The Milwaukee Bucks took a disappointing step back last season. After a huge leap from 15 wins to 41, Milwaukee won only 33 games in Jason Kidd’s second year at the helm, missing the playoffs in 2016 after a spirited first-round matchup with the Bulls the year before.
In the aftermath of subpar season, the Bucks are still moving full-steam ahead with their current core, signing lanky forward Giannis Antetokounmpo to a four-year, $100 million extension Monday. Antetokounmpo and shooting guard Khris Middleton have now both signed big deals to remain in Milwaukee, staying on a roster that also features up-and-comers Jabari Parker and John Henson.
The Antetokounmpo deal makes sense, of course. Although the Greek Freak is still more potential player than fully realized star at this point, the 21-year-old has steadily improved his game in each of his three NBA seasons. Antetokounmpo still struggles with a wildly inconsistent outside shot, but he can seemingly run the length of the court in a few leaps, and perimeter problems didn’t stop him from shooting better than 50% last season.
Antetokounmpo is certainly still figuring out his game, but if he finds any rhythm from the outside and cuts back on his turnovers,his athleticism will allow him to dominate on offense.
With Antetokounmpo’s deal kicking in next season, however, the Bucks will need to see serious offensive strides from the rest of their roster if they hope to compete in the East. Despite all the talent possessed by Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton, the Bucks have yet to put together a coherent attack. Milwaukee has finished 26th in offensive efficiency in back-to-back seasons, per Basketball Reference.
Middleton is the only starter who can shoot the ball, with Parker and whoever the team trots out at point guard also struggling from distance. The addition of Greg Monroe was supposed to help last season, and it did to a small degree, as the Bucks scored 1.6 more points per possession in 2015–16 than the season before. But their defense slipped a whopping 6.5 points per possession, dropping Milwaukee from fourth in defensive efficiency to 23rd.
Ultimately, it’s the defense that will need to return to form if the Bucks hope to make it back into the postseason. Milwaukee seemed to have something going when it stockpiled long-armed perimeter players for a swarming defensive attack two seasons ago. But the alchemy of that fourth-ranked defense was thrown off last year, more likely than not by Monroe, who is much more offensively inclined than he is focused in the other areas of his game.
If the defense doesn’t rebound this year? That’s when Milwaukee may need to figure out some creative ways to juice the roster. Middleton’s name popped up in trade rumors this off-season—often attached to Monroe—but it’s hard to imagine the Bucks trading away their best two-way player. Monroe was seen as a coup when he chose the Bucks in free agency, but he failed to make a huge impact last season in terms of wins. Monroe could be moved—though his player option for next season complicates things.
The Bucks added some solid if not spectacular pieces in the off-season. Mirza Teletovic should help the shooting struggles, and so can Matthew Dellavedova, who will need to prove he can perform without the LeBron effect.
There is quite a large vacuum in the Eastern Conference after the Cavaliers. The Raptors will be near the top of the conference, as will the Hawks and Celtics. But after those four, any team in the East could force its way into pseudo-contention.
That’s what made Milwaukee’s campaign last year so frustrating. Instead of making a leap into the top-half of a weak conference, the Bucks stumbled into the lottery (where they made a questionable pick of Thon Maker that doesn’t need to be re-hashed right now.)
With Antetokounmpo in tow, the Bucks have made it clear how highly they value their current core. What remains to be seen is if that core truly has what it takes to turn into a perennial playoff contender.