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Crossroads 2017: Where Milwaukee Stands Now

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The NBA’s Eastern Conference is in upheaval. How does it all affect the Bucks?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of reasons why the summer of 2017 is important for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the summer has been surprisingly pivotal for a number of teams across the NBA, particularly in the Eastern Conference. To name a few notable events for the Bucks’ contemporaries:

Those six events are remarkable in how much they change the landscape of the Eastern Conference. But the most recent news out of Cleveland could be a sign of something far more important: the pending(?) implosion of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kyrie Irving, according to ESPN.com, wants to be traded away from the Cavs. What his priorities are or why the decision was made or what prompted the demand are irrelevant to the focus of the conversation on how this affects Milwaukee. The takeaway for Bucks fans is that Irving is signaling a possible end to the Second Age of LeBron James in Cleveland, which is the equivalent of removing the Cavaliers from the top tier of the East’s power structure entirely.

It is not a guarantee that Kyrie’s request will lead to James breaking up with the Cavs (again!), but it is reasonable to classify it as a potential precursor. And with the rumors surrounding James’ agent contacting the Lakers, there are at least dots that can be connected, which is more than what existed last week.

So let’s return to the Bucks for a moment. They have made very little news this offseason, and while there are always rumors for fans to latch on to, they have clearly broadcast their desire to maintain the core of the roster and bank on continued internal development to push the team forward.

This might not be the most inspiring approach, but it’s not without merit. Giannis Antetokounmpo became a bona fide NBA superstar last year. Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker both have work to do, but they impressed in their inaugural professional campaigns. Khris Middleton missed a ton of time with his hamstring injury, but eventually returned to his status as a steady veteran contributor. Jabari Parker, through all his faults, was really rounding into impressive form before a second ACL tear struck his season short. There’s a lot going on in Milwaukee worth being optimistic about!

But now that the Bucks have decided to bet on themselves to improve their standing in the conference, let’s look at the rest of the East for a moment:

  1. Boston got better by adding Hayward, and still has a ton of assets. They’re not going anywhere for the foreseeable future, but Isaiah Thomas’ contract situation is worth watching.
  2. Cleveland might stand pat in the short term, but if Kyrie gets traded and LeBron takes his talents elsewhere, there’s no telling how far the Cavs might fall. Of course, if all the noise is just noise, then the Cavaliers will remain a flawed team led by one of the greatest players of all time.
  3. Toronto may have largely maintained their ranking by keeping the top of their roster intact, but losing role players like Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker, and Patrick Patterson could end up hurting.
  4. Washington signed John Wall to a big extension and matched another contract for Otto Porter, and generally will remain the same type of team they were last year.
  5. Atlanta will take a big step back without Millsap (not to mention Dwight Howard, who is eminently hateable but still a productive NBA center).
  6. Indiana will be much worse, having traded a top-10 NBA talent for Victor Oladipo (who’s okay) and Domantas Sabonis (who’s interesting). Myles Turner is nice, but he’s not carrying your team to 45+ wins.
  7. Chicago was already kind of bad, and now they’ve replaced a top-10 NBA player with Zach LaVine (hurt), Lauri Markkanen (limited), and Kris Dunn (probably sucks). The tank is strong for the Bulls, especially if Dwyane Wade is granted a buy-out.
  8. Miami is frisky, and I would never count them out as long as the roster is “okay.” However, their roster is indeed merely “okay” at the moment.
  9. Detroit brought on Bradley, but will still play Andre Drummond big minutes, so more disappointment is expected in their future.
  10. Charlotte has some things going for them, but Dwight Howard isn’t enough to vault them ahead of the other pretenders in the East.
  11. The New York Knicks: lolololololololol
  12. Orlando may have stolen away John Hammond for their GM position, but Trader John has his hands full with the mess that exists with the Magic’s roster and cap situation.
  13. Philadelphia will probably make a big jump if Joel Embiid plays even half the season, but his health remains a question (as do Ben Simmons’ NBA prospects, Markelle Fultz’s transition to the pros, and whether or not Jahlil Okafor is terrible.)
  14. Brooklyn is a lot like New York, except sadder. D’Angelo Russell might be fun, I guess.

To recap, the Bucks’ three main competitors for the lower seeds got demonstrably worse, and nobody else below them made a demonstrable leap upwards. And for you optimists that have their sights set higher and think Milwaukee can challenge for a higher seed, every non-Celtics team in that tier basically maintained what they had last year. The ceiling for the 2017-18 Bucks may not be that much higher, but the floor certainly has been raised.

Even though things change quickly, underlying trends can be identified when it comes to a team’s rise, fall, or stagnation relative to their competitors. In the case of the Milwaukee Bucks, the recent events involving other Eastern Conference teams helps make the future look bright, despite the team having not done much of anything.

Perhaps that was the goal all along for this summer. By enacting an approach of “first, do no harm” to building the roster, the Milwaukee Bucks have not gotten worse. Fans shouldn’t necessarily be ecstatic over that outcome, but there is value in seeing a rising tide raise your ship (even if the water level increased because other ships sank).

The Bucks can’t beat Cleveland in a series right now, but Dan Gilbert may remove the obstacle for us. Likewise, the Bucks are not better than Boston, but they have no reason to be afraid of them. Ditto for Washington and Toronto, and the rest of the East is currently looking up at the Bucks as if to figure out, “How in the hell do we stop this Giannis guy?” That’s a good place to be.

But it’s not a good place to stay, which brings us back to our point: this summer will set the table for the next 10 summers. You have Giannis, now you have to figure out what you’re gonna do to build for the next level. We already saw the team make a mockery of the hiring process when they ended up with Jon Horst’s promotion to general manager. His performance may well be the results that justify that process, but the jury is out. Their deliberations will take a few years to decide, unless the Bucks get in their own way (a not-at-all-uncommon occurrence.)

Jabari Parker is still eligible for an overpay (or an underpay) on a rookie extension. Sub-par players like Derrick Rose are still on the market to tank your chemistry, while proven locker room fits like Jason Terry remain in NBA limbo. John Henson remains untraded for a top-55 protected 2nd round pick (aka the Zaza Special). Despite having a fair amount of work done for them, the Bucks still have plenty of work to do.