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The Bucks Are Reliably Interesting, but When Will They Be Consistently Good?

They made Giannis a point guard last year, but will need to get even more creative this season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

The Bucks have been on a yo-yo the last few years. When they were supposed to be bad, they were good. When they were supposed to be good, they were bad. It’s hard to know what to expect from them this season, either: They’ll be without Khris Middleton for at least five months after he tore his hamstring last month. And just last week, Milwaukee swapped Michael Carter-Williams for Tony Snell. They have question marks up and down their rotation, and they are still figuring out the best way to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, two of the most unique young talents in the NBA.

Any team with Giannis is going to play somewhat unconventionally. There’s no one else in the NBA like him. At 6-foot-11 and 222 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Giannis is impossibly long and athletic, and he can make plays with the ball that few guys his size can even attempt, much less pull off. The big decision the Bucks made last season was making him the full-time point guard, a move which killed two birds with one stone. Playing Giannis off the ball is difficult because he’s not a good 3-point shooter, and the only way to get the most out of his game is to give him the ball and let him go. Empowering taller ball handlers is en vogue around the league, and moving Giannis to point gives the Bucks a lot more flexibility when it comes to setting their lineups.

A 6-foot-11 point guard means disregarding normal positional responsibilities for everyone else on the floor. Carter-Williams, the Bucks’ original starting point guard last season, needed the ball and couldn’t shoot, so he instantly became a 6-foot-6 redundancy. Even worse, he was acquired by trading away Brandon Knight, a sweet-shooting, score-first guard who, in hindsight, would have been the perfect fit next to Point Giannis. Jerryd Bayless thrived in that role last season; since the Bucks didn’t need him to be a playmaker, he was free to gun the ball to his heart’s content. The plan this season is to start Matthew Dellavedova, the best defender of the bunch, as a 6-foot-4 3-and-D point guard — or whatever position you want to label him with.

Dellavedova and Giannis should be a good defensive backcourt, but Middleton’s absence leaves a gaping hole at the other wing position. The Bucks have to cobble together an adequate replacement out of some combination of Snell, Rashad Vaughn, Malcolm Brogdon, and Jason Terry. It will be a rough go. As a rookie, Vaughn was one of only five players in NBA history to play more than 1,000 minutes in a season and log a PER of less than 4.5. Terry is a 39-year-old who can’t be counted on for anything more than spot minutes. Snell has the closest approximation of Middleton’s 3-point shooting and defensive abilities, but he’s coming off an inconsistent three-year stint in Chicago in which his feel for the game was consistently in question. The most interesting player is Brogdon, the Bucks’ 2016 second-round pick and a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Virginia who shot 50 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free throw line as a senior. He turns 24 in December, and he is physically mature enough to assume a substantial role in the NBA right away.

Another way the Bucks can fill that gap in their roster would be to slide Parker from the 4 to the 3. He has the versatility to play either position on offense, but he’s a man without a country on defense. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Jabari is a barrel-chested player unused to chasing smaller players around screens or getting into a stance and guarding 25-plus feet from the basket, but he doesn’t have the ideal length to protect the rim or be much of a defensive presence in the lane, either. His return from an ACL injury was a big factor in their slip from second in the league in defensive rating in 2014 to 22nd in 2015.

If Parker is going to make an impact in the NBA, it’s going to be on offense. He’s one of those guys who was born knowing how to get buckets. He’s as natural a scorer as there is in the league. He can take bigger defenders off the dribble, and he can score over the top of smaller ones in the lane. He has a high basketball IQ and a great feel for when to slip to the basket, getting more shots on cuts than any noncenter in the NBA last season, which only makes the holes in his game more glaring. He doesn’t get to the free throw line much, he doesn’t shoot 3s, and he’s not a great playmaker. If he doesn’t expand his game, the Ghost of Christmas Future will come staring him in the face sooner rather than later — and its face looks a lot like his new teammate Michael Beasley, a similar combo forward who was also taken no. 2 in the 2008 draft because of his ability to score.

Until Parker improves as either a defensive player or a 3-point shooter, it’s going to be difficult to assemble quality lineups around him. If Giannis and Parker are at the 2 and the 3, the Bucks are almost forced to play Mirza Teletovic, a shooting specialist whom they signed in the offseason, at the 4 to have any type of floor spacing. The problem here is what playing Jabari and Teletovic together will mean on defense, particularly since the team has no elite rim protector behind them. If they play Giannis and Jabari at the 3 and the 4, they will have to count on one of their younger wings to become a knockdown 3-point shooter. Middleton’s absence means Jason Kidd is going to have to choose between defense and offense every time he makes a lineup decision. The lack of two-way players is an even bigger problem at center, a position at which the Bucks have invested nearly $41 million this season on Greg Monroe, John Henson, and Miles Plumlee, none of whom has shown he can consistently make a team better on both sides of the ball.

That’s why, long-term, the most intriguing players on the roster is Thon Maker, the no. 10 pick in this year’s draft. Maker is a 7-footer with the foot speed of a guard who has flashed the ability to play on the perimeter on offense, but his résumé is almost as thin as he is. No one seems to know his real age, and he spent the last few seasons going up against substandard competition as a prep schooler in Canada. The Bucks took a swing for the fences with the pick, and the hypothetical version of what he could be makes sense next to Giannis and Parker. Despite the logjam of older players ahead of him in the rotation, the Bucks might need the rookie’s combination of defensive activity and shooting ability to win.

A small-market team like Milwaukee has no choice but to rely on the draft to bring in impact players, especially after how the disastrous Monroe signing turned out. After signing Giannis to a near-max extension in the offseason, the Bucks have gone all in on this core, and they won’t have much salary-cap flexibility to add players through free agency over the next few seasons. That’s where Middleton’s injury could become a blessing in disguise for them. This upcoming draft is supposed to be one of the deepest in recent memory, and most of the teams who had been tanking in recent years are ready to start moving forward in their rebuilding process. If the Bucks get off to as poor start, it wouldn’t take much for them to wind up with a top pick.

Finding someone who fits with Giannis and Parker could be tricky since neither is a proven 3-point shooter. Maker’s development would be huge, because playing those two next to a non-shooting center doesn’t leave a lot of room on the floor to attack the rim. If the Bucks really wanted to get creative, they might try Giannis as a point center for stretches of the game. He’s already taller and longer than a lot of small-ball 5s in the modern NBA, and he should only add more weight to his frame as he gets older. He could theoretically guard any position, which would allow the Bucks to play positionless basketball, whether he’s the tip of the spear in a super-sized lineup where no one is shorter than 6-foot-6, like they used in a preseason game against the Pacers, or in a turbo lineup with Giannis playing behind several ball-hawking guards. He is still just 21, so the only thing that really matters this season is identifying players who can be a part of his supporting cast. The Bucks turned him into a point guard last year. This year is about finding guys who can run with him.