The Milwaukee Bucks will enter the 2017-2018 season with heightened expectations following a surprising playoff run last year. As a youthful team on the rise, the Bucks get closer to their prime years with each passing season. Giannis Antetokounmpo will enter his fifth season in the league, after becoming the team’s first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004, and taking home Most Improved Player honors. In theory, the Bucks should improve year-to-year due to virtually all of their core players becoming more experienced and getting closer to their basketball prime. However, any rebuilding team should understand that growth from a lottery team to title contender is almost never a straight line. The Bucks’ disappointing 33-win season in 2015-2016 was a harsh reminder of that reality. Some major offseason moves by NBA teams over this summer have huge implications for the balance of power among the two conferences. Let’s examine how these moves impact the immediate future of the Bucks, and how their pieces could fit together for a future run at championship glory.
The Bucks have a notably less competitive environment to battle in; the Eastern Conference of this season will look very different from last year’s. In a chaotic offseason many of the East’s premier talents headed to the Western Conference to form new super-teams, aiming to take down the powerhouse Warriors. The mass exodus saw Paul George and Carmelo Anthony team up with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. The Bulls parted ways with Jimmy Butler, trading him to the Timberwolves for the injured Zach Lavine and some loose change. Paul Millsap left the Hawks to join a promising young Nuggets squad. While it would seem the East is the easiest path to the Finals in today’s NBA, free agents are surprisingly choosing to go right at the dangerous Warriors in the West. A 50-win season becomes more realistic for a growing team like the Bucks when you consider the fact that 52 of their 82 games will be played against teams in the weakened East.
Despite many star players changing conferences, the East may actually be more difficult to win than last year due to a higher concentration of superstars on its top teams. The Cavaliers only got stronger by adding Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose among others to compliment LeBron, which should more than make up for the departure of Kyrie Irving. Boston swapped Thomas for the new face of their franchise, trading for the finals experience of Irving and signing All-Star Gordon Hayward. You can also count on the Wizards and Raptors making noise in the playoffs, but both teams seem to have hit their peaks with the current assets they have. Last season Toronto traded for Serge Ibaka midseason to bolster the front court, but was swept by Cleveland after a close series with Milwaukee. Expect the Celtics to be in the running with the Cavs once again, but still don’t bet on LeBron being dethroned anytime soon.
The problem that has occupied the minds of GM’s in the East for almost a decade is precisely that: bringing down LeBron James. The 32-year-old has now reached the Finals in 7 straight seasons, and has shown no signs of slowing down. It begs the question, which team in the East can take him down before he retires? We’ve seen countless teams drain resources and trade draft picks just to have a chance at him, only to get crushed in demeaning fashion. The team that finally beats Lebron needs to have a young core that will stay together for the long haul. Historically, title winners in the NBA have one or two bona fide superstars and a strong supporting cast of veterans and niche role players. The Bucks fit the bill, with a budding superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a young supporting cast that can serve as a solid core for many years to come.
Giannis has the support of Khris Middleton, who came back in solid form in March after missing most of the season to a hamstring injury. Middleton is a consistent three-point shooter and a lengthy wing they can use to close passing lanes on defense. He will definitely be a key player in the Bucks’ future playoff runs, as his skills are extremely valuable in today’s NBA. The Bucks filled out the rest of their future lineup in the 2016 draft, selecting Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. While Brogdon is unlikely to develop into All-Star talent, he has a tremendous feel for the game, a consistent jump shot and an unusual wingspan to make him a near perfect fit for the Bucks’ starting guard role. Maker, much like Antetokounmpo, has been described as a unicorn. The long 7’1 forward can block shots and hit from beyond the arc, and if he bulks up he’ll be able to battle with true NBA centers for better position on the glass. Jabari Parker remains a question mark; very few players in the NBA have come back the same from an ACL tear, much less two in the same knee. For the Bucks it’s also an issue of salary. Do they take a gamble on Parker’s ability to stay healthy and try to retain him, or let him walk to a more desperate team ready to throw max money at him?
It seems the Bucks have a great core in place for some serious runs at the Finals in coming years, but they might need to add an extra piece to push them over the edge. Giannis needs an All-Star caliber second option to compliment his abilities. They should look for a player of talent comparable to Damian Lillard or Jimmy Butler, who would be willing to give up being the primary option on a non-contending team. These days, free agents find it attractive to team up with an established contender, which the Bucks will likely be in a few years. However, the Bucks should be in no rush to compete in the immediate future. They simply aren’t yet ready to face the likes of Kevin Durant and the redefined Warriors, or even the Thunder with their new big three. When the NBA’s current super-teams disband or otherwise lose their power, the Bucks could seize an opportunity to secure their first title in almost 50 years.