Milwaukee Bucks remain grounded as Giannis Antetokounmpo continues ascension

All-Star forward continues to shine as team endures season much like 2016-17

A long-serving NBA advance scout had the question put to him the other night during the pregame meal: What is the Milwaukee Bucks’ identity?

The man put down his fork, thought for a moment, shrugged and offered: “Giannis?”

Giannis, as in Antetokounmpo. As in Milwaukee’s best player, which typically is a good place to start in crafting an identity but hardly sufficient for teams hoping to reach goals beyond the regular season.

The Bucks’ identity when training camp opened in September was Giannis. Their collective ID last spring in the first-round elimination against Toronto was Giannis. Last season, a 42-40 effort in which Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton handed off a nasty injury baton? Giannis, too.

Antetokounmpo remains a tremendous player and a delight to watch as he becomes a perennial MVP candidate. He is the sort of player franchises imagine building multiple title runs around.

But “The Greek Freak” will max out at one-and-done as far as playoff rounds go if he isn’t supported by the other players on the roster or strategies that don’t produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The Bucks are about four years into their “Own The Future” marketing campaign, which is starting to feel more like they’re “Stuck In The Past (Or At Least The Present).” This season has been marked by a lack of traction and a dreary been-here, done-this feel.

A year ago today, Milwaukee was 38-36 and would end up ranking fourth in field goal percentage, seventh in effective FG percentage and 26th in pace in 2016-17. They also ranked 22nd in 3-pointers made, 24th in attempts and 10th in accuracy from out there. Defensively, they ranked 20th in effective FG percentage and 26th in defensive rebounding percentage.

And this season? Strictly treadmill. The Bucks are 39-35 and are getting outscored by 0.3 points per game (vs. 0.4 ppg last season). They rank third in FG percentage, are tied for sixth in eFG percentage and 22nd in pace. Their 3-point game has gotten worse, relative to the league: 25th in makes, 24th in attempts, 19th in accuracy. In those same defensive categories, eFG percentage and rebounding percentage, Milwaukee ranks 20th and 28th.

Antetokounmpo was Milwaukee’s lone All-Star this season, just as he was in 2016-17. And the Bucks appear destined to draw the top-seeded Raptors in the first round again, this time as the No. 8 seed.

There’s a new arena being completed just to the north of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Unless things change by its grand opening in the fall, though, it will feel like a fancy new theater screening a movie everyone’s already seen.

This began as a season in which the Bucks were expected to take a sizable step, most often defined as winning 50 games or so, securing one of the East’s top four seeds and advancing to the East semifinals. Ideally, one of Antetokounmpo’s teammates – Middleton or guard Eric Bledsoe – would have gotten serious All-Star consideration, too. And, the team’s identity would have revealed itself through its defense or the offensive variations that Antetokounmpo makes possible.

Anything more and Milwaukee would have had a contender on its hands when the new building opened for 2018-19. Anything less, though, and it is stuck with its version of “Groundhog Day.”

Injuries undeniably have played a role as the Bucks have spun their wheels. Parker missed the first 50 games rehabbing from his second ACL surgery and remains an enigma. His restricted free-agent status this summer a vexing question – should they or shouldn’t they? – for management.

Guard Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning Kia Rookie of the Year, has been out since Feb. 1 with a left quadricieps injury. Milwaukee misses his organizational skills in running their attack and it misses his 3-point proficiency.

Reserve Matthew Dellavedova has been out since Feb. 4 with an ankle sprain after a 15-game absence in November and December. The Bucks miss 3-point bonuses, his defensive feistiness and his energy. Both he and Brogdon are expected back before this regular season ends.

But the reasons for slippage this season hardly end there. Thon Maker, a 7-foot-1 project as a rookie last season, has not progressed. He’s playing twice as many minutes but producing less, his shooting, assists and net rating all backsliding.

Bledsoe, acquired in the early-season trade of Greg Monroe, has 22 games in which he has scored 20 points or more. But he hasn’t pushed the pace for Milwaukee and, in the opinion of the aforementioned scout, “does a lot of walking and standing around for a guard,” spells that undercut some of Bledsoe’s bursts for steals and 50-50 balls.

Tony Snell got paid last summer on a four-year, $46 million deal largely for his 40 percent 3-point shooting in 2016-17 and he’s shooting a little better from that range this season — but he’s averaging one fewer attempt, rather than adding to his output.

The Bucks’ offensive dissatisfaction has shown more recently in interim coach Joe Prunty’s use of 40-year-old Jason Terry for firepower and energy, and the recent acquisitions of Brandon Jennings and Shabazz Muhammad. Meanwhile, what once was Milwaukee’s defensive identity — long, interchangeable defenders with improbable wingspans — first got solved by opposing coaches and now is essentially gone.

That leaves Antetokounmpo, who has the burden of carrying these guys however far they’ll go this spring. There’s a difference of 12.1 points in the Bucks when their best player is on the floor vs. off the floor — plus-4.1 in net rating when he plays, minus-8.0 when he sits — with the fatigue of a long season likely to add to the defensive attention he’ll receive from repeated postseason game-planning.

The prospects of Prunty being asked back look slim, barring a second-round surprise (or beyond). And the shade his predecessor, Jason Kidd, threw on the team shortly before he was fired — that people expecting a high seed and advancement in the playoffs were getting ahead of themselves — is starting to look like insight. Disappointingly so.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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