With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton back, the Milwaukee Bucks have the pieces to take the next step and contend for the Eastern Conference title.
2018-19 record: 60-22, lost in Eastern Conference finals
Key additions: Robin Lopez (free agency), Wesley Matthews (free agency), Kyle Korver (free agency), Dragan Bender (free agency)
Key departures: Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic
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Not since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teamed up with Oscar Robertson did the Bucks register on the NBA radar quite like 2018-19, when they did everything except win a championship.
They won a league-high 60 games, claiming the top seed in the East along the way. Antetokounmpo earned regular-season MVP honours for a dominant season during which he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists per game and carried the club almost every night.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was named 2018-19 Most Valuable Player at the NBA Awards
The Bucks flipped the switch on three-point shooting, transforming from a team that ranked 25th and 27th, respectively, in three-pointers taken to second in both categories last season. That was led by Brook Lopez, a skilled post-up center suddenly making an unlikely living beyond the arc. Defensively, they were effective as Antetokounmpo set the tone there. Middleton blossomed into a solid No 2 option and was an All-Star.
It was a triumphant first season with the Bucks for Mike Budenholzer, who sold the players on his philosophy of three-point shooting and defense to win his second career Coach of the Year award. It was also the club’s inaugural season at Fiserv Forum, which quickly became the city’s main attraction.
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Milwaukee broke fast from the gate, winning seven straight to start the season, then going 19-2 during a midseason stretch to assume the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. The good times extended to the postseason as the Bucks won 10 of their first 11 playoff games. They took a 2-0 lead in the conference finals before collapsing against the eventual NBA-champion Toronto Raptors.
The biggest boost to the Bucks’ offseason was not generated within the franchise itself. Instead, the Bucks were curious witnesses to the events in Toronto, where Kawhi Leonard bolted to the LA Clippers and made Milwaukee’s summer. For the second straight summer, a major figure from an opposing contender went West, making Milwaukee’s path a bit less complicated – if not easier – with Leonard following LeBron James to Los Angeles.
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It is not true that the Bucks sent Leonard a limo to Toronto’s Pearson Airport, but they did not exactly weep when he left, either. He was mainly responsible for keeping the Bucks out of the Finals. Given the injuries the Golden State Warriors suffered in that series, Leonard possibly cost Milwaukee a title as well.
And so, with the Raptors weakened by the loss of the Finals MVP, it is quite possible that the only team standing between Milwaukee and June is the Philadelphia 76ers.
Khris Middleton hit seven three-pointers and Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 29 points as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Boston Celtics in Game 2
Given their cap restrictions and need to address their own contract matters, the Bucks did not and could not improve much this offseason. Instead, they gave extensions to maintain the status quo and added a few pieces that should figure into the rotation. In truth, that is probably all they needed to do.
Middleton was an unrestricted free agent, but the chance to stay next to Giannis was too compelling to surrender. That, and $178m over the next five years, was apparently enough to keep the shooter in Milwaukee. It is the perfect situation for Middleton: he gets open looks off Antetokounmpo’s double teams, he should get at least one crack at a title under this contract and will make upwards of $35m a season.
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The next goal was retaining Malcolm Brogdon, which proved a lot trickier. That is because, during the season, the Bucks extended Eric Bledsoe, which sent conflicting signals to Brogdon. How much were Milwaukee willing to tie up in two point guards, both of whom are starter-quality? Brogdon found riches, and another contender, via a sign-and-trade deal with the Indiana Pacers for $85m over four years.
The Bucks did, however, keep Brook Lopez for $52m over the next four years. Lopez was a bargain last season, making $3.4m while notching career highs as a three-point shooter and shot-blocker (2.2 blocks per game).
Robin Lopez drives by Rudy Gobert
Then the Bucks did the Lopez family one better by signing Brook’s brother, Robin. It should be a rollicking and productive ride with the twins, who have not played together since their college days at Stanford more than a decade ago. They regularly needle each other, as brothers often do, though Robin can still generate rebounds, is a decent rim protector and ranked 15th in screen assists last season.
As insurance for their emphasis on three-point shooting, the Bucks added Wesley Matthews from the bargain bin. A career 38.2 per cent three-point shooter, Matthews can spread the floor and gobble rotational minutes and may be a better option than Kyle Korver – one of the NBA’s best-ever three-point shooters who is starting to show his age. Korver is being reunited with Budenholzer, though, who made him an All-Star in 2015.
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Both Matthews and Korver will replace Tony Snell, who had been a disappointment with the Bucks ever since they traded for him from Chicago and gave him an extension. Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic left the NBA altogether in favour of returning to Europe.
As a result of this year’s extensions, with a fat one (hopefully) soon to come for Giannis, the Bucks are essentially saying this is their team for the next three to four seasons. These are big times in Milwaukee as the organisation rides with the current core to see what transpires.
Giannis Antetokoumpo scored 39 points to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a 113-101 Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics
In a conference without James – and now Leonard – and with Brooklyn’s title dreams on hold until Kevin Durant heals, the Bucks have their window.
They are anxious and fully equipped to throw a basketball through it.
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Powell2daPeople
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