The Heat convincingly proved a better team than the Bucks in this series, putting the franchise back to square one, set to reassess some changes amid a disastrous playoff exit.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo now must take a step back and evaluate the pathways to a ring after the best team throughout the regular season got smoked out of the bubble.
If the Bucks are to keep him, they must first fix a number of issues to sell him on an actionable plan.
1. Offer Giannis Antetokounmpo a short-term extension
By the looks of it, The Greek Freak still has some faith in the franchise. By default, that makes offering Giannis Antetokounmpo a short-term extension the first order of business.
Many stars have been noncommittal when asked about their future after playoff losses of this kind, but the fact that Antetokounmpo vowed to try again is something that works in the Bucks’ favor. The 6-foot-11 star has been on the same wavelength as Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who seems likely to stay with Milwaukee for another run despite a recent wave of criticism for a lack of proper postseason adjustments. While Bud has had his playoff issues, he still did a great job coaching up this roster to the best record in the NBA for two seasons running.
Following Tuesday’s Game 5 loss, Antetokounmpo, who sat out with an ankle sprain, spoke to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports about the possibility of forcing a trade:
“It’s not happening; that’s not happening,” said Antetokounmpo. “Some see a wall and go in (another direction). I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.
“If winning a championship was easy, everyone would have one. …We lost. Everyone saw that we lost. It’s disappointing, but what are we going to do? We’re going to keep working. I’ve got confidence in my teammates.”
This statement is a boon for the Bucks, but they must respond accordingly. Giannis’ commitment is conditional. The franchise must prove it has a pathway to win the title or risk losing him to a team that can.
As MVP of the league, Antetokounmpo can demand a supermax contract in the very near future, but it doesn’t have to be in the way of a five-year pact. If the Bucks need time to prove they can win a title, a swift two-year max extension a la Bradley Beal can do the trick, all while guaranteeing some continuity.
2. Revitalize the core
The Bucks have something going with the trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, sidekick Khris Middleton, and big man Brook Lopez. The idea of a stretch 5 to help a non-shooter superstar is genius, but the Toronto Raptors and the Heat were able to crack the code and fight fire with fire with some five-man shooting of their own.
Truth be told, the Bucks don’t have a true third scorer, but Lopez filled that role with a couple of 20-point games in the Heat series, averaging 18.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Questions could be raised about Eric Bledsoe, who was a mere 3-of-14 from deep in his four games this series. He recently received a contract extension, but that doesn’t keep him off the trade market entirely, especially when taking Donte DiVincenzo’s presence as a playmaking guard into account.
Role players like Pat Connaughton, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, George Hill, and the recently retired Marvin Williams were meant to fill the role of 3-and-D support cast under Mike Budenholzer’s system. Yet that hasn’t proved to do much against teams built as soundly as Miami and Toronto.
In fairness, the Bucks spent money on veterans with playoff experience to guide Middleton and Antetokounmpo in the playoffs, but they both now have their share of bitter taste in their mouths to know how to handle the road ahead.
Bringing in young, spry players with a diverse skill set can prove tougher than naming names, but bringing in a Gordon Hayward or Dennis Schroder could make all the difference for a Bucks team that needs a jolt of new energy.
3. Getting back to basics
Much can be said about the league MVP’s lackluster supporting cast, but a loss of this caliber implies there’s plenty of blame to spread around.
Sure, the Bucks’ role players didn’t help themselves much in this 4-1 loss to the Miami Heat, but neither did Antetokounmpo, who reverted back to being that non-shooter that every team in the East expected him to be.
The Greek Freak shot 3-of-14 from deep in four games, much like his teammate Eric Bledsoe, as Miami didn’t bother to respect either from beyond the arc.
Much has been made about Antetokounmpo being able to “break the league” if he gets a decent 3-point jumper, but in trying to prove his doubters wrong, he’s also left other pivotal aspects of his game unattended.
Yes, I’m talking free throws.
Ever since breaking in as a superstar in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo has seen his free-throw percentage decline from 77.0% in 2016-17 to a measly 63.3% this season — a percentage that has gotten worse each of the last three seasons.
That has coincided with Antetokounmpo’s initiative of shooting more 3-point jumpers, including nearly five per game at a 30.4% clip this season. His 1.4 makes per game translate to a whisker over four points per game scored on 3-pointers.
He attempted 10 free throws per game in the regular season and 10.3 per game in his four games against the Heat, canning only 53.7% of them in these Eastern Conference Semifinals. He made 25-of-40 free throws (62.5%) in the previous series against the Orlando Magic, which is way below what he should be at.
In short, in his effort to become a better 3-point shooter, Giannis has abandoned the basics — struggling from the line and offering little from the mid-range. In the eyes of defenders, Antetokounmpo’s three threats are a layup, a dunk, or the very occasional 3-pointer — an easy riddle for defenses to pick apart.
The Greek Freak jumped into shooting 3-pointers without becoming a decent mid-range shooter. Someone who can’t shoot from a shorter distance is highly unlikely to find success shooting the ball from further back.
In all fairness, Giannis Antetokounmpo does not need to become the next Jason Kidd and go from no jumper to the all-time list for 3-pointers made. Instead, he just needs to make defenses think he’s capable of hurting them from distance. No more and no less.
Starting with a better mid-range shot and hurting them from the foul line, a place he finds himself at effortlessly, can make all the difference for his development as a budding superstar in this league.
If Giannis makes defenses think with some finesse finishes in the lane, a few floaters, and mid-range jumpers, it won’t take long for the rest of his game to come together nicely. But going from Point A to Point D without checking off the other two letters in between has cost him a deeper run in the playoffs, and defenses have been able to collapse on him with ease.
If he’s to take the next step toward NBA glory, a look in the mirror is needed. Giannis Antetokounmpo must realize there is no shortcut to success in this league.