The Milwaukee Bucks made their first offseason move when they hired Mike Budenholzer to be the head coach. Their other moves leave the Bucks potentially very good, even scary good.
Even as Giannis Antetokounmpo has morphed from intriguing prospect to rising star to MVP candidate, there has always been something missing with the Milwaukee Bucks the last few seasons.
Injuries to Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton helped derail things, the Greg Monroe experience was a bust as the league changed rapidly away from back-in-and-clog-the-paint-all-day bigs and the Bucks never seemed quite able to figure out how to shoot 3s or defend against them.
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Milwaukee management pulled the plug on Jason Kidd as head coach in January after the underachieving Bucks were just 23-22 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
For all that Kidd did to help Antetokounmpo turn into a younger, taller knockoff of LeBron James — minus the jump shot — the Bucks were just 139-152 in his 3½ seasons and never got out of the first round.
Milwaukee played better under interim head coach Joe Prunty, finishing 21-16 and securing the seventh seed in the East, and pushed the battered Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series in which the home team was 7-0.
Antetokounmpo and Middleton were terrific in the series, with Middleton averaging 24.7 points per game while knocking down a sizzling 61 percent from 3-point range (25-for-41).
But Antetokounmpo struggled in Game 7 and other than Middleton, the rest of the group was 4-for-18 from long range in a 112-96 thumping that ended their season.
Still, the Bucks have made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2003 and 2004 and have finished better than .500 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1999-2000 and 2000-01 (the latter season being the last time Milwaukee survived the first round).
Hiring Mike Budenholzer, whose contract with the Atlanta Hawks had expired, might be the move that pushes this club to the next level.
Budenholzer was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs for 17 seasons before getting the Hawks job in 2013 and took a club devoid of superstars to 60 wins in his second season to earn Coach of the Year honors.
The Hawks imploded their roster before last season and were just 24-58, but Budenholzer still managed a 213-197 record in his five years in Atlanta and took the club to its first conference finals appearance since the NBA adopted the conference format in 1970-71.
The Bucks had three major problems last season: Rebounding, 3-point shooting and defending the 3.
The absence of Kidd’s incessant trapping defensive system should help the Bucks against the 3, as they were victimized often by skip passes to wide-open shooters.
Rebounding might be a tougher fix. The Bucks were dead-last in the NBA on the boards last season, averaging only 39.8 boards per game — the only team in the league to average less than 40.
John Henson was the primary starter in the middle last season and averaged 6.8 boards in 25.9 minutes per game. Young Thon Maker‘s development in this area may be the key to the team getting better — he averaged only 3.0 rebounds in 16.7 minutes a night.
Antetokounmpo rebounds well — averaging 10 per game — but other players must step up. Neither Lopez nor Ilyasova are renowned for their work on the boards, so the improvement must be internal and/or systemic.
A new system, a full season with Eric Bledsoe at the point and a return to health from third guard Malcolm Brogdon will have to help the Bucks, who could be poised to take that long-anticipated step into the upper level of the Eastern Conference.
44-38, seventh in Eastern Conference
Lost to Boston in first round, 4-3
106.5 PPG (15th), 106.8 OPPG (16th)
109.8 Offensive Rating (9th), 110.1 Defensive Rating (19th)
Team Leaders (minimum 42 games/82 made 3-pointers)
Scoring: Giannis Antetokounmpo 26.9 PPG
Rebounding: Giannis Antetokounmpo 10.0 RPG
Assists: Eric Bledsoe 5.1 APG
Steals: Eric Bledsoe 2.0 SPG
Blocks: John Henson 1.4 BPG
3-point shooting: Tony Snell 40.3 pct.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (All-NBA 2nd Team, All-Star Game)
Giannis Antetokounmpo, F
Eric Bledsoe, G
Malcolm Brogdon, G
Sterling Brown, G
Pat Connaughton, G
Matthew Dellavedova, G
Donte DiVincenzo, G
Trevon Duval, G
John Henson, C-F
Ersan Ilyasova, F
Robert Johnson, G
Brook Lopez, C
Thon Maker, F-C
Khris Middleton, F-G
Jaylen Morris, G (two-way)
Ike Nwamu, G-F
Tony Snell, G-F
D.J. Wilson, F
James Young, G
Tyler Zeller, F-C
Donte DiVincenzo (draft), Ersan Ilyasova (free agent, Philadelphia, July 16), Brook Lopez (free agent, L.A. Lakers, July 17), Trevon Duval (undrafted free agent, two-way, July 24), Jaylen Morris (street free agent, two-way, July 26), Pat Connaughton (free agent, Portland, Aug. 1), James Young (street free agent, Sept. 17), Robert Johnson (undrafted free agent, Sept. 17), Ike Nwamu (undrafted free agent, Sept. 18).
Shabazz Muhammad (free agent), Xavier Munford (free agent), Marshall Plumlee (free agent), Jason Terry (free agent), Jabari Parker (free agent, Chicago, July 14), Brandon Jennings (waived, Aug. 1).
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Against the Brooklyn Nets
Last season (Home team in CAPS)
Jan. 26: BUCKS 116, Nets 91
Feb. 4: Bucks 109, NETS 94
April 5: Nets 119, BUCKS 111
Dec. 29: at Milwaukee
Feb. 4: at Brooklyn
April 1: at Brooklyn
April 6: at Milwaukee
Projected depth chart
C: John Henson, Brook Lopez, Tyler Zeller, Thon Maker
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ersan Ilyasova
SF: Khris Middleton, Pat Connaughton
SG: Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Sterling Brown, James Young
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Matthew Dellavedova
The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the true superstars in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo and management is desperate to surround him with championship-level talent as the clock ticks on the four-year extension he signed n September 2016.
Antetokounmpo has three seasons remaining on that deal and the Bucks should see some improvement with Mike Budenholzer on board and some additional shooting.
But rebounding will continue to be this team’s Achilles heel. Milwaukee continues to surrender too many second-chance opportunities at the defensive end and doesn’t make them up at the other end of the court.
Milwaukee will be better in 2018-19 than it was in 2017-18 … just not as much as some might want to believe.
Projected Record: 46-36