As we prepare for the NBA season to resume on July 31, the Milwaukee Bucks sit atop the standings with a 53-12 record, with presumptive two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way. They boast the league’s best defensive rating and sixth-best offensive rating as they dominate their opponents by an average margin of 11.2 points per game. With this level of success all while the Greek Freak still years away from reaching his prime, it seems like all but a given that Milwaukee will be a city of champions for years to come. But upon closer examination, it’s highly questionable whether the Bucks have set themselves up for sustained success into the 2020s, or even whether they are built to challenge for a title this postseason.
This Season’s Title Hopes
It seems almost ludicrous to question Milwaukee’s status as championship favorites, and even more so to entertain the possibility that they don’t make it out of the Eastern Conference. After making an impressive run to the Conference Finals last postseason, the Bucks have, if anything, improved. Right?
At first glance, this does appear to be true. With Giannis increasingly becoming a threat from beyond the arc and Khris Middleton improving on already-solid shooting splits, the Bucks have a higher winning percentage and score differential than they did last season – albeit in a smaller sample size due to the shortened regular season. But what may become apparent come playoff time is that they are missing a consistent secondary playmaker. Eric Bledsoe is an exceptional point guard on the defensive end, but his inconsistent shooting and unsound decision-making makes him an unreliable source of offense. Middleton is a lethal scorer from outside and a decent passer, but not quite good enough off the dribble to fill this specific need. Milwaukee needs someone who, along with being effective playing off of Giannis, can also occasionally run the offense when it is asked of him.
That player might just have been Malcolm Moses Brogdon, whom the Bucks sent away in a sign-and-trade with the Indiana Pacers last offseason. Not only will Brogdon make a great president someday, but on the basketball court he is a dependable floor-spacer, a solid playmaker, and, more so than the Bucks’ other role players, a capable creator off the bounce and in the pick-and-roll. Humble Moses is by no means a star player, but his presence gave Milwaukee more opportunities to run Giannis off the ball and made them that much more difficult to stop. So how has Coach Budenholzer addressed this Malcolm Brogdon-shaped void in the Bucks offense? To put it simply, by asking Giannis to do more. The Greek Freak’s usage rate has skyrocketed from 31.4 in 2019-20 to a league-high 36.2 this season. We can anticipate this number to be even higher in the playoffs.
If history truly is the greatest teacher, this statistic should raise alarms for the Bucks. In every postseason since 1997, the highest usage rate ever posted by a player who would go on to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy is 35.9, a carry-job accomplished by His Airness himself with the Bulls in ‘98. The highest playoff usage rate for an eventual champion not named Michael Jordan is 32.6, which was done twice by Kobe Bryant and once by LeBron James. What can we conclude from this? You cannot reasonably expect to achieve a high level of playoff success while asking your star player to do any more than these three all-time greats did during their championship runs. A team can get by in the regular season with an overly-heliocentric offense, but it will come back to haunt them in the postseason when opponents have more time to devise a defensive game plan. Even if their win-loss record suggests otherwise, we should be skeptical as to whether or not this Bucks team is any better than the one that lost four straight games to the Toronto Raptors in last year’s playoffs.
What’s in Store for the Future?
Milwaukee failing to capture the title this postseason wouldn’t be much cause for concern if they were a team on the rise. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. If the Bucks haven’t already hit their ceiling, they are on an imminent collision course with it. For one, this is an aging team without much room for internal growth. While we can expect continued improvement in Giannis’ outside shooting, it’s hard to make the case that it will be a substantial enough jump to put them over the top. Donte DiVincenzo is only 23 and undeniably has the tools to become a productive NBA player, but he doesn’t project to be the type of secondary ballhandler that will raise the Bucks’ ceiling in any meaningful way. The immediate issue is that most of the team’s key role players – Brook Lopez, Wesley Matthews and George Hill, to name a few – are on the wrong side of 30, and even though the play styles of these players in particular should allow them to age relatively gracefully, dwindling production in the coming years is inevitable nonetheless.
Without the development of young prospects to offset this decline, the Bucks need to look to alternative means of rejuvenating their roster. The question is, do they have any? Retooling through the draft is not a viable option as long as Milwaukee remains a competitive team. Obviously, we can’t rule out the chance that they find steals late in the draft – after all, Malcolm Brogdon, the lost savior himself, was selected with the 36th overall pick in 2016 – but it would be irresponsible to base our optimism in the Bucks’ future on this remote possibility. The same concept applies to improving through free agency. In order to field a competitive roster, the Bucks have made significant sacrifices to their financial flexibility, as they currently have the second-highest payroll in the league. This will severely limit their ability to sign high-impact free agents over the next several offseasons, especially if we assume Giannis signs the supermax when his current contract expires in 2021. As a matter of fact, the topic of free agency and Antetokounmpo’s expiring contract awakens an entirely different nightmare scenario for Cream City.
The rest of the NBA may fear the deer right now, but Milwaukee should have a healthy fear of any team set to have a max slot in the 2021 offseason. Although Giannis hasn’t thus far shown any indication that he is unhappy in his current situation with the Bucks, that could all change drastically over the course of the next year. We can’t predict with any degree of certainty what he will decide when he hits free agency, but, for what it’s worth, we’ve seen how this story has played out before. In 2016, Kevin Durant was in a situation on the Oklahoma City Thunder not dissimilar to Giannis’, a respected team that was finals-caliber in its better years and still made the playoffs in its worse years. After years of disappointing playoff runs, Durant ultimately decided that his championship window had closed in OKC and left to sign with the Warriors. LeBron James left the Cavaliers, his hometown team, in 2010 when faced with a similar predicament. If Giannis doesn’t win a title with the Bucks in the next two years, he could become the next superstar free agent to elect for a change of scenery. The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat both happen to be premier free agent destinations that either already have or are one move away from clearing the necessary cap space to sign the Greek Freak to a max contract in 2021. The allure of forming a foreign-born big three in Dallas or joining Miami’s unmatched competitive culture may be just enough to convince him to leave. A flatlining team at risk of losing their best player, there’s ample reason to be bearish about the Bucks’ future.
None of this is to say that the Bucks are destined to be eliminated in the Conference Finals again, or that Giannis will inevitably leave in 2021. Notwithstanding the glaring number of red flags, the Bucks are, if not contenders, certainly the best pretenders in recent memory. It’s no accident that they’ve been the top team in the Eastern Conference for two consecutive seasons. Plus, it’s difficult to rationalize betting against a six-foot-eleven freak of an athlete with guard-like mobility. However, with no clear roadmap to long-term success, the pressure to win now is getting real, it’s entirely possible that the apex of this Giannis-led Milwaukee squad is behind them. Only time will tell if we are witnessing the dawn of the NBA’s next dynasty, or merely another addition to the long list of overachieving small-market teams that could never quite make it.
Sports Reference LLC “Dallas Mavericks Team Payroll.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Sports Reference LLC “Giannis Antetokounmpo.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Sports Reference LLC “Khris Middleton.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Sports Reference LLC “Malcolm Brogdon.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Sports Reference LLC “Miami Heat Team Payroll.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Sports Reference LLC “Milwaukee Bucks Team Payroll.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com