The NBA season is over, and it hasn’t even started. The 2017-18 campaign begins and ends with the Warriors, and their biggest competition isn’t another team. It’s history. What’s really scary is that this could be closer to the beginning of their dynasty than the end. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are all under 30. Luxury tax penalties and injuries may be the only things that can slow them down. The league could be in a different era the next time another team wins. Who that team will be is the most interesting question in the NBA. The players who will define the post-Warriors future are just beginning their careers. Projecting that far ahead is almost impossible, but there is a leader in the race to be next in line.
The future in Milwaukee is impossibly bright. The Bucks have already done the hard part. They have a transcendent superstar who turns 23 in December, several young guys in line to become secondary stars, and a cast of role players who fit well around them. The average age of their starting five is 23, and they are perfectly suited for the way the game is trending. Milwaukee is taking Golden State’s formula to its logical conclusion. The Bucks start four guys who can switch screens and shoot 3s around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they keep drafting more players who do the same. When Giannis is in his prime, they could conceivably play Lineups of Death the entire game.
Durant recently said Giannis could become the greatest player of all time. There has never been a player with his combination of length, speed, and skill. He’s a point guard with the size of a center and an origin story from a superhero movie. He led Milwaukee in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks last season. Giannis checks every box on and off the court. He has gotten better in each of his four years in the league, and his boundless enthusiasm makes him a natural leader. The only hole in his game is his jumper. He would be unguardable if he were even a league-average 3-point shooter. He’s so long and nimble that no defender can cover enough space to stay in front of him. No matter where he is on the court, he’s never more than a step away from being in range for a floater. The floor for Giannis is a 6-foot-11 Tony Parker.
The best players change how we think about the game. Peak Giannis is an unholy combination of LeBron’s speed and floor game and Durant’s length. A player like that could take over a seven-game series single-handedly. He could guard the opposing team’s best player, regardless of position, and shut down its pick-and-roll game by switching screens. Giannis is still growing into his body, and the Bucks are still figuring out how to use him. They never played him at center in their first-round loss to the Raptors last season. When fully weaponized, he could be MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. LeBron has spent the past decade dominating the Eastern Conference. If he leaves next summer, Giannis will become the best player in the East.
Thon Maker is an ideal sidekick. He’s an athletic 7-footer who spent his entire rookie season spotting up at the 3-point line. Playing with a stretch 5 opens up the floor for Giannis and makes it impossible for the defense to pack the paint. As Thon matures physically, he will protect Giannis from the pounding he would take as a full-time center. Playing the two together means the Bucks could switch every screen, while Thon’s presence in the paint could allow Giannis to extend out on defense. It’s hard to say how good Thon can be. We have never seen him in a featured role on offense against high-level competition. He never played in college or in a major international tournament. Even if he doesn’t get better, he’s already a 3-and-D center at 20. His ceiling is a primary option who can protect the rim and guard all five positions.
Thon’s emergence would make Khris Middleton one of the best third options in the NBA. Middleton played in only 29 games last season after tearing his hamstring. When healthy, he’s a complete player with no holes in his game. He’s a supersized wing (6-foot-8 and 234 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) with elite shooting ability (a career 40.4 percent 3-point shooter on 3.6 attempts per game) and a high basketball IQ. Middleton plays a lot like Joe Johnson, bullying smaller defenders in the post and picking apart the defense when it sends double-teams. He’s not flashy or explosive, but what he does well will allow him to play at a high level for a long time. He’s only 26, but his old-man game makes him seem much older. Middleton gives the Bucks someone they can run offense through when Giannis is out, as well as star-power insurance in case Jabari Parker never gets healthy.
Parker has been touted as a future superstar since high school, but he may be the odd man out in Milwaukee. He could not reach an agreement with the Bucks for an extension (he reportedly wanted a max) on his rookie contract, so he will be a restricted free agent next summer. He’s not expected to return until the All-Star break, and no one knows if he will be able to recover fully from tearing the same ACL twice before 23. It’s not a Joel Embiid situation, where his talent is so overwhelming that the team had to gamble on it. While Parker is a gifted scorer, the Bucks had a negative net rating with him on the floor in each of his first three seasons. They were better without him last year. A guy who doesn’t play defense and needs the ball is replaceable on a team with two other stars.
Milwaukee’s starting lineup makes more sense without Parker. Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell are perfect complementary options. With Giannis and Middleton handling the playmaking, the Bucks don’t need dynamic creators in their backcourt. They just need guys who space the floor, make the extra pass, and play defense. Brogdon (6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and Snell (6-foot-7 and 217 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) tower over the guys they guard, and both shot higher than 40 percent from 3 last season. They fit the Bucks’ defensive blueprint; they have the length to make even routine passes through the paint difficult to complete, and they can switch screens and match up with bigger players. Snell doesn’t have much upside, but Brogdon showed flashes of being something more as a rookie. He knows how to use his size advantage in comparison with other point guards and he averaged 4.2 assists per game on only 1.5 turnovers.
The Bucks’ starting lineup of the future is here now. In 2020-21, Giannis will be 26, Maker will be 24, Brogdon will be 28, and Middleton and Snell will be 29. The only one of those five who will be up for free agency before then is Middleton. His absence for most of the season obscured how good they already are. That lineup had a net rating of plus-11.9 in the 135 minutes they played together last season, and the Bucks had a net rating of plus-5.7 in Middleton’s 889 minutes, which would have made them one of the top five teams in the NBA over the whole season. A full season of Middleton plus improvement from Giannis, Maker, and Brogdon could make them a threat to Cleveland in the East.
A small-market team needs to build depth through the draft, and the Bucks picked guys who fit their system this offseason. D.J. Wilson is a long and athletic big man (7-foot-3 wingspan) who shot 37.3 percent from 3 at Michigan last season. Sterling Brown might be the closest thing to Brogdon in this year’s rookie class. One of the key players in Larry Brown’s first recruiting class at SMU, Sterling Brown was an extension of his coaches on the court in college. As a senior, he guarded four positions and shot 44.9 percent from 3. Contenders need guys with Brown’s and Wilson’s skill sets coming off the bench. They are exactly the types of players former GM John Hammond would have drafted, which is encouraging after the team bungled the search for his replacement.
The biggest concerns about Milwaukee are off the court. Its ownership group could not agree on a replacement for Hammond, who left for Orlando in the offseason. They ended up giving the job to Jon Horst, a relatively unknown 34-year-old who is now the youngest GM in the league. A head-coaching change could be in the works as well. The cracks in Jason Kidd’s coaching style became more apparent last season. He was outmaneuvered by Dwane Casey in the Bucks’ first-round loss to the Raptors, and the league figured out his hyper-aggressive defensive scheme. After finishing second in defensive rating in Kidd’s first season in Milwaukee, they were 22nd and 19th the past two years. Too many offenses can spread the floor with five shooters to make blitzing pick-and-rolls a central part of a team’s defensive identity.
The tough decisions are behind Milwaukee. A team with proven young talent that fits well together doesn’t have to do much to take the next step. The Bucks still have to improve, but that improvement could come from guys already on their roster. They can wait out Golden State. When Giannis is 27, LeBron will be 37 and Durant will be 34. His star will be rising as theirs are falling. The Bucks ended the Warriors’ 24-game win streak two seasons ago. If Golden State is going for a three-peat in 2019, Milwaukee could be waiting for them in the Finals. The Warriors have now. The Bucks have next. Now all they have to do is not screw it up.