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Friday, January 27, 2023

Milwaukee Bucks wasting the prime of Giannis Antetokounmpo

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It’s the day after Christmas, and the Milwaukee Bucks are playing the Chicago Bulls in a middling regular season matchup. Both rosters are lackluster, sans one Greek god on the home team. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, blessed with the power to turn any given moment into a highlight, and with 3:30 left in the first half, that’s precisely what transpired. He seized an errant pass from Kris Dunn and five dribbles and three defenders later, he was elevating for a two handed slam. He finished the game with 28 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, yet is wasn’t enough as the Bucks fell to the Bulls, 115-106.

We’ve seen this movie before. A bumbling NBA franchise lucks into a revolutionary talent but fails to surround him with compatible supporting cast. After the early playoff exits and wasting the prime of their franchise cornerstone, the eventual departure commences, and the superstar leaves the team. Roll credits. It happened with Charles Barkley in Philadelphia, Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, LeBron in Cleveland, and it’s happening right now with Anthony Davis in New Orleans. The Bucks can’t let it happen with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As of January 5th, the Bucks are 20-16 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. A popular myth among NBA circles is that they are a team brimming with potential, on the verge of separating themselves from the pack of mediocre teams in the NBA. On paper, they have a top three player in the league, the rookie of the year, the second pick from the 2014 draft, and a slew of talented role players. Take a closer look however, and you’ll notice this is an overachieving team.

Malcolm Brogdon‘s Rookie of the Year title doesn’t necessarily require an asterisk, but it deserves some context. Brogdon was an efficient scorer who could assume point guard abilities on a playoff team, but without any real competition the award fell into his lap. High draft picks like Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, and Kris Dunn came off the bench and weren’t given the chance to produce noteworthy numbers. Ben Simmons was hurt all year, and Joel Embiid would have won if he could have notched even just a few more games under his belt. Brogdon plays hard and intelligently, but he’s only started 10 games this season. Moving forward, he will maximize his potential as a role player.

Selected second in the 2014 draft, Jabari Parker was touted as a versatile forward who would re energize a morose fan base. Three years and two knee surgeries later, he’s still fighting to live up to the hype. We’ve seen flashes of his ability; during the 2016-2017 season he averaged 20.1 points per game on 49% shooting before tearing his ACL 52 games in. His second major knee surgery on his left leg, he’s expected to return around the all-star break. Until then, his future in Milwaukee remains unclear.

The rest of the Bucks roster is composed of one dimensional role players appointed specialized responsibilities. John Henson is an elite rim protector but doesn’t offer much else by way of playmaking or rebounding. Thon Maker is an interesting young prospect that brings energy and versatility, but his overall production has been negligible. Matthew Dellavedova has been reduced to a locker room presence with backup duties and although Tony Snell is a solid starter, his only job is to provide shooting to compliment Antetokounmpo’s lack thereof. The Bucks glaring weakness is their lack of depth, dropping them to 27th in the NBA in bench scoring at 25.2 points per game.

The Bucks are, however, moving in the right direction. They don’t feel any win-now pressure from the fans or ownership because of Antetokounmpo’s continual development, and starting with the contract extension of Khris Middleton in 2015, they’ve been taking small steps towards building a complete roster around Antetokounmpo. Adding Eric Bledsoe gives them a better pick and roll option with Antetokounmpo. Since being traded from the Suns to the Bucks, Bledsoe has increased his offensive rating, assist to turnover ratio, and shooting percentage while relieving some much needed playmaking pressure from Antetokounmpo late in games.

To win a championship in this league, a team needs at least two bonafide stars. Unless the Bucks strike gold in the middle of the draft again, that second star will more than likely come in free agency. Being in a small market like Milwaukee isn’t doing them any favors however, so they need to have a strong sales pitch based on the future of the team. Bolstering their bench should be the first order of business. This offseason, the Bucks should be looking at free agents like Tyreke Evans, Marco Belinelli, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley or Nikola Mirotic to provide three and D capabilities for an anemic second unit.

The Bucks next move should be assembling a trade package for DeAndre Jordan. 30th in the league in rebounding, they desperately need someone to collect boards and finish defensive possessions. A deal centered around John Henson and Jabari Parker would fill the Clippers need for a rim protector and offer a high-potential prospect for a team in rebuilding mode. Obviously the deal would need a little tinkering, but adding another All-NBA player would increase interest from big name free agents moving forward.
Adding a star free agent is the last piece in the puzzle. The summer of 2018 and 2019, the Bucks need to take a shoot their shot at every big name on the market. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are out of reach, but Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler are all interesting options over the next two summers. Take any of those players and add them to a core with Antetokounmpo, Jordan, Bledsoe, Middleton, and that’s an excellent starting rotation.

Nobody likes when stars waste their prime. Watching Kevin Garnett and LeBron James endure the carousel of second rate role players and washed up veterans was like watching the old guys at the bar hit on the younger women. Eventually, they realize who they’re surrounded by and leave for a more promising option. Antetokounmpo is good enough to be the best player on a title team, but the Bucks are need to surround him with shooting, rebounding, and play making to become one of the upper echelon teams in the NBA. They’ve got time to add pieces and develop their talent, but they should actively exploring means to acquire a star player. Antetokounmpo might be the best player to play for the Bucks since Lew Alcindor; it’s been a long time since they had an opportunity like this, and a prime is a beautiful thing to waste.

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