They’re also entering this year without a traditional point guard on the roster to back him up, their best two-way player injured for what could be the entire season, a $17 million center who they’ve been trying to trade for eight months, and Michael Beasley, so those jets might need cooling a bit.
But let’s focus on the exciting stuff for now.
After Michael Carter-Williams, the point guard who Milwaukee just dealt for backup Chicago Bulls wing Tony Snell, suffered a season-ending hip injury in late February — starting on Leap Day of all days — Antetokounmpo averaged 19.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 3.4 combined blocks and steals over the final 23 games of 2015-16. LeBron James and Russell Westbrook were the only two others to put up a 19-8-7 in that span, and even they couldn’t match the Greek Freak’s defensive stats.
In fact, nobody has registered those numbers over a full season, at least not since the NBA started logging blocks and steals in 1973-74. And did we mention Antetokounmpo doesn’t turn 22 until Dec. 6?
Additionally, former No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker is now almost two full years removed from the ACL injury that robbed him of Rookie of the Year contention. He too thrived in the second half of last season, averaging 18.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists while unveiling a 3-point stroke after the All-Star break, and there’s hope he can take a similar step forward on his way to a 22nd birthday.
So, yeah, the excitement is real. Now for those jets cooling.
Khris Middleton tore his hamstring during an offseason workout last month, and while the Bucks are holding out hope he can return by season’s end, his prolonged absence robs them of the Swiss Army knife triumvirate at the 2-3-4 positions that makes Milwaukee so intriguing. The versatile 6-foot-8 and above combo of Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton allowed coach Jason Kidd to toy with anybody in the other two roster spots and create matchup problems all over the court, as the aforementioned trio proved upon combining for an absurd 56.3 points, 17.4 rebounds and 13.9 assists after Feb. 29.
Introduce a competent combo guard with 3-and-D capabilities — like Matthew Dellavedova, whose 41.0 percent clip ranked 11th among players who attempted at least 200 3-pointers last season — and a capable defensive big man with pick-and-roll proficiency — like Miles Plumlee, whose 1.44 points per possession as a roll man ranked third in the NBA last season — and you’ve got yourself a team.
But the lack of wing depth behind Middleton sent Milwaukee searching for someone like Snell, who the Bucks will hope can capitalize on a team-best plus/minus on the Bulls in more minutes this year.
Likewise, Kidd will try to maximize the specialties of players who have proven productive in certain roles over the years — guys like Beasley, Greg Monroe, John Henson, Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry — while working recent draft picks Rashad Vaughn, Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the rotation.
Regardless of how well Kidd balances the talent on his roster, there’s no getting around the fact his Bucks lost the best shooter and best defender on a team that ranked in the league’s lower third last year in both 3-point shooting (34.5 percent) and defense (105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Still, there’s always #PointGiannis to be excited about.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
I vote for Giannis to play more point forward
— Willie Armstrong (@CanadaBucks) January 11, 2016
If Kidd is actually starting to buy into Point Giannis, I think I might love this team even more than I thought……
— Kevin Neary (@kneary22) March 5, 2016
gtfoh — giannis legit eurostep dunked it from the three point line — how are him and i even the same species https://t.co/khQfnXEcA5
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) March 14, 2016
Bucks coach Jason Kidd said Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the team's point guard heading into next season.
— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) March 29, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Let’s leave the Middleton injury out of this, since we’ve already covered it and know it’s of no help.
If nothing else, the Bucks went for it this summer, reaching for the 7-foot-3 wingspan of Thon Maker with their 10th overall pick and throwing $38 million at everybody’s favorite Australian, Dellavedova.
The near $10 million price tag aside, Dellavedova is a perfect fit for Milwaukee, especially with Kidd’s goal of using Giannis “just like LeBron.” Delly ranked in the 95th percentile among spot-up shooters, just ahead of outgoing Bucks (and incoming Philadelphia 76ers) guard Jerryd Bayless, whose skill set meshed well with an under-utilized Giannis-Middleton-Parker-Plumlee lineup that outscored foes by 13.1 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16. And Delly’s defense should only improve that margin when Middleton returns, not unlike how Cleveland outscored opponents by 24.2 points per 100 possessions with Delly working alongside LeBron James, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson last season.
As for Maker, if you make a similar exception for all those questions about his age, he too seems well suited for what the Bucks are doing, which apparently is amassing the first team of pterodactyls. The 7-foot-1 Maker’s frame, handle and jumper have earned him favorable comparisons to Kevin Durant, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the kid having watched him do stuff like this since high school:
Maker’s performance at the Las Vegas summer league quelled some concerns about how well his game will translate from prep to pro, as he posted averages of 14.2 points and 9.6 rebounds to capture all-tournament honors. Although, those same concerns have crept in a bit this preseason, when he’s totaled just 15 points, eight rebounds and a single block over 67.5 minutes in four games.
Safer plays for the Bucks this summer included a three-year, $31.5 million deal for 31-year-old sharpshooter Mirza Teletovic, whose 39.3 percentage from 3 ranked second only to J.R. Smith among volume-shooting forwards; second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon, whose 3-and-D potential could fill some minutes in Middleton’s absence; and the swap of Tyler Ennis for Beasley, whose minimum contract isn’t so bad for a guy who played pretty well for the Houston Rockets after returning from China (so long as you forget the former No. 2 overall pick played his way out of the league by age 25).
Then, there’s Snell, who the Bucks just acquired in exchange for a player they traded Brandon Knight for only 18 months ago. The 6-foot-7 Snell averaged 5.3 points on 36.1 percent shooting from distance in his third season on the Bulls, falling out of favor on a Chicago team that could use all the favors it could get, but Kidd seems intent on giving the 24-year-old every opportunity to start at two-guard.
And we should mention Jason Terry, who kept his career — and any chance of holding Paul Pierce off for the No. 3 spot on the all-time 3-point field goals list — alive by signing a veteran minimum deal with Milwaukee in late August. You may not have known he was still in the league, had he not made headlines calling Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard “B-side players” this week, because he’s had the least effective years of his 18-year career for the Brooklyn Nets and Rockets the last three seasons.
The summer is a net loss sans Middleton, but there’s an awful lot to like about what the Bucks are building if their lengthy 2-3-4 core can ever stay healthy. Although, it does still seem strange that a point guard as good as Kidd could enter the season with Giannis, Delly and Terry as his floor generals.
Potential breakout stud:
Well, we’ve covered Giannis. His breakout potential has been readily apparent ever since he started covering courts in two dribbles, and, still six weeks from his 22nd birthday, his ceiling his limitless.
There’s also Parker, whose athleticism — on full display when he smacked his head on the rim while dunking earlier this month — is underrated, just because his fundamentals are so sound. If the 3-point shot he’s working into the mix, which currently sits at 40 percent on two attempts per game in the preseason, ever becomes consistent, then we’ll have to open the ceiling for another young Buck.
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Don’t hold your breath for a breakout season from Maker. Flashes of future potential should suffice. It’s perhaps more likely the Bucks will get something out of Brogdon this season, given the 23-year-old is entering the NBA with five years at Virginia under his belt. (Get your jokes about how Maker is much older out of the way now.) As a senior, Brogdon shot 39.1 percent on more than five 3-point attempts per game for the Cavaliers in 2015-16, earning raves as a defense-oriented character guy.
Expectations have simmered in Milwaukee for Rashad Vaughn, the team’s first-round pick in 2015. Once regarded as a top-10 recruit with potent scoring potential — a projection only reinforced by his performance as a freshman at UNLV — he averaged just 3.1 points on a miserable 39.8 true shooting percentage while playing a not insignificant amount of minutes (1,001 over 70 games) as a rookie.
The Bucks have also been waiting on John Henson to earn bigger minutes for quite some time. Always an advanced stats darling, the 25-year-old’s rebounding and shot-blocking prowess earned him a four-year, $44 million extension prior to last season. But even before a back injury interrupted his 2015-16 campaign, Kidd didn’t show the faith in Henson those of us who have been monitoring his per-36-minute averages over the past two seasons — 14.3 points (56.5 field goal percentage), 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 1.9 assists — would like to see from the 6-foot-11 former first-round pick.
Plumlee is the behind-the-scenes breakout candidate, so much as a 28-year-old veteran can break out. After paying Monroe big money to be their starting center, the Bucks granted Moose big minutes, and he obliged statistically with averages of 15.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. But, just as the Pistons did during Monroe’s five years in Detroit, the Bucks grew frustrated with his defense, which resulted in an abysmal 107.5 defensive rating with him on the court, and they began shopping him at the deadline.
The Bucks were 4.4 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Plumlee, an improvement from Monroe that would vault Milwaukee from 28th to 13th in defensive rating if projected over a full season. Given his previously mentioned prowess as a pick-and-roll partner and impact in lineups with the Giannis-Middleton-Parker trio, it’s a wonder Plumlee didn’t earn more than 14 minutes a night.
If Antetokounmpo and Parker both fulfill their All-Star potential; if the sum of Snell, Brogdon and Vaughn holds the wing fort until a Middleton return; if they can squeeze a stalwart defensive effort from either Plumlee, Henson or Maker in the middle; if the additions of Dellavedova, Teletovic and Terry can lift their overall 3-point percentage; and if Beasley is more Chinese Basketball Association MVP than Super Cool Beas; then, a return to the playoffs is well within the Bucks’ considerable reach.
Or, if the #PointGiannis experiment results in the sort of mythical expectations its created in social media circles, then I guess we’ll have to reconsider this basketball season and life itself entirely.
If everything falls apart:
If the loss of Middleton proves impossible to overcome on both ends of the floor; if the $69 million investment in Dellavedova and Teletovic does little to slow those shooting and defense woes; if they can’t find value for Monroe in a trade and keep riding his productive-but-ineffective minutes; if their last two drafts bear no fruit; and if #PointGiannis is merely a gimmick other NBA teams ultimately solve; then, at least they’ll have another lottery pick with which they can find one more pterodactyl.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
39-43, ninth in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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