Following a two-day respite, the Milwaukee Bucks come into town looking to move up in the standings at the expense of our Atlanta Hawks (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin) on a Sunday matinee.
Coming off a modest 42-40 season and a first-round exit, here is the balance of all the Bucks’ off-season transactions: Sent cash to Philly for the Sixers’ second-round draft selection, Sterling “Don’t Call Me K.” Brown Re-signed Tony Snell Stretched-and-waived Spencer Hawes Re-signed Jason Terry Claimed DeAndre Liggins off waivers from the heat Annnnnnnd, that’s about it.
Amid all the smoke and stink left over from the Milwaukee owners’ general manager search, Jon Horst apparently did not want to rock the boat too much. Former GM John Hammond was rewarded after drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo by accepting the Magic GM gig. Assistant GM Justin Zanik, previously brought in to be the GM-in-waiting, eventually became the sole finalist under consideration. But one co-owner, Wes Edens, wasn’t sold on Zanik. The job got handed to the un-interviewed basketball operations director instead, and Zanik packed his bags for Utah.
In most circumstances, a middling team coming off an unimpressive playoff ending, reeling from front office turmoil, and not adding significant contributors to the roster, would not be foreseen as a legit Conference Finals contender.
But those other teams never had a Greek freaking android as a headliner.
Last season’s Most Improved Player and an All-NBA 2nd-Teamer, Antetokounmpo presently leads The Association with 35.0 PPG, and there’s no telling how much higher his scoring average will go once his three-point shooting accuracy (33.3 3FG%) surges past his rookie-year career-high (34.7 3FG%).
His long arms are now stronger, allowing him to average daily double-doubles (10.6 RPG; 9.2 defensive) while picking off passes with greater regularity (2.4 SPG, 5th in NBA). His height-induced court-vision also helps him the lead the team as a passer (5.6 APG).
Now in his fifth NBA season, Giannis (NBA-highs of 37.3 player efficiency rating, 1.4 Win Shares, and 14.2 Box Plus/Minus) has surpassed the stage where he can be measured solely in terms of height, “linth,” and vertical leap. The new dimensions revolve around how far this 23-year-old can carry the Bucks (3-2) with his elevated production. He’s leaning on coach Jason Kidd to make the difference.
With Cleveland’s sail listing and Boston re-calibrating, eyes are turning to teams like Milwaukee to see if they are primed to take advantage. Giannis isn’t getting much help so far from Khris Middleton (15.8 3FG%, 3.0 TOs/game), who is making Snell (50.0 3FG%) look like Marc Price early on. There’s not much utility thus far coming from sixth-man Greg Monroe (career-lows 6.8 PPG, 15.8 minutes/game), who joined Hawes in surprising everyone by picking up his player option ($17.9 million, in his case), and short-circuiting any plans to target other free agents this past summer.
At least until after the All-Star Break, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks won’t get any help from Jabari Parker, still recovering from a second ACL tear from last February. The limited maneuverability has led Milwaukee, brushing just $17,000 below the luxury tax line, to settle for a bench brigade that, beyond Monroe, includes Matthew Dellavedova, Liggins, Mirza Teletovic, John Henson, Rashad Vaughn, and rookie D.J. Wilson.
On top of those struggles, a lottery-pick from 2016, second-year starting center Thon Maker (30.0 2FG%, 30.8 3FG%) has had trouble expanding his range, or making impacts in other areas. Taken together, Giannis is lugging this squad on his back at both ends, because he literally must.
The one notable exception stepping up for the Bucks is Atlanta native and reigning surprise Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. While Brogdon’s duties as a ballhandler and passer have been relegated somewhat in Kidd’s offense, the guard has shown signs of becoming an even better perimeter shooter (50.0 3FG%), raising his scoring average to 15.8 PPG.
Kidd is spreading the floor, not so much to open up shooters at the exterior, but to allow Alpha-Bits to find ample driving room inside, forcing defenses to collapse in the paint. The results are usually a Giannis lay-up/dunk, a trip to the charity stripe, or a kickout, the latter option allowing the ball to go around the horn in search of a hot hand.
Thanks to Giannis’ improved skillset, the Bucks are hitting shots (53.0 eFG%, 3rd in NBA; 57.3 TS%, 4th in NBA). But due to a stilted pace and subpar bench play, they’re still stuck in the middle at this moment (minus-0.2 net rating).
Due to Ersan Ilyasova’s pesky knee strain issue, the Hawks will not have the former Buck around to draw charges, thereby creating turnovers and placing Giannis in early foul trouble. Dennis Schröder has a vital role today in forcing Giannis, Maker and Monroe to make plays around the rim. Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins have to set sound screens for the guards and avoid foul trouble themselves, especially when Monroe is throwing his weight around. Screen-roll actions that set up better shots for teammates, starters and reserves alike, can help Atlanta (1-5) unshackle itself from its long-held shooting woes (41.8 team FG%, 29th in NBA) and, maybe, get over the hump today.
Let’s Go Hawks!