In the first season under new coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks' record improved by 16 victories as they were the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed. They played in the Eastern Conference finals against eventual-champion Toronto. Individual accolades -- particularly to Budenholzer (Coach of the Year), to Giannis Antetokounmpo (Kia MVP) and to GM Jon Horst (Executive of the Year) -- followed. Yet the Bucks entered the offseason feeling they should have had more team success. They squandered a 2-0 East finals edge, but now the Raptors have come back to the pack with Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent departure. Milwaukee has its crew mostly intact with some veteran additions for a no-nonsense Finals push.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Milwaukee Bucks
Malcolm Brogdon, the 2017 Kia Rookie of the Year, became Milwaukee’s most notable departure. He went to the rival Indiana Pacers via a sign-and-trade deal ... Horst said the Bucks had terrific success in free agency. In addition to signing Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, they re-signed Khris Middleton, George Hill and Brook Lopez, all of whom could have chosen to go elsewhere. … One low-profile move was bringing in big man Dragan Bender, a disappointment in Phoenix since the Suns drafted him No. 4 overall in 2016. He’s still just 21. … By signing Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Robin Lopez, the Bucks have a rarity: two sets of brothers on the same roster.
1. Rivals won’t like Giannis’ math. In winning the 2019 MVP, Antetokounmpo estimated that he had tapped only about 60 percent of his potential. If he manages to raise his game by as much as he claims still is possible -- most notably, working on and improving his jump shot -- "The Greek Freak" will be headed to Mt. Rushmore and his team to a string of champagne celebrations.
2. Brogdon will be missed. Other contenders in the East lost players every bit as valuable -- Boston lost Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and others, Philadelphia no longer has Jimmy Butler and Toronto saw Leonard leave. But Brogdon was a strong two-way player for the Bucks who shot at an elite level in 2018-19, making at least 50% of his attempts overall, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the foul line. He had a knack for creating opportunities at one or both ends for several possessions, enough to swing some outcomes. That’s what the Pacers hope they get from him as a starter; the Bucks were fortunate to get it from him as a role player.
3. Yes, Middleton is the Bucks’ second star. With NBA contenders built these days around elite tandems, Middleton feels capable of pulling his weight as Antetokounmpo’s wingman. The soft-spoken sharpshooter -- who signed a five-year, $177 million contract in July -- was Milwaukee’s second All-Star in February and gained valuable experience with Team USA in FIBA World Cup play. Middleton will be paid almost $5 million more than the MVP this season, he might as well shoulder a commensurate load.
MAN ON THE SPOT
A year ago, Eric Bledsoe was faced with proving himself after a dismal playoff series performance against Boston in which Celtics backup Terry Rozier outplayed him. This time, Bledsoe needs to put behind him how he played -- and specifically, shot -- against Toronto. The point guard was All-Star worthy in the regular season, serving as an offensive catalyst when Antetokounmpo didn’t have the ball and wreaking havoc defensively. He landed a contract extension without even hitting free agency, but Bledsoe’s play against the Raptors has some wondering if Horst should have spent that money on Brogdon instead.
Eric Bledsoe| 15.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 5.5 apg
Needs to bring consistency, particularly in the postseason.
Wesley Matthews| 12.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg
It’s a return to Milwaukee for a 3&D alum of Marquette.
Brook Lopez| 12.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 apg
It’s not just his 3-pointers, it’s his long 3-pointers.
Khris Middleton| 18.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.3 apg
Got a taste of facing Giannis in World Cup, Prefers being teammates.
Giannis Antetokounmpo| 27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg
Expect speculation about his future all season -- until he can sign supermax
Kyle Korver| 8.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.2 apg
Reunion with Budenholzer, with whom he became All-Star.
George Hill| 7.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg
Revived career with resourceful bench play in playoffs.
Sterling Brown| 6.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.4 apg
Third-year guard could become a frequent starter for the team.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bucks take a micro approach to a macro task, tackling the season as a succession of building and leaning on good habits. That’s how they’ll handle it again this season, with the bonus of knowing how much gas to leave in the tank for an extended postseason run. Sixty victories isn’t likely and needn’t even be a goal, if they can find six more in the playoffs.
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