After what may have been the wildest offseason in the history of sports, the NBA season is set to tip back off Tuesday night. This summer saw future Hall of Famers (Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade), and current All-NBA level talent (Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, and Paul George) switch teams in a way that was unprecedented. This is all a ripple effect of the arms race to catch Golden State, a team who is perfectly constructed for modern basketball, and not afraid to remind everyone just how smart they think they are. While all the decks have been re-shuffled, the gap between the Dubs and the rest of the league still appears to be quite wide. Even with that said, the storylines that are coming with this NBA season are some of the juiciest in recent memory.
One team that has not gotten much shine amidst the chaos of the offseason is the Milwaukee Bucks. Coming off of a frisky playoff series loss to Toronto that saw them holding a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 at home, the Bucks have opted to essentially run it back with the same squad. Saddled with several ugly contracts, Milwaukee used what little flexibility they had to retain starting shooting guard Tony Snell and keep their powder dry for what may be an expensive summer in 2018.
While they kept almost the entirety of their rotation the same from last season, the Bucks are a team that has one of the widest ranges of outcomes. If everything breaks right for them, they could be a top three seed in the Eastern Conference and have home court advantage in the first round for the first time since the 2000-2001 season. What would this look like? It starts with Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing his meteoric rise in stardom. The 22-year-old Greek phenom has launched himself into the upper echelon of the NBA in just four seasons, and if he continues to refine his game, he could become a darkhorse MVP candidate. While Giannis will carry Milwaukee for the most part, in order for the Bucks to achieve a top 3 finish in the East, they will need the supporting cast to rise to the occasion. Khris Middleton has had all offseason to get back to his pre-injury form, and he will need to be every bit the player he was before tearing his hamstring if they want to take the next step as a team. Middleton will need to shoulder more of the offensive load and get back to his bullying post up game against smaller defenders, as well as find his stroke from beyond the arc. If second-year players Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker continue to progress and the bench mob led by Greg Monroe can be serviceable, things could shape up nicely for Milwaukee. They have an ace in the hole as well with forward Jabari Parker set to return from injury midseason.
While things could break right and the Bucks could be an upstart team in the East that challenges the incumbents, they could also swing the other way and lead to a disappointing season. Giannis is about as sure-fire a bet as anyone in the NBA, as barring injury he will be an All-Star and likely an All-NBA performer this season. Where things could break down are with the bench and the young players. Outside of Greg Monroe, the bench rotation brings very little inspiration. Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic are the next two players off the bench, and neither performed up to their sizable contracts last season. Delly is a scrappy defender who can make awkward looking floaters and occasionally bang home open triples, but he has shown his limitations as a floor general. Asking him to run second unit offenses for any extended period of time is a recipe for disaster. Teletovic was always going to be a limited player due to his lack of defensive prowess, but his drop in three-point shooting made him especially ineffective. He dropped a career best 39.3% in the 2015-2016 season to just 34.1% a year ago. A lack of depth could leave the Bucks vulnerable to one season-derailing injury.
The biggest question remains the impact that Jabari Parker will have upon his eventual return. If Parker comes back and is close to the player he was last season, then the Bucks could be among the best teams in the East. Parker found his stroke from beyond the arc, canning 36.5% of his attempts from three-point range (up from 25.7% the year before). He was often playing the nominal 4 position when he shared the floor with Giannis, leaving plodding big men tasked to chase him out the perimeter, with Parker using his superior athleticism to fly by these behemoths and cram home ferocious dunks. He looked like the player he was pegged to be coming out of Duke, right up until he tore his left ACL. The concern lies with the fact that the last time Parker was coming off an ACL tear, he did not look nearly as explosive as he did last season. It is easy to assume that when he makes his return midseason that he will come back and pick up where he left off during 2016, but in all likelihood, there will an adjustment period. With Parker set to hit restricted free agency this summer, how the Bucks handle his return and how impactful he is on the court could have massive ramifications.
The Bucks are a team with tremendous potential. Any time you have a perennial All-NBA player who is under the age of 23, there is plenty for the fan base to be excited about. In an Eastern Conference that is as weak as it has been in many years, penciling the Bucks in as a playoff team is far from a hot take. The question remains if they will vault themselves into the land of the contenders and potentially challenge Cleveland or Boston for a spot in the Conference Finals, or regress back to the pack and remain in the muck. Expectations were sky-high two years ago following a playoff birth, and that team fell completely on its face. Giannis has progressed and is a brilliant enough player to prevent them from complete collapse, but there is high variance with the ancillary pieces, and that will determine the ultimate success of this team.