The Milwaukee Bucks enter the season as an undeniable contender for the title – anything less than a conference finals appearance would be a disappointment for a team who just experienced one of the most successful seasons in franchise history.
It was a season, much like this one, that began with sky-high expectations.
Up until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the team met those expectations with an inspiring ease, giving many fans hope for the first title in Bucks history since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s run in the 70s. But the Raptors staged an inspiring comeback – down 2-0 they rallied to win four straight, while a floundering Bucks team repeatedly failed to live up to the moment.
Going into this season, the Bucks have changed little – considering their success last season, it makes sense. The 60-22 team (which had only a single back-to-back loss all season) managed to keep the core of Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Eric Bledsoe together. Bledsoe’s role on the team is worth considering, and indeed many point to his defensive liabilities and poor ball-handling as the reason behind the team’s sudden collapse. Nonetheless, his contract is still appealing – at just $15-million a year he remains one of the cheaper options for a player of his calibre, and the importance of a speedy point guard who can run Mike Budenholzer’s motion offence cannot be understated.
The Bucks also returned big-man Brook Lopez, who’s new-found shooting ability earned him a 4-year $52-million contract at the end of the season. He’s been re-united with twin Robin Lopez, and there’s some hope that this fraternal-rotation at centre will provide the Bucks with important minutes throughout the season. George Hill, the 33-year-old point guard, earnt himself a 3-year $29-million contract after some unexpected playoff-heroics replacing an injured Malcolm Brogdon, but the history of small point-guards in their mid-30s doesn’t bode well for Hill.
Brogdon is perhaps the only truly important piece the team lost. Last season saw him join the extremely exclusive 50-40-90 club, and he was a crucial piece for the team in bridging the first and second units throughout the regular season. He was the picture of consistency, and the Bucks were sad to see him leave for a rival Pacers teams in the Eastern Conference. Whether the (much-cheaper) Hill will be able to replace those regular season minutes remains to be seen.
Predicted Wins for the 2019-2020 Season
Regular Season: 56-26
Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) – Game 7 Loss
It’s fair to predict some regression for this Bucks team. Last year saw them win all 14 of their season series against Eastern Conference opponents, but the improvements we’ve seen in teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat may make repeating this difficult. While the Raptors may no longer be as formidable with the loss of Kwahi Leonard and the injury of Kyle Lowry, a formerly-favoured Celtics team (sans Kyrie) will look to rise once more to the top of the table. The Sixers present a similar problem, as their young stars continue to grow and develop. Nonetheless, the Bucks should expect a Conference Finals appearance at the very least – the team lost very few pieces in the offseason, and by returning such a successful core it’s difficult to suggest a quicker-exit than last year. Nonetheless, the Sixers are currently favourites to represent the East in the NBA Finals, and it’s against them that I expect the Bucks will lose the ECF.
Of course, Brook Lopez will be the most import-… just kidding. It’s Giannis. With a League MVP under his belt, Giannis has now secured a place among the elite-of-the-elite in the NBA. A top five player by almost any account, the Greek Freak has created a considerable case for the title of best player in the NBA. His career-best season featured an impressive stat line of 27.7/12.5/5.9, but it was his defence and unbelievable efficiency that secured his MVP title over Harden’s incredible offensive performance. There’s not much else to say about Giannis – he’s still only 24! Compared to the progression and development of past stars at that age, he’s only just beginning his prime. But much like the Carmelo’s and Rose’s of old, a ring is required to cement a place among the all-time greats. He’ll look to lead the Bucks to an NBA-championship this season, although it remains to be seen whether the similarly-contending Philadelphia 76’s will go down easy.
With every passing moment, Mike Budenholzer continues to prove how inadequate Jason Kidd was. Coach Bud almost immediately turned the exact same team into title contenders, and he’ll look to continue this improvement into next season. The Buck’s offence is one of the simplest in the game – constant drive-and-kick actions from a barrelling Giannis finds shooters like Middleton and Lopez wide open, and it was the consistent use of this play that led the Bucks to success. Nonetheless, Budenholzer cannot go blameless for the poor showing the Bucks gave in the final four games of their season. Many have pointed to the lack of adjustments against Toronto’s steely defence as the reason for the Buck’s losses and watching their offence flounder throughout key moments in the Conference Finals was difficult viewing. It’s also not the first time that Coach Bud has faced this exact criticism, as many pointed to a similar issue being responsible for his Atlanta Hawks being swept by Lebron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Indeed, that series is eerily reminiscent of the Buck’s loss, as the 60-win Hawks (who posted an outstanding offensive regular season) were held to under 90-points in every game in the series. Budenholzer will have to sweep these demons of the past under the rug to take the Bucks to the next level.
For the highest paid player on a contending team, surprisingly little attention is ever paid to Khris Middleton. Indeed, he’s rarely (if ever) brought up in conversations about All-NBA honours, and his All-Star appearance last season was his first ever, despite at least four seasons of similar numbers and efficiency. Much of this lack of recognition can be blamed on the absence of highlight plays, and his consistently quiet and relaxed nature on the court. Nonetheless, Middleton is a crucial piece for the Bucks, and without his volume shooting and scoring, as well as impressive positional-versatility on defence, the Bucks would have been unlikely to achieve the same success last season. Bringing him back on a max-contract was one of the defining moves by the Buck’s front office this offseason, and if he continues to develop, he’ll soon be worth it.