When Giannis Antetokounmpo stormed out of his after the Milwaukee Bucks‘ to the Toronto Raptors in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, it was hard not to feel like the season ended in failure. How strange for a team that prior to the season hadn’t won a single playoff series in almost 20 years, and were only slight favorites to win its own division.
That feeling, though, was a testament to the success the Bucks had this season. From opening a brand new arena, to the roster constructed by GM Jon Horst, to the offensive and defensive systems implemented by head coach Mike Budenholzer and Giannis’ evolution into an MVP candidate, everything fit together to perfection.
They finished with the best regular-season record in the league at 60-22, boasted the best defense and the best net rating, only lost consecutive games once and won a historic 45 games by double digits — more double-digit wins than 17 teams had altogether. After years of not knowing what sort of performance you were going to get from the Bucks on any given night, they were so good at times in the regular season that covering games became boring.
And in a town and state dominated by baseball and football, this group re-established the Bucks as a cultural force in the city. Thousands of people gathered outside Fiserv Forum to party and watch playoff games — both home and away — on giant screens, while Brewers and Packers players were the ones sitting in the crowd supporting their fellow Wisconsin athletes.
After their regular season and early playoff dominance, which included going up 2-0 in the ECF, losing four straight to get knocked out ahead of the Finals was a failure. There’s no other way around it. At the same time, this was the best season for the franchise in two decades and far more successful than anyone could have imagined back in October. Both things can be true, and both are important for the future of the team.
For years, the Bucks’ branding and marketing push has been about hope and building for the future. Well the future has arrived. They have a brand new building, a top-five player in Giannis and transformed into a legitimate title contender this season. But as they head into what figures to be a fascinating summer, they have some important decisions to make in order to not only maintain their status, but take the next step and win a championship.
Save for Giannis and Eric Bledsoe, four of the six players who started games for them in the playoffs are set to be free agents. Khris Middleton (assuming he opts out), Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic are all unrestricted, while Malcolm Brogdon will be a restricted free agent. George Hill, meanwhile, has a non-guaranteed contract worth $18 million for next season, and there’s no way they’ll pay him that kind of money, no matter how important he became to the team in the postseason.
In a perfect world, the Bucks might wish they could just run things back with the same group, but they won’t have the money to do that — in no small part because they jumped the gun and inked Bledsoe to a four-year, $70 million extension earlier this season.
At the time, Bledsoe was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career, and it wasn’t hard to make an argument he was the Bucks’ second-best player. He once again floundered in the playoffs, though, and was benched down the stretch in the team’s most important game. Bledsoe is still important to what the Bucks do, and he’ll be helpful next season, but there has to be some concern in the team’s front office about his inability to help the team in the postseason, and how that limits their championship aspirations. But that deal is signed, and there’s no taking it back. Now, the Bucks must figure out what they want to do moving forward.
First and foremost, they have to re-sign Khris Middleton, regardless of how much it costs them. Those who cover the Bucks on a consistent basis will tell you that doing so will bring the ire of Bucks Twitter — a low-key rowdy bunch — but the team really doesn’t have any other choice. Middleton is a classic very-good-but-not-great player. He averaged 18.3 points, six rebounds and 4.3 assists, while shooting 37.8 percent from 3 en route to his first All-Star appearance in the regular season, but can be streaky and disappeared at times during the playoffs. It’s understandable that people would be adverse to paying him max money, but letting him walk leaves the Bucks in an even worse position. They won’t have the cap space to replace him, and even if they did, it would be hard to find a true upgrade.
Next, there’s the Malcolm Brogdon conundrum. Like Middleton, the Bucks may be forced into the difficult position of overpaying to keep an important, but unspectacular player. Brogdon is a restricted free agent, and his performance this season may result in some team with cap space throwing a monster offer his way — both because they want Brogdon for themselves, and because they know how much matching it could hurt the Bucks. Brogdon became just the eighth player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club, and was perhaps the most consistent member of the supporting cast in the postseason once he returned from injury. His versatility on both ends is key for the Bucks, and there’s no doubt they’d love to have him for the future. But at what cost?
And what to do about Brook Lopez? It didn’t take long for the veteran center to establish himself as the best free agent signing of the summer — at least in terms of production relative to cost. He wasn’t the Bucks’ best player, but aside from Giannis, he may have been their most important in terms of how he allowed them to play. His willingness, and ability, to hoist 28-foot 3s as a center helped open up all sorts of space for Giannis to operate inside, and he was a stout rim defender on the other end. The bad news for the Bucks is he might have been too good of a signing, and some other enterprising team may just want to bring Lopez’s defense-altering shooting to their side. According to a report from ESPN, re-signing Lopez is a “priority” for the team, but again, at what cost? Can the familiarity with the Bucks’ system, and the opportunity to start on a contending team convince him to take less money to stay in Milwaukee? Should it? We’ll find out soon enough.
As for Mirotic, he seemed to be a rental all along, and his poor shooting in the ECF — 16.9 percent from 3, which got him benched for all of Game 6 — didn’t help his case. He could be a potential fall-back option, though, should something fall through with some combination of Middleton, Brogdon and Lopez.
Looming over all of these decisions, too, is Giannis’ fast-approaching. By virtue of making First-Team All-NBA this season, next summer, which would be the richest contract in NBA history. That would seem impossible to pass up regardless of the circumstances, but a Finals run next season would make it even tougher. Which is why the Bucks need to nail this summer — not just for their hopes of contending next season, but for years down the line.