- Although Giannis Antetokounmpo assures the Bucks' floor can only sink so low, preseason expectations and a Eric Bledsoe trade suggest that this team should be better than its current iteration.
The Milwaukee Bucks play at dissonance. For stretches at a time—or entire quarters, in the case of Thursday night's game against the short-handed Warriors—they operate with complete command. Their controversial defense will function exactly as intended, blotting out passing lanes and denying opponents any meaningful rhythm. Every turnover becomes a feeding frenzy for Giannis Antetokounmpo and his eager, athletic teammates. In between fast breaks, Milwaukee will buzz through possessions with a clarity of purpose; every action is meaningful, and every player involved put to effective use.
Then, without warning, the tone shifts. Milwaukee's offense reveals itself to be disparate parts. The precision of the defense wavers, rendering a once-stifling front as frantic and untenable. It is genuinely shocking how quickly the Bucks' best efforts unravel. Entire runs are surrendered in just a few minutes of disjointed play.
The only true hallmark of Bucks basketball this season is that both of these extremes will go unmitigated and unreconciled. Firing Jason Kidd relieved the team from certain inexplicable elements, yet Milwaukee has looked no more trustworthy in the two months since. That's not an indictment of Joe Prunty, who succeeded Kidd—only a testament to how deeply unreliable this team has become.
Antetokounmpo assures that the floor can only drop so low, which serves to explain a great many of Milwaukee's wins. Even an aimless system cannot deny him; Antetokounmpo, by force of will and wingspan, has dragged the Bucks into the top 10 in half-court offensive efficiency, per Synergy Sports. His impact alone redeems enough otherwise empty possessions to keep the team solvent. What's beyond him is the defense, which in its over-rotation has effectively squandered Antetokounmpo's extraordinary individual efforts.
Milwaukee's defensive scheme had its day. It worked for a time and still does against the right opponent, at least until that opponent has enough exposure to game out the ball movement necessary to beat the pressure. The ambitions of that kind of system are commendable. Yet when even this collection of defensive talent can't execute its principles to anything beyond mediocrity, it becomes time to revisit the premise.
In fairness to the defense, the Bucks are due for some broader soul-searching. This is a team that has many of the most important pieces accounted for but little of the connective tissue. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe are each productive, but almost independently so. The ball too often stalls as it moves from one side of the floor to the other, denying the players involved any kind of forward momentum. Actions in Milwaukee don't build. They run like a to-do list.
The talent in Milwaukee got them into the playoff mix, but that rigidity—among other factors—has helped keep them there. Think of it this way: How many Bucks consistently make the players around them better? Middleton and Bledsoe, both effective playmakers by ability, are both guilty of shot hunting at the expense of the offense. Jabari Parker is still finding his own rhythm. Many of Milwaukee's role players are too limited to expand any teammate's horizons. Even Antetokounmpo can sometimes seem disconnected from any broader process.
No team in the league is in greater need of a cultural reset, to borrow a phrase from Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Milwaukee’s best players have thus far been unnatural collaborators, which begs for some address in the way their talents intersect. Give them defensive principles that actually serve their length and instincts. Instill an ethic of movement beyond the churn of flat dribble hand-offs. Any leap forward is contingent on the players involved changing their habits, but that change is made easier when fit to a communicated alternative.
So much of the visible frustration between Bucks betrays a lack of understanding in how each individual piece is supposed to fit. The work of Milwaukee's next coach will begin there. Antetokounmpo is still figuring out how to balance his creation with the tendencies of his teammates. Bledsoe and Parker need to find avenues to score on this team that don’t necessarily begin with the ball in their hands. Middleton could pick his spots more effectively, an issue that might resolve itself in a revamped offense. Virtually every player involved needs to make better, more disciplined decisions.
If anything, Milwaukee needs a way to win in those moments when everything doesn't go according to plan. Plays will be scouted and schemes disrupted. The best teams succeed in spite of this by relying less on system than philosophy. Through that lens, players share a vision of the game that goes beyond what the team runs. They're unified in concept.
The Bucks have yet to find a lens that suits them. Instead, they play by kaleidoscope. They see vague shapes in brilliant color. They watch a segmented whole fold in on itself. And, through all its contortions, they see a promise of an ordered pattern on the other side.