NBA Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

2019-20 Regular Season Record: 56-17 (.767%), 1st in Eastern Conference, Lost in 2nd Rd.
Head Coach: Mike Budenholzer

The Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks have been steadily improving over the last four years, increasing their regular season winning percentage from .512% (2016-17), .537% (2017-18), .732% (2018-19) to .767% last year. The time for regular season success, however, is over – the Bucks need to perform in the playoffs. Their playoff losses in 2016-17 & 2017-18 could be forgiven, however the last two seasons have resulted in playoff meltdowns. Two years ago, they had a 2-0 series advantage over Kawhi Leonard's Raptors, and had an excellent chance to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, ultimately losing Game 3 in double OT. From there, the Raptors rolled to three more victories and the Bucks went home empty-handed. Last year, Giannis enjoyed another MVP season - averaging 29.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.0 spg & 1.0 bpg - as well as being named Defensive Player of the Year. While the Greek Freak led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA, they went out meekly to the Miami Heat after Giannis sustained an ankle injury early in Game 4 (with the Bucks already down 3-0 in the series). It's now time for the Bucks to put the post-season failures behind them and step up to the plate. 
Khris Middleton put together a 2nd straight All-Star season (20.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg & 4.3 apg.) and Eric Bledsoe was solid (14.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.4 apg) but other than Brook Lopez, no other Bucks players averaged double digits in scoring. 

What can Jrue Holiday Bring to the Bucks?

Jrue Holiday has been one of the most coveted players in basketball over the last couple of years. The veteran out of UCLA was the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and has been a consistent player in his 11 NBA seasons – last year he averaged 19.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.7 apg and 1.6 spg, all of which were close to his career highs. Making the All-Defensive teams in the 2017-18 (1st Team) & 2018-19 (2nd Team), Holiday brings additional two-way playmaking to the Bucks, as well as solid leadership – he was named NBA’s Teammate of the Year last year and has been known for his charitable work. 
While Holiday is a nice complimentary piece meant to aid the Bucks in winning AND keeping Giannis, there is no doubt they paid a hefty price. They had to give up Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, their 2025 & 2027 1st Round picks, with NOLA being the main benefactor of the 4-team trade. Is Holiday the missing piece for the Bucks and their Championship hopes? More than likely not. They will have to do their best with minimal resources to add another player mid-season.

The Supporting Cast

Besides the aforementioned Holiday and Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have two-time All-Star Khris Middleton who has averaged 18.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.9 apg & 39.4% 3-point shooting in his 7 seasons in Milwaukee. Expect Middleton to produce solid all-around numbers and have another good year, but to be left off the All-Star team this time around. Brook Lopez returns for his 3rd season in Milwaukee, and looks to buck the trend of his decline in scoring/shooting over the last five seasons – 20.6 ppg/51.1% FG (2015-16), 20.5 ppg/47.4% FG (2016-17), 13.0 ppg/46.5% FG (2017-18) 12.5 ppg/45.2% FG (2018-19) & 12.0 ppg/43.5% FG last season. It’s hard to see the 7’0”, 280 lb. big man entering his age-32 season and reverse the trend drastically. After that, the Bucks fall off the cliff when it comes to production. They’ve turned their roster over so heavily, there is bound to be a lack of chemistry right off the hop. Are D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig, Bobby Portis or Nik Stauskas going to move the needle? The simple answer is a resounding no. None of those players are going to push the Bucks over the top.

Can the Bucks get to the Finals?

Apparently, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer doesn’t think that the Bucks are at a crossroads, stating: "To think that a season is championship or bust is certainly not how we've approached it." With a two-time MVP on the roster, and moves made in the offseason to bolster the lineup, the pressure is certainly on Giannis and coach Budenholzer to make it at least to the NBA Finals. Why else are they playing? Is Budenholzer trying to temper expectations should the Bucks not make it to the Finals? He would certainly be on the hot-seat if they don’t. And there is a reasonable chance they don’t realize their semi-championship expectations. The Heat have the confidence of their playoff run plus a young core that will get better. The Nets will be a challenge to take down in any playoff series. The Celtics will be strong once again, and the veteran Raptors will be a tough out in the playoffs. For the Bucks to get all the way to the Finals, they will have to reverse their trend of playoff chokes. 

Tom’s Take: The Bucks will fold in the playoffs once again and look to re-tool again around Giannis, Middleton & Holiday.

Photo Credit: JB Autissier/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire