Milwaukee went from looking like a contender with an MVP candidate to the season going up in flames faster than Giannis Antetokounmpo can cross the court in transition. The expectation was for the young, long-limbed Bucks to improve. Beyond the obvious of having a generational, unicorn superstar, the franchise is equipped with a bundle of players who seemed to be on the rise: reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Khris Middleton.
Yet the 2018 playoffs ended no differently than the last postseason. If anything, the results were more alarming. The Bucks lost in the first round again, falling to a broken Celtics team that was worse than last year’s adversary, Toronto. Back then, it seemed like the team’s direction was obvious; where else to go but up? Instead, they were hampered by poor defense, question marks on on how to create offense alongside Giannis, and a mid-season coaching change. Here are three questions the Bucks will be forced to answer this summer:
Who Holds the Clipboard Next Season?
In the words of The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti, anyone but Joe Prunty. (Though I will miss gawking at that amount of hair gel.) Of all the open head coaching jobs—Atlanta, New York, Phoenix, Orlando, and Charlotte—Milwaukee has one distinct advantage: It has the best player on that proverbial court.
How the rest of the team performed shouldn’t sour the job’s appeal. Former Bucks coach Jason Kidd, fired 45 games into this season, takes most of the heat for that. He went old school with a 7-footer of the future. Kidd’s pick-and-roll defense was out of date, and his offense failed to jell.
Kidd was the opposite of what the front office should be searching for now: a forward-thinking candidate unafraid of matching Giannis’s unique abilities with imaginative schemes. (Don’t hire Elon Musk.)
How Do They Find a Worthy Second Banana?
A couple of Giannis’s teammates could rise up to ride shotgun for any of his future success, but right now there isn’t a clear-cut option. Despite Parker ending the postseason on a high note, the warning sirens are flashing. He still isn’t, and may never be, what the Bucks dreamed after taking him second overall in the 2014 NBA draft. This postseason, Parker joined the likes of John Wall and Hassan Whiteside as prominent players looking for more respect. Two games into the playoffs, Parker complained about playing time to the media. Members of the Bucks coaching staff reportedly attributed his frustration to “immaturity.”
But consider the unfortunate circumstances of Parker’s NBA career so far: He suffered two season-ending ACL tears in three years. The 23-year-old has sat for almost half of his four-year career, missing 145 of 328 possible games. When he did return to finish out this regular season, his time on the court was sprinkled with sloppy and apathetic moments.
Then there’s Eric Bledsoe, the veteran guard who was traded to Milwaukee because he didn’t “wanna be” in Phoenix (or maybe a salon) earlier this season. He looked like he didn’t wanna be in the playoffs at times, either. His play against the Celtics is an extension of the organization’s issues as a whole: a lack of consistent effort and focus. (Has any other point guard’s stock so sharply declined in the latter half of this season?)
That leaves Middleton, a guy in his sixth NBA season who still isn’t a household—or press conference—name. Time travel back a couple years, and Middleton is the least likely of the three to be a reliable second option for Giannis. Yet the Bucks turned to the wing in the playoffs; he averaged 24.7 points on 59.8 percent shooting against Boston, including one thrilling 3 that forced overtime. Per Synergy, Middleton entered Game 6 scoring the most points per possession during the playoffs (among those with at least 100 possessions), outdoing the unicorn on his side as well as the three MVP candidates still playing (James Harden, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis—sorry, Dame)
“Khris is playing great,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN. “It’s great having a guy next to you that plays that well in this series. If I’m not going, if Bledsoe is not getting his rhythm, we’ll always have Khris.”
Middleton has the endorsement that matters. But unless his game reaches another level, he won’t be the kind of star the Bucks need to become a serious contender. Their best non-Giannis player is better off as a third option. Management will have to look outside the current roster for a second banana?
Should They Invest in the Future or Win Now?
Giannis’s situation is starting to look an awful lot like Anthony Davis’s. New Orleans drafted a legend-in-the-making in Davis, but they tried to accelerate the process of building a contender around him by trading draft picks for proven young players like Jrue Holiday.
As of now, Milwaukee is caught in the middle. The Bledsoe trade points to a win-now mentality. So does trading for Tyler Zeller and playing him over Thon Maker until the Bucks were down two games in the playoffs (and with John Henson’s injury kind of forcing Prunty’s hand). Maker, 21, struggled to find his place this season, his second in the NBA, but the Bucks didn’t give him the chance to play through it. The front office instead gave Prunty a chance to grow by moving the former assistant to the head coach spot for the remainder of the season. So if this wasn’t the year they were going to make a big push forward, why not give Maker, and some of the 3-and-D options on the roster like Sterling Brown, more playing time to grow?
Milwaukee’s offseason moves will be telling. In the meantime, one important detail supports either strategy: There are three years left on Giannis’s current contract. After a disenchanting, one-step-forward, two-steps-back season, that’s enough to make any GM smile.