How do you capitalize on a generational talent? The franchise that gets to ask such a question is fortunate, but the wrong answer could have dire consequences. Cleveland’s failure to provide an adequate answer forced LeBron James out the door in 2010, and New Orleans could face a similar fate if it can’t correctly build around Anthony Davis. And as Giannis Antetokounmpo now goes full steam ahead to a potential MVP campaign, the Bucks’ brass must ask an important question: have we surrounded Giannis with the right personnel to succeed?
The answer last season was murky. Milwaukee still made the playoffs at 44–38, grinding their way to the No. 7 seed in the East. The Bucks were a dragging group offensively, walking their way to the league’s No. 20 pace rating. Rather than utilize the league’s most lethal transition force, Milwaukee seemed content to slow the tempo and work into a slate of stagnant pick-and-rolls and mid-range jumpers.
Last year’s Bucks offense looked like a relic from another era. They ranked No. 25 in the league in three-point frequency, one of four teams to make under nine threes per game. Milwaukee made the ninth-most mid-range shots in the league, fitting well within the typical shot profiles of Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe. While Jason Kidd aimed to revolutionize the Bucks defense (more on that later), his offensive strategy mirrored the league during his playing days.
That hasn’t been the case through the season’s first two games, a 113–112 Bucks victory over the Hornets on opening night followed by a 118–101 thrashing of the Pacers on Oct. 19. Milwaukee ranks No. 4 in the league this year in made threes per game, sitting in the same spot in percentage of points via the three. The Bucks have picked up the pace, too. Milwaukee is No. 10 in percentage of points off the fast break, letting Antetokounmpo dash down the court at will.
Last season’s combined headache of Kidd and interim head coach Joe Prunty has been replaced by former Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, the engine behind Atlanta’s 60-win campaign in 2014–15. Coach Bud has brought out the best in Antetokounmpo thus far, and the entirety of Milwaukee’s attack, too. The Bucks’ offense has hummed with purpose to start the season, zipping around the perimeter en route to the league’s No. 6 assist rate. The Bucks were a notch below league average in 2017–18.
Milwaukee’s roster is better tailored to the Greek Freak this season. Parker is an adept scorer but a needy one who is unable to move the needle without the ball in his hands. His departure to Chicago won’t hurt as much as one would expect. The additions of Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez provide greater spacing on the perimeter than Thon Maker and John Henson (who, in fairness, continues to stretch his game out to the three-point line), giving Milwaukee an impressive five-out lineup around Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer has also increased Antetokounmpo’s post-up rate. He’s averaged 4.5 post-up points per game this year, up from 2.8 last year. With a cleared interior, Giannis has feasted.
We mentioned Kidd’s defensive strategy above, but it’s understated just how ill-fated his manic, chase-the-ball mentality was. The Bucks swarmed ball-handlers to an alarming degree in Kidd’s final season, blitzing nearly every pick-and-roll while scrambling to open shooters on defensive rotations. Kidd hypothesized that the Bucks’ length would overwhelm defenses and generate hoards of turnovers. In that respect, he was right. Milwaukee recorded the second-highest steal rate and fifth-best block rate in 2017–18, but also sat at No. 21 in defensive field goal percentage. Before Kidd’s firing, Milwaukee ranked No. 26 in points allowed per 100 possessions. Kidd’s strategy wouldn’t be out of place in the NCAA, but in the NBA, opposing teams punished Milwaukee, whipping the ball around for a slew of open looks.
Budenholzer has been less aggressive and more reliant on switching thus far, and the results should see an uptick in defensive efficiency. The length of Antetokounmpo and Maker should carry Milwaukee toward a league-average mark, and Khris Middleton is a quality defender, too. After ranking dead last in field goals allowed inside of five feet last year—probably caused by blown assignments as Milwaukee chased opposing players like a dog after a tennis ball—the Bucks rank fourth-best this season. What was previously a giant version of defensive whack-a-mole has morphed into a reliable unit.
Antetokounmpo’s MVP buzz began before the season, and don’t expect it to end anytime soon. He tallied 33 rebounds in the season’s first two contests, adding 25 points and 26 in a pair of victories. Giannis has yet to hit a three this season in 10 attempts, but expect that to end soon. Budenholzer is coaxing Antetokounmpo to embrace the three-point line, and if he can show any improvement from his 30.7% mark last year, the league should be put officially on notice. Giannis’s offensive development should mirror a young LeBron, adding a tailored post game and respectable jumper alongside dominant sprints to the tin.
Milwaukee held the same trajectory over the past two seasons, with the dangerous-yet-limited team unsure of how to form around Antetokounmpo. But with the clunky offensive sets and strange defensive experiments now in the rearview mirror, Milwaukee’s ceiling has been lifted. The right coach and right roster are in place. Now it’s time for Giannis to propel Milwaukee into the East’s elite.