2018 Preview — Milwaukee Bucks

2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks


Projected Record: 48-34 (4th in East)

Over/Under: 46.5

2016: 44-38 (7th in East)


Key Additions:

  • Donte DiVincenzo (Pick #17)
  • Brook Lopez (Free Agency)
  • Ersan Ilyasova (Free Agency)
  • Pat Connaughton (Free Agency)

Key Subtractions:

  • Jabari Parker
  • Brandon Jennings

Summary

Strengths:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Coaching
  • Improved three-point shooting

Weaknesses:

  • Questionable depth, especially in frontcourt
  • Some important rotation players could be playoff weaknesses

I will not blame you if you don’t feel comfortable trusting the Bucks. If last season proved anything, it’s that they’re a hard bet to trust. At the start of this process, I wasn’t quite there myself — my initial standings had them at 45 wins and the five seed, closer to the bottom of the conference than the top. The more I’ve written about them, however, the more I’ve bought in — again. Maybe this time they won’t prove me wrong.

The biggest change in Milwaukee is, of course, the introduction of the Dean of Hawks University, Mike Budenholzer, and I think NBA circles might actually be underrating the impact of a legitimately good coach on this franchise. This isn’t your average coaching upgrade — Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty were among the worst coaches in the league last season, and Budenholzer has been among the best since taking the reins in Atlanta back in 2013. Coach Bud led the Hawks to 60 wins in 2014 with the non-traditional duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap, and now he’s been handed one of the league’s brightest young stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo and one of its most underrated in Khris Middleton. Something could be brewing up in Wisconsin, and it’s not just copious amounts of beer.

Budenholzer’s arrival brings a fresh revelation to Milwaukee basketball: while the fans might all be drunk, the offense doesn’t have to be. Gone are the listless offensive possessions of the Kidd era, where the ball stuck in hands of either Giannis or Middleton for far too long, while the rest of the unit stood around and waited for them to make something happen. In its place, Hawks University, thriving on movement both on and off the ball. Kidd’s Bucks ran the pick-and-roll at one of the lowest frequencies in the league, while Bud’s Hawks were near the top; you don’t have to squint to see how a player like Giannis stands to benefit immensely — he’s a smooth ball-handler and smart passer who can also set the pick and become an unstoppable roll man on his way to the rim. The two-man game between him and Middleton will be nightmarish.

Defensively, Bud doesn’t have quite the same reputation, but his teams have nevertheless been good on that end as well. The Bucks saw immediate improvement once Kidd’s hyper-aggressive trapping scheme was rightfully thrown in the garbage, and a whole offseason to unlearn those bad habits should bode well. Getting rid of Jabari Parker’s turnstile-like effort won’t exactly hurt, either. The Bucks lack much top-end defensive talent outside of Giannis, particularly in the frontcourt, but a collaborative effort should keep this group at least somewhere around average — they finished last season 17th in defensive rating, at 107.1. One concern: important rotation players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova will be clear targets for opposing offenses in the postseason.

The Indiana Pacers are the trendy darkhorse pick in the Eastern Conference after their surprising 2017 campaign, and I can understand the reasoning behind that. Victor Oladipo is a stud, and the whole team has bought into that chippy Indiana culture. The team is deep and well-equipped to win a lot of games this regular season. I still rank the Bucks above them, though. In my eyes, the two franchises currently have opposite problems: the Pacers are almost entirely reliant Oladipo’s playmaking, short of secondary shot-creation outside of the newly-signed Tyreke Evans and lacking a second supporting star, while the Bucks have perhaps a few too many secondary creators, and a lack of valuable role players.

I’d rather have the second problem. Winning games in the playoffs is a very different proposition than in the regular season; attacking mismatches becomes far more important, and the players who can do that become proportionally more valuable. Khris Middleton is a legitimate stud on the wing, and eases the load on Giannis very effectively; the Bucks very nearly knocked out the Celtics despite their two stars providing almost all of the scoring. While Evans is a quality player who I do appreciate, he’s not quite on that level for Indiana. As I have things now, the two teams would be matching up against each other in the first round, and the Bucks are confidently my pick in such a matchup.

The Packers may always rule up north, but with Budenholzer at the helm and the Greek Freak leading the charge, Wisconsinites might want to start paying attention. The Bucks might be gunning for the throne — and sooner than you think, too.


Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Well, this one’s obvious.

Many have discussed how the 2018-19 season could be when the Greek Freak finally makes the “superstar leap,” but in truth, I think he’s already made it. While early MVP buzz would ultimately fade alongside the Bucks’ season expectations, Giannis Antetokounmpo was already arguably a top-five candidate for the award at only 23 years old, averaging 27 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game and — along with Middleton — nearly willing the Bucks past second-seeded Boston in the first round of the playoffs. He’s already arrived, and the Eastern Conference will have to deal with it.

Instead, this is going to be a season of refinements for the 24-year-old phenom, particularly on the offensive end. The three-point shot is an obvious point of improvement — ticking closer to league average from behind the arc would make him completely unguardable — but smaller changes are still needed as well: fewer doomed isolation possessions and post-up mid-range fadeaways, more court awareness and leveraging of his tremendous physical tools to either get to the rim or create passing windows. Over 57% of Giannis’ shot attempts came within 10 feet and that still feels like too few; a player as gifted as he is shouldn’t be settling for pull-ups inside the arc 30% of the time. These are things that could be the difference between finishing fifth for the MVP award and winning the whole damn thing.

The Bucks have one rare advantage in the Eastern Conference: they have the best player in any potential playoff series (with the exception of a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard in Toronto). If they’re going to play giant-killer this season, the conversation starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo — they’re going to go as far as he can carry them.

X Factor: Thon Maker

When everything is working, Thon Maker is a matchup nightmare; a 7’1″ bundle of pure energy and bounce that hoovers up rebounds on both ends, terrorizes opposing ball-handlers at the rim, and stretches the floor just enough to keep defenders honest. For consecutive postseasons, the Bucks have looked like a different team when Maker has come alive on the court; introducing yet another physical freak of nature to the equation has proven to be a significant problem for their opponents.

The problem is: things don’t seem to work for Maker very often. After posting three multiple-block performances in six games against Toronto’s talented frontcourt in the first round of the 2016-17 postseason, it looked as though Maker was ready to put his stamp on the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, he regressed horribly under an increased workload in his sophomore campaign. Maker averaged only 10 points and six rebounds per 36 minutes last season, shooting an unenviable 41% from the field. Of Maker’s 316 shot attempts, a colossal 217 of them were jumpers, which he converted on only 35% of the time. For a team already starved for reliable shooting, Maker has not proven to be a reliable solution, and the Bucks were outscored by a horrific 4.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the regular season.

The Lopez and Ilyasova signings stand to block a lot of Maker’s potential minutes this year, but there’s still an obvious opening for him to contribute. The Bucks still sorely lack a reliable source of rim protection — John Henson is merely fine — and nobody on the depth chart can match his energy. He will have to prove he can play a more focused brand of basketball to get there, however, and don’t underestimate the threat to his playing time from second-year forward D.J. Wilson. It’s going to be do-or-die for Thon Maker in 2018.

Don’t Forget About: Tony Snell

I’m saying “don’t forget about Tony Snell,” but odds are, you’ve already forgotten about Tony Snell. That tends to happen for players with usage rates as minuscule as Snell’s 10.6% last season.

A lot of justifiable criticism has been hurled towards Kidd and Prunty for their mismanagement of the Bucks’ rotation and schemes, and I would argue that few players have suffered more from that coaching inconsistency than Snell. It’s still completely inexplicable to me that a 26-year-old three-and-D wing coming off a career-high 60.3% true shooting percentage would see a nearly-2% reduction in usage the following season, to say nothing of how important such players have become to successful NBA teams in today’s league.

It’s for these reasons that I think Snell is a darkhorse candidate to end up on the Most Improved Player ballot next summer. Budenholzer isn’t going to overlook him the way Kidd and Prunty did. The Bucks are fairly loaded on players who can create their own shot; what they don’t have much of are players who can make an impact without the ball in their hands, and that’s what Snell can provide. He’s shot 40% from behind the arc each of the last two seasons and can defend both wing positions, and will prove to be an important student in Hawks University this season for the Bucks.


Second Opinion

Andrew Doxy, CelticsBlog (@ParaDoxy11)

By drawing the Boston Celtics in the first round, one might argue that the Milwaukee Bucks were missing a lot of luck in last year’s playoffs. Had they played the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round instead, you could argue they might have advanced — although they lost to those same 76ers, 130-95, in what felt like a bummer of a regular season finale.

That said, the Bucks did have a very good showing in the first round of the playoffs. they won all of their home games, and although they inevitably fell due to their lack of success on the road, they proved to be much more of a challenge for the hobbled Celtics than the 76ers ultimately would. The reasons behind this? Giannis Antetokounmpo is a monster, and Khris Middleton forgot how to miss all series long.

As the 2018-19 season comes into focus, the Bucks have much better prospects than last year, when they were a 7th seed entering the playoffs hoping to get the edge on an injury-rattled team. With new head coach Mike Budenholzer at the helm, Milwaukee fans have reason to be optimistic. The Bucks have a lot of talent on the roster, even after losing Jabari Parker to the Chicago Bulls. The key for them this year will be maximizing both Antetokounmpo, who has a case as the best player in the Eastern Conference at the moment, as well as Khris Middleton. If they can feature spacing and creation around those two players, the Bucks will have a much stronger regular season and potentially a deeper playoff run.

The Bucks ran into lack of offense at many times both last season and in the playoffs. The additions of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova as well as better coaching to manage schemes and personnel should give Antetokoumpo and Middleton a lot more help than they’ve received in the past. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Bucks push for at least the second round, and if they’re lucky, perhaps the Eastern Conference Finals. The coaching change along with more shooting and consistency on the roster will be a big boost to an already talented team this year.


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