The offseason is winding down, training camp is approaching, and the Milwaukee Bucks are preparing to make up for a bitter loss against the Boston Celtics last May. Jon Horst essentially chose the “run it back” strategy over the summer, with the only major additions to last year’s team being rookie MarJon Beauchamp and Joe Ingles. Let’s hash out whether that was the right call or not.
Adam: All right Mitchell, let’s get into it. Whether you prescribe to the “Milwaukee was a Khris Middleton-injury away from repeating as NBA champions,” theory or not, the fact is this team fell short of expectations namely due to the aforementioned Middleton injury. Sure there might’ve been some other culprits, but that was the primary factor in their loss. Given that, why wouldn’t you want to return the key pieces of a team that won two years ago and certainly could’ve again last year?
Mitchell: It’s the obvious play, right? The Bucks have won 68.9% of their games over the past four regular seasons, and they already have one championship over that span. Their baseline of success has completely changed as a result, for the better. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
At the same time, they’ve won a ton of regular season games since the start of the Mike Budenholzer Era...and they have only one championship to show for it. Perhaps that’s overly pessimistic, but the standards are unfairly high when you have the best player in the world, in his prime.
My worry about the Bucks’ commitment to continuity isn’t that they won’t be good, but that they might not be good enough when you compare their steady approach to roster-building to the more dynamic improvements made by their competition (hi, Boston!). Maybe the shared experience of having played so much basketball together will help the Bucks be comfortable when things get tough...but does comfort beget complacency? And then you factor in how old some of the team’s major contributors (Khris is 31, Jrue is 32, Brook is 34, et cetera...) are getting, can Milwaukee outrun the attrition of aging? These are the questions that gnaw at me when the team returns thirteen out of seventeen players from the year before that ended in (as you said) disappointment.
Adam: But Mitchell, my mom always told me age is just a number!
Mitchell: She’s not wrong!
Adam: I do have to admit that the elder leanings of this team are worth considering, but they’re also playing under one of the more player health-conscious coaches in the league. Not only does Bud use scheduled rest, but he rarely lets his players exceed 32-33 minutes per game. Harrison Barnes averaged a higher MPG than Giannis last year. Harrison Barnes! Brook returning from a back surgery and still looking spry gives me enough confidence he’ll have at least one more year in him. For players like Wes Matthews or George Hill, now maybe there could be some drop off, but Milwaukee is asking so little of them that I can’t see them falling off any more than they already have, for this season at least.
It really comes back to the Big Three doesn’t it? For me, as long as they’re around, the Bucks are clear title contenders and have more star power than any Eastern Conference team, Boston included. They’ll shoulder such a heavy burden, and Giannis is a unique talent with specific skills, that once you get somebody in the door that has reliably contributed to winning in the postseason around them and fits the culture, I’d want to keep them in-house.
Mitchell: It does come back to the Big Three, and on that point you and I are aligned. When Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday are all healthy, they are simply the best two-way trio in the NBA. As we saw last postseason, that availability is never guaranteed, and if one of those pillars isn’t available it will over-stress the other links in the chain. I’m talking about the Grayson Allens, or the George Hills, or the Pat Connaughtons, all of whom took on a bigger workload against Boston than they could handle, and Milwaukee couldn’t overcome that. To address that issue, the team chose...to bring everyone back, save for a rookie (Beauchamp) and an older veteran coming off a torn ACL (Ingles).
Of course, that caveat applies to everyone, all of the time. “If someone gets hurt, then what?!” isn’t the most effective strategy for roster-building. But what I’m saying is that the Bucks, by way of their top-heavy construction, simply have less margin for error when (not if...) those things come to pass, and with every year that goes by and every “seasoned veteran” the team signs, that margin shrinks even further. Meanwhile, Giannis is in his prime right now, the championship window is as wide as it is ever going to be. Knowing this, the front office has gone the route of “let it ride!” once again. That fact makes me nervous, plain and simple. Is “letting it ride” maximizing the chances of getting back to the NBA Finals with Giannis as the super-duper-megastar that he is today? Or has the offseason following a disappointing playoff exit just left me antsy, and looking for a solution to a problem we don’t actually have?
Adam: I think the key for me is viewing this purely on a one-year time frame. Thinking about how the team can pivot in a post-Khris, Jrue or even Brook world makes me plenty queasy, but Jon Horst and company were staring at an offseason with limited to no assets and simply had to make do. Perhaps there was an element of getting burned last offseason with the failed signings of Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye, two players he couldn’t get off the roster fast enough.
Heading into the summer, the biggest tool at Horst’s disposal was the taxpayer mid-level exception, which he used to bring in an outside Joe Ingles. After that, his best course of action was to ensure nobody left the building while the ownership group is in a generous mood. Could they have found some fresh blood to replace the minimum (or near minimum) signings of Jevon Carter, Wes Matthews or Serge Ibaka? Sure, but probably not anyone who would move the needle more than they would. Carter in particular could have some upside given the Bucks history of mid-career development. You mentioned Grayson in particular against Boston, and the most calls this offseason were really for him and Hill to get packaged in some sort of trade. I suppose that’s still possible, but it’s also possible Grayson improves when allowed a smaller role while Hill was playing through a neck erupting in pain. With a longer offseason of rest and postseason lessons fresh in their mind, it seems sensible to let those two ride along (for now).
Mitchell: I’m glad you brought up the timeframe issue, because I think that gets to the heart of what’s bothering me. Generally speaking, I think you’re right; for this year, it makes more sense to bring back “marginal” players like Carter, Matthews, and Ibaka (who have experience with the system and their teammates) rather than seeking new ones (who are probably offering the same talent-wise, but lack that experience). They’re not going to be major factors in the playoff rotation and can soak up the minutes needed to keep the main guys fresh for the playoffs. For this year.
I think continuity is the best path forward for the Milwaukee Bucks to make a credible run at the 2023 NBA Finals. What are they going to do, trade for Kevin Durant? That’s the only sort of move that could further cement their status as “Finals favorites” this season; there is no return for the Bucks’ other pieces that would have such an impact. Keeping the band together is the right set of moves for right now. But do those moves now put them in position for 2024? 2025? Beyond? With Brook Lopez coming off the books, Khris Middleton’s next contract status still undecided, and having exhausted their future draft capital (worth it!), I suppose my concern is actually that the Bucks might be keeping their window open as wide as possible right now...at the expense of that window closing more drastically in the near future. It’s a basketball-centric Kobayashi Maru scenario. Good thing they already have at least one ring!
Adam: It’s a fair concern, especially given the age disparity between Giannis and his co-stars. But banners fly forever, and if they’re forfeiting long-term outlook for a shot at maximizing what they have now, I’m cool with it. Slowly but surely, a few more draft assets will open up, and I imagine the front office can find some possible way to pivot down the line. I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to figure out what that pivot is, but hey, in Horst we trust.
Mitchell: In Horst we trust...as long as they win!
What do you think? Do you agree with Adam, that the Bucks should stay the course and go for what’s in front of them? Or do you align with Mitchell, and worry that the Bucks might not be positioned for sustained championship contention? What would you have done differently, if anything? Let us know in the comments below!