Are the Milwaukee Bucks Ready for the Next Step?

If you ask any casual NBA fan on the street which three teams are best positioned to take over the Eastern Conference once the Cleveland Cavaliers fall, you’ll generally get a monotonous repeat of these teams:

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Milwaukee Bucks

Like the Sixers, the Bucks’ intrigue lies within their ancillary core pieces. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a ceiling, but his meteoric rise has made it so most can envision him being the best player on a championship team. His young counterparts—Jabari Parker and Thon Maker—hold special question marks that are both exciting and terrifying. That element of unpredictability makes forecasting incremental improvement in the wins column a bit tougher for this group.

Sustained success noticeably beyond what they’ve already achieved seems inevitable for the Bucks, but figuring out how large a step they’ll make by the end of next season is an interesting dilemma. Have they done enough to make a leap? Is the Eastern Conference watered down enough to make this a closed question? What is the range of outcomes for their ceiling this season?

Antetokounmpo might be the simple trump card to all of this. He became one of only two players in NBA history to compile a stat line of 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists before turning 23; the other was Oscar Robertson. He plays multiple positions, handles the ball, defends the rim and is a transition beast who can’t be stopped once he gets one mammoth stride on you:

The noise has grown to roars of Antetokounmpo being the heir to the King’s throne once his reign ends. Determining what this type of player can do for a franchise is something with which the Bucks are still grappling. Last season, they were a slightly above-average team at 42-40, with the eye test suggesting the record was just. They were a top-10 team in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.73), but near the bottom in total rebounding percentage. They were above average on offense but stayed underwhelming on defense, placing 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Even the 20-12 record to close the season came laced with caveats, since they notched a net rating of 0.2 during that period.

Establishing themselves as an elite unit on one side of the court is where the Bucks must start. The 2016-17 season saw some cause and effect with the offense. After ranking in the bottom five during past years, they pushed through with the 13th-best mark in the league, a standing buoyed in large part by Antetokounmpo’s Most Improved Player campaign. But while one player can drag you to respectability in a single area, it takes secondary pieces to get you over the hump.

Enter Khris Middleton.

The “Real Plus/Minus King” finished in the top five of the category among shooting guards between 2013-14 and 2015-16 and nabbed the No. 8 spot last season after appearing in only 29 games. He is, in no uncertain terms, the embodiment of a do-it-all wing.

Middleton proved as much after returning from a torn hamstring. He was an elite marksmen from mid-range, where he ranked among the NBA’s best with a 42.6 shooting percentage and was even better from deep, tallying the sixth-best clip (43.3 percent) among 210 players to make at least 25 appearances and average two outside attempts per game. Blistering spot-up accuracy mixed with a reliable mid-range repertoire is big time on the Bucks. They can split up Antetokounmpo and Middleton to make sure one elite shot-creating wing is on the floor at every turn; they posted a net rating of 6.9 when he played without Antetokounmpo, which would have ranked third overall.

A full season should make the Bucks better by default, but missing Parker for most of the year sucks some potential from the offense. Expecting Maker to be much more than a quickly-hooked starting 5 seems unrealistic. The burden of boosting Milwaukee’s ceiling will fall harder to a select few other names—notably, Tony Snell:

The 25-year-old came over in exchange for Michael Carter-Williams before the 2016-17 season tipped off. Though the move was clearly aimed at adding some low-end depth on the wings, Snell became so much more. He shot a career-high 40.6 percent from beyond the arc and hustled his butt off on defense, establishing himself as a go-to starter and someone who needed to be on the floor for almost 30 minutes per game. His spot-up shooting in particular proved to be dangerous; he averaged 1.17 points per catch-and-fire possession—the same as Klay Thompson. Milwaukee rewarded him over the summer with a four-year, $46 million deal, which still looks good even after the ensuing market crunch, in no small part because the team needs someone like Snell who can hoist threes in volume.

The Bucks did not chuck it much from deep last year. They ranked 24th in attempts per game and 21st in three-point-attempt rate. This dearth of volume coincided with their total shots, as they took the 19th most shot attempts per 100 possessions. A few things go into this: First, they were one of the worst teams on the offensive glass, which won’t help you get second-chance points. And if you cannot bang on the boards, you better push the pace. The Bucks didn’t do that much, either. They played at the fifth-slowest tempo.

This pace of play doesn’t have to pigeonhole the Bucks to offensive mediocrity. The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers found ways to be elite without playing at warped speeds. Even the Bucks showed flashes of the same. They ranked first in percentage of points scored in the paint—aka “The Giannis Effect.” If they can sustain their interior dominance while bumping up their attempts from three, they should be good enough to officially crack the top 10 in points scored per 100 possessions. Their accuracy from deep should portend an ability to get this done. The line of quality shooters they deploy suggests they can boost their attempts while remaining nearly as efficient. 

Repeat performances from players like Malcolm Brogdon and Greg Monroe would also go a long way toward elevating the Bucks. Brogdon spent his entire Rookie of the Year campaign delivering rock-solid defense with a 40.4 percent clip from long range. The Bucks need more of the same from him. Monroe remaining an anchor for the second unit with efficient post scoring, timely passing and surprisingly okay defense is somehow both a bonus and necessity. Getting Mirza Teletovic and/or Spencer Hawes to catch fire from deep would be a welcomed addition.

Maker could be the X-factor who makes a bigger impact than expected. He showed a ton of promise in his first season with the team and ended up getting a bit more run as the year wore on. If he can build off that foundation and ramp up his playing time with that starting unit, the Bucks may be in great shape. The Antetokounmpo-Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Maker lineup outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions the 134 minutes they played together. If the young center is ready for this starting role, minus head coach Jason Kidd’s swift subs, it’d take a lot for this team not to take a step forward.

The Bucks could hope for a jump on defense, but that seems unrealistic. As strong as the unit looked a couple of seasons ago, it’s unlikely they could repeat that smoke-and-mirrors, risk-riddled system again. Returning to that elite level, for starters, would require a spike in their ability to create turnovers. During the 2014-15 season, when they ranked fourth in defensive rating, they maintained the highest percentage of opponent turnovers per possession. While still good in that department last year, they were a couple percentage points off that mark.

On top of that, they haven’t upgraded the personnel to improve their rebounding woes. The team was one of the worst at keeping offenses off the glass, which looks like an issue that should continue to plague them. And with the margin for progress on defense wafer thin, they’ll look for repeat offensive performances and hopeful jumps to ensure that becomes a top-tier strength.

To really get there, though, they’ll need to better navigate playing time without Antetokounmpo. Pairing Middleton with Brogdon during those minute is a good place to start. The duo, in limited action, played fantastic when it shared the court without Antetokounmpo, according to nbawowy, and that should only grow as they build better chemistry. Leaning on Brogdon more at point guard in general would help give them a safety net and extra capable ball-handler along the wing.

Truth be told, playing in the East might help the Bucks more than anything. If they remain static, they could gain a couple extra wins just because of the watered-down competition they’ll be dealing with this season. Heck, even the question of whether they can leapfrog the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors for the No. 3 seed is a legitimate one. The stars have aligned for the Bucks to make that push with the lack of depth on the Wizards and the Raptors looking a bit more up in the air.

And maybe, just maybe, all they’ll need in the end is their “Greek Freak” to supercharge the transition from “average” to “very good.”

After all, top-10 stars are the foundation for every truly exceptional team, and the Bucks have already found theirs.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @Trende19.

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