No. 1 seeds aren’t supposed to be so flawed and vulnerable in the NBA, but under coach Mike Budenholzer the Bucks have done things differently.
Milwaukee’s exaggerated offensive spacing and defensive tenacity—centered around arguably the league’s most unique superstar—has equaled a ton of regular-season wins the past two years. And because of the success, the organization has racked up a bunch of individual awards and accolades for Bundeholzer, Giannis Antetokounmpo, some of the supporting cast, and even general manager Jon Horst who won the 2019 NBA Executive of the Year Award.
Yet it’s translated into precisely zero postseason success and two straight seasons of dominating the Eastern Conference over 82 games without sniffing the NBA Finals means things need to change STAT in Milwaukee. So where do we begin trying to fix the Bucks? What moves must be made in order to capitalize on their championship window? It starts and stops with the Greek Freak—because that’s how things work in NBA—but there are obvious improvements and one major upgrade that Milwaukee should make if it wants to breakthrough to its first Finals since 1974.
Is Giannis Committed?
First and foremost: Whether the presumptive back-to-back MVP wants to remain in Milwaukee is the biggest question this off-season. Bigger than what Golden State’s going to do with the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft.
The rumor mill is about to shift into fifth-gear as Antetokounmpo’s future—he’s under contract with Milwaukee for one more season—takes center stage thanks to a lackluster free agent class. Does the 25-year-old superstar, in his sixth season, confirm his commitment to the only organization he’s ever known? Or does he demand coaching or personnel changes in exchange for signing the designated veteran player extension he’s eligible for this summer (aka, the supermax)? Or does he demand a trade to another contender and leave Milwaukee like so many have speculated he will?
Well, late Tuesday Yahoo's Chris Haynes reported that Antetokounmpo is committed to the organization.
“Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it," Antetokounmpo told Haynes. "We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.”
You can make a case that Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo have reached a fork in the road. And in today’s NBA we know who holds all the power when you reach said fork: the superstar. The Bucks desperately want Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $248 million extension this off-season because he's their present and future, but it's going to need to show him it isn't just spinning its tires. Two straight seasons of pathetic playoff flameouts, in theory, should test the Greek Freak’s patience and loyalty.
Without some significant changes to the roster and the way it plays in the postseason, the Bucks have probably reached a ceiling. In order to keep the franchise’s best player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar happy, on course toward an NBA Finals appearance, and signed for the long haul, Milwaukee can’t just run it back. The roster needs a significant upgrade. It also needs a new head coach.
Move on From Budenholzer
No one’s saying Budenholzer is a bad guy who needs to go because his attitude is toxic and he’s ruining the Bucks. He led Milwaukee to two straight seasons with the most wins in the regular-season. That's not insignificant. But he’s come up woefully short in the playoffs two years in a row coaching a loaded squad in the easily navigable Eastern Conference and the organization would probably be best served severing ties with the 2019 NBA Coach of the Year. It’s the pertinent and probably necessary thing to do as the amount of criticism leveled at Budenholzer for his postseason failures has been completely warranted.
After getting badly out-coached by Nick Nurse in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Budenholzer yet again was schooled this year by Erik Spoelstra. Budenholzer refused to budge from the sets and gameplan that made the Bucks so successful in the regular-season. But postseason basketball is a different beast when squads can gameplan like crazy over a seven-game series and pinpoint precisely all your flaws. Adjustments are mandatory. So when your coach refuses to offer up different looks you became extremely beatable.
Plus, you can’t put a minutes restriction on your superstar in the playoffs. Sure, you need to be careful and preserve Antetokounmpo as much as possible. But load management should be relegated to the regular-season. Not during the playoffs. Budenholzer was rightfully ripped for only playing the Greek Freak 30.8 minutes a game these playoffs. If 35-year-old LeBron James can average 34.3 minutes a game in the postseason, Antetokounmpo, who is carved out of granite, can play more. In fact, he needs to.
Budenholzer has previously placed blame on himself after many Milwaukee regular-season and playoff loses—he did just that after a Game 2 loss to the Heat telling reporters, “I’ve got to be better.” He wasn’t, of course, the rest of the series and the only reason it wasn’t a sweep was that Miami let its guard down in Game 4. Budenholzer gets a bit of a pass not having Antetokounmpo for the whole series while he dealt with a serious ankle injury. And let’s not forget the incredible burden the players took upon themselves when they elected to strike in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting back in Wisconsin. Mentally and emotionally it undoubtedly weighed on Budenholzer's players.
But if Milwaukee’s serious about being more than just a regular-season juggernaut, it has to bring in a new coach who isn’t afraid to pivot in the playoffs. And it has to be a coach that immediately commands the respect of Antetokounmpo.
Coaches are hired to be fired and we all know the NBA’s a players’ league. There have already been a number of surprising hires and fires the last few weeks—like Steve Nash’s hiring in Brooklyn and Nate McMillan’s firing in Indianapolis. Billy Donovan just did a phenomenal job of coaching the Thunder to an unexpected playoff appearance and the franchise decided to part ways with him Tuesday. Don’t be surprised if Budenholzer is the next coach to get canned.
There are plenty of excellent candidates out there for Milwaukee, including Ty Lue, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, and potentially Houston’s Mike D’Antoni who might not return to the Rockets. Bringing back Budenholzer, despite the cachet he’s built up with the Bucks, would not be advised.
Get Giannis a Star Playmaker—Specifically CP3
The Bucks have a very good supporting cast. Full of veterans who can bomb it from deep and play excellent individual and team defense—two of Antetokounmpo’s teammates made NBA’s All-Defense Second-Team this season (Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez). Khris Middleton, Milwaukee's No. 2 option, is a two-time All-Star.
But they still could use more shooters to bail out Antetokounmpo when he’s double or triple-teamed. More than anything, the Bucks need a top-tier playmaker and priority No. 1 should be acquiring a dynamic distributor and facilitator so the offense isn’t so Antetokounmpo focused.
We all know Eric Bledsoe isn’t the answer at point guard, despite the fact Milwaukee gave him a big extension last season. He’s gritty, but flawed, and perennially under-performs in the postseason.
Middleton’s a very good player, but championship squads in the NBA almost always feature two stars (the 2011 Mavs and 2019 Raptors exceptions to the rule). The Bucks need another star to pair alongside Antetokounmpo.
So who should Milwaukee target? Well, the Bucks, like most good squads, are basically capped out—most likely they’ll only have the meager taxpayer mid-level exception to utilize that's worth slightly less than $6 million—and we know they won’t be getting any significant help in the draft. That means they’re going to have to get incredibly creative with a trade.
We’ll assume the Bucks aren’t about to blow it up and ship Antetokounmpo to Miami or Golden State, two teams rumored to be logical landing spots for one of the game’s best. So keeping that in mind, the Bucks should look toward Oklahoma City as the organization is reportedly ready to enter a rebuild. And that means Chris Paul is likely there for the taking. Can Milwaukee pony up a package enticing enough to pry Paul away?
After authoring one of his best seasons, we all know CP3 has a ton left in the tank despite being 35. He’s just as hungry to win as Antetokounmpo and imagining the damage that pick-n-roll combo could do, not to mention the clutch shots Paul regularly makes whether its from beyond the arc or a mid-range jumper, should make Bucks fans salivate. Acquiring CP3 won't be easy, but the Bucks need to think big.
Fred VanVleet is the premier point guard available in free agency and, for our money, underrated. But the Bucks would have to perform some kind of voodoo to fit him in and you’d rather have CP3 anyway if so much roster movement is necessary to upgrade at point guard. There are some notable names out there at the position who could become free agents, but they all have player options and none would seismically shift the NBA the way acquiring Paul would.
Your favorite NBA insider will be chasing Antetokounmpo and CP3 rumors and scoops like a madman over the next month or two. Already, Marc Stein of The New York Times tweeted that rival teams expect the Bucks to chase Paul. If the Bucks could pair Paul and Antetokounmpo with a coach who makes adjustments when it matters most, I’ll easily argue the Bucks should be the favorites in the Eastern Conference whenever the 2020-21 NBA season starts. But run it back without any major changes and it ain’t hard to imagine Milwaukee rebuilding rather than reloading real quick.