Since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his third most valuable player award in four years in 1974, the Milwaukee Bucks have been mostly absent from the MVP discussion. They’ve had only three players finish in the top-five in MVP voting during the last 44 years: Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Sidney Moncrief in 1983 and Terry Cummings in 1985. The Bucks have a great chance to not only end their top-five drought, but to also take home the MVP trophy for the first time in more than four decades.
Giannis Antetokounmpo cemented himself as a superstar last season, averaging 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. He earned a spot on the All-NBA 2nd Team for the second straight season and narrowly missed out on a top-five finish in MVP voting.
He looked sharp in preseason and showed a refined three-point stroke, connecting on 40 percent of his attempts. He’s already nearly unguardable when driving to the hoop and a more reliable jump shot will be an added nightmare for defenses. He showed off his inside and outside abilities in piling up a triple double in just 25 minutes during a preseason game against the Timberwolves.
For the Greek Freak to garner more MVP attention, the Bucks need to make a leap in the standings after winning just 44 games last season. Only six players have won the MVP award on teams that won fewer than 50 games. Before Russell Westbrook’s win for the 47-win Thunder in 2017, Moses Malone was the last non-50 game winner in 1982.
Antetokounmpo, who turns 24 in December, has the drive, work ethic and natural abilities to blossom into one of – if not the – best players in the league. Mike Budenholzer, who helped the Hawks overachieve during his tenure, will put Antetokounmpo in position to pile up stats.
But stats alone aren’t enough to win MVP. The Bucks need to pass the 50-win mark, something they haven’t done since 2001. With three seasons remaining on his contract, there is urgency for Milwaukee to prove it can build a sustainable contender around Antetokounmpo. If the Bucks don’t show progress this season, the rumblings will grow louder that Antetokounmpo will follow in Abdul-Jabbar’s footsteps and leave for a bigger market.
In Khris Middleton, the Bucks have given Antetokounmpo a worthy running mate capable of creating his own shot. Middleton torched the Celtics in the playoffs to the tune of 24.7 points on a blistering 61 percent from beyond the arc. Outside of their star duo, however, Milwaukee’s roster has more questions than answers.
Milwaukee’s acquisition of Eric Bledsoe at the start of last season was supposed to provide the Bucks with another ball handler and lessen Antetokounmpo’s playmaking responsibilities. Things didn’t go according to plan in the playoffs when Bledsoe got outplayed by the Celtics’ Terry Rozier. He averaged just 13.6 points and 3.7 rebounds as Milwaukee fell to an injury-depleted Boston team in 7.
Budenholzer’s offense should help bring out the best in Bledsoe. Bud helped Jeff Teague make an All-Star Game with the Hawks after all. But Bledsoe isn’t the kind of shooter that thrives in Budenholzer’s system. Entering the final year of his contract, he will be a key factor in Milwaukee’s chase for a top-four seed.
Antetokounmpo is talented enough to single-handedly keep the Bucks in any game. His unique combination of size, skills and athleticism are unmatched in a league full of physical marvels. The roster still has flaws, but the Bucks found good value in the offseason, bringing in big men Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to space the floor around Antetokounmpo.
Since drafting Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick in 2013, the Bucks have been striking out with their first-rounders. Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in 2014, left after an underwhelming four years that included a pair of torn ACLs. Rashad Vaughn, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson have also failed to establish themselves as cornerstone pieces. June’s first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo has the three-point shooting ability that Budenholzer’s offense requires. His preseason was underwhelming as he shot just 29.4 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from deep. With their 2019 first-rounder heading to the Suns as part of the Bledsoe deal, the Bucks need DiVincenzo to become a rotation member sooner than later.
The Bucks are a solid playoff team and should slot in somewhere below the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers in the standings. Division rival Indiana should be Milwaukee’s primary competition for home-court advantage and they’ll square off on Friday.
It’s an exciting time to be a Bucks fan with Antetokounmpo’s MVP candidacy and the team opening their new arena this season.