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Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em? Bucks’ Struggle as NBA Trade Season Begins

Milwaukee is third in the East, but bottom-third in league wide Net Rating since December 1.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The most recent blowout loss of this season came on Friday, as the Milwaukee Bucks completely no-showed against the lowly Hornets. That the Bucks got boatraced in one game is a non-issue, but we’re no longer talking about one poor performance.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Milwaukee Bucks have not played like a great basketball team lately. In fact, they’ve been a mediocre basketball team for over two months now, and the flaws are becoming too glaring to ignore. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s star shines brightly enough to ignore the blemishes for a little while, but his nine-point outing against Charlotte (by far his lowest scoring game of the season) was a flicker that we’ve seen from the team more and more lately.

It’s not just the embarrassing fall to the Hornets. That’s just one game. The concern stems from that and the near-collapse in Toronto (where the Bucks gave up an 11-point lead in the final minute and were forced to win in overtime) and the actual-collapse in Chicago (where the Bucks gave the game away after playing like themselves for most of it), all of which stand out in the mass of middling basketball that includes double-digit losses to the Wizards, the Celtics, the Nets, and the Grizzlies in the last month.

Since November 6, which was the end of Milwaukee’s scorching 9-0 start to the season, the Bucks rank 23rd league-wide in Net Rating (-1.9). Their defense has remained a top-10 unit during that stretch (defensive rating of 112.0, good for 9th overall), but the offense is positively putrid: 110.1 offensive rating, second-to-last in the league and above only a Charlotte Hornets team that had been missing LaMelo Ball for a long stretch...and that just took the Bucks to task on their home court.

To put it succinctly, something has to change. As one-time (and forever) Buck Brandon Jennings asks:

Giannis isn’t setting new career highs in points because he wants to, but because he has to. Our hometown hero is getting his Greek Freak on in order to carry the Milwaukee Bucks on his back through the last several weeks, and if last night’s letdown was any indication, the burden is too much to bear if an NBA Finals appearance is actually the end-goal.

Something has to change. But what?

As most Bucks fans already know, the team has dealt with significant injury absences recently, including some nasty non-COVID illnesses that went around and further eroded the roster’s health. Jrue Holiday has not been himself for a while, Pat Connaughton missed the first few weeks of the year, and Joe Ingles missed the first few months, but no absence is as profound as that of Khris Middleton, who has appeared in only 7 games and is desperately needed at full-strength on the court.

So what are the Bucks to do? Do they keep their cards in play and seek out a move between now and the February 9 trade deadline that will help get the team on-track in time for the playoffs? Or is it best to bow out of any risky gambles with roster reconstruction, and simply wait for everyone we expected to contribute to return to form? Patience is a virtue, perhaps, but patience is a difficult prescription when you’re struggling to keep up with your peers and the expectation is contention for a title.

It doesn’t help that the Bucks have precious few assets to work with, and everyone knows it. Their only draft pick of consequence available to trade is a 2029 first round pick, and their only players with movable contracts amount to a modest collection. Grayson Allen, George Hill, and Jordan Nwora might get you $15 million of salary to work with, but a team willing to take them back in exchange for a true difference-maker is merely theoretical at present.

Hold ‘em? Or fold ‘em? If you’re the Milwaukee Bucks, all eyes must remain fixed on the prize that lies at the end of the NBA Playoffs, or else the efforts that fall short will result in not just another postseason disappointment, but the squandering of a year of Giannis’ prime.

High stakes, indeed.

UPDATE: As if posting as a direct response to any consternation, Giannis himself would suggest that the Bucks just need time to get themselves recombobulated, and all will be well.