2021 is not your ordinary year in Milwaukee. The Bucks enter the new season with a bolder set of expectations, as consecutive Giannis Antetokounmpo MVP seasons have not translated to postseason success. Staring at an aging and stagnant roster, General Manager Jon Horst acted fast and the Bucks re-shaped its historically successful regular-season team. Here is how it looks.
The central idea is that these moves will lift Milwaukee into the NBA Finals. But this is far from a slam dunk. The Bucks playoff woes run deep, and there are warning signs among this new group as well. To understand how these new additions help, let’s trace back to Giannis, and the Bucks failed playoff appearances.
GIANNIS AND CONSECUTIVE POSTSEASON MELTDOWNS
As the stakes have gotten bigger, head coach Mike Budenholzer has doubled down on his regular-season offense. Milwaukee is built on Giannis and a group of floor spacing wings. The ball-handling forward is a historic downhill force, as ‘The Freak’ can stride to the rim with unstoppable ease. In the playoffs, Milwaukee has taken this concept to the extreme. Over the last two postseasons, Budenholzer has deployed Giannis at center over 35% of the time. A massive nod to Giannis’ shot creation and paint presence.
But in recent playoff series, this framework has crumbled. Giannis’ inability to get to his sweet spot has been a fatal blow to Milwaukee’s offense. Pay particular attention to the decline in attempts at the rim over the last two elimination series.
Without a viable Plan B, the Bucks have become easy prey to sound team defense concepts. A standard Giannis offensive possession often leads to multiple defenders clogging the paint. But the MVP has also stumbled upon a pair of capable ball defenders. Against Toronto, Pascal Siakam held ‘The Freak’ to 41% on 22 attempts. Last season it was Jae Crowder’s turn, limiting him to 35% from the field. In both matchups, Giannis was incapable of getting to the free-throw line, attempting only 4 free throws in 49 total matchup minutes.
With these past failures in mind, the Bucks took an aggressive approach in the offseason. The strategy is built on diversifying the team’s scoring portfolio. But did Milwaukee’s brain trust do enough to move the needle? Most importantly, did those moves come at a heavy price?
JRUE HOLIDAY’S ROLE AS A COURT GENERAL AND DISRUPTOR
The arrival of Jrue Holiday signals a shift in how Budenholzer plans to deploy Giannis. Holiday is a tenacious defender, and his impact on both ends is an immediate upgrade over the departed Eric Bledsoe. How he complements Milwaukee’s star is fascinating. Jrue is not a knockdown shooter, but his ability to navigate the offense is key. One area where Giannis will benefit is as a roll man in the pick and roll. Last season, the Bucks deployed him on only 6% of the possessions. But pay attention to where he ranks among other ball-handling forwards. A list that includes Holiday’s previous teammate Jaxson Hayes.
Maneuvering Giannis as a chess piece helps to solve the complex puzzle of postseason basketball. Holiday’s unselfishness is the ideal partnership to Giannis’ off the ball role. But it is not just in the half-court where the marriage thrives. Last year Milwaukee ranked in the 6th percentile in points per transition possession. Jrue’s impact should be immediate. His ability to obstruct passing lanes puts him at the very top of the list. Take a look.
Holiday’s disruption will have a positive impact on the quality of Milwaukee’s fast-break opportunities. Giannis is a 6’11” specimen who glides in the open court. The partnership with Jrue now enables Giannis to run, as the newcomer can turn defense into instant offense. This dynamic should provide the franchise cornerstone new ways to contribute, turning Giannis into a more well rounded offensive player come the postseason.
NEW CONCERNS DEFENDING THE PICK AND ROLL
To maintain space around Giannis the Bucks doubled down on a fresh new set of outside shooters. Bryn Forbes is an electric sniper. Last season the Spurs guard shot an impressive 39.5% on 281 catch and shoot threes. Ex-Magic DJ Augustin brings a similar dynamic as well. The 5’11” point guard averaged 38% from deep on over 1,000 three-point attempts in Orlando. But these additions came at a heavy price. Both George Hill and Wesley Matthews Milwaukee were ideal compliments to the roster, thus putting a significantly bigger target on the two diminutive guards.
In Bledsoe, Hill, and Matthews the Bucks lost their top three pick and roll defenders last season. The trio combined to defend 920 possessions to great success. But the player that stood out among the group was Matthews. The new Los Angeles Laker is a hawkish defender, capable to shift thru screens and effectively disrupt the flow of offenses. While Jrue brings new defensive attributes he is not the same type of lateral defender. Here is how they compared defending the pick and roll.
Newcomer Torrey Craig and roster holdover Donte DiVincenzo should provide some defensive relief. But both players come with deficiencies as well. This imbalance places additional pressure on Milwaukee’s defensive structure. A framework that currently protects Brook Lopez’s lack of mobility in space. It will be interesting to see how Budenholzer manages this change. The Bucks want to park Lopez under the rim at all costs. But bleeding points in the mid-range (or three-point line) may force Milwaukee to reshape its defense.
A BIG CRUNCH TIME VOID
The loss of George Hill should not be overlooked either. Last season Hill’s 46% from deep led the NBA in three-point percentage. While Forbes and Augustin should alleviate some of the shooting concerns, it is within the context of Hill’s exceptional crunch time play that we see a large void. Hill was a defensive pillar in Milwaukee’s late-game lineups, registering the second-most crunch time minutes on the team. His +31 in 51 minutes was a big reason for the Bucks’ 14-5 record in those critical situations. Thus leaving a massive gap to fill late in games.
Conversely, neither Forbes nor Augustin bring the same type of late-game presence. Their lack of size is an ideal target for offenses. Last season the duo combined -26 in similar crunch time situations. Milwaukee now has to face some tough late-game questions. Infuse offense and hope to outscore opponents late? Or continue to rely on the same defensive infrastructure with new and oddly-fit pieces? How the Bucks navigate this scenario will dictate the outcome of many close games this year.
BUCKS SEASON PROJECTION
Most are quick to pencil Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals conversation without much hesitation. The Bucks have the league’s MVP and most destructive weapon. But the recent roster overhaul hints of desperation. This could provide a fatal blow to postseason success. While Budenholzer can now deploy his star in different ways, Milwaukee is more vulnerable in other areas. For a team with championship aspirations, these moves must nudge the Bucks into a top-5 offense. A mere marginal gain may not be enough to overcome key roster departures. Thus placing Giannis and company back into the same outcome of prior seasons.