In LeBron James’ absence, conventional wisdom dictates the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers will take his place as rulers of the Eastern Conference. Even if Kawhi Leonard departs Toronto as a free agent next summer, the Celtics and 76ers appear poised to reign supreme over the East for the next half-decade.
So long as the Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, they belong in that conversation as well.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Leonard, the Greek Freak has inherited James’ crown as the best player in the East. Leonard could wrest that title from Antetokounmpo if he returns to his 2016-17 form but it isn’t as though the latter is at the peak of his powers, either. Seeing as he won’t turn 24 until December, Giannis is somehow still years away from his prime.
Yes, the guy who’s fresh off a season in which he averaged 26.9 points on 52.9 percent shooting, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game has room to get even better. Godspeed to the rest of the NBA.
Between his point-forward role on offense and his ability to defend anyone from from point guards to centers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario in which Antetokunmpo isn’t the NBA’s best player at some point during his career. If he becomes a more consistent three-point shooter, he’ll begin to prompt Golden State Warriors-esque thinkpieces about how he single-handedly ruined basketball.
As of early August, oddsmakers gave Antetokounmpo the fourth-best chance of winning Most Valuable Player this season (via OddsShark), trailing only James, Anthony Davis and James Harden. Seeing as top-end talent often prevails in the playoffs, having arguably the conference’s best player will behoove the Bucks for years to come.
Antetokounmpo is signed through the 2020-21 season, and he’s given no indication he plans to force his way out a la Leonard or Kyrie Irving. In July, he told Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd the “right move” for him is to “stay in Milwaukee,” and he would never leave for a more glamorous market like James just did.
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) July 2, 2018
Antetokounpo wouldn’t be the first player to pledge his loyalty to a team only to about-face later—look no further than Kevin Durant’s comments about Oklahoma City a year before he left for the Warriors—but the Bucks have three years to convince him to stick around. Even though vultures have already begun to circle Milwaukee in hopes of stealing him away, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bucks must continue to build their roster around him to maximize his prodigious gifts.
What does that entail? Given Antetokounmpo’s inconsistency as a three-point shooter, Milwaukee must surround him with long-range threats, particularly in the frontcourt. The Bucks also don’t need a ball-dominant, high-usage point guard, as they should continue to run their offense through the Greek Freak given his mismatch potential.
Based on their moves this offseason, they appear to be well on that path.
The Bucks signed Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez in free agency, both of whom will prove superior fits alongside Antetokounmpo than departed 2014 No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker. Ilyasova is a career 36.6 percent shooter from deep and shot a sizzling 38.9 percent on threes alongside the Greek Freak in 2014-15. Lopez combined to shoot 3-of-31 from three during the first eight years of his career but he’s gone 246-of-712 (34.6 percent) over the past two seasons.
Though neither Ilyasova nor Lopez are standout rebounders, Antetokounmpo can help mask that weakness. Either Ilyasova or Antetokounmpo can play center in small-ball lineups, giving new head coach Mike Budenholzer far more flexibility than what former head coach Jason Kidd and interim coach Joe Prunty had to work with last season. Throw in rising third-year big man Thon Maker, a raw but high-upside unicorn-esque big man, and the Bucks will be able to throw a number of different looks at opponents throughout any given game.
Outside of Antetokounmpo, Budenholzer’s arrival in Milwaukee is perhaps the top reason to buy long-term stock in the Bucks. He never could quite conquer James and the Cleveland Cavaliers during his five years at the helm of the Atlanta Hawks but he helped turn a sub-.500 squad into a 60-win behemoth in the span of a single season. And with all due respect to Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and the rest of the mid-2010s Hawks, Bud accomplished that feat without a player anywhere near as talented as Antetokounmpo.
During each of Budenholzer’s five years in Atlanta, the Hawks ranked among the top 10 leaguewide in passes per game with a system reliant on constant ball and player movement to create open shots. Milwaukee, meanwhile, ranked 24th in passes per game this past season and has been among the bottom half of the league in that regard over each of the past four years. Budenholzer’s experience with Horford and Millsap in Atlanta, both of whom are excellent passers for frontcourt players, should help him hit the ground running with Antetokounmpo.
Outside of Antetokounmpo and Budenholzer, the Bucks’ long-term chances of seizing control of the East come down to next summer. Lopez, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) are all set to become free agents. losing Middleton in particular would be a devastating setback.
A hamstring injury sidelined Middleton for much of the 2016-17 season, which caused him to fly far below the radar for a player of his caliber. He set new career highs in points (20.1) and rebounds (5.2) per game last season while chipping in 4.0 assists, 1.8 triples and 1.5 steals as well. During the Bucks’ seven-game loss to the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, Middleton scorched the nets to the tune of 24.7 points on 59.8 percent shooting—including a preposterous 61.0 percent from deep on 5.9 attempts per game—along with 5.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 0.9 steals.
Standing 6’8″ with a nearly 6’11” wingspan, Middleton is the ideal Robin to Antetokounmpo’s Batman. Like the Greek Freak, he can switch liberally on defense to guard anyone from 2-guards to power forwards, which further fuels Milwaukee’s lineup versatility. Though Middleton shot only 35.9 percent from deep last season, he knocked down at least 39.5 percent of his treys in each of the previous four years. Positive regression to the mean in that regard could help him earn his first All-Star berth this season.
Bledsoe’s future with the Bucks is murkier than Middleton’s after backup Celtics point guard Terry Rozier danced circles around him during Milwaukee’s opening-round playoff loss. Given a full offseason and training camp to better acclimate to Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Bledsoe could yet emerge as Milwaukee’s third star but he’ll need to embrace a lower-usage role alongside the Greek Freak. An uptick in long-range shooting efficiency wouldn’t hurt, either.
Between Brogdon, Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova, Sterling Brown, the newly signed Pat Connaughton and No. 17 overall pick Donte DiVincenzo, the Bucks now have a number of potential three-point shooters to slot alongside Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, and Middleton on the wing and in the backcourt. They can go with unconventional supersized lineups in which the 6’5″ Brogdon is the smallest player on the court and Antetokounmpo is the full-time ball-handler, or they can downsize with Middleton at the 4 and the Greek Freak at the 5. It’ll be up to Budenholzer to tinker with his rotations throughout the regular season to find the best five-man combinations of players, even if it means absorbing a few extra losses during that experimentation phase.
Given how many tricky free-agent decisions they’ll be forced to make next summer, the Bucks’ sunny future isn’t as much of a sure thing as Boston’s or Philly’s. Toronto could implode if Leonard leaves in 2019 but the Celtics and Sixers don’t figure to fade away any time soon. If the Bucks can retain Middleton, Antetokounmpo continues to develop, and Budenholzer is the Steve Kerr to Kidd’s Mark Jackson, they’ll have a legitimate chance to leap over Boston and Philly in the Eastern Conference hierarchy over the next half-decade.