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What’s Next? The Bucks Future, and The Importance Of Asking The Right Questions

Two years, two disappointing outcomes. Is the third time the charm?

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Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Since the Milwaukee Bucks concluded their underwhelming campaign in the Orlando bubble, losing 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there has been no shortage of conversation topics. Everybody has answers, but with all the questions that are flying around about what changes the Bucks need to make, how do we know what answers matter, and which questions are the right ones?

At this stage of the game, we don’t. We actually know less about the team’s future at this point than any offseason before, because of how much has yet to be determined about the next league year. The coronavirus shutdown affects not just the date of the draft or free agency, or where games will be played, or even the league salary cap, but the very foundation of the NBA: the collective bargaining agreement. After all, you can’t make dinner if you don’t know what ingredients you have, or how many guests are coming, or if any of those guests has a food allergy. The route forward will remain unknown until the powers that be finish drawing the map.

Why does this matter? With the number of issues that this Bucks team has displayed over the past two postseasons, wouldn’t solving any of them be an improvement? At this point, the problems that need attention include, but are not limited to:

  • The defensive system, and how it’s uniquely vulnerable to threes
  • The offensive strategy, and how its predictability reduces effectiveness
  • The minutes rotation, and how it puts lesser players on the floor in playoff situations
  • Offense from the point guard position, particularly away from the rim
  • The lack of respect shown to shooters, allowing The Wall to work
  • The star player’s inability to capitalize on space in the playoffs
  • The roster construction, and the front office’s lack of flexibility to make changes

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. But even as the list grows and gets more detailed, it is not easy to discern which issue is the cornerstone problem, the one that makes all the other pieces fall into place if it can be solved. As ‘The Wire’ has taught us, all the pieces matter. All of the problems that face the Bucks are interconnected, and it’s not likely that there’s a single silver bullet that hits all the targets at once.

Don’t believe me? Let’s use the defense as an example, which was burned time and time again against the Heat. The zone drop’s goal is to pull the ball-handler into the midrange and force them to make a sub-optimal decision; part of that formula requires savvy positioning from the center position (Brook Lopez), but also high-energy defense from the guard positions. The Bucks have one of the best point guards for that task (Eric Bledsoe), but a major weakness of his is outside shooting. To shore up that weakness, the front office needed to prioritize decent shooting from the position in a backup (George Hill), and those two players combine for $24.7M on the cap sheet, thus dampening the team’s ability to exercise flexibility elsewhere.

That paragraph helps highlights the interconnected nature of the Milwaukee Bucks’ problems. As The Athletic’s John Hollinger tells us, it’s complicated. If you replace the coach, you still have the roster (and all of the pros and cons therein) that was created for a now-defunct system, and little flexibility to address the gaps. If you replace the system but maintain the coach, maybe the offense becomes more creative...but the minutes allocation remains spread too thin in situations where playing time ought to be concentrated to the players who provide the most value. If you keep the coach and the system but renovate the roster, now all of a sudden you’re not maximizing the strengths of your players and therefore eroding your ability to win.

Replacing Mike Budenholzer is not, by itself, going to cure what ails the Bucks. Neither is trading away Eric Bledsoe or Khris Middleton, and to a certain extent neither is feasible improvement to the perimeter scoring skills of Giannis Antetokounmpo. All the pieces matter, and it’s difficult to discern which piece matters the most...and which piece the Bucks can realistically action upon this offseason.

In his article above, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor identifies the most likely avenue to maximizing the current iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks: a full-time playmaking partner for Giannis. He, as have others, makes the case for the Bucks to pursue Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, who is rumored to be available, by highlighting the type of usage some of Giannis’ peers enjoy in regards to the P&R:

The pick-and-roll has been a missing piece of Giannis’s game throughout his career. Giannis scored a dominant 1.4 points per roll to the rim over the past two seasons, per Synergy Sports, but he’s logged only 156 plays in those 135 games. By comparison, this season alone, Domantas Sabonis had 211, Rudy Gobert had 207, and Bam Adebayo had 161. All of those bigs have guards capable of creating efficient shots for them out of the ball screen. Giannis doesn’t.

Admittedly, a point guard capable of operating the pick-and-roll with Giannis on the screen and floor spacers stretching the defense sounds like a recipe for success. This would be a huge boon for him, as well as Khris Middleton, who already proved he could handle his current workload and would be rewarded with more space and fewer core responsibilities on offense. But remember, the point guard role in Milwaukee prioritizes defense, and while he’s an able defender I can’t see 35-year old Chris Paul fighting over screens with the same level of veracity as Second All-Defensive Team guard Eric Bledsoe does. I’m certainly intrigued by the notion, to be sure, but if improving the offense comes at the cost of degrading the defense, is the gain enough to turn out a net-positive outcome? That answer is less clear, at this point at least.

Regarding Paul specifically, dreams of him donning a custom Cream City jersey are farfetched, the longest and narrowest of pipe dreams. Even disregarding his age (the dude is 35! He’s been in the league for 15 years! He was in the Andrew Bogut draft!), he’s owed $41.3M next year and holds a player option for $44.2M the following year. Trying to straight-up swap him for Bledsoe ($16.9M), Ersan Ilyasova (non-guaranteed $7M in 20-21), and D.J. Wilson ($4.5M in 20-21, the last year of his rookie deal) leaves a Brook Lopez-sized gap in the salaries being exchanged, meaning that (at least) a third team would need to be involved to facilitate a trade. If you thought Jon Horst’s job was difficult now, imagine him trying to land CP3 while still fielding a competent team elsewhere on the depth chart.

Again, we come back to the same problem that the Bucks face, where each aspect of their team is closely tied to the others, and you can’t steady one spinning plate without another two wobbling out of control. All the pieces matter, and even if we have an idea of which ones are more impactful, we don’t know for sure. We don’t have all the information; predicting the Bucks’ path forward is like trying to trace the outline of an iceberg on the horizon. You can see some of it, but none of us can know what lies beneath the surface. We can only guess.

Do you remember Kodak cameras? You know, these ones:

For decades, these cameras were a part of everyone’s lives, one way or another. Every social gathering you can think of was peppered with those weak flashes of light, and a chorus of click!-tzzzzt-tzzzzt-tzzzzt anytime the right moment, a “Kodak moment” presented itself. Nowadays, Kodak is a cautionary business tale; they’re still around, sure, but nowhere near the prominence they once enjoyed. What happened?

Kodak wasn’t asking the right questions when it mattered most. From the Harvard Business Review:

The right lessons from Kodak are subtle. Companies often see the disruptive forces affecting their industry. They frequently divert sufficient resources to participate in emerging markets. Their failure is usually an inability to truly embrace the new business models the disruptive change opens up. Kodak created a digital camera, invested in the technology, and even understood that photos would be shared online. Where they failed was in realizing that online photo sharing was the new business, not just a way to expand the printing business.

How does this relate to the path forward for the Milwaukee Bucks? It’s simple: they need to find the right answers to the right questions, and that both begins and ends with the biggest name in the organization: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks only path to contending for a championship depends on maximizing the time that Giannis is on the court. Current ankle sprain notwithstanding, he has been blessed with the resilience of youth and has no long-term injury worries to contend with. He is an otherworldly athlete, a hard worker, a fierce competitor, and a devoted teammate. He has done more than his part to try and douse the flames of talking heads and Twitter eggs attempting to smoke him out of his NBA home.

Giannis will be here for as long as the Bucks are able to put him in a position to win, and win in a meaningful way. He has achieved individual accolades that far surpass all but the most elite players the sport has ever seen, but at age 25, postseason success continues to elude him. Just like it did for LeBron James, just like it did for Michael Jordan. What’s the turning point that turns Giannis into a champion? It’s on the entire Milwaukee Bucks franchise to find out, and find out soon.

Let’s hope that they’re asking the right questions.