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Failure Has Consequences

Time is up for this era of the Milwaukee Bucks

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Let’s cut to the chase: Mike Budenholzer should be out of a job by this weekend. Other members of the Milwaukee Bucks should follow in his wake this summer.

We should not pretend that Milwaukee’s disastrous first-round ass-whooping at the hands of the Miami Heat should be borne solely by Bud. He didn’t draw up truly godawful play from Jrue Holiday. He didn’t call the “Giannis breaks his ass 10 minutes into the post-season” play. He didn’t conjure up a spell to turn large swathes of his roster into an April pumpkin patch. The blame for failure is shared by many, but in a summer with few options available to significantly alter the trajectory of this team, replacing a good (though likely not great) coach is one of the largest levers to pull.

In fairness, Budenholzer was almost assuredly the right coach at the right time for a team needing to move beyond the scaremonger tactics of Jason Kidd. In his five seasons, Bud has racked up a 271-120 record (a .693 winning percentage), five playoff appearances, two Eastern Conference Finals showings, and an NBA title. An actual championship! On paper, Bud has overseen a level of success the Bucks hadn’t even fathomed for decades.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. After landing on two schematic bedrocks — “let it fly” blue box offense and zone-drop defense — the coaching staff seemed to have shown little forward strategic momentum. Evolutions we’ve seen since year one were fleeting: Heavy switching defense only featured during the 2020-2021 season and playoffs, Giannis’s mid-range offensive growth continually stalled out in favor of out-of-touch three pointers or the usual catastrophic paint violence, and the occasional small/all-big lineups that never consistently worked in practice. Frankly, I’m struggling to come up with many other “innovations” the team tried out in a sustained fashion over the past five years. I’m happy to be reminded of things I’m forgetting.

And even those top-line playoff numbers mask failures:

  • Crashing out v. Miami, 4-1 in the first round, 2023
  • Losing to Boston, 4-3 in the ECSF after losing a possible clinching Game Six at home, 2022
  • Losing to Miami, 4-1 in the ECSF in the Bubble, 2020
  • Losing to Toronto, 4-2 in the ECF, 2019

Each loss has a valid excuse attached to it (COVID Bubble, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton’s injury, Giannis’s ass-breaking) but the through lines of outright offensive incompetence associated with each is worthy of note. No coach can micromanage every single possession of every single game. Elite coaches should be savvy enough to direct their guys into meaningful material changes over the course of a series and, when the going gets rough, have an almost imperious hand in staunching the bleeding over the course of 48 minutes. The best we got was PJ Tucker coaching Bud.

In this series loss to Miami, the Bucks were beaten over the head by sky-high opponent shooting percentages. Some (many) of those shots were simply Jimmy Butler outplaying anyone in a Bucks uniform. Besides him, though, I struggle to think of many shot attempts where Heat players were put under immense pressure. Either relatively simple player and ball movement had the Bucks in a blender and conceding open looks, or the Heat routinely walked into shot types Milwaukee’s defense has happily conceded for years now. Yes, they were contested, but the Heat knew they could get those shots regardless of hands in faces.

Is a mid-range two mathematically the least efficient shot in any generic basketball game? Yes. Can it be hunted as a point of emphasis by an opponent who knows they’ll get as many attempts from there as they like? Unfortunately, yes. That is a systemic failure, and there is one man responsible for designing the system.

I’m too unintelligent and uninformed to suggest who should take over in Bud’s place. It is still the end of the line for him, in this writer’s opinion. A new set of eyes, a new voice, and a new style may do everyone some good.

Now, on to the players.

Jrue Holiday will rightfully draw a lot of flak for this most recent failure. Even heading into the playoffs his playmaking was showing sustained signs of erraticism; there were peaks of scoring but valleys of mediocre-or-worse creation. His shooting percentages against Miami were pedestrian, he was legitimately bullied by Jimmy Butler and will have a leading role in Butler’s Basketball Hall of Fame video montage, all done while playing with a nonchalant facade that, while likely masking a churn of volatile emotions, merely suggests stultifying indifference while the season was in its death throes.

That we have seen this Jrue numerous times before in the playoffs should start to suggest to us a legitimate pattern rather than aberrations. He shot a hilarious 36.4% from the floor on ~22 attempts a game against the Celtics last season. He shot an even worse 36.1% against Brooklyn the year before. His splits in the Finals v. Phoenix were .361/.314/.917. The optimist excuses this by crediting him for taking and owning the hardest defensive assignment every series. The pessimist wonders how low the team’s ceiling is if the second-best player on the roster is a boat anchor on your offense against anything more than playoff bottom feeders.

Of the two non-Giannis Big Three, he’s probably the better of the two to retain past this offseason. But even if he is here next fall and we have a star point guard to dominate the ball, how amenable will he be to a serious reduction in role? Since arriving in Milwaukee he has been a made man and received plaudits from every player with a pulse. Jrue is a humble guy, but we all have egos. Could he overcome his if the roster and coaching undergoes serious change? In any event, Holiday should absolutely be on the market this summer as a way to retool the team’s asset base.

We will always have The Steal and The Oop.

For Khris Middleton, the series was not a disaster. Without his scoring in the first quarter of Game Five, it’s probably just another laugher for Miami going away. The concerns about keeping him around have to do with the sustained declines in his availability and concurrent fall in his ability to impact both ends of the court. His handle was loose as a goose and asking to be exploited by any team willing to play with a measure of physicality. The number of possessions he gets stuck in no man’s land and makes an ill-advised pass into traffic are too high for a largely incompetent team offense to shrug off. I cannot remember the last time he did something meaningful on defense.

At his age and contract number, Khris is moving into “luxury” status as an asset on a team not structurally sound enough or with the kind of long track record to justify such an expense. Emotionally, his loss would be a huge blow to what this team has been in its modern era. Financially, paying him another max (or near-max contract) may be a real albatross on any winning Milwaukee can do with Giannis. I acknowledge that some of the decisions around Khris are outside the team’s control — namely whether he opts in or out of a $40 million player option. Trading him for more than $0.05 on the dollar will be nigh impossible even if he does opt in. I do not envy GM Jon Horst trying to square this circle.

Finally, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

I am deeply gratified that he gutted it out to come back and play in this series. That is what we admire and expect from professional athletes. With the season on the line he risked further injury rather than watching from the sidelines.

That being said, he played dumb. Not to the point where he was a total liability for the team, but in ways that made Miami’s job infinitely easier. Gone was the incisive Giannis who could keep generating looks for himself and others with poise. Back was the Giannis who lowered a shoulder into three defenders while having already decided he’d try to pull up out of the momentum to hopefully find a teammate he could pass to. Even when he the ball out of his hands, the passes sucked. He’s never been excellent at setting up teammates with passes to proper shooting pockets. This time around he barely got it to them at all, and almost never quick enough for a clean look. Defensively, he looked like a guy who broke his ass. There’s not much more to be said. He has to be better. That or risk seeing your career progression stall out just as it was really getting started.

Today, the rest of the roster are just a bunch of guys to me. There are a lot of good memories associated with them. There are a number of salary dollars we could use in trades associated with them, too. Everyone not named Thanasis should be fully prepared to hire movers in the coming months.

Make no mistake: I do not feel hopeless about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future Milwaukee Bucks tenure. He of all people will take on as much, if not more, responsibility for the recent failure that is due him. But we were bound to hit a wall at some point with our roster construction (constriction?), and it appears we have now slammed into it headfirst. Fixing this will take more than a summer, but the Bucks have time to put plans into motion that can convince Giannis to hitch the back half of his career to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It is hard to swallow that this may be it for one of the better eras in Bucks history. Harder still would be to allow it to stagger on any longer than necessary.

I’m convinced we’ve another act in store. This is not the end, just a new beginning.

Grasp it.