- The Bucks may have gotten lucky by stealing Eric Bledsoe from the Suns, but he doesn't fix all of their problems. Here are five questions to consider about Milwaukee's future.
Over the first three weeks of the season, basketball fans have learned two things about the Milwaukee Bucks. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is even better and more dominant than anyone could've imagined a few years ago. He's trending closer to generational talents like Shaq and LeBron rather than small-market All-Stars like Paul George and Jimmy Butler. He's only 22 years old and on Tuesday against the Cavs, he put up 40 points on 16 of 21 shooting, along with nine rebounds and four blocks. This is a big deal.
The second lesson concerned the team around him. The Milwaukee roster hasn't made sense for a several years, and it look disjointed again as this season began. There's a glut of underwhelming big men up front, not enough depth on the wing, and no scoring to pace the second unit whenever Giannis sits.
This was going to be the riddle for Kidd, the Bucks, and anyone else who's gotten invested in this team. After clunky losses to Detroit and Charlotte last week, there were coaching decisions to nitpick—it's early, but the defensive scheme is currently bottom five in the league—but some of most frustrating problems were structural, not strategic. The Bucks have invested resources in the wrong places, and it looked like the only option was to proceed with an ill-fitting roster and hope that Giannis could be incredible enough to save them.
But now there's more hope. Greg Monroe is on his way to Phoenix, and as of Tuesday morning Eric Bledsoe is and on his way to help on the perimeter. I will admit I'm not entirely unbiased here—in 2014 I was openly lobbying for a Brandon Knight–Bledsoe swap—but Bledsoe is a theoretical perfect fit next to Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton. He gives Milwaukee yet another two-way weapon on the wing who's capable of guarding multiple positions, and his offensive versatility at the guard spot will give Kidd more tools to work with around his MVP candidate. To begin with, there's a Bledsoe/Brogdon/Snell/Middleton/Giannis lineup that could turn into a total nightmare for the East.
Bledsoe's not a perfect player. His shooting will need to improve, his defense will have to be better than it was the past few years in Phoenix, and he'll need to stay healthy. But provided he's available, at worst, he's good enough to help spacing issues and give the rest of the rotation some much-needed room to breathe. If he can adapt to a role as an off–ball scorer who can also carry the offense while Giannis rests, he'll make the Bucks truly dangerous.
Either way, what makes the deal a win for Milwaukee is the limited risk. Monroe has been hurt, he wasn't coming back next summer, and he wasn't an ideal fit next to Giannis—that's a small sacrifice compared to parting with anyone from the team's young core. The first–round pick Milwaukee gave up is heavily protected should things go wrong—it may not convey until 2020 or 2021—and even if it conveys in June, it's a worthy price to pay to see what the Bucks can do this season. To that end, Bledsoe obviously gives the current roster a better chance to succeed. But I think his greatest value will be adding enough roster coherence to give the Bucks management a more accurate look at what exactly they have, and what they need going forward.
With that in mind, here are five questions to consider about the new Bucks:
1. Is Thon Maker actually good? The Bucks shocked the league when they took Maker No. 10 in the 2016 draft—I myself was extremely skeptical—but he spent the second half of last year making Milwaukee look smart. Regardless of his real age, Maker has the length and range to make an ideal theoretical pairing with Giannis up front. Likewise, other popular candidates for the Bucks at 10 were Wade Baldwin, Deyonta Davis, and Denzel Valentine, none of whom are lighting the world on fire. So Thon was clearly a worthy gamble on Milwaukee's part. But is he actually good? So far this season he's been easily pushed around playing a little less than 20 minutes per game (2.4 RPG), and his jumper hasn't been quite as dangerous as you'd hope. John Henson has emerged to play pretty well for Milwaukee, so that helps for now, but Monroe's absence will create a season-long opportunity for the Bucks to see what Maker can do.
2. Can DJ Wilson help? Wilson was one of my favorite prospects in last year's draft, and the thinning of the frontcourt may give him an opportunity to play. Coming into the draft the thinking was that he could score on the perimeter, guard multiple positions up front, and cover the pick-and-roll. Again, great fit next to Giannis. Wilson hasn't played for most of the year, but let's see if that changes. The Bucks don't necessarily need both Maker and Wilson to succeed as contender-level rotation pieces, but because of the looming expenses elsewhere on the roster, it's hard to imagine Milwaukee thriving without at least one of them emerging as a dependable option for the next few years.
3. What will they do with Jabari? This is the big one. This should probably be its own column. In short: Parker's defense has been mediocre for most of his career, he needs touches to thrive on offense, and he could command a pretty large contract when he hits restricted free agency this summer. The Bucks will be closer to luxury tax territory with Bledsoe's $15 million contract on the books for the 2018–19, and one possibly–crazy path to salary relief and future flexibility would be attaching Jabari to a regrettable deal on the books and finding a trade partner. If he stays, Parker's game isn't a horrible fit next to Giannis, but it's not seamless, either. Assuming he makes a full recovery from last year's knee injury, he could work well as a iso closer in crunch time—one blind-spot to Antetokounmpo's game—and he'd help shore up the offense when Giannis sits. But is that enough to bet on him going forward? Jabari can clearly help, but as he approaches restricted free agency and the Bucks approach the luxury tax, it will be really interesting to see whether the team decides to invest its resources in him as the co-star of the future.
4. Is Jason Kidd the right coach for this team? It may be unfair to call Kidd a bad coach, but we still don't have much evidence that he's actually good. The defensive issues have gotten worse over the past few seasons, and last year's Bucks season was saved thanks to supernatural efforts from Giannis and the return of Khris Middleton. Even then, Milwaukee only won 43 games. It's just not clear that Kidd makes his teams better. What you can say for Kidd is that he was working with a disjointed roster, designed by a front office that (reasonably) had no idea what Giannis would become. Now Kidd has a rotation that will make more sense. Let's see what he can do.
5. Will Giannis stay? This is the subtext to every Bucks conversation around the NBA, so we should probably include it here. Antetokounmpo signed a four-year, $100 million contract extension in 2016. He actually gave money back to the team, but by declining to sign the five-year designated player max—again, to help the team—he gave himself a path to hitting free agency one year earlier than expected. Now, half the NBA is watching Milwaukee and wondering whether Giannis will get restless. He'll be 26 years old in 2021, he might be the best player in the NBA by then, and he will be a free agent. Like the past few weeks of Giannis production, this is a big deal.
The Bledsoe deal was a smart gamble for a variety of reasons, but that last paragraph is why it actually happened.
The Bucks realize what they have in Giannis, and they're not going to waste his prime or be shy about upgrading while he's in Milwaukee. Even if Bledsoe's arrival simply removes excuses and heightens the focus on whether Kidd is the right coach for the next few years, that's progress, too.
Of course, it's fair to see this move next to the Giannis free agency timeline and think back to shortsighted upgrades that pushed LeBron out of Clevleland in 2009—remember Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison?—or failed, expensive experiments around Anthony Davis that may push him out of New Orleans. There's reason to worry anytime a small market team gets aggressive building around its generational star. If Bledsoe comes to Milwaukee, costs them Jabari Parker, and shoots 30% from three on a No. 6 seed the next two years, those Bucks fears will be validated. But there's a flipside to Cavs/Pelicans paranoia that fits just as well.
Coming into this season, the Bucks were already living in the timeline of those failed Cleveland teams. Monroe was their Antawn Jamison experiment, Delly was their Larry Hughes contract, and there was very little flexibility going forward. They looked years away from finding a roster that might be able to optimize Giannis. Then Eric Bledsoe became available, somehow Greg Monroe was enough to get him, and suddenly there's an outline of a fun, dangerous team surrounding the best young player in basketball. Bledsoe won't solve everything, and there are still three or four difficult decisions waiting in the next year or two, but this looks like a start.
Even with a superstar on the roster, teams have to get lucky to build a sustainable title contender. Maybe the Bucks just did.