First half summary: This always was going to be a tricky season for the Bucks. Tearing up the regular season the way they did in 2018-19 and (mostly) 2019-20 was fun. But it ultimately got them nothing with their abrupt playoff exits against Toronto and Miami, respectively. Those were the teams who punched the Finals tickets Milwaukee so craved. They still crave that as their destination, but will try to get there by peaking at just the right time. As if that’s completely under their control.
Reigning two-time Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will get some votes again for that award, and sidekick Khris Middleton was seen as an All-Star snub for yet another consistently strong season. Newcomer Jrue Holiday still looks like a winning move, while Donte DiVicenzo has brought energy, defense and bonus scoring in his promotion to starting shooting guard. But there’s also this: In their first two seasons under coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks ranked fourth and first in offensive and defensive efficiency (2018-19), then eighth and first last year. Currently they’re second offensively — scoring more than any Bucks team in history, in fact — but 12th defensively. Not bad, but not stifling as in the recent past.
Of course, if you wanted stifling, you could just imagine what the rest of this season would be like for Milwaukee if Antetokounmpo had in December declined to sign his five-year, $228 million contract extension and was planning to hit free agency this summer. That “victory” to start the season is one the Bucks would like to bracket with one at the end.
Biggest question going into the second half: Where does Jrue Holiday fit in the Bucks’ efficiency over the second half and postseason, as well as in their long-term plans? Holiday missed 10 games to health and safety protocols, acknowledging that he got the virus and felt miserable for a spell. The Bucks split those, which means they are 17-9 when Holiday has played, and that winning percentage (.654) would have been good for two additional victories by now, putting the Bucks in a 24-14 tie with Philadelphia atop the East.
But there still was some acclimating going on before Holiday went out — he to them, them to him — for the Bucks to run as a well-oiled defensive machine. And now that he’s eligible to negotiate an extension to stick in Milwaukee for seasons to come, there’s more of a clock on what this season’s results will mean to 2021-22 and beyond. Giving up what the Bucks did (Eric Bledsoe and a bunch of Draft picks) makes it vital Holiday stays and plays well as more than a one-off.
Playoffs or lottery?: Playoffs. But how deep? Many following the Bucks think it’s going to have to be very deep — as in a maxed-out conference finals, at least, if not a trip to the championship round — for Budenholzer to return for a fourth season. The tweaks that he and his staff have made at both ends so far have been fine — switching defensively wasn’t a Bucks thing till now — but the test will come in in-game and in-series adjustments when locked into best-of-seven survival.
At their best, there’s no reason the Bucks can’t emerge from the East. And that’s what the approach this season has been about, being at their best in July and August, not March.
— Steve Aschburner