getting around it: the 2019-20 playoffs were a disaster for the Milwaukee Bucks. This was a team that had been # 1 all year in terms of win record, SRS, defensive rating, etc. Consider this. Their +10.1 point differential in the regular season was the best in the entire NBA by a margin of 3.7 (next best was +6.4). That means their point differential was 58% better than the next closest team. Based on all that, losing 4-1 in the second round feels like an abject failure, regardless of whether Giannis Antetokounmpo was hobbled or not, and regardless of whether the Miami Heat were a “tough matchup” or not. Championship teams need to leap past those hurdles on their way to the finish line.
What’s more concerning from Bucks’ fans perspective is how familiar this all must feel. Forget Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who won the title before his exit), because younger fans won’t remember that period anyway. However, all of us can look around at recent history and feel some sense of deja vu.
Primarily, I’m thinking about LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland. The superstar landed on a small market, and lifted them into high-profile and contender status. In 2006-07, 22-year-old James led the Cavs all the way to the Finals, only to get swept 4-0 by the veteran San Antonio Spurs. After that, we naturally presumed that James and the Cavs would get better and better and eventually reach the promised land. And they did — in the regular season. By 2008-09, LeBron James had become the league MVP, leading the Cavs to finish with a 66-16 record (best in the NBA.) That season, they lost a tough Conference Finals. The next season, James won MVP again, and the Cavs finished with the best record in the league again. Only this time, they got bounced in round TWO.
The Bucks are on that exact same trend. Giannis has won two MVPs in a row — the Bucks have grabbed the # 1 seed two years in a row — and they’ve disappointed in the playoffs two years in a row.
We all remember what happened after the Cavs’ hit that roadblock — LeBron James left the following year. Giannis isn’t a free agent yet, but he theoretically could push for a trade, or he could simply wait until next offseason to fly the coop. We’ve already started to hear the whispers. Miami. Toronto. Golden State. If he wants to mimic LeBron James’ career arc, he may be eyeing the Dallas Mavericks, their cap space, and their young international stars. It can be their own version of a super team: the Big III.
If you’re a Bucks fan or executive, that fear should keep you up at night. That paranoia may be real.
But still, you can’t live in the fear. You need to keep pushing forward, ignoring all the gossip, all the media rumors, all the instagram tea leaves. Even if some of it’s real, you need to block it out. You have a job to do. Win. Championship-caliber teams and title chances don’t come along very often in a league with 30 teams. Even if they just run it back, the Bucks have a chance to win the championship. Even if it’s just for one more year, even if it’s your own Last Dance, you strap on your dancing shoes and go for it.
After all, there’s no Giannis trade that’s going to make sense from a basketball perspective. If you lose Giannis (via trade or via free agency), you may never be in this position ever again. This is it. This is your chance. Be grateful that you even get one, because most front offices and coaching staffs don’t.
step two: build a title machine, not a title team
When you’re scared that your superstar may leave, there’s a tendency to get desperate with “win now!” moves. The Cleveland Cavaliers did the same with LeBron James, adding players like old Ben Wallace and old Shaq. Didn’t work.
There may be some temptation to do the same here, with names like Chris Paul already being thrown around. Presumably, the logic goes that if the Bucks win in 2021, then Giannis won’t leave.
But we also have recent history to suggest that’s not true either. The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard, won the championship, and still lost him in free agency. Players don’t base their decisions around the past; they base decisions about what’s best for their FUTURE.
By those standards, the Bucks need to be concerned. They’ve built the roster around Giannis, but it’s a fairly old roster. Khris Middleton is still in his prime, but Eric Bledsoe is already 30 (and under contract for 3 more years.) Brook Lopez is 32 (and under contract for 3 more years.) Wes Matthews is 33, and George Hill is 34. This is a supporting cast that may have peaked, and may get worse and worse over time. Would Giannis want to sign a long-term contract with a team with diminishing returns around him?
With that in mind, the Bucks should only make a major trade if it yields a star in his 20s. No Chris Paul, no Al Horford. The ideal acquisitions for this team would be players like Bradley Beal (27 years old) or C.J. McCollum (28). Both of them can space the floor for Giannis, but also create their own scoring as well. Better yet, their skill sets should age well and keep them valuable for the next 4-5 years. If Giannis gave the greenlight (and signed on the dotted line), the Bucks could make a Clippers-PG3 esque move and mortgage their future drafts to acquire a star like that.
Realistically, that may be too high of a bar. They’re the template, but they’re likely out of the Bucks’ price range in terms of assets. Other candidates that have been floated on the market include Buddy Hield (a super fit as a shooter), and Otto Porter (injury prone and expensive, but still effective as a 3+D player when healthy.) Jrue Holiday may be an intriguing option, although he’d technically break our rule because he just turned “30” in June. Still, Holiday is a great guy and a versatile defender, so he may be worth betraying our bolded mandate.
step three: no weak links allowed in the machine
We’ve been taught through history lessons and Michael Jordan mythology that the best player in the NBA is supposed to win the title, no matter what. Alas, it’s nearly impossible in today’s climate for a superstar to win a championship without a great supporting cast. Either you need a superstar teammate, or an incredibly balanced roster around you.
The Bucks have a very good supporting cast, but it’s probably a little shy of title worthy. The shooting guard position is a potential weak link.
Current starter Wes Matthews is a tough dude who fits the 3+D profile, but his 3 and his D ain’t quite what it used to be. He still fights admirably, but he’s approaching 34 and saddled with a lot of mileage and injury history. This season, he struggled to find his rhythm offensively, registering a 54.7% true shooting. That’s actually not a bad number on its own, but it was the lowest among the Bucks’ top 10 rotation players.
With Matthews aging, the hope is that 23-year-old Donte DiVicenzo can step up and grab hold of that mantle. That’s still up in the air. DiVicenzo has virtues: good athleticism, good energy, solid defense, but he’s still developing his shot and learning to play under control. It may be a leap of faith to presume that he’d be ready to start for a title team next season. Meanwhile, Pat Connaughton is OK, but he’s a free agent and wouldn’t be any great shakes himself.
Presuming we don’t land a great trade, what do we do here? The options may be limited, given the lack of cap space and movable trade assets.
The Bucks may need to find a place-holder again until they’re confident that DiVicenzo can play 25-30 minutes a night. You may be able to find a decent stopgap in the trade market: someone like Terrence Ross (ORL), or Reggie Bullock (NYK), or Jeremy Lamb (IND).
The New Orleans Pelicans would intrigue me as potential trade partner, given their abundance of riches (and question marks) at the guard position. They’ll have Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball under contract, as well as promising combo guards like Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Josh Hart. Those latter two may be great options for the Bucks’ long-term approach. If “short term” is the goal, then you’d have to consider J.J. Redick as well. The defense and age are issues, but Redick still lit it up to the tune of 45% shooting from 3 this year. Platooning Redick and DiVincenzo isn’t a terrible option. And hell, let’s throw one more Pelican into the mix. If I ran the Bucks, I’d try to sign free agent E’Twaun Moore, an underrated 3+D player who got lost in the shuffle this season. Moore has enough length to play the 2 or 3, and could soak up 25 minutes for the team. Adding more competent wings would also give the team some flexibility in their lineups and rotations to go big or small as they please.
step four: if all else fails, embrace organic farming
Let’s say the Milwaukee Bucks don’t acquire a third star. Let’s say they don’t land an upgrade on the margins either. Let’s say they have to enter 2020-21 with this exact same roster. If that’s the case, they’re still likely going to win 50+ games, still likely going to be a threat to make the Finals. It’s not the end of the world by any stretch.
However, if the Bucks can’t shake up or tweak their roster, then they’re going to have to rely more on internal improvements. We already mentioned Donte DiVincenzo as a major piece of the future and a potential starter down the road. It’d be great if we could see that trajectory for PF D.J. Wilson as well. After doing nothing as a rookie, he started to find some footing as a sophomore (playing 18.4 minutes a night.) But instead of improve again, he took a sizable step back.
If Wilson can shake it off and get back on schedule, it would be very helpful for the team. PF Marvin Williams is retiring, and PF Ersan Ilyasova is 33 years old himself. It’s imperative that the Bucks find a capable stretch PF for the future, not only to back up Giannis at the 4 but also to play alongside him when he slides over to the 5.
This draft may also represent an opportunity to add a rotation player. The Bucks will have Indiana’s draft pick — # 24 overall. It’s not likely to yield a star, but they should be able to find a contributor.
Let’s take a look at some names to file away. Tyrell Terry (Stanford) is a smaller guard, but he’s an elite shooter (41% from 3, 89% from the FT line.) Perhaps he can be our C.J. McCollum — or at least, our Seth (not Steph) Curry off the bench. Terry’s ranked in the 20s, but some sites like The Ringer have him a lot higher (# 9 for them.) Speaking of potential sleepers, I’d be intrigued by PF/C Killian Tillie (Gonzaga). He’s also a top notch shooter for his position. He’s limited in terms of defense and durability, but playing next to Giannis can cure a lot of problems. I also like SF Robert Woodard II (Mississippi State), a 6’7″ wing with 3+D potential.
Regardless of who the Bucks take, they need to show that they can develop him well. As we’ve mentioned numerous times, this is an older supporting cast that will slowly decay. Replacing those talents with competent rotational players will be key to sustaining the team’s success.
step five: have a Plan B, C, D and E in your back pocket
Coach Mike Budenholzer has gotten a lot of flak for his playoff performance, and there’s validity to that criticism. Throughout his career, Bud has done a lot better in the regular season than the postseason. He’s gotten spanked too many times, losing 3-4 games in a row in a fashion that shouldn’t happen for a high-level coach. At times, he appears to be a step slow to adjust, freezes, and watches the train roll over him.
In some ways, I wonder if the Bucks were a victim of their own success here. They’ve been SO GOOD in the regular season that they’ve never seemed to need a Plan B. They can lock you down on D, use those transition opportunities to score at will, and dominate the game so easily that Giannis can check out and eat gyros by the 4th quarter.
However, we can see the pitfalls of that when teams slow down their typical gameplan, and cause the Bucks to scramble for new looks. Does this team have the ability to counter-punch?
One potential wrinkle I’d be curious to see is whether they’d be more effective in playoff games with Eric Bledsoe coming off the bench. While George Hill is old, he’s still a good 3+D player who can hold the fort at PG. In fact, he’s a better shooter and spacer than Bledsoe. For his part, Bledsoe is more of a playmaker and wrecking ball who could theoretically have more freedom and more impact in leading a second unit.
Is that the answer? Is going small the answer? Is playing Giannis closer to 40 minutes (in the playoffs) the answer?
I dunno. But I’m not paid to know. And I’m not expecting Coach Bud to have all the answers right now. But from what we’ve seen, the team needs to be more willing to throw some potential solutions at the wall and see what sticks rather than allowing themselves to get stomped out of another playoff series. Because if this happens again, they may as well call up United Airlines and get the blond flight attendants ready, because Giannis will be flying out of here.
previous offseason blueprints
CHA, CHI, IND, GS, MIN, NYK, POR, SA, SAC, UTA