“Almost.” It’s a word that sums up the end of the Bucks’ 2016–17 season, as well as their future. They almost beat the Raptors. They trailed by 25 late in the third quarter. Then Giannis Antetokounmpo, Matthew Dellavedova, and Khris Middleton hit consecutive 3s to trim the lead, and their long-limbed roster engulfed the Raptors, forcing turnovers and stopping Toronto’s ball movement. They even took a lead on a Jason Terry triple with just 3:05 remaining, but it wasn’t enough. The Raptors seized control and won 92–89.
The comeback encapsulated what the Bucks are capable of. Antetokounmpo is the poster child: long, versatile, and young. The future of the league might very well be Giannis, Thon Maker, Tony Snell, and Khris Middleton aggressively switching everything on defense. They could be the Eastern Conference team to knock off LeBron James, but they’re not ready for that yet.
Almost. Milwaukee has a pivotal summer coming up. Let’s review what’s on the Bucks’ plate, starting with the draft and moving through the offseason and into training camp:
1. Can the Bucks Find Another Star?
In preparation for an article I wrote at the beginning of the season, I talked with a league front-office executive about teams that should be tanking. He mentioned the Bucks. I laughed. It didn’t make sense. It still sort of doesn’t, especially after seeing the Bucks go six against the Raptors and almost make a 25-point comeback. But remove emotion from the equation and you sort of see the exec’s point: Antetokounmpo’s situation isn’t all too different from LeBron’s first stint with the Cavs. “[The Bucks] risk what Cleveland went through early in LeBron’s career,” the team executive told me. “LeBron became a star too fast and they never had high enough picks to find other stars to pair with him.”
The Bucks today have more talent than LeBron’s early Cleveland teams, but they’re still one star away from being real contenders. They won’t be able to find one in free agency or the draft: they’ll have no cap space this summer if they re-sign Greg Monroe and/or Tony Snell. Even if they don’t re-sign either, they’ll have less than $20 million available. They’d need to move heaven and earth to come up with max space. Assume the Bucks won’t be factors in free agency. They also don’t have the assets to acquire a star via trade — unless they gave up one of their existing core pieces. The LeBron 1.0 Cavs had to patch together rosters because they didn’t have the luxury of adding lottery-level talent through the draft, and they never struck gold with any of their late picks.
Middleton missed most of this season and Jabari Parker tore his ACL in February, but the Bucks were too good to tank anyway. They’ll need to have draft luck. Fortunately, they own all of their future firsts. This year, they’ll draft 17th. They haven’t been afraid to swing for the fences in the past — Antetokounmpo was a grand slam and the selection of Maker was shocking — and they should do it again.
I want to see Antetokounmpo paired with a mobile, shooting big man. Sometimes I fantasize about Giannis alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. That won’t happen. The best the Bucks can hope for is landing Creighton center Justin Patton in the draft. Patton is an explosive 7-footer who can throw down thunderous lob dunks, and he has perimeter-scoring upside. Sometimes he channels Towns:
The Bucks have been successful with their player development. If Patton is on the board, I’d find it hard to pass him up. Other big men I’d have in mind include Jonathan Jeanne and Zach Collins — if they hit on this pick, the Bucks will be set for years to come.
2. Will Giannis Accept Holger’s Invitation?
In December, Giannis revealed that Dirk Nowitzki’s personal shooting coach, Holger Geschwindner, extended an invitation to join them for workouts in Germany this summer. “Without [Holger], I might be a boring businessman or a painter in my parents’ company today,” Dirk said in 2012. Giannis might start painting Picassos on the basketball court if Geschwindner can have the same influence on Antetokounmpo.
Geschwindner’s speciality is shooting, and that’s what Antetokounmpo doesn’t do well. He’s a career 31 percent shooter on catch-and-shoot attempts and 32.4 percent on pull-ups, per SportVU. It’s imperative he develop his shot, otherwise defenses will continue to double-dog-dare him to shoot:
If Antetokounmpo is knocking down 3s, then DeMarre Carroll has a tougher choice on defense. If Carroll clogs the lane to protect against Maker’s roll, like he did above, then it leaves Antetokounmpo completely open. If he can start making that shot, then perhaps Carroll stays home and Maker is finishing a lob.
Antetokounmpo’s shot isn’t broken — he’s a career 74 percent free throw shooter, which is average. I’d bet his 25-for-46 charity-stripe performance in the playoffs was due to tired legs.
Antetokounmpo has solid mechanics. The first problem is a hitch: he brings the ball up to his head, pauses, and heaves it forward like he’s a catapult. Sometimes it’s like the ball is ahead of the rest of his shot. In other words, he’s shooting with his arms instead of his legs.
The other big issue is the speed of his shot. His gather is slow because he needs time to get set. And when he’s rushed, he tends to get wild:
Even with Giannis releasing as quickly as he can, he couldn’t get the ball off before the buzzer — the officials missed this shot-clock violation, and it led to a four-point play for the Bucks. Antetokounmpo uses a one-two step on his shot, where he takes a “one” with his left foot, and then a “two” with his right. A quicker approach would be literally hopping as he catches the ball, and then leaping straight into his shot. Watch what it looks like when Kevin Durant hops and releases cleanly:
If you want to totally nerd out, also look at the point at which the ball reaches Durant’s head: it’s not until he’s on his tippy-toes, ready to elevate for his shot. Now scroll back up and look at the Giannis shot. See how his long legs are still unfolding, and he’s flat-footed? With these two fixes, Antetokounmpo should improve drastically as a shooter.
It remains to be seen if Giannis will make it over to Germany this summer. “Hopefully my schedule with the national team and the Bucks, I can be able to make the trip there,” Giannis said in December. The Bucks better push him to say yes. The rest of the NBA better hope he doesn’t.
3. Can the Bucks Build Depth?
Milwaukee has one of the best young cores in the NBA. They also have one of the most volatile. Parker has torn his right ACL twice in a 26-month period, and suffered a major foot injury in high school. He came back better after his first tear, but a second injury to the same knee is alarming. Middleton didn’t look the same after his return from a torn hamstring, lacking the same agility and explosiveness. After a full summer of rest and rehab, he could return to his previous levels, but there are no guarantees. Malcolm Brogdon’s slide to the 36th pick in the 2016 draft was partially due to the NBA’s senioritis, but, per multiple front-office league sources, there was also a medical red flag. He had surgery to fuse a bone in his left foot, and that foot could cause major issues in the future.
It’s possible all three of them could stay healthy the rest of their careers. But the history is notable, and the Bucks should be proactive in not settling for what they currently have — it can all go away quickly. Milwaukee will be one of 25 franchises with a G-League team next season, and it’ll be their first year with a minor league roster.
I’m interested to see how every NBA team uses the two-way contracts allowed under the new collective bargaining agreement, but it could be particularly important for teams like the Bucks. They could fill those slots with extra developmental pieces that have upside, with an eye toward making them long-term contributors. The 2017 NBA draft is ripe with talent, deep into the second round. I could see this being another class that produces undrafted players that become NBA contributors — just like 2016 gave us Yogi Ferrell, Ron Baker, and Dorian Finney-Smith. How the Bucks choose to use those roster spots could be a reflection of their sense of the rest of the team.
4. Who Should the Bucks Re-sign?
This summer the Bucks have three unrestricted free agents: Michael Beasley, Jason Terry, and Gary Payton II; one restricted free agent: Tony Snell; and two with player options: Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes. Jet will be 40 next season, but he can still drain 3s and he’s a leader. I’d bring him back if there’s nothing better on the market. Beasley and Jones are afterthoughts.
Snell excelled, and now it looks like the Bucks ripped off the Bulls in acquiring him for Michael Carter-Williams. But the price to keep him could be steep, and I wonder where the Bucks will draw the line. Last offseason, Allen Crabbe signed an offer sheet for $75 million over four years, which the Blazers matched. Is Crabbe worth it? Arguably. Is Snell? Maybe. I would lean toward yes, because I don’t see many other viable options due to their lack of cap room. Snell’s a 3-and-D wing who perfectly fits into their aggressive, trapping defense. Keeping him should be a priority.
Monroe is the player I struggle with. He makes the best faces, and watching the Bucks would be a little less fun without him. As for his play, he’s been a revelation this season. Monroe has become the guy you always wanted him to be. He’s still an excellent interior scorer with smooth footwork worthy of a future Dancing With the Stars appearance. He still passes well. He’s still an elite rebounder. The difference is now he’s in shape and playing hard on defense.
Monroe corralling Kyle Lowry is not something you would’ve expected from him before the season, but it became a regular occurrence as the year wore on. He was reliable, made his rotations, and could even stay with guards. He put his body on the line too, taking 18 charges, the 10th most in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. Monroe reinvented himself this season and he will get a deal that reflects that.
I like Monroe a lot. I voted him third on my Sixth Man of the Year ballot. He was terrific. With that said, I have questions. Maybe I’m just not a very trusting person, but I still can’t let go of the fact Monroe’s epiphany happened during a contract year. We’ve seen this story before with the likes of Erick Dampier, whose league-leading offensive rebounding duped the Mavericks into giving him a seven-year deal, and Mark Blount, who hustled his ass off until the Celtics re-signed him to a six-year deal after his late-season burst.
The Bucks know the answer better than anyone else because they’ve been around him for two years and can get feedback from players and coaches. If they feel totally confident this is the new Monroe and he’s here to stay, then great — pay him. But if there’s any uncertainty, they should cut bait. The last thing the Bucks want to do is play themselves when they’re only a few smart moves and a little luck away from being a title contender for the next decade.
An earlier version of this story listed Terrence Jones as one of the Bucks’ unrestricted free agents. Jones was waived in April to make room for Gary Payton II.