The Milwaukee Bucks have Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. But they’re only going to go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo can carry them.
Even though Antetokounmpo recently said that he is not the best player in the world – he still feels that title belongs to LeBron James – he already has an insanely impressive resumé at 26 with two MVPs, one Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of Year award.
Now that he has won the NBA title, his game is on another level of historical greatness. But the superstar could take that success to another stratosphere if he is able to lead Milwaukee to back-to-back titles with another win this year.
Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Bucks campaign.
Returning: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, Bobby Portis, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Jordan Nwora.
Additions: George Hill (Philadelphia), Grayson Allen (Memphis), Rodney Hood (Toronto), Semi Ojeleye (Boston), Tremont Waters (Boston), Georgios Kalaitzakis (Nevezis), Javin DeLaurier (Niagara River Lions), Sandro Mamukelashvili (Seton Hall) and Justin Robinson (Oklahoma City).
Departures: PJ Tucker (Miami), Bryn Forbes (San Antonio), Sam Merrill (Memphis), Mamadi Diakite (Oklahoma City), Jeff Teague, Justin Jackson, Elijah Bryant and Axel Toupane.
* They have one of the best players in the world… Even if he doesn’t believe that he’s the league’s biggest star, Antetokounmpo has a strong case as the NBA’s premier player. He is a force to be reckoned with whenever he steps foot on the floor and while he is coming off a title, there are still some who believe he has not yet reached the peak of his powers. It’s hard to imagine how the superstar could take another step forward based on how great his impact has already been – but imagine if he starts hitting his jumper more consistently next season? The league is now on high alert.
* Giannis has star teammates as his sidekicks… Before the season began, Milwaukee was already flanking Antetokounmpo with another high-caliber player in Middleton. The 6-foot-8 wing has long been a stellar sharpshooter and shot creator, which helped earn him a spot on the All-Star team in 2019 and 2020. But the front office later decided to go all-in during the 2020 offseason by surrendering several first-round picks to land Holiday. The 6-foot-3 guard has rightfully earned All-Defense consideration in three of the past four seasons and provided a huge spark to the team’s defensive identity.
* Now they know what it takes to win it all… This isn’t a quantifiable statistic but now that this group has seen the promised land and hoisted championship trophies, they’ll bring that experience with them whenever they’re on the floor. They know they’re an elite group and that they have whatever elements are needed of a title winner because they’ve done it before. Next year, opponents won’t be as intimidating because they are coming in as the team to beat.
* They’re returning nearly their entire core… After winning the title in 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers had a continuity rating of just 56 percent. But the Bucks will return approximately 80.0 percent of the minutes played last season to their roster next season. That sense of familiarity will help them a lot down the stretch as all seven of their players who had the most minutes played will be on Milwaukee once again in 2021-22. Their biggest departure was Bryn Forbes but George Hill and Rodney Hood may fill his shoes.
* Their second unit isn’t wildly impressive… When the Bucks took the championship trophy home with them to Milwaukee, they won on the backs of their leading stars. Their support cast wasn’t poor by any means but it’s not like that’s what got them to the promised land. Only one team in the Eastern Conference had fewer points per game from their bench than Milwaukee did (23.2 ppg) in the postseason. Next year, the Bucks will have a similarly thin bench. They could benefit from a big step forward from free agency signing Semi Ojeleye.
* Perimeter defense was a problem… Head coach Mike Budenholzer believes in packing the paint, forcing opponents to take inefficient jumpers. They allow among the fewest attempts near the rim and among the most from the midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass. The theory makes sense if opponents aren’t hitting the shots. But last season, opponents shot 44.3 percent on corner three-pointers against them. That was actually the worst mark that any defense allowed in the NBA. Overall, their perimeter defense (39.3 percent) was the worst in the Eastern Conference.
* They need to improve their efficiency in transition… While the Bucks have one of the game’s best transition players of all time in Antetokounmpo, they still have some weaknesses there. Only one team in the NBA, the Wizards, finished possessions in transition more often than Milwaukee did this past season. The Bucks also had the second-fastest pace (102.4) and the second-shortest time of possession (14.5 seconds) on offense. But they averaged just 1.10 points per possession in the open court, per Synergy, which was second-worst in the Eastern Conference and ahead of only the Orlando Magic. That should happen naturally as they get used to their new offensive system.
* These guys are assuredly exhausted… After a run in the 2020 postseason and then a shortened offseason leading into the 2020-21 campaign, several players on the Bucks have experienced an extraordinary workload of late. After winning the title, with virtually no time to rest, Holiday and Middleton added to those minutes by flying to Tokyo and winning the gold for Team USA in the summer Olympics. While it’s remarkable to win the NBA Finals and a gold medal in the same summer, it’s no easy task for your body as it needs more time to recover. That could be a factor heading into the upcoming campaign.
* The Milwaukee Bucks have a strong bench backcourt and their bench frontcourt is headlined by Bobby Portis. If they do one trade this season, it should be to acquire a player with PJ Tucker’s skill set. Unfortunately, PJ Tuckers don’t grow on trees, and the Bucks lack significant tradeable contracts. They don’t have any big trade exceptions anymore so their biggest trade chip might be Pat Connaughton’s $5.3 million salary. However, unless new additions like Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood really shine, it will be tough for the Bucks to move on from Connaughton. There’s a good chance the Bucks mostly stand pat with this roster throughout the season.
* One other reason the Bucks might keep things quiet transactionally is due to expenses. Milwaukee has $197 million in combined payroll and luxury tax payments, having just saved $15 million by waiving Mamadi Diakite and Elijah Bryant. They are a prime destination for veterans that get bought out so the Bucks could be keeping a roster spot open for a mid-season signing. Signing players late into the season will barely increase their expenses while boosting their title odds. If they sign someone to their 15th roster spot to start the season, good chance that player is on a non-guaranteed deal to maximize flexibility.
* Milwaukee has three extension-eligible players prior to the start of the season in Donte DiVincenzo, Grayson Allen, and Brook Lopez. The former two are eligible for rookie-scale extensions and will enter restricted free agency if not extended. Lopez is currently eligible for an extension worth up to three years, $54 million. With Giannis Antetokounmpo locked in through 2026 and Khris Middleton locked in through 2024, it could make sense to align Lopez’s deal closer to their All-Stars’ timeline.
– Yossi Gozlan
1st in the Central Division, 2nd in the Eastern Conference