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Milwaukee Bucks Season Preview: In Coach Bud, We Trust

With a new coach in Mike Budenholzer and a few grizzled veterans adorning the squad, the Milwaukee Bucks are finally set to usher in a new era after years of the Jason Kidd doldrums. LeBron James’ departure from the East has Milwaukee eyeing a place in the upper echelons of the conference. If they reach that point, it’ll be upon the broad shoulders of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who looks poised for a season that should place him in MVP contention. Expectations are at their highest since the superstar’s arrival in Cream City, but will the Bucks fall short as per usual, or finally give fans a long-awaited berth in the second round of the Playoffs. Let’s see what’s in store for the franchise this year.

Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks

Last Year’s Record: 44-38

Key Losses: Jabari Parker, Jason Terry (debatable…)

Key Additions: Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Mike Budenholzer

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

As espoused repeatedly during Bucks media day, Mike Budenholzer was the big winner of this year’s offseason in Milwaukee. Not only did he orchestrate his departure from a lengthy rebuilding project in Atlanta, but he snagged what was arguably the most attractive job on the market. He also brought along his entire staff, long renowned for their developmental acumen. His commitment to overhauling Milwaukee’s staid offensive schemes with an influx of 3-pointers and movement should provide ample spacing for Milwaukee’s stars to penetrate the paint. From top-down, the franchise is resting their hopes on the fact Budenholzer is the man to lead them past their long-standing playoff woes.

On the court, Milwaukee tagged in two tried and trued veterans. The longtime Buck, Ersan Ilyasova, looks to add forward depth and potentially some smallball capability at the five. His experience with Budenholzer in Atlanta assuredly played a…generous…role in his signing and $14M financial commitment from Milwaukee over the next two years. Brook Lopez, on a quite team-friendly $3.4M deal, should give Milwaukee a reliable big man for the first time since Andrew Bogut. His newfound 3-point shot should provide spacing offensively, although he remains a bit deficient defensively protecting the rim. In the draft, Milwaukee selected the jack-of-all-trades guard out of Villanova, Donte DiVincenzo, who they hope can replicate his Championship game magic consistently in the big leagues. Pat Connaughton brings hops and depth to the wing position after a consistently decent season in Portland.

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Despite the disturbingly unimaginative schemes at work under Jason Kidd, Milwaukee still managed the 7th best offensive rating last season, per NBA.com. That’s largely built upon the individual talents at play for Milwaukee’s offense, namely Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Giannis, of course, is the fulcrum, with his rubberman length and ability to penetrate despite the lack of a consistent jump shot. They’re surrounded by capable 3-point shooters like Tony Snell, Sterling Brown and Malcolm Brogdon, who all will hopefully grow under Bud’s tutelage.

Their switchability was on display most intently in the Boston Celtics playoff series. When Thon Maker entered the game, the combination of Bledsoe, Snell (or Brogdon), Middleton, Giannis and Maker made for an intimidating defensive lineup. Unfortunately, that scheme rarely materialized in the regular season, with Milwaukee finishing as just a middle of the road defensive team last year ranked 17th in defensive rating, per NBA.com. Budenholzer spoke glowingly about their defensive potential at media day, and his strong track record on that end has Bucks fans drooling that Team All-Length might finally be weaponized properly.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

For years, Milwaukee has been a porous defensive rebounding club. Whether the ball ricochets off their hand like a bouncy ball or their spindly big men get overpowered, they’ve consistently been in the bottom-ten of the statistic for the past seven years. Bud’s teams never showed much propensity for that in Atlanta either, perhaps a product of his aggressive scheme that leaves players out of position. Either way, those easy buckets can cost a team throughout the course of a season.

Additionally, a similar scheme that won plaudits for Bud in Atlanta was being ridiculed in Milwaukee. Jason Kidd dialed his aggressiveness up to 11, often to the detriment of his player’s performance. Milwaukee allowed threes at an alarming rate (last year being the lone exception), coupled with giving up points aplenty in the sweet spot beneath the rim. Seeing that gruesome combination triggers the same reaction for fans as hearing Shabazz Muhammad’s surprisingly even-keeled voice: disbelief. Milwaukee’s defense needs to shape up considerably to reach its potential.

What are the goals for this team?

The Bucks have talked about crossing the 50-win threshold for years now, each time coming up short. In the last 30 years, they have hit that magical mark just one time, the Ray Allen-Glenn Robinson-Sam Cassell team of 2001. That win mark should be in play, but the more important mark of success may come from finally shedding the first round playoff monkey on their back. They’ve only gotten to the second round once since the 1988-89 season. Stomping on that pesky curse Mario atop Bowser style could give the franchise a much-needed galvanizing effect, akin to Toronto’s breakthrough a few years ago.

Results certainly matter, but Milwaukee should be just as concerned with the process of achieving said results this season. Feeling out what sort of benefits Mike Budenholzer brings to the roster, as well as how he plans to maximize the talent the Bucks have going forward should be integral to this season’s goals. The Bucks have a big offseason coming with Middleton (who is assuredly opting out of his player option), Bledsoe and Brogdon up for contracts next summer. Milwaukee will have important decisions to make about who should surround Giannis in the coming years to compete for championships. This year will go a long way towards making those choices.

Can Giannis win an MVP Award?

Giannis is currently ranked third in the NBA MVP odds, behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, per Bovada. Last season, Giannis finished sixth in MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook, trailing by just one vote. Yet few players on the list of presumed candidates, outside of perhaps Davis, seem capable of taking yet another mammoth leap forward. Giannis’ numbers continue to tick upward at an absurd rate of improvement, a trend that could continue within the friendly confines of Bud’s space-happy offense.

The real question will be whether Milwaukee can pull out the requisite wins to bump up Giannis’ potential. It’s nigh impossible to win the award without 50+ wins, but a weakened Eastern Conference means Giannis has the possibility of banking that amount. That total seems a tad far-fetched for Lebron’s Lakers given the competition in the West. I doubt James Harden or Russell Westbrook get it again after finally having their moments to shine, and Anthony Davis is always an injury risk. Perhaps Joel Embiid could enter the fray if he stays healthy all year and Philly continues their ascendancy, but I’m dubious the Sixers will let him ever play enough games to be a true contender.

The narrative seems primed for Giannis to finally reach the upper echelon of the MVP discussion, and if Budenholzer manages his minutes better than Kidd’s taxing tactics, Milwaukee could squeeze more games out of him than when he was hampered by a knee problem last year. Overall, the third-best odds seems about right. If the wins start stacking up for Giannis though, well, we know people like a fresh face when it comes to the MVP award.

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