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Two old friends and coaches, their teams trending in opposite directions these days, spent some time catching up late last month when the San Antonio Spurs traveled to Milwaukee.
That’s where Spurs coach Gregg Popovich listened intently, perhaps a bit incredulously, as Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer talked to him again about forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“What was it Bud said?” Popovich paused, recalling their conversation a couple days later. “He compared him to Timmy. Just in the way he leads, how he comes to work every day and how the other players see and respond to that.”
The lofty Tim Duncan comparison for Milwaukee’s versatile, young star -- so casually offered by Budenholzer, the former Spurs assistant, and so calmly affirmed by Popovich -- was the headline of that particular chat. But the subtext was in their reference to “the other players,” without whom Duncan’s Hall of Fame-worthy tenure in San Antonio -- and thus, Popovich’s and Budenholzer’s time there, too -- might have been dramatically different.
Were it not for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the two All-Star teammates with whom Duncan formed an organic and enduring threesome, the stoic master of fundamentals might have grown lonely in San Antonio. Once David Robinson clocked out, Duncan could have wound up like Anthony Davis in New Orleans or Kevin Garnett in Minnesota – a great player shouldering too much of the load.
Rumors might have gained traction and, who knows, the Spurs’ legendary big man might have left in mid-career for Orlando (which nearly happened in 2000) or some other greener pasture.
The Antetokounmpo parallel matters. “The Greek Freak” is the Bucks’ (and potentially the league’s) MVP this season. But Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe arguably are Milwaukee’s most important players for whatever regular season and playoff success awaits.
Because without them, Antetokounmpo is just another generational talent without enough help, playing in a crowd of defenders.
And “without them” is a very real possibility.
Critical season for Bucks’ depth
Eleven seconds remained in a tie game against the Chicago Bulls when Bledsoe drove and got the ball to Brook Lopez. The veteran big man, so comfortable working from the perimeter this season, had a little trouble inside. Lopez missed a layup and two frantic taps at it.
Bledsoe, at 6-foot-1, calculated quickly that the game might swing on this possession -- against the Bulls! -- and thrust himself upward. Reaching through the trees, he batted the ball back, out, near backcourt mate Malcolm Brogdon.
The 2017 Kia Rookie of the Year thought “shoot,” but had a Chicago defender rushing toward him. So, Brogdon shoveled the ball to Middleton just outside the 3-point line.
Middleton, Milwaukee’s second-most prolific scorer, hadn’t attempted a shot in nearly 16 game minutes. He was 1-for-4 in the second half, 5-for-12 overall then. No worries. Middleton’s good look turned into a great moment for the Bucks, his shot from 26 feet lifting them to a 116-113 victory.
Now imagine this play next November.
Ball rolls aimlessly on the court at Fiserv Forum until a Chicago player picks it up. Antetokounmpo, alone on the right wing, watches helplessly. His teammates from that moment? Gone.
It seems like a Bucks fan’s bad dream, but four-fifths of Milwaukee’s starting lineup -- Middleton, Bledsoe, Lopez and Brogdon -- will be free agents this summer. The finely tuned supporting cast so meticulously assembled and nurtured by general manager Jon Horst and Budenholzer could unravel seemingly overnight come July. And leave Antetokounmpo, the ultimate drive-and-kick force this season, without anyone of proven value to pass to.
“It is our mission statement,” Horst told NBA.com about the imperative to surround Antetokounmpo with the right supporting cast, not just one season at a time but long-term. “What Giannis means to our team, our franchise, our city, our state kind of goes beyond words. We have to make the most of the opportunity to find and build things that fit with him.
“With ‘Bud,’ we have a style of play that fits Giannis and a coach who, in the person he is and the mentality, the passion, fits. And I think we have a great, great core group of guys that fit him.
“Whatever you look at doing, of course you consider talent. Of course you consider character. And there are different ways to fit guys around Giannis. But the No. 1 thing we have to consider in every decision we make -- and that’s what we’ve done -- is how does it fit the system we’re playing in and the superstar we have.”
Secondary stars might sound like an oxymoron. But in today’s NBA, it takes a constellation.
Middleton, Bucks grow up together
Bledsoe and Middleton have been flirting with breakthroughs for some time. This season, ironically, it’s their contributions toward the sum of the parts and Milwaukee’s team success that might widen the spotlight enough for them to max out … and cash in.
Middleton has been Antetokounmpo’s wingman for all six of his freakishly skilled NBA seasons. They arrived one month apart in the summer of 2013, the skinny unknown Antetokounmpo from Greece as the 15th pick in that June’s draft. In July, the quiet, small forward Middleton arrived one year removed from Texas A&M. Reluctantly, the Detroit Pistons included Middleton after his promising rookie season in the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade.
Three years older than Antetokounmpo and far more ready for the NBA stage, Middleton helped initiate the younger man into the ranks, on and off the floor. Their stars finally crossed in 2016-17 -- that’s the season in which Antetokounmpo played in his first All-Star Game, while Middleton didn’t play until February due to a severe hamstring injury. He appeared in only 29 games and misfired through a bumpy first-round loss to Toronto.
The soft-spoken, 6-foot-8 native of Charleston, S.C., however, was back to his reliable, jump-shooting self last season. And this season, Middleton’s adjustments to Budenholzer’s game plan has led the way in Milwaukee’s transformative floor-spreading.
I know I need Giannis and everybody else. We’ve definitely bought into each other. We know we need each other to win big and do the things we want to do.”
One of the league’s top mid-range scorers has tamped down that aspect of his game from 36 percent of his field-goal attempts last season to 14.5. And at the coaches’ urging, instead of taking one or two dribbles inside the arc, he has been taking one or two steps back. He’s on pace to shatter his personal best in 3-point attempts, projecting to 580 vs. the 407 he launched last season.
His scoring and his shots are down slightly, and there are two months worth of games to go. But Middleton might have a legit chance to an All-Star berth if the Bucks’ record remains gaudy enough to merit a second rep.
What grabs Middleton most about the Milwaukee journey he’s had? “Just how much we’ve grown,” he said after a recent shootaround. “From winning 14, 15 games to now becoming a championship-caliber team in six years. It takes time. … It’s just a process that some guys got to go through, some guys don’t. But to be on the bottom with this team and now be on the rise, it’s pretty cool to see and look back on.”
It’s rarely linear, too. Middleton’s time with the Bucks has had its bumps, from his thigh injury to seeing his Pistons pal, big man Greg Monroe, wash out as a ballyhooed free-agent signing in 2015.
This week has been an odd one for Middleton, too. He got benched for the fourth quarter and overtime of the loss in New York Saturday after Budenholzer didn’t like Middleton’s defensive effort during a pivotal stretch. The two reportedly spoke that night, then hashed things out more completely before Monday’s practice.
“We talk a lot about having high-character guys and high-IQ guys,” Budenholzer told reporters, “and I think that’s one of the characteristics of those types of people or players that if and when something doesn’t go their way, their reaction usually is to come back and fight harder, dig deeper, do more.”
Said Antetokounmpo: “It’s not about being pissed off at your coach for keeping you out. It’s about being pissed off at yourself. Khris is a really competitive guy and he wants to be there. He wants to do whatever it takes to win, and I think he was just really, really pissed at himself for letting himself down and the team down. Khris is going to come back stronger.”
Except that barely an hour before Milwaukee’s home game Wednesday against Detroit, a 115-88 victory, Middleton was scratched as a no-show for what was termed “personal reasons.” No one was alleging any lingering resentment from the Knicks benching, but it served as a reminder of how fragile a player’s game or a team’s chemistry can be. And of how fleeting a season can be, too.
“We all know [Giannis] needs each and every one of us,” Middleton said last week. “I know I need Giannis and everybody else. We’ve definitely bought into each other. We know we need each other to win big and do the things we want to do.”
As for this summer and the possibility of a max contract offer that would end all this Milwaukee goodness, the 27-year-old said: “I don’t want to dive too deep into that now. I’ve still got a lot to accomplish this year. If it’s necessary, change has got to be made. Right now, hopefully, it doesn’t get to that point.”
Bledsoe comes through in Year 2
It wasn’t Antetokounmpo who had to pick up Middleton’s slack Wednesday night. It was Bledsoe as well, who scored a season-high 27 points in 26 minutes against the Pistons. He had 11 in the first quarter and nine in the third, enough that he could sit out the fourth. Defensively, he was the tip of the Bucks’ spear that limited Detroit to 37 percent shooting.
A year ago, Bledsoe -- whose Twitter desperation to get out of Phoenix went viral -- rolled into Milwaukee like a storm cloud. He was late to the party, having started the season with the Suns, and it wound up not being much of a party anyway at 44-38, with a coaching change from Jason Kidd to Joe Prunty halfway through.
Now, Bledsoe’s scoring (16 ppg) and field-goal attempts (11.7) are down, but his efficiency is up. He’s shooting a career-best effective field-goal percentage of .593 and while his rebounds and assists are up from 2017-18, his turnovers down.
Like Middleton, the point guard has re-aligned his offense. Approximately 40 percent of his shots have come at the rim, compared to 32 percent last season. Another 40 percent are coming from the arc, the biggest share in his nine NBA seasons.
“Eric is just in a really good place,” Budenholzer said. “It feels like he’s understanding what we need in different moments. … He’s attacking in transition and making big plays there. He’s kind of laying it on the line and I think everybody’s kind of feeding off that.”
Defensively, Bledsoe’s mix of strength and explosiveness have hindered opposing guards as much as the Bucks’ spread floor has enabled his. Budenholzer dialed that into his schemes soon after he was hired, although some of the chaos Bledsoe creates at that end is his alone.
Said the coach: “There are times when I watch him and think, ‘That’s not what we told you to do. But it’s kinda good.’ I would say he’s playing on some instinct, it looks like, defensively.”
This has been the guy Milwaukee hoped it got early last season when it traded Monroe and two Draft picks for him. That Bledsoe, though, played more like a square peg trying to jam into a round hole, recklessly throwing away the ball or jogging back on defense. This one (whose wife and kids are in town with him this time around) fits.
“He had a lot of bad habits he just had to let go,” Middleton said. “He played the best he could for the situation. This year, he’s being a lot more engaged. Knowing what we’re wanting to do, knowing how we want to play, knowing how to run the [team].”
Said Antetokounmpo: “It’s easier. Last year I was trying to figure out how Bledsoe plays, what he likes and what he does well. This year I know what he wants to do. I know when he’s going to pass me the ball. I know when you’ve got to give him the ball and get the hell out of his way to make a play. He’s way more aggressive. And looking for his shots.”
Bledsoe sloughs off the praise, claiming it’s simply a matter of playing hard and with great teammates. But he did admit, “[I] love being here. I knew it was going to take some time for us to gel.”
Bledsoe’s shift in stats is more likely to help him at contract time than in All-Star balloting. His game is in sync with his team’s for now. Whether his business stays in sync with his employer’s budget this summer remains to be seen.
He too has been talked of at various points in his career as a future All-Star. Can that and any other dreams Bledsoe harbors for his NBA career be realized in Wisconsin?
“Yeah. Yeah. We’re winning,” he said. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. Everything else will take care of itself. You take credit for wins, not for stats.”
Bucks’ version of ‘Tony’ and ‘Manu’?
The priority for a team facing such an unusual roster predicament -- 80 percent of its starters on expiring contracts or holding opt-outs -- is to compartmentalize. For the Bucks, now is all about the games, the standings, continuous improvement (especially on defense) and where they can take it next spring.
Who gets how much, and where and from whom, that’s all for later.
“It’s like anything else,” Horst said. “When things are going well, issues don’t matter. And when they’re not going well, issues have to be managed.”
So far, contract talk and even competition hasn’t reared its head within the Bucks’ ranks.
“There are some personnel situations on the horizon, but no one involved would tell you those have any impact on what our focus is,” Horst said. “And that is, to have the best season we can have. I think that’s what every guy, to their credit, is focused on.”
Between their salary commitments for 2019-20 and the cap holds to retain the rights to their own free agents, the Bucks figure to have only a small amount of space to shop for newcomers. And that’s just from a payroll perspective; it doesn’t address how well any new guys would plug into the system or how long it would take them to properly complement Antetokounmpo’s game.
Then there’s the age-old challenge of convincing players, whether in-house or shopping from afar, that Milwaukee can be a viable destination.
“There are athletes where market matters,” Horst said. “The excitement of an L.A. or a New York or the size of a Chicago. But I think more often than not, professional athletes want to win -- I really believe that -- and they like first-class everything.
“What’s great about what we’re building here, we’re showing we can win. We’ve got a superstar who’s committed to this franchise. And now we’ve got this ownership group that has invested in every area to make sure it’s first-class. With the arena, the practice facility, the medical staff, the coaching staff. From the top down, every player who comes to this franchise is going to feel like he’s being treated first-class. If we can combine that with winning and with Giannis, I think we have a chance.”
We’ve got a long ways to go before this group becomes the ‘San Antonio Spurs,’ but that’s our goal, to build a team that can compete over a long period of time and win championships. "
If ever there was an opportunity for a GM to do some gang-negotiating -- getting all the Bucks’ free agents and their reps in one room to hash out a hometown discount -- this would seem to be it.
Remember, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker often famously left millions of dollars on the table to stay together in San Antonio. Short of that, can Milwaukee keep all its assets?
“The answer is, absolutely we can keep everybody,” Horst said. “It’s my job to understand markets and what values are, but we feel very confident that, yes, we can keep everybody if that’s the direction we go. And the sale is going to be the ensemble and what the group can do.
“Is there some sort of give-back or discount that’s associated with that to keep us together? Maybe. But I think, really, in the scheme of where contracts are today, that’s probably fairly marginal. What’s really going to matter is if guys want to be here and see what this group can do together, or not.”
That gets back to the Spurs and the challenge of longevity, building something that sustains in an insta-contender, tear-down world. And as Popovich -- who is experiencing the new way this season -- said: “In this league, you don’t win without talent. But to be the ultimate winner, all the other pieces have to fit around it. The best teams, guys respect each other. Feel responsible to each other. Their games are gonna change to some degree.”
Can that ever work again … in Milwaukee? Keep an eye on the Bucks’ free agents in seven months, on Brogdon and Lopez, sure, but especially on Middleton and Bledsoe. The former could command a five-year, $190 million deal from the Bucks that, temporarily, would trounce the “Greek Freak’s” four-year, $100 million extension signed in 2016. The latter will be seeking a raise from his current $15 million salary and, as he turns 29 Sunday, long-term security heading into his 30s.
“I think right now they are our ‘Tony’ and our ‘Manu,’ ” Horst said, playing along with the comparison. “We’ve got a long ways to go before this group becomes the ‘San Antonio Spurs,’ but that’s our goal, to build a team that can compete over a long period of time and win championships.
“I think they can become and sustain that. Both Khris and Eric are entering their prime or in their prime. They’re super-high character guys. They are very talented. And they fit.”
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