Remember remember... when the Bucks were below .500? A matchup with the Pistons is just what the doctor ordered for this ailing squad to restore equilibrium. With a tricky Eastern Conference road trip beckoning, Milwaukee has no choice but to continue scraping by without their defensive keystone and at least one of their big three. Championships are not won in October (cc Miami Heat) but they can be lost, not because of W-L record, but because of overly taxing key players like a certain Greek. Here’s hoping our man can take a game off soon to rest his super knee.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A+ (last week: A+)
His early-season efficiency lull now firmly an aberration, Giannis also corrected a free throw shooting blip (6/11 on Saturday) by making his next 9. I feel a moral obligation to point out that his FT% is now a solid 73.8%, the highest since his 76% mark in 2017–18 and on the same volume. Don’t worry about 3/11 from deep on Sunday: without Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, the scoring onus was 99% on him. Rudy Gobert and Utah’s vaunted interior defense could easily D up on him, send double teams, and prevent him from getting to his usual spots. He’s coming within a few boards or dimes of a triple-double nearly every night while also averaging 2 blocks and nearly 1 steal per game. It’s early, but he’s also on pace to set a new career-high in assists. There is no better all-around player in the league right now; how is he not an (or the) NBA favorite currently?
Khris Middleton: B- (last week: A-)
Unfortunately, Middleton is dealing with a breakthrough case of COVID-19 and will likely miss another handful of games in addition to the two this week. One appearance with 33 minutes does qualify for a grade, though, so I’ll discuss his 19 points on 21 shots outing against the Spurs last weekend because it echos some of his early-season trends. Three-point conversion is clearly a team-wide (and league-wide) issue right now, but a 9/35 start from Middleton is wholly out of the ordinary given how hot he typically starts his seasons. His jumper looks as good as usual from his typical midrange spots at least. While we first wish him a smooth recovery from the virus, perhaps these few games off are what he needs to rediscover his outside touch.
Grayson Allen: A- (last week: B+)
While not brought to Milwaukee to be a primary scoring option, Allen has filled that role rather well in Middleton’s and Holiday’s steads recently in a way that seriously encourages me for when he returns to a firmly secondary role. His double-digits streak ended on Tuesday but before it did we were treated to the kind of successful high volume three-point shooting performances he became known for in Memphis. While his percentages aren’t great yet, he’s being counted on for 11+ attempts per evening as one of the team’s best few scorers at present, so look for those to rebound when the rest of the starters return to health and he returns to the role of a fourth or fifth option.
Pat Connaughton: B+ (last week: B)
After a three-game shooting slump, Connauhgton surged back into everyone’s good graces in Detroit with a third 16+ point evening of the young season, connecting on 4 of his 5 attempts outside the arc. Among the eight Bucks who take over 5 shots per game, only Giannis is sinking them at a higher rate than Connaughton’s 49.3% and he appears to be on pace for a career scoring season. It’s time we accept that he is likely to decline his player option and enter free agency next offseason, though for his part, he’s said he wants to stay.
George Hill: A- (last week: B+)
Hill indeed appears to be the steady veteran backcourt presence fans wished last year’s team had, even if we’d all prefer it comes from a bench role. Credit where it’s due, though: he filled the stat sheet each night this week with 5.3 assists and 4 assists per night to go along with 8.3 points on 43.5% shooting. It’s hard to ask much more from Hill at this point in his career as a fill-in starter being counted on for 30 minutes each night, so this is all very promising for when he eventually returns to his lower-workload bench role.
Bobby Portis: B- (last week: B-)
It’s nice to see that Portis hasn't missed a beat, reassuming his role of high-usage second unit scorer and volume rebounder after injury. Like other Bucks who missed time, though, he’s not found his touch from his usual spots. He’s too good of a three-point shooter to be worried about a 2/7 start from downtown, but what I’m most hoping to see round into form is his array of hooks and push shots within 10 feet. He had a number of those attempts—and ones at the rim, where he struggled mightily by his standards (3/7)—blocked this week; perhaps his legs aren’t yet in game shape.
Jordan Nwora: B+ (last week: A-)
For someone whose game is predicated on getting buckets, Nwora had scant offensive success in his expanded role this season despite clear strides in every other area of the game, particularly as a defender and rebounder. Thankfully, as a young bench player should when facing a lottery team, he put together a great scoring performance in Detroit on Tuesday with 16 points on 7/13 shooting, bolstering his evening with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s had similar performances against good teams already this year, but he’d been very much off during his prior four games against mostly mediocre opponents. Without Middleton for the near term, he needs to keep hunting for shots against tougher defenses, which he couldn’t do against Utah (just 1/5 from the field in 24 minutes).
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: C+ (last week: C+)
Pushed back into significant action with Middleton out, Thanasis took too outsized an offensive role even on a shorthanded Bucks squad against Utah. He lacks the finishing ability and size to succeed against tough rim protection units (a dismal 5/12 within 5 feet, being blocked twice by Gobert), so without a jumper, he needs to pass off his drives in those situations. He did have quite the week on the glass (8.3 RPG), though, and drastically cut down on his fouls (just 2.3 per game) so he soaked up minutes well enough on a team very thin on frontcourt options.
Rodney Hood: B (last week: B)
An injury to his shooting hand appearing to be nothing serious, Hood managed to hit 3 of his 7 threes and pick up a few boards this week in a decently-sized minute load. While we’ll always be skeptical of his durability, as long as he is healthy and can hit the threes the offense will readily provide him, he can play a part on this team. He took his first shots inside the arc this week, missing them all and dragging his FG% down to 29.7% against a 41.7% 3P%. Given this, if he continues seeing minutes once Middleton and Holiday return, it looks like he’ll fill this year’s Bryn Forbes role.
Semi Ojeleye: C (last week: C)
While finally on the board with a field goal and 2 free throws in Detroit, Ojeleye still hasn’t found the bottom of the net from deep. Looking at his Boston—where he appeared to be a decent outside shooter at times—three-point shooting numbers, it’s easy to be encouraged by a 46.2% success rate on corner triples two years ago, a big jump from his career 37.1%. He found himself around 34% there in other seasons, so we might have to accept that he’s more like P.J. Tucker offensively than we hoped. Defensively, he’s also yet to show that kind of ability, but he had no preseason to figure out how to fit in with this team so I’m reserving judgment on his ultimate role (or fate) with the 2021–22 Bucks.
Justin Robinson: A (last week: C-)
Did Robinson prove that he was an NBA player this week? In 21 MPG, a 8.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2 APG line with .625/.545/.000 (no FT attempts!) shooting on 5.3 shots per game is quite solid for a reserve point guard, not to mention one who looked completely out of his depth during his first 5 games. Only 3 turnovers and 5 personal fouls too. The Herd begin their season on Monday but as long as Holiday is sidelined, he likely will keep seeing minutes with the big league club. These last three games now make that playing time feel warranted and not just because of injuries ahead of him on the depth chart.
Mike Budenholzer: B+ (last week: B+)
I feel like I’ve said this in each column so far this season, but what is a coach supposed to do? It’s tough to quibble with any individual Buck’s performance this week relative to their expectations, outside of Ojeleye (who needs minutes in order to get going). That tells me they’re succeeding in the roles they’re currently forced to fill by necessity. Losses happened in part because guys like Allen and Thanasis are not meant for such high-profile work on a title contender, but they’ve rewarded Bud’s faith by filling in for guys like Holiday, Middleton, and Brook Lopez pretty admirably. The Bucks have used the most lineups of any team this season by far, so give Bud credit for trying to find anything that works with the skeleton crew he’s sometimes only aware of minutes before tip-off, and for sticking with their identity on both sides of the ball through the injuries.
Incomplete: Sandro Mamukelashvili (12 minutes), Georgios Kalaitzakis (9 minutes), Jrue Holiday (injured), Brook Lopez (injured), Donte DiVincenzo (injured)
It hasn’t been easy to watch several games so far this season given the roster’s constant state of disrepair, but take comfort in the fact that the Bucks are a squarely average team in terms of offensive and defensive ratings so far while giving so many minutes to these guys:
Obviously having Connaughton be second on that list, Middleton fourth, and George Hill getting such a heavy load so early isn’t ideal. Neither is having to lean so much on Giannis. Still, Milwaukee has similar ratings and records to title odds darlings Brooklyn (which at least made sense before the Kyrie Irving dilemma) and the Lakers (which never made sense, check out Russell Westbrook’s troubling on-off splits that didn’t require squinting to see coming). Neither of those teams has been forced to dig so deep into their benches yet and the Lakers just lost again to the Thunder, who may now just finish with over 10 wins (I don’t care that LeBron missed both games, that’s embarrassing as all get-out). This really is not a terrible spot for the Bucks to be in currently, and while we might be lamenting some troubles against Eastern Conference foes this time next week, we really can’t ask for more except good health.
What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.