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Setting The Stage: Milwaukee Bucks Once Again Reach A Crossroads

In the aftermath of a first round flameout, where does Milwaukee go from here?

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NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks have been here before.

Okay, they haven’t been in this specific situation before, but they’ve navigated a franchise-defining inflection point before. Just think back to how rough things were in 2017 compared to now! Which situation would you rather have? In the ever-evolving environment that is the NBA, the Bucks fell (far) short of their goals this season, and are now reviewing and reflecting on what went wrong and what to do about it.

One thing is certain: merely days after the biggest first round upset in recent NBA history, nobody has all of the answers. Some things might seem obvious, but the devil thrives in the details and excising that wily demon is painstaking work. Last season, the playoff disappointment was mostly explained away by “well, Khris Middleton was hurt, and they still took Boston to seven, so if they were healthy they would be fine.” There is no one silver bullet that will cure what ails the Milwaukee Bucks, not this time around.

I posted a thread on Twitter yesterday that goes over the various decision points that need to be handled in the coming weeks and months. To reiterate, I don’t have all the answers, but I can at least help us coalesce around the questions. Here’s the path that awaits the Bucks this summer, and I hope you’ll weigh in with your opinions – and let me know what you think I missed – in the comments below.

Head coach Mike Budenholzer

It’s almost too easy to pin the Bucks’ ails on Mike Budenholzer. There are already signs that the franchise is considering his status as the team’s head coach, and as ESPN’s Zach Lowe remarked on a recent episode of ‘The Lowe Post’ podcast: there are some losses you simply cannot come back from. Really, if you have half an hour, press play on the video below and allow Zach’s rant to wash over you. It’s harsh but fair, and sorely needed.

So, yeah, the Bucks are in the market for a new head coach. But what route do you take? Giannis Antetokounmpo has 10 years of NBA experience behind him; he’s likely beyond the halfway point of his vaunted career. The time to win is now, and it’s not immediately evident what coach can take the Bucks from a perennial a perennial contender that is somehow better than the current version. It’s a job worth doing, but the candidate to do it may exist only in our imaginations! And at the same time, it would be deeply unpopular to stick with Mike Budenholzer at this stage; not just because of the track record, but because of the consistency of the flaws rearing their ugly heads and undermining the Bucks when the stakes are at their highest. Continuity is great, until it leads to more of the same when “the same” gets you bounced from the playoffs prematurely. Something has to change...but I won’t lie to you and claim to know exactly what direction to go here.

DPOY runner-up Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez was the best player Milwaukee had for the entirety of their first round series. He turned back the clock with his post scoring (when the Bucks used it, that is), he shot the ball well, he made Bam Adebayo play far below his own standard, and generally sealed off the rim from any Heat players not named Jimmy Butler.

At the same time, Brook Lopez is 35 years old and an unrestricted free agent. Milwaukee’s entire system exists because of his unique skill set and fit alongside Giannis. Losing Lopez means rewriting the program from scratch, and since the Bucks are already so far above the salary cap (and the tax line), so lobbying to bring Brook back on another sizable contract is a tough sell to ownership. The decision with Brook is one that will have cascading effects for the entire franchise; you can justify keeping him just as well as letting him walk.

All-Defensive Team guard Jrue Holiday

The Bucks would not be the team they became in 2021 without Jrue Holiday. He was a major driver for them when they won the title, and over the course of several lengthy Middleton absences (more on him in a bit), Jrue stepped up on offense as much as he possibly could. The workload, it seems, was simply too much for the two-time All Star, as his questionable decision-making on offense exacerbated the Bucks’ issues scoring the ball, while Jimmy Butler overcame the significant defensive effort that Holiday was obligated to put forth.

Jrue will be 33 next season and has two years remaining on the extension he signed in 2021 to make himself a “Buck for life.” He still has value on this team, but he will also have value around the league as a perimeter defender and secondary offensive contributor. Are the Bucks better off with him, warts and all, or with whatever he could bring back in a trade?

Three-time All Star Khris Middleton

It’s been a while since Bucks fans have been able to fully enjoy the experience that is Khash Money Middleton, and that gets to the heart of where Milwaukee is at with Khris. Since the 2017-18 season when he played all 82 games in the last year before the Coach Bud Era began, Middleton has played the following total games per season: 77, 62, 68, 66, and 33. He played in all 23 games of the 2021 title run, but he only played 2 games last playoffs and against Miami he looked like a shell of his former self. He was never an elite NBA athlete but he never seemed to be a physical liability until this series, when the Heat roughed him up and for the first time in ten years it didn’t seem that Middleton could take it and still perform at the high level needed for the team to succeed.

Middleton will turn 32 soon and will decide on staying in Milwaukee for one more season at $40.4 million, working out a multi-year extension, opting in as a part of a deal to play elsewhere, or opting out entirely and testing the open market. With his physical decline possibly in progress, it would be in Middleton’s best (financial) interest to lock in guaranteed money now. But it may not even be a fair way of summarizing Middleton’s campaign this season, where his summer was ruined by knee rehab and wrist surgery, throwing off his entire approach to this season. The two parties will need to firmly establish what they need from each side, and if an agreement can’t be found then the Bucks have a hard choice to make about how they will influence Middleton’s immediate basketball future.

The core rotation: Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen

All three of these players are borderline starters or top bench players, and they’re structured as such with their salaries. Portis found himself on the outside looking in by the end of the Heat series, playing only 29 minutes across Games 4 and 5, but Connaughton and Allen were regular features on the court throughout the series. All three can contribute in ways the Bucks need, particularly as shooters, but with Milwaukee’s salary sheet as crowded as it is, one (or more) of them might be a necessary loss in a larger deal to reinforce the top of the roster, depending on what happens with all of Lopez, Holiday, and Middleton.

The good news for the Bucks is that these three players seem to understand and appreciate their niche on this roster, and they’re all under contract for next season. However things shake out, it’s reasonable to assume that these guys will either play a major role next season...or be involved in whatever transactions Jon Horst concocts elsewhere.

The supporting cast: Joe Ingles, Jevon Carter, Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews

Each of these players has an interesting question surrounding them for next season. Joe Ingles looked good after coming all the way back from his ACL injury, but at 35 may be at a personal crossroads in terms of his career. Ditto for Wes Matthews, who played less at 36 but was a rare bright spot in the Bucks’ season-ending loss. It wouldn’t be a shock for either player to return to Milwaukee, or take a deal elsewhere, or simply retire.

Meanwhile, Jevon Carter has a player option for only $2.2 million next season, and there’s no telling what he’ll do with it. He could come back as one of the few available point guards the Bucks currently have and take an inside track to extensive playing time for next season. He could opt out and try for a bigger payday elsewhere, but his lack of playoff rotation minutes will likely put a cap on what another team might be willing to offer.

Then there’s Jae Crowder, who was conspicuously absent late in the Heat series after getting conspicuously torched earlier in the series. But apparently, per the JS’ Jim Owczarski, he’s the one who’s confused.

“I’ve never been in a situation like that,” Crowder said. “Eleven years. Check my résumé. I’ve been playing. I’ve always been playing. I’m very confused as to why I was brought here. I don’t know my purpose here and why I was brought here.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that, DNPs,” he said. “I haven’t had them in my career so why start now?”

Yet, Crowder won’t rule out re-signing with Milwaukee this summer. He enjoys being around his current teammates.

“I would (return), because in the locker room it’s a great group of guys who puts work first and we have fun after that,” he said. “I can work in that type of environment and I really do appreciate my teammates for welcoming me. From day one it’s just been love from that side. But that’s a conversation that has to be had.”

So one of two things must be the case: either Crowder’s role wasn’t clearly communicated to him, and therefore there was a disconnect that led to him riding the pine...or he played poorly and was benched in favor of a teammate who maybe wouldn’t play poorly. Based on these clips from The Athletic’s Eric Nehm and an article posted after Game One, my money is on the latter. Jae Crowder was unequivocally bad in the minutes he played against Miami; he was brought in to play tough defense and hit threes, and he did neither. What, would you say, you do here?

The rookie: MarJon Beauchamp

We didn’t forget about you, MarJon! Milwaukee’s lone rookie had an up-and-down introduction to the league, and while he showed promise there’s a lot he can work on for his sophomore season. Beauchamp is, in some ways, the antithesis of the bulk of the Bucks’ roster. He’s young, fast, athletic, and inexperienced; many players in the rotation are older, slower (but stronger), play with finesse, and stay with what works. As a result, there’s a case to be made that Beauchamp needs to have his development prioritized by the franchise, so that they can finally have an energetic, cost-controlled contributor playing actual minutes. Think of what the Warriors did with Jordan Poole, perhaps not to the same extent, but injecting some youth into the rotation!

That is, of course, if Beauchamp isn’t insisted upon by another team as a part of a larger trade negotiation. Milwaukee doesn’t have other picks to work with (more on that later) so they may be forced to dangle prospects instead. Well, prospect, singular, since there’s no one else like MarJon on the roster.

The rest of the NBA

Most expected the Bucks to make it to the NBA Finals. Or at least the Conference Finals. Or at least the second round. They didn’t, so the new pecking order is yet to be established, and the results over the next few weeks will determine not what happens to Milwaukee, but around Milwaukee. Will Philly falter once again and part ways with James Harden? Or will they triumph over Boston, and bring any underlying tension with the Celtics to light? What in the world is going to happen between the Knicks and Heat, both of whom beat a higher seed to reach the semi-finals? How will the results of this postseason change the landscape of the league, and therefore which players are available (or not) for Milwaukee to consider reloading their roster with?

The front office’s bare cupboard

Creative solutions are required, because Jon Horst has very little to work with. If Middleton and Carter both opt to use their player options to stick around, Milwaukee has a whopping $156.7 million on the books across 8 rostered players. Based on the structure of the CBA, they likely can keep any number of the current roster that’s available to test free agency, but with a higher payroll comes higher tax penalties, which is something that certainly influenced the recent ownership change.

“What about the draft?” you may ask? “What about the draft?!” would be the reply. Jon Horst mortgaged the team’s short term future by attaching so many first round picks and swaps in the Jrue Holiday trade (worth it!), and the remaining draft capital was flipped and re-flipped to bring in Jae Crowder. To wit, the Bucks have their own second-round pick this June, and a first round pick (pending a swap with New Orleans) in 2024 that effectively cannot be traded away. The nearest first round pick that the Bucks can trade is in 2029, which is an eternity away in basketball years. There just isn’t very much wiggle room at this point, further complicating the front office’s task.

The big fella

Giannis Antetokounmpo has largely avoided blame for the team’s collapse, especially since he was playing with a significant lower back injury. However, Giannis had several glaring weaknesses that contributed to Milwaukee’s loss, and as a result he’ll need to take responsibility and shore up those weaknesses. There’s no doubt that he will take the responsibility, of course...but what more can one person do? Notably, Giannis’ shooting touch took a major step backwards last season, both on jump shots and free throws. Considering his penchant for taking those shots, he simply needs to become more reliable at making them. He also involved himself in screens far less this season than in the title season, especially in the playoffs; the second part is understandable due to his injury, but a Giannis screen is one of Milwaukee’s most potent playoff weapons, so failing to use it contributes to the offense’s propensity to bog down.

More than anything, though...Giannis needs to rest. He needs to get his body right; in addition to his back, he had been dealing with that wrist issue from a midseason injury, plus his chronic knee soreness that consistently lands him in street clothes. Whatever offseason work he does, it’s in his (and the Bucks’) best interest to simply take it easy, for a change. If not, he risks further stressing out his (Greek) freaky form and increasing the chances of another injury that takes him out of his groove. Here’s hoping he follows through on it.

As you can see, there are so many different places where the Bucks need to make decisions. Should the coach stay, or go? Should the core get broken up, or kept together? Who from the rotation sticks around, and who leaves? What exactly is the team going to do this offseason to put themselves in position to succeed next season, and in the playoffs? Winning a seven-game series is hard; winning more than one is even harder. Winning four of them is the toughest challenge of all, and while a little bit of luck can go a long way, the Milwaukee Bucks must exert control over what they can control, and that involves some very difficult decisions to make.