MILWAUKEE — The NBA went certifiably bonkers during the offseason.
Across the league, teams made blockbuster trades, elite players changed teams and the balance of power continued to shift from the East to the West.
Amid all that chaos, the Milwaukee Bucks stayed the same. The franchise’s decision-makers opted to let nature take its course by bringing back 13 of the 15 players who lost to Toronto in the opening round of the playoffs and banking the team’s future on continued improvement from the young players who make up their core.
“It’s not like we didn’t turn over every stone, didn’t work, didn’t make our calls, didn’t investigate every opportunity we could to make this team better,” first-year general manager Jon Horst said Monday. “But we saw a team that was young. It was the second-youngest in the league last year. We started two rookies in the playoffs and had a really competitive playoff series with Toronto. We knew we were going to come into this year with a top-10 type player on our team, with a still extremely young core and we said, ‘Why would we change this?’ ”
Indeed, with one quiet offseason, the Bucks’ direction has become obvious. They kicked the tires on every big name that came up in trade discussions, but instead of going on a spending spree hoping to put the team over the top this season, they decided to maintain the status quo and continue building with youth around rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
When the Bucks held media day Monday, there was talk of the franchise’s first 50-win season and first victory in a playoff series since 2001. More than ever, though, the team’s success is tied to the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo and whether he can become a bona fide MVP candidate who is capable of leading his team to a championship.
“What’s become clear is we now have a top-10 player,” co-owner Marc Lasry said. “The goal or the dream of winning a championship I think today is far more real that it was when we first bought the team (in 2014). That was our hope. That’s still our hope. Today you can see that there’s a great foundation there and it’s, how long it is going to take for us to get there? We think the way we’re going to get there is if everybody keeps on developing.”
Especially Antetokounmpo, who led the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots last season. If he can improve his outside shot and continue to grow as a decision-maker on offense, his ceiling is unlimited.
“Giannis will be great,” veteran guard Jason Terry said. “He will be one of the top (players) in NBA history. And that’s because he’s a worker. He’s a student of the game. He puts the necessary time into his craft and then he goes out and implements what he’s worked on in game situations. He’s a team guy. When your leader is all about team, then you’re going to have success.”
Antetokounmpo is aware MVP awards almost always go to players on top teams. The knee injury that kept him out of the Eurobasket tournament has healed, his four-year, $100 million contract extension kicks in this season and he clearly wants to bring a championship to Milwaukee.
For that reason, he’s on board with the Bucks’ decision to stick with the still-young core of Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Thon Maker, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon, Greg Monroe and Matthew Dellavedova plus seasoned veterans such as Terry and Mirza Teletovic. Parker said the second surgery on his left knee likely will keep him out until February, but otherwise the Bucks are healthy and intact after winning 42 games during an injury-plagued 2016-17 season.
“A lot of people say the East is wide open, that a lot of trades have happened and a lot of people went from the East to the West, but we have the same core,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think the front office did a great job with that. That gives us an advantage because in the first game, the first tipoff, we’re going to be ready.”
Maybe it was because the team is up against the luxury-tax threshold or maybe it was because the time isn’t right to go all-in, but the Bucks decided continuity was the key to taking the next step in a building project that began the day Antetokounmpo was drafted in 2013.
“One of the things we’ve decided is we’ve got a phenomenal core,” Lasry said. “We all know we do. As we looked at this offseason we wanted to add a little bit more on the edges. But we’ve got a great core and as long as that core keeps on developing, I think we’re going to get to a championship.”
No one is predicting that for this season, though a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference is a reasonable goal. Parker’s contract situation, which is complicated by his knee injury, hasn’t been resolved, but Middleton is healthy once again and players such as Maker, Snell and Brogdon have room for growth.
“We decided to play the continuity card and stick with what we thought was really working,” co-owner Wes Edens said. “And we thought the best thing we could do is to get one year older.”
In time, the Bucks might need to make moves to become a championship team. But for now they have put their faith — and their future — in Antetokounmpo’s ability to become a superstar and help elevate the play of his teammates.