The 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks were, perhaps, one defensive matchup from winning an NBA championship. They were up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals when Nick Nurse sprung Kawhi Leonard onto Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Raptors proceeded to win four straight before taking out the hobbled Warriors for the title.
To be fair, that’s an oversimplification of all that befell the Bucks, and lifted the Raptors, and we’ll get into some of that. But on some level, Kawhi was simply better than Giannis, and everything trickled down for their respective teams from there.
Still, Milwaukee fans can easily dream of an alternate ending. If Kawhi’s Plinko game-winner caroms one inch another way, Toronto goes to overtime against Philly in Game 7 of the second round and perhaps doesn’t even make it to the conference finals. In such a scenario, Milwaukee probably beats Philly and has a pretty good shot of doing the same thing Toronto did against the injury-riddled Warriors.
Heck, even against Toronto, with Kawhi dominating and Giannis’ leverage significantly squeezed in the half-court, if Fred Van Vleet doesn’t go nuclear in Game 5, or Milwaukee doesn’t blow a 15-point lead in Game 6, the Bucks likely win that series anyway. All of which is to say, rather obviously, they weren’t far off. Given Kawhi’s departure to the West, the Bucks, even if they remain flat, would appear to have the inside track on at least a Finals trip.
“I love [Milwaukee’s] continuity, I love their versatility, and at the end of the day, they have Giannis,” one Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. “Will they win 60 games again? I don’t know about that. But I think last season’s experience in the playoffs will be a big boost for them. They’ll learn from what they saw. Giannis, particularly, that was his first go-round seeing deep-playoff defense all focused on him. Every star has to go through that before they kind of take that next step. I would pick them to come out of the East.”
One league GM took it even further.
“Milwaukee should win [the championship],” the GM told CBS Sports. “I don’t know if they will, but they should. Nobody in the East should beat them, and then the West is just going to beat up on each other. I agree the field has evened out, but the Bucks, to me anyway, should be the favorite.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. For starters, Philly can’t be dismissed in the East. You could make an argument for Boston, too, if only as having a small-ball puncher’s chance (if they trade for a defensive big man, this is another conversation). But OK, let’s say the Bucks do get through the East; in all likelihood, they would still have to go through Kawhi — or a team with a Kawhi-type star who can single-handedly match, if not outplay, Giannis head to head — to win it all.
As for the Western Conference attrition, sure, that could be a factor. Conference imbalance continues to be an elephant in the NBA room. One could argue if the Warriors didn’t have to go through a seven-game war vs. OKC in the 2016 conference finals, perhaps they wouldn’t have petered out in the Finals against a Cavs team that enjoyed a relative cakewalk through its conference bracket. But that’s speculation.
And besides that, Leonard was gimping around on a leg that looked like it had a nail stuck in it during last year’s conference finals, and the Bucks still lost. The bottom line is this: Against the very best teams with the very best players, there was — and perhaps still is — a blueprint for foiling the Freak, and by extension, Milwaukee’s collective offensive attack that relies so heavily on its star being largely indefensible. It was a problem a separate Western Conference scout saw coming long before last year’s playoffs.
“I feel like Milwaukee is going to win a ton of regular-season games but be a disappointment in the playoffs,” the scout told CBS Sports in November of last season. “Nobody can guard Giannis, but [in the playoffs] they’re going to have five guys basically defending him. Everyone shading, walling him off. He’s going to be so frustrated. You just can’t barrel through everybody every time in the playoffs. So now you’re relying on the Khris Middleton’s and Eric Bledsoe’s to make a lot of shots.”
To that point, Middleton went 10 for 38 in three of Milwaukee’s losses to Toronto. Bledsoe had moments but wasn’t nearly consistent enough — particularly for a guy who got a $70 million contract — and was ultimately outplayed by Kyle Lowry.
And now the Bucks have arguably gotten worse. They lost the shooting of Nikola Mirotic. More problematic, they allowed restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon to leave for Indiana via a sign and trade, which feels vaguely similar to the Rockets letting Trevor Ariza walk in the summer of 2018.
Brogdon is better than Ariza (even when you consider the exponential value of Ariza in Houston’s switching defense), but in essence, you have a team that was on the cusp of a Finals berth parting ways with an integral piece, without really replacing him, in the name of savings. Both Houston (last year) and Milwaukee (this year) avoided the luxury tax, but at what cost?
For the Bucks, that likely depends on Giannis.
Wes Matthews isn’t going to replace Brogdon, and Brook Lopez replicating his historic shooting season can’t be assumed. Through a pessimistic lens, the Bucks are overpaying at least Middleton, who’s the definition of a circumstantial max player and is only an All-Star in the East, and perhaps Bledsoe depending on what he brings in the playoffs this coming season. Go down the roster, and it’s hard to argue they are less potent on paper. But Giannis can render all that moot.
If Antetokounmpo takes another step forward, mainly as a shooter, the whole equation changes. And there’s good reason to think he can. He shot just under 33 percent from three in the playoffs, and he looked even more comfortable than that number suggests. He made a couple absolutely huge, season-on-the-line threes, and he didn’t hesitate for a second taking them, backing out against mismatches and stepping into space in rhythm. The form looked good. The confidence was there. And you know he’s going to continue to get the cushion.
This is an evolution for many of the game’s greatest players. Early in his career, LeBron was defended the same way as Giannis — ball-defenders sagging, helpers collapsing on drives, etc. When James started punishing teams with pressure-releasing jumpers, it was a wrap, the final piece of the perfect basketball puzzle.
Kawhi, likewise, has become arguably the best player in the world because he murders you from mid-range and shoots 38 percent from three. One scout told CBS Sports that Leonard becoming deadly as a pull-up 3-point shooter “made him just about impossible to guard.”
The same would be true for Giannis, though his reaching Kawhi levels of shooting isn’t going to happen this season, if it ever does. At the same time, Giannis’ length, athleticism and ability to get to the rim is unparalleled in today’s game. He doesn’t have to be a lights-out shooter. He just has to have a credible counter to the multi-layered defense he’s going to see in the playoffs.
Giannis is already the MVP and arguably the best defensive player in the league. He’s made big strides as a direct playmaker when teams help off the Bucks’ shooters, and it’s not out of the ordinary to see him read the leaning second layer of a defense from the top of the key and fire a LeBron-like pass to the corner before anyone can recover.
Indeed, the instincts, invariably harder to develop, are there, and as for the things you can teach, the skill development, everyone you talk to in the league raves about Giannis’ work ethic. He’s a crazed competitor. The man wants to be the best. You’d be foolish to bet against him eventually adding these components to his game.
The question is: Will it happen this season? Because the Bucks are right there, and you don’t know how long these windows stay open. The Nets add Kevin Durant to the fold in 2020-21, and that summer Giannis is a free agent. Whether he stays in Milwaukee could depend heavily on the Bucks winning a title, or at least making continued strides toward doing so, in these next two seasons. The fact that people around the league are saying they should be the favorite only amplifies the expectations, and thus, the pressure.