The Eastern Conference finals, which currently see the Cleveland Cavaliers up 3-2 over the Toronto Raptors, have shown perhaps the best examples of two teams that made the right moves to elevate their level of play to “conference finalist.” However, with a young Bucks team that holds a lot of exciting pieces, it’s not outlandish to imagine a near future where Milwaukee is in a similar position. So what do the Bucks need to do in order to get there? We posit five steps for their future (and continued) success.
1. Fire Jason Kidd
Jason Kidd is simply not an NBA coach…yet. The immediate swap of sneakers and shorts for a suit and tie is not one that can be easily pulled off, especially with no prior coaching experience, so you cannot blame J-Kidd for his ineptitude on the sidelines. His lackluster defensive schemes, inconsistent substitution patterns, and impulsive temperament and decision-making are simply the product of having been thrust into roles (both with the Nets and the Bucks) that he could not possibly have been prepared to thrive in. Sure, the former Nets and Suns all-star point guard is a brilliant basketball mind and no doubt has the tools to one day become a great coach, but that day is still a long ways away. Kidd’s abilities in working one-on-one with players—especially guards—along with his knowledge of how to run a fast-paced, efficient offense are both tremendously valuable assets for an NBA coach to possess, but not enough to bring him success in a head coaching capacity. He would be best served as an assistant in the league, utilizing his talents while simultaneously learning the completed craft from those working above him, but as it is unlikely that he would accept a demotion from his current position, Kidd needs to be shown the door for the Bucks to turn the corner into “win now” mode. The coaching search comes down to Monty Williams and Jeff Van Gundy, and the Bucks should go with the Thunder assistant over the ESPN pundit.
2. Sign the perfect point guard
It’s safe to say that the Michael Carter-Williams experiment has long since gone awry, and that the Bucks have a void to fill at the starting point guard spot. Kidd has already publicly touted Giannis Antetekounmpo for the role, but with Kidd out of the picture and his love affair with big point guards out of the equation, Coach Williams and the Bucks can look for a realistic solution. That solution is by no means a star, or even anyone to whom the franchise would need to commit a large some of money. The solution, interestingly enough, can be found by looking at the Big 3 era in Miami. Those LeBron-led Heat squads made four consecutive finals, winning two of them in 2012 and 2013, and did so with a pedestrian-at-best rotation at the point of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. This approach to filling the point guard spot was so effective for the Heat because Chalmers and Cole could do three simple things—They could defend other point guards, consistently hit spot-up threes, and defer to just about everyone else on their star-studded roster. This allowed LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to have the ball in their hands and dictate the flow of the Miami offense, a formula for offensive success that 30 out of 30 NBA teams would all be willing to implement in a heartbeat. The Bucks can have a similar formula of their own, with Giannis and maybe even Jabari Parker in the future being able to control games on the ball without the responsibility of guarding someone half-their height and twice their quickness. Those who could fill the void in the coming year’s free agent pool include Deron Williams, Ray Felton, Ty Lawson, Matthew Dellevedova, DJ Augustin, and Chalmers himself. The best bet would be splitting up starter money between two guys who could split time in the role.
3. Acquire an elite rim protector
Now we arrive at the most glaring of the Bucks needs. Whether they want to keep Greg Monroe as a focal point or fit all three of their talented wings into a small-ball starting lineup, the presence of a big man who can run, jump, dunk, and block shots at an elite level is an absolute must. Although Miles Plumlee does fit this mold, he does not fit the all-important qualifier of “elite,” or for that matter even “good.” However, Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard will be free agents this summer, and they most certainly do. Both provide similar numbers and a similar presence on both ends of the floor, but Whiteside is hitting his peak while Howard is certainly well into the downturn of his abilities. Since both will likely command close to the max, that makes Whiteside the more valuable asset. Unfortunately, in the necessity of maintaining a level of realism to these hypothetical wheelings and dealings, we must acknowledge that the Bucks will not be the Miami center’s only suitors, and will likely have to overpay substantially to make him ignore the pull of heading to a large-market or a current contender. However, seeing as the other rim-protecting options go no further than Bismack Biyombo, a signing of this magnitude may become a necessity.
4. Develop Giannis
With our coach and core personnel in place, we are now left to work with the assets we have, the undeniably most promising of which is the young man they call the Greek Freak. Many columns and tweets have been written about Giannis’ potential in the past year, even before he became a walking triple-double, so we’ll do a simple recap of those. If the 22-year-old Giannis Antetekounmpo adds a bit of muscle and can extend his range past 15 feet, there is nothing in his way from becoming an elite level player well into the future. With a post-up game and the threat of a jumper added to the unique and stunning talents that he already possesses, Giannis will be a perennial all-star, All-NBA player, and a 1-man contender in the Eastern Conference. All of this sounds extreme, but is well within touching distance.
5. Develop Jabari into a consistent long-range threat
Now with Giannis as the unquestioned focal point of our attack, we will need one more piece to fall into place. That piece is Jabari Parker’s jump shot. The Bucks currently have a healthy problem in that they have 3 of the NBA’s top 15 wing players who are all approaching in the ascending stages of their careers (Khris Middleton being the third), but it is a decidedly unhealthy problem that two of them—Giannis and Jabari—cannot shoot the three. In today’s league, there is simply no place for a lineup with just one shooter, and for the sake of wanting to have all three of your best players on the floor as much as possible, that does not bode well for Coach Williams. With Jabari becoming at least a 38% 3-point shooter, a plethora of tantalizing options for the Bucks offense reveal themselves. Monroe can be relegated to the bench and a lineup of (for example) Dellavedova, Middleton, Giannis, Jabari, and Whiteside can be utilized. Not only does this add incredible length and quickness to the lineup defensively without losing significant rebounding capability, it also sets the stage for a quite potent 4-around-1 attack. The superstar Giannis can have ample freedom to attack how he wants to—from the post, off the dribble or off the cut— and will have a deadly squadron of snipers around him on the three point line to open up space and even score themselves. With no desire or need for back-to-the-basket touches, Whiteside can serve as the perfect cleanup man on the offensive glass, along with catching lobs from Giannis and a point guard. All this is opened up by a simple and feasible improvement in the game of one of the most talented young players in the league. With everything we have seen in the Eastern Conference playoffs the past few years, there is no denying that this squad would have the makeup of a perennial contender.