Another year, another missed opportunity for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Prior to the season shutting down in March due to COVID-19, the Bucks were the team to beat in the NBA. But they weren’t the same inside the Orlando bubble at Walt Disney World Resort – the Eastern Conference top seed was eliminated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
While superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo claimed back-to-back MVP honors, there are more questions than answers in Milwaukee, where the Bucks are still seeking their elusive first championship since 1971.
This is a scene of urgency for the franchise with Antetokounmpo set to become a free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season. He’s eligible for a max contract extension worth around $254 million this offseason.
As the Bucks try to pick up the pieces and provide adequate support for Giannis in what could be his last year with the team, let’s look at the issues facing the team heading into 2020-21:
BUCKS FALL SHORT… AGAIN
In 2018-19, the Bucks finished with the best regular-season record at 60-22 as Antetokounmpo earned his first MVP award. But Milwaukee went down to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.
This season, the Bucks owned a league-best 56-17 record, but they faded dramatically following the restart. Milwaukee became the first team in NBA history to have more losses (4-9) in its final 13 regular-season games than it did in the entire campaign prior to that (52-8).
After getting past the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic in the first round, the Bucks were no match for Jimmy Butler and the red-hot Heat. Now the wait for their first NBA Finals appearance since 1974 extends into next season.
The Bucks are only the second team in league history to have the outright best record two seasons in a row and not reach the Finals in either season, with the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers being the other.
GIANNIS’ SHOOTING WOES
For all his remarkable skills, Antetokounmpo’s shooting remains a weakness. The Greek Freak’s performance at the free-throw line was particularly troubling. He had the third-largest season-to-season decline in NBA history among players with at least 600 attempts in both campaigns.
In 2018-19, Antetokounmpo made 72.9% from the line before that number dropped to 63.3% this season. San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan tops the list with a difference of 14.3% from 1999-2000 to 2000-01, ahead of Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal (13.2% from 2002-03 to 2003-04).
To put things into context, Antetokounmpo missed 231 free throws during the regular season, and the Bucks’ 17 losses were by a combined 157 points. Over the past two seasons, Milwaukee has a record of 61-8 when he makes at least 70% of his free throws in a game – including a 9-0 in the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo did double his previous career high by making 1.4 3-pointers per game, but his 30.4% from beyond the arc wasn’t a notable increase from his 28.4% career mark.
BUCKS WITH/WITHOUT GIANNIS
Giannis averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists during the regular season to become the first player to receive MVP honors in successive seasons since Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry in 2015 and 2016.
But the 25-year-old forward re-injured his ankle late in Game 4 and Bucks were eliminated without him in Game 5. Over his career, he’s played at least 35 minutes in less than half of his playoff games (21 of 43). LeBron James (224 of 249) has done that in 90% of his postseason contests.
Antetokounmpo averaged 30.4 minutes during the regular season, ranking 72nd in the league. There has only been one team in league history to win the NBA title without having a player average at least 32 minutes: the 2013-14 Spurs. In the playoffs, it certainly didn’t help that he was called for at least four fouls in five of eight games before going down in the first half of Game 4.
After they had a plus-12.7 net rating with Antetokounmpo on the court and a plus-2.8 without him during the 2018-19 regular season, the Bucks posted a plus-16.4 net rating with Giannis this season and only a plus-2.6 without him. But in this year’s playoffs, the Bucks only had a plus-1.4 net rating with Giannis on the court and a minus-2.1 without him. Was this a small sample size or a disturbing trend?
|Season||Lineup||Off. Rating||Def. Rating||Net Rating|
DEFENDING THE ARC
Though they allowed a league-low 41.4 field-goal percentage during the regular season, the Bucks have to improve defensively on the perimeter. They gave up 14 3-pointers per game in the regular season and 15 in the playoffs. Both were the most allowed in NBA history (minimum 10 games for the playoffs).
Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver and Marvin Williams are free agents, while Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez have players options and Sterling Brown, Frank Mason and Cam Reynolds are restricted free agents. Connaughton was once thought to be an up-and-comer, but he wasn’t able to take a step forward this season. Williams is expected to retire and Korver may do the same.
Khris Middleton earned his second All-Star appearance in as many seasons for Milwaukee, averaging a career-high 20.9 points in 2019-20. Eric Bledsoe was third on the team with 14.9 points per game, but his scoring average dipped for the third straight season and he only scored 11.7 per game in the postseason.
STATS PERFORM VERDICT: EVOLUTION REQUIRED
The reality moving forward is that the club does not have the salary-cap space to add a third high-priced difference-maker this offseason. Donte DiVincenzo totaled 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting while getting increased playing time in Games 4 and 5 against the Heat. Can he make a big leap in Year 3?
Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks are likely to going to have to figure out how to get better from within heading into 2020-21.
Lineup data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.