Two years as the No. 1 seed in the East, two disappointing playoff exits that come before the Finals.
The Bucks were eliminated from the postseason Tuesday, losing in five games in the second round to the five-seed Heat. Milwaukee never quite reached the heights it was at during the regular season during its time in Orlando, and its playoff exit came with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined for his team’s final game due to a sprained ankle. With the Bucks failing to make the Finals for the second straight year—and Giannis set to be a free agent in 2021—there’s already rampant speculation about what the future holds for Milwaukee. (Antetokounmpo told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday he wouldn’t request a trade this summer, without giving word on if he’ll sign a supermax extension to remain with his current club beyond next season.) As the Bucks prepare for an uncertain few months from a team and league perspective (what is next season even going to look like?), this offseason should serve as a critical re-evaluation of the current situation.
Will Mike Budenholzer Be Brought Back?
Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit. Budenholzer, Milwaukee’s head coach, deserves credit for bringing a spacier attack to the Bucks last season and helping push Giannis’s game to new heights. Dating back to his time in Atlanta, Budenholzer has a knack for extracting the most out of his teams during the regular season. But the second round was a poor showing for the coach. He was outclassed by Erik Spoelstra, whose disciplined defense executed a perfect game plan to slow down Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks couldn’t adjust fast enough before the series got out of hand. Beyond the X’s and O’s, Budenholzer’s rigid rotations also meant Giannis and All-Star running mate Khris Middleton played confusingly fewer minutes than most other players of their caliber in a playoff series—particularly for one in which they were playing catch-up. All of this is to say, it’s very likely Budenholzer could be the first fall guy for Milwaukee’s disappointing exit.
And yet, hiring a new coach doesn’t immediately fix the Bucks’ problems. Can they find someone Giannis will trust in a possible contract year? Who are the creative minds currently on the market? Can Milwaukee attract a great coach if Giannis isn’t signed long term? I would be surprised if Budenholzer is brought back after how Milwaukee’s season ended. He’s still a very accomplished coach, and replacing him wouldn’t be a simple task.
What Can Giannis Add to His Game?
In what ended up being the last few moments of what will likely be another MVP season, Giannis was huffing and puffing as he tried to stave off elimination in Game 4. Before hurting his ankle, the Greek Freak was having his most effective game of the series, scoring 19 points in only 11 minutes. It sounds unfair to ask Antetokounmpo—the Defensive Player of the Year!—to do even more. Still, the loss to Miami revealed how even a player of his stature can be slowed down in the postseason.
Giannis doesn’t need to shoot threes, though a reliable elbow jumper would go a long way in stopping defenses from walling him out of the paint. Antetokounmpo will never be Kevin Durant from the midrange, but a consistent foul-line jumper will force defenses to play closer to him as opposed to sitting in the restricted area—which would be a win for Antetokounmpo. Bam Adebayo hit short jumpers over Brook Lopez frequently in the second round. He’s not a three-point shooter in the slightest. Giannis adding even that little bit of range to his repertoire could be a game-changer.
It’s also fair to ask if Giannis is best utilized in his current role. Obviously the Bucks had an incredible offense during the regular season, and even scored fairly well against Miami. Milwaukee doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. On a more philosophical level however, should Giannis be playing closer to a wingish, perimeter player as he is now? Or should he be more of a screener, on-the-block, center-ish type player? There are arguments for both. And maybe he doesn’t even need to pick one. Whatever he decides, Giannis adding more elements to his game that aren’t predicated on shooting threes could help unlock even another level of effectiveness.
How Does Milwaukee Improve the Rest of the Roster?
Another issue for the Bucks in the second round was, outside of Giannis and Middleton, the limitations of the rest of the roster. Milwaukee generates great drive-and-kick looks because of Antetokounmpo, but he’s generally kicking out to a cast of slightly below-average three-point shooters. The Bucks lack a natural point guard and/or playmaker who can take advantage of defenses that load up on Giannis. And the supporting cast largely lacks the creativity of other contenders, who generally have a role player or two who can heat up and carry the offense for a brief stretch.
Identifying the issues is one thing, figuring out how to solve them is another. GM Jon Horst will probably regret trading Malcolm Brogdon last summer for the rest of his tenure. Not only is Brogdon a better player than current point guard Eric Bledsoe—who struggled for his third straight postseason—he also could have become a valuable trade chip once signed. As presently constructed, Milwaukee is bereft of assets to improve the team. The Bucks have no cap space. Players like George Hill and Brook Lopez, while solid, may not be as valuable to other teams on the trade market. Because of a small guarantee in 2022, Bledsoe really only has two seasons left on his contract, and even then it could be hard to move.
So what do the Bucks do? Hope they can find shooting in free agency through cap exceptions and veteran minimums. With a force like Giannis generating so many open looks, Milwaukee needs to be top-10 in three-point percentage next year. And moving Middleton has to be considered. He’s the only player on the team who could fetch a big return. The Bucks should not feel compelled to move him. On the other hand, if he can fetch a star like Chris Paul, or multiple valuable pieces, a Middleton trade should at least be on the table. Moving on from him would be tough, particularly after how he grew into an All-Star alongside Giannis. Ultimately, the Bucks’ season was a letdown for the second straight year. After consecutive frustrating finishes, trying to run the same cast back for the third time in a row would be even more disappointing.