Who says the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t make progress this season?
The team that claims to own the future won three playoff games in the present before it was eliminated, one more than last season. If the Bucks continue on that rate of improvement, they will win the NBA championship in 2031.
Cheer up, Bucks fans, Giannis Antetokounmpo will only be 36 by then. And the way things are looking, the Bucks will still be trying to find the right mix of players to fit around the Greek Freak 13 years from now.
Indeed, if yet another season of treading water revealed anything, it was that Milwaukee is a reasonably talented team doomed to mediocrity because it is poorly constructed. It didn’t matter if Jason Kidd or Joe Prunty was doing the coaching, the Bucks’ performance toggled between dynamic and disinterested, often in the same game. Heck, the same half.
No wonder the Bucks’ regular-season win total only rose from 42 to 44 in a season where they boldly predicted they would finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference and earn home-court advantage in the playoffs. They ended up seventh in the East with an ill-fitting roster that reflects years of decision-making by committee since the current ownership group took over in 2014.
If there is a master plan for building a team around Antetokounmpo, it has never become apparent. Constructing a roster with talent, balance, depth and chemistry is extremely difficult in the NBA, but at this point one can’t help but think there are too many chefs in the Bucks’ kitchen, all with their own agendas.
The minute the Bucks took Jabari Parker with the second pick in the 2014 draft, their roster-building plan should have become crystal clear. With Antetokounmpo already in place as the steal of the 2013 draft, the Bucks had two potentially elite forwards who played a similar explosive, slashing style. From the day those two joined forces, the Bucks’ sole focus should have been to surround them with shooters, put them with players who could stretch the floor and create open lanes to the basket for the stars.
Instead, the Bucks find themselves with some very good NBA players in Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe on a team that never consistently added up to the sum of its parts. For proof, look no further than the Bucks’ playoff exit. Milwaukee had more talent and experience than Boston, which was playing without its two best players, yet the Celtics prevailed in seven games and were never really threatened in the deciding game.
The Bucks had hoped to go into their new arena next season with a genuine title contender. Barring some major moves that don’t appear likely given the team’s the salary-cap situation, that won’t happen. They also have major decisions to make on Prunty, who was 21-16 as the interim coach, and Parker, a restricted free agent who might not be worth a large, long-term contract after returning from a second surgery on the same knee and playing inconsistently down the stretch.
So how do the Bucks get better?
They could start by putting a basketball person in charge of basketball operations and sending everyone else — owners, coaches and advisors — out of the room. The Bucks had a perfectly good general manager in John Hammond, but his voice became one of many once the new owners took over and he ended up leaving for a similar position in Orlando. His replacement, Jon Horst, is a bright basketball lifer but was a compromise candidate who likely has no more control than Hammond did.
The Bucks also need to stop trying to acquire and develop long, tall players for Kidd’s doomed trapping-style defense and instead concentrate on bringing in outside shooters to better fit with slashers such as Antetokounmpo, Parker and Bledsoe. In case anyone in Milwaukee hasn’t noticed, the NBA has become a 3-point shooting league and the Bucks haven’t kept pace.
The only Bucks player who shot better than 38.5 percent from deep this season was Tony Snell and he was playing so timidly by the end that he would barely take a shot. For the season, the Bucks shot 35.5 percent from 3-point range, which ranked 22nd in the NBA.
For sure, they caught a bad break when they lost Mirza Teletovic, who played only 10 games before blockages in his lungs were discovered, likely ending his career. Even with Teletovic, the Bucks often had only one or two pure 3-point shooters on the floor at any given time in an era when many teams try to have four. Often, the coaches were reduced to playing 40-year-old shooter Jason Terry, who was a liability on the perimeter defensively.
The Bucks defense was also sorely lacking at times as they struggled defending the 3 and had trouble locking down the middle without a physical inside presence. Big men John Henson and Thon Maker could be effective shot blockers, but they are so long and thin that they are easily pushed around, consistently giving opponents offensive rebounds and easy baskets.
Given the lack of a true leader on the team, the Bucks probably need to find a coach who is more dynamic than the laid-back Kidd or the cerebral Prunty. Mostly, though, they need to figure out what kind of team they want to be and then build it appropriately before it’s too late.