Can this be the year that Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks meet their potential?
The Milwaukee Bucks have not made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. The 2001 team, led by Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell, was one game away from the NBA Finals, losing to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Last year, after finishing seventh in the East in what can only be described as a disappointing season, a first-round exit at the hands of a depleted Boston Celtics team was a fitting end.
The story has been the same for the past four years, in fact: Milwaukee sneaks into the playoffs and exits quietly in the first round. But the Bucks are primed to make it deep into the playoffs this year, armed with one of the NBA’s brightest young stars, a strong supporting cast, and a new head coach.
The Young Star
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The Bucks are forward Giannis Antetokounmpo’s team, and they will only go as far as he takes them.
The “Greek Freak” is one of the NBA’s premier young players and has constantly improved on his game in his first five seasons. After winning the Most Improved Player Award for the 2016-17 season, Antetokounmpo played even better last year. He averaged 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game with a 27.3 player efficiency rating. He finished sixth overall in MVP voting. Even without a jump shot, he is still becoming an incredibly dangerous scoring option (last year, he shot 1262 two-point shots, third most in the NBA, and only 140 three-point shots).
The biggest weapon Antetokounmpo possesses is his freak size and length. When he was drafted 15th overall by the Bucks in 2013, he stood at 6’9 and weighed 196 pounds. Now he is 6’11 with a 7’3 wingspan and weighs at least 220 pounds (many recent social media posts suggest that he spent the offseason bulking up). He creates matchup problems on both ends of the court and, at times, makes other players look like children—for example, when he jumped over Tim Hardaway Jr. to catch a lob from Khris Middleton in Madison Square Garden.
If Antetokounmpo keeps improving, there is no stopping him, and he can carry this team to the top of the NBA.
The Supporting Cast
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Last year, the world saw that one-man teams could not defeat the modern superteam when the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers were swept in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors. Luckily for Milwaukee, they are not a one-man team, despite how great Antetokounmpo is.
Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon make up the Bucks starting backcourt. Bledsoe will be entering his first full season in Milwaukee after being traded from the Phoenix Suns last November. He is a prolific scorer who has averaged 18.8 points per game over his last five seasons and can help carry the load offensively. Brogdon was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year but had last season cut short by injury. When healthy, he adds a quality three-point threat to the Milwaukee’s first unit, shooting 39.5% from beyond the arc in his 129 career games.
Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez sandwich Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt. Middleton is coming off a career year in which he tallied 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He also posted career highs in minutes (2982), PER (17.4), true shooting percentage (57.7%), and win shares (6.9).
Brook Lopez was signed in free agency after spending one year with the Los Angeles Lakers. Lopez tied his career low in points last year, but expect him to play a much bigger role in Milwaukee—he should be able to produce 15 points and seven rebounds a night.
Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Thon Maker, Pat Connaughton, and rookie Donte DiVincenzo round out the role players. Milwaukee’s bench was one of the worst in the NBA last year, posting a -7.5 efficiency recap difference, but the addition of scorers like Ilyasova and Connaughton will help alleviate some pressure off of the starters.
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The Jason Kidd reign in Milwaukee is over, and it is time for the Mike Budenholzer era of Bucks basketball to begin.
Budenholzer was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks for the past five seasons, winning the Coach of the Year Award in 2015 after leading the Hawks to the one-seed in the East. Prior to his tenure in Atlanta, he spent 18 years in the San Antonio Spurs organization, learning under Greg Popovich. He boasts a 213-197 career record as a head coach and is sure to instill his winning ways in Milwaukee.
During the hiring process, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton sat down and talked with Budenholzer. The rather unusual move signifies that Budenholzer wants to have a close relationship with his star players and that the organization wants its key players in the loop.
With LeBron playing out in Los Angeles now, the East is up for grabs. The Boston Celtics are the favorites after making it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined. But Philadelphia, Indiana, and Milwaukee are all young teams with nowhere to go but up, and Toronto can remain a top seed in the East if Kawhi Leonard can come back to full strength.
The Bucks have the potential to challenge the Celtics for the number one seed. While they are lacking a bit defensively, the sheer offensive star power of their starting five could very well carry them into June. Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Bledsoe are all in or near their primes and ready to take that next step into being the core unit of an elite team. Budenholzer is the perfect coach to lead this team deep into the playoffs.
All the pieces are there for the Bucks. Now we just wait and watch what the Greek Freak will do next.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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