22 Questions: Can the Milwaukee Bucks Fulfill Their Destiny?
The Bucks' title hopes hinge on whether they can playoff-proof their offense
Over the next three weeks, we’ll be preparing for the NBA’s long-awaited restart by attempting to answer the single most important question facing every franchise that will be present and accounted for in Orlando. This is 22 Questions.
For the last two regular seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks have been untouchable. After storming to the league’s best record behind a smothering defense and an MVP season from Giannis Antetokounmpo last year, the Bucks have … once again stormed to the league’s best record behind an even smothering-er defense and a probable MVP season from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Through 65 games, they’ve more or less perfected regular-season basketball, redoubling everything that made them a great team to begin with. Statistically, they’re overwhelming: their +11.29 margin of victory is the fifth best ever and their 101.9 defensive rating is nearly four points ahead of the second-place Toronto Raptors.
By and large, the team’s orienting principle is to optimize Antetokounmpo. One of the most mind-melting athletes in basketball or any other sport, Antetokounmpo alters the constitution of every possession he plays. There’s only one guy who can stop him, and thankfully the Bucks fired Jason Kidd in 2018. Scarily still improving, Antetokounmpo averages 29.6 points, 13.7, and 5.8 assists per game. Like all great scorers, Antetokounmpo can eternally get to his favorite spots, and it just so happens that his favorite spots is directly at the lip of rim. Whereas defenders can pray for a miss when James Harden steps back, they can only hope that World Wide Wob, the historian of NBA Twitter, is taking the night off when Antetokounmpo has interred them under the basket. What’s most impressive about Antetokounmpo isn’t just that he makes 76.7% percent of shots at the rim, but rather the way that he creates them. Similar interior sentinels like Shaquille O’Neal required extra steps: establishing position, sealing off a defender, receiving a good entry pass. Antetokounmpo simply parades down the middle of the court and punches the ball through the hoop. With his hectare strides, he’s never more than a dribble or two from dunking, leading the league in unassisted slams.
The combination of Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ unceasing pace simplifies the game for Milwaukee’s supporting cast. The Greek Freak is such a destabilizing force on defenses that the rest of the Bucks just need to not fuck up. Point guard Eric Bledsoe is a perfectly mediocre shooter, but adds value as the only other Buck who can knife into the lane, barreling through flues in the defense and further compromising them. Center Brook Lopez has evolved from a post-scorer and gelatinous interior defender into a long-range gunner and Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Most critical, Khris Middleton has posted the best season of his career, and his well-gotten 21 points per game should have him threatening to make an All-NBA team. While Middleton struggled to retrofit his game to Budenholzer’s new system last year, he’s now returned to his midrange roots, taking just under half of his shots from this once-forbidden territory while netting 52% percent of them. Although Middleton’s workload is admittedly not huge, his campaign has still been historic, as he’s flirted with the most balanced, self-sufficient 50-40-90 season since Kevin Durant in 2014.
While all of this is great, the question of whether the Bucks can thrive in the postseason remains. In the final four games of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors totally skinned a Bucks team that didn’t have multiple ways to score. The Raptors defanged the Bucks’ drive-and-kick offense by never giving Antetokounmpo the opportunity to drive and imposed their deliberate tempo on the proceedings. They frazzled the MVP with unpredictable double teams and pre-rotated in his direction to discourage drives before they could even begin. By sonning Antetokounmpo so thoroughly with their barricade of bodies, the Raptors were the original wall of dads. Most of all, they exposed a fatal hubris within the Bucks: the Bucks clearly never anticipated that Antetokounmpo could be stopped, so they never bothered to implement a backup plan.
Accordingly, for the Bucks to succeed, they’ll need to playoff-proof their offense. Most of the scholarly writing (i.e., Twitter) on the topic seems to agree that the way to do this is for Antetokounmpo to become a better shooter. Improbably, this criticism has successfully bullied Antetokounmpo into shooting by far the most jump shots of his career.
Politely, this is fucking stupid. Only an absolute idiot would look at Antetokounmpo rampage through the league’s strongest and best defenders and wish that he’d channel his inner Emmanuel Mudiay. The math — the sacred math! — doesn’t even hold up: Antetokounmpo shoots 72% at the rim and a frosty 32.7% from deep. More, those jumpers are the exact shots that defenses want Antetokounmpo to shoot. Unless Antetokounmpo becomes a legitimately very good shooter, which he’s not once ever proven he could do, defenses will gladly let him fire away.
But what about the spacing when he doesn’t have the ball, you may ask. If a defender helps off of Antetokounmpo in the dunker spot, Antetokounmpo is going to dunk; if a defender helps off of Antetokounmpo idling 25 feet away from the basket, Antetokounmpo is going to barf up a moon ball that’ll harmlessly clank off the rim. But besides that, yes, it makes perfect sense that Antetokounmpo should do more things he’s pretty bad at and fewer things he’s good at. Just imagine how good Barry Bonds would’ve been if he bunted.
In actuality, the Bucks simply need to get more production from everybody else, particularly Bledsoe. For the past two years, Bledsoe has spent the better part of his postseasons getting punked. In 2018, he paid for Terry Rozier’s great-great grandkids’ college tuition, and last year he got torched by Fred VanVleet. Bledsoe may be a hectoring point-of-attack defender and the only Bucks’ guard capable of getting to the rim, but defenses can ghost him because of his wobbly shooting. It’s not necessarily an offensive death wish to play a mediocre shooting point guard, but it gives defenses an easy way to strangle Antetokounmpo. Similarly, Middleton and Lopez are only as dangerous as they are aggressive.
In this light, the Bucks have paradoxically become more playoff-proof even as their offense has statistically regressed this year. Lopez may not have been able to reprise last year’s three-point accuracy, but he’s undusted the methodical, metronomic post-up game that made him Barclay Center’s all-time leading scorer. No player, though, will be more important than Middleton, the Bucks’ most versatile scorer. To a degree, Middleton’s offensive style is in the inverse of Antetokounmpo, compensating for a lack of explosiveness with a feathery jumper. At his best, Middleton is scheme resistant, scoring evenly and efficiently from all areas of the court. He’s the only Buck with any pull-up equity, the only player who can score completely independently of Antetokounmpo. Moreover, if Middleton can consistently score one-on-one, as he has all year, he’ll force opponents to account for him and play a more honest base defense.
The Bucks have been so successful because they’ve molded their roster to fit around Antetokounmpo. But to solidify their spot as one of the best teams in recent memory, the Bucks’ ancillary stars will need to learn to rediscover themselves.