The Milwaukee Bucks are headed into a franchise-defining period after losing to the Boston Celtics in the first round. Though star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is signed through the 2020-21 season, vultures will soon begin to circle Milwaukee if the Bucks don’t make substantial progress, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski noted last summer.
— The Will Cain Show (@WillCainShow) July 6, 2017
A disappointing 23-22 start to this past season cost head coach Jason Kidd his job, and a 21-16 finish and a seven-game first-round series loss to the Boston Celtics wasn’t enough for interim head coach Joe Prunty to land the gig permanently. Instead, the Bucks hired former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer in mid-May to help transform them from a fringe playoff squad into a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.
Before Budenholzer gets to work this fall, the Bucks have a number of questions to address in the coming weeks.
Not counting the nonguaranteed deals of Malcolm Brogdon, Tyler Zeller and Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee already has $97 million in guaranteed salary on its books for the 2018-19 season. The Bucks already have most of their key players under contract next year, although Jabari Parker will become a restricted free agent on July 1. They’ll also have to start planning for 2019, when Brogdon (restricted), Khris Middleton (player option) and Eric Bledsoe will all be free agents.
What will it take for Milwaukee to join the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers as a budding Eastern Conference contender on the rise? These five questions will go a long way toward answering that.
5. Does the current roster fit Budenholzer’s system?
During Budenholzer’s five years in Atlanta, ball and player movement were the central tenets of his offensive system. In each of those five seasons, the Hawks ranked among the top 10 leaguewide in passes per game. Meanwhile, they were among the bottom eight in isolation possessions in each of the past three years.
The Bucks were the polar opposite last year, having ranked 24th in passes per game and 10th in their frequency of isolations. Atlanta averaged a whopping 44 more passes per contest last season than Milwaukee, even though it was relying on an inconsistent point guard in Dennis Schroder and a bunch of young players and veteran castoffs.
How quickly will the Bucks adjust to Budenholzer’s offensive system? Is their roster constructed to play that style? The verdict remains out on that for now.
“I think learning our players and putting them in the position to be the best they can be is what I will do over the next couple months,” Budenholzer told Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the NBA Draft Combine in mid-May. “Really, we’ll be learning each other for parts of the season, too.”
Budenholzer is well-accustomed to playing through multiple ball-handlers and playmakers, given his experience with Al Horford and Paul Millsap alongside Jeff Teague in Atlanta. Even if no Milwaukee player flirts with double-digit assists, Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Bledsoe should all benefit from a system that encourages more movement rather than stagnant one-on-one possessions.
4. Will they match any offer sheet for Jabari Parker?
Had you asked the Bucks this question in January 2017, they’d likely say yes without thinking twice. Back then, Parker was in the midst of a career-best campaign in which he averaged 20.1 points on 49.0 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 triples in 33.9 minutes per game, and his PER jumped from 14.8 to 19.1.
But when he tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time in early February that year, his upcoming free agency became far more complicated.
As ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton noted, Parker is in relatively uncharted territory in the wake of his second ACL tear. His per-minute production upon his return in February was right around his career average, but he played only 24.0 minutes per game during the regular season, as the Bucks eased him back into action slowly to avoid any further setbacks.
That leaves both Milwaukee and potential free-agent suitors in a tricky spot with Jabari Parker. A five-year max is all but certainly off the table at this point, but what would a fair offer be? All it takes is one desperate team to drive up his price and force the Bucks into an impossible decision.
While Antetokounmpo wants Parker back in the fold, the team may not feel the same way. Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported the Bucks were open to shopping him even prior to his second ACL tear, which begs the question of how much they’ll be willing to pay to retain him now.
With salary-cap space tight around the league, the Bucks may be spared from having to match a big-money offer to Parker. But if a team with cap space gets frisky—say, Dallas, Phoenix, Chicago or Indiana?—the Bucks will have 48 hours to decide whether to gamble on Parker’s upside or watch the 2014 No. 2 pick walk away for nothing.
3. Will Donte DiVincenzo contribute right away?
Since snagging Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 overall pick in 2013, the Bucks’ draft record has been far more spotty in recent years.
Milwaukee unearthed a gem in Malcolm Brogdon (No. 36 in 2016), who would go on to win Rookie of the Year that season, and Parker was a fine pick as well. But the Bucks declined their fourth-year option on Rashad Vaughn (No. 17 in 2015), traded Norman Powell (No. 46 in 2015) along with a future first-round pick (that would later become OG Anunoby) to the Toronto Raptors for Greivis Vasquez (!) and sold the rights to Patrick McCaw (No. 38 in 2016) to the Golden State Warriors.
With the No. 17 overall pick this year, the Bucks selected Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo, who averaged 13.4 points and shot 40.1 percent from deep for the national champion Wildcats. An NBA scouting director praised DiVincenzo’s fit with the Bucks, telling Gery Woelfel of Woelfel’s Press Box that “he’s a lot better pick than their pick last year” (D.J. Wilson).
“I love his mental toughness, I like how he can guard, I like how he can shoot the three,” the scouting director said. “He’s skilled. He’s good.”
A draft-night gaffe cost Milwaukee the opportunity to bolster their roster even more, however.
“Last night, for instance, we had the 19th pick, and we’re coming down and we’re actually talking to Milwaukee on the 17th pick, talking about trading up to get a guy we like,” Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said in an appearance on 95.7 The Game on Friday. “There’s were a couple of guys we felt really good about on the 19th pick, obviously Kevin [Huerter] was one of them, and it leaked who Milwaukee was going to take.
“So, all of a sudden, we were able to pull back out of that deal and keep the draft pick instead of packaging picks to move up because we knew that, two guys on the board we felt really good about and only one team in between us, so that was beneficial to us last night.”
Rather than moving down two spots to snag the No. 30 pick, which the Bucks could have used on a wing like Khryi Thomas or Melvin Frazier, their leak proved costly. But if DiVincenzo can slot in as an immediate contributor on offense, particularly as a knockdown three-point shooter, that may help ease the pain.
2. Is Thon Maker ready for a starting role?
Thon Maker began his sophomore season as the Bucks’ starting center, but that experiment lasted only seven games. John Henson quickly usurped him in the starting lineup and Maker went on to start only five more games throughout the rest of the regular season.
The Bucks knew Maker was somewhat of a project when they selected him 10th overall in 2016, according to Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. Standing nearly 7’1″ in shoes, he weighed in at only 216 pounds at the 2016 NBA Draft Combine, which made adding muscle mass one of Milwaukee’s top priorities with him.
Maker is listed as 223 pounds now, and his modern-day skill set makes it easy to see why the Bucks were so enamored with him two years ago. As a rookie, he blocked 0.5 shots in only 9.9 minutes per game, and he shot 37.8 percent from three-point range (albeit on only 74 attempts). This past season, he doubled his number of blocks, although his three-point efficiency declined precipitously.
Maker just turned 21 in February, so it’s far too early for the Bucks to consider giving up on him as their long-term center of the future. However, it appears as though they may be considering short-term alternatives as he continues to bulk up and get up to speed with the NBA game.
According to ESPN.com’s Ian Begley, the Bucks “have expressed interest internally” in pursuing New York Knicks center Enes Kanter in free agency if he turns down his $18.6 million player option for the 2018-19 season. It’s unclear how they’d carve out the requisite cap space to make that happen—in all likelihood, it would have to involve a sign-and-trade (perhaps for Henson?)—but Kanter’s arrival would presumably keep Maker stuck on the second unit.
Maker will become eligible for an extension next July, which makes the 2018-19 season an enormous opportunity for him. If he’s able to prove himself worthy of being considered a long-term franchise puzzle piece alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton, he could be staring at a fat paycheck next summer.
1. Is Eric Bledsoe their long-term answer at PG?
All things considered, Bledsoe fared relatively well during his first year in Milwaukee. His per-game averages of 17.8 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.7 triples in 31.5 minutes were largely in line with his production over the previous four seasons, and he flirted with career highs in a host of advanced metrics.
Bledsoe’s performance in the first round of the playoffs against the Boston Celtics exposed some warts, however. Celtics point guard Terry Rozier roundly outplayed him, leading to an unexpected feud between the two, and concerns began to resurface about whether Bledsoe’s time in Phoenix infected him with bad habits that he couldn’t shake.
The Bucks have one more year to determine whether to re-invest heavily in Bledsoe, as he isn’t set to become a free agent until 2019. However, his stay in Milwaukee may not last until then, as Woelfel reported “some NBA officials said the Bucks were trying to trade” both Bledsoe and Matthew Dellavedova during the draft.
If Bledsoe can’t get on board with Budenholzer’s system, it appears as though the Bucks aren’t wedded to keeping him around long term.