How much time have you spent thinking about the Milwaukee Bucks over the past six weeks? It’s been a remarkably calm offseason in Cream City. Gone are the cynical questions about the luxury tax and the existential dread of Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency. No longer will the discourse surrounding this team focus on its supposed playoff shortcomings. The Milwaukee Bucks are your 2021 NBA champions, and it would be easy to forget that in light of the Lakers-Nets arms race that followed.
Lost in the hoopla of those coastal super teams is the fact that Milwaukee might have the NBA’s best player, and they almost certainly have the best roster they’ve ever been able to put around him. The Bucks consciously chose to sacrifice depth in the name of top-end talent when they traded multiple key players for Jrue Holiday, but a year later, they’ve managed to recoup that depth. In George Hill’s case, that’s literal. The best player Milwaukee gave up for Holiday is already back, and joining him is former Memphis marksman Grayson Allen and a seemingly healthy Donte DiVincenzo, who missed most of the 2021 championship after tearing an ankle ligament against the Miami Heat.
That hardly guarantees a repeat, but it positions Milwaukee as a surprisingly compelling foil to the big bad Nets and Lakers. Here we have two metropolitan juggernauts seemingly on a crash course for the Finals, and all that’s standing in their way is… the guy who scored 50 points in a Finals closeout game and an almost unfairly deep cast of supporting players. As badly as the masses might want to see LeBron James and Kevin Durant slug it out for the title, the champs will be heard from before it’s all said and done. Here are the biggest storylines entering their title defense.
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Milwaukee Bucks rosterGrayson AllenGiannis AntetokounmpoThanasis AntetokounmpoElijah BryantPat ConnaughtonDonte DiVincenzoMamadi DiakiteGeorge HillJrue HolidayRodney HoodJustin JacksonGeorgios KalaitzakisBrook LopezSandro MamukelashviliKhris MiddletonJordan NworaSemi OjeleyeBobby PortisJustin RobinsonJeff TeagueAxel ToupaneTremont Waters1. Giannis has never had this much space
Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks teams have always been diligent about taking 3-pointers for Antetokounmpo’s sake, but they really haven’t been all that good at making them. They ranked 14th and 17th in 3-point percentage in his first two seasons despite finishing much higher in volume, and while they leaped up to fourth in the 2020-21 regular season after making almost 39 percent of their attempts, they fell to 32.1 percent in the postseason once P.J. Tucker replaced DiVincenzo in the starting lineup.
Defenses didn’t guard Tucker. That won’t be true of the players replacing him. Hill led the NBA at 46 percent from behind the arc in his last season with the Bucks. Allen hit a more modest 39 percent, but took more 3-pointers per 100 possessions (10.4) than anyone in Milwaukee’s Finals rotation. The Bucks aren’t just getting better behind the arc. They’re going to take even more shots from there.
That’s going to make Antetokounmpo’s life substantially easier. Basketball Index’s lineup grading tool placed Milwaukee’s playoff starting five in only the 55th percentile for spacing among all NBA lineups. That’s roughly where Milwaukee has been during the Giannis era thanks to subpar shooters like Eric Bledsoe. Sub in Allen and you jump up to the 76th percentile. If Antetkounmpo can score 50 in a Finals clincher essentially playing 4-on-5 offense, how much better can be with optimal lineup spacing?
2. The experiment is over
Milwaukee ranked first in defense in each of Budenholzer’s first two seasons. It wasn’t even close the second time around. The Bucks played such flawless drop coverage that regular-season offenses were essentially barred from the basket. Playoff offenses found workarounds, and the 2020 Heat in particular decimated the Bucks with their movement, screening and shooting. The 2021 Bucks devoted their entire regular season to correcting that. They experimented with switching and all manners of other defensive approaches in the regular season. That dropped them to a No. 9 ranking… but the result was well worth it. Milwaukee’s 106.8 Defensive Rating in the postseason surpassed even the 2020 champion Lakers. They won the title with their defense.
Tucker’s absence will hurt that defense, but in the regular season? The Bucks have defended just fine without him and should be just as good now. With no more need to experiment, Milwaukee can lean more heavily into its drop-coverage scheme in the regular season both as a way of racking up wins and to make life easier on weary players. Schematic versatility is critical in the playoffs, but sticking to one style in the regular season can save mental energy.
Here’s a prediction: the Bucks will return to the top of the league defensively this season, at least in the regular season. Who’s getting in their way? Philadelphia is a mess right now. The Lakers have two of the best help defenders on Earth, but no guards to prevent dribble penetration. The Knicks are due for some serious opponent shooting regression and the Jazz fall apart if Rudy Gobert so much as stubs his toe.
The playoffs are a different story. Antetokounmpo and Middleton should be able to defend Kevin Durant roughly as well as Tucker did, but the problem with that approach is how taxing it is for their best offensive players. Can Antetokounmpo score 40 and prevent Durant from doing the same? Is defending Durant a fundamentally less taxing endeavor if Kyrie Irving and James Harden are healthy enough to isolate at their typical levels, thereby minimizing off-ball movement and possessions with the ball in Durant’s hands? Can the Bucks effectively protect the rim with Giannis outside of his weak-side shot-blocking role? These aren’t easy questions, and the answers are probably going to determine whether or not the Bucks can really hang with the Nets.
3. How badly do they want home-court advantage?
As we’ve covered, Milwaukee’s defense should be back near the top of the league and its offense has more shooting than ever. This is its first season with meaningful depth and three possible All-Stars. Milwaukee has played at a 58.5-win pace over the past three regular seasons, and this team should be even better.
That raises some interesting strategic questions. The Bucks won the championship as a No. 3 seed last season, but the benefits of home-court advantage can’t be ignored. Milwaukee went 10-1 at home in the playoffs compared to 6-6 on the road. They managed to win a Game 7 in Brooklyn last season, but they needed Durant to wear the wrong shoe size to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. A healthy Nets team will be favored against the healthy Bucks. Home-court advantage is one of the few ways they can tip the scales, and given Brooklyn’s injuries last season, the Nets are likely to employ at least some degree of load management.
This is going to be one of the biggest stories of the 2021-22 NBA season. Milwaukee has been a dominant regular-season team in the past, but it has never married that excellence with the postseason growth we saw last year. If the Bucks want to repeat the latter this season, they might need to exert the energy it takes to commit to the former as well.
4. What comes next?
One of the quietest stories of the Finals came the moment the Bucks lifted the trophy. By securing the title, Holiday earned a $1 million bonus that pushed the Bucks into the luxury tax. They’ll be there again this season with a team-record $153.5 million payroll before tax payments. Even if the Bucks had a relatively meager payment last season, Holiday pushing them into the tax at all is still incredibly important because it starts their repeater tax clock one year earlier. With Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Middleton all locked into long-term deals, the Bucks will almost certainly be paying the punitive repeater penalty two years from now.
That is going to impact how they treat their own free agents, and there are a lot of them. Portis and Pat Connaughton both have player options for the 2022-23 season, and DiVincenzo and Allen are both restricted free agents. The Bucks aren’t keeping all of them. They probably aren’t keeping most of them. This reality is part of what motivated Milwaukee’s push for Bogdan Bogdanovic in the 2020 offseason. Top-end talent is almost always cheaper than depth in the aggregate. Bogdanovic may be making $18 million next season, but that would certainly be cheaper than, say, DiVincenzo for $13 million, Portis for $8 million and Connaughton for $6 million. When your starters are good enough you get to rely on minimums for the bench. Just ask the Lakers.
Don’t be surprised if the Bucks sniff around consolidation trades for this very reason, especially if they can get a ball-handler. Pushing back the extension clock on one of their younger guys by trading for a pick might make sense as well. Regardless, the Bucks are probably never going to have this deep a roster again, and quietly, the Middleton-Holiday-Brook Lopez triumvirate are now in their 30s. The Bucks don’t have much young talent to surround Antetokounmpo with if they fade. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be Milwaukee’s best chance at getting Giannis his second ring.