NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Coach: Jason Kidd (Fourth year)
Last Season: 42-40 (Sixth in Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: N/A
Notable Subtractions: Michael Beasley
Vegas Over/Under: 47.5
Best-Case Scenario: In 2007, you couldn’t teach height. In 2017, you can’t teach length. The dominance of Golden State is built, in part, on the dynamic threshing power of a lineup made almost exclusively of 6-foot-7-ish dudes. Length and mobility equal dominance.
Over the past few seasons, Milwaukee has placed its chips on a core of young, frighteningly mobile, long-limbed freaks and gambled that their coaching staff could develop them into actual players. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 15th pick in 2013 and clearly this strategy’s crowning achievement, is but a consistently wet jumper away from superstardom and the league MVP. Tony Snell was an inconsistent 3-and-D player in Chicago … until Milwaukee acquired him for Michael Carter-Williams in a deal that increasingly looks like a daylight mugging. The Bucks just re-signed Snell for four-years, $46 million. Then there’s the ageless Thon Maker. Possessed of a gigantor wingspan, a rangy 7-foot-1 frame, and raw Garnettesque skills, Maker flashed real potential during last season’s playoffs. Add the solid play of Malcolm Brogdon, now in his second year, and the pesky, borderline injurious play of Matthew Dellavedova, and you’ve got a squad capable of applying a full-court chokehold to any opponent, but especially those without elite perimeter shooting.
We got a glimpse of that devastating potential last spring, when the young Bucks nearly dragged the eternally disappointing Raptors to a seventh game. Giannis, Snell, and Maker blotted out the sun, holding the Raptors scoreless for nearly six minutes.
The thing holding back the Bucks from true Eastern Conference relevance? THE HUMAN BODY IS A FRAIL MACHINE DESTINED TO FAIL.
Worst-Case Scenario: If not for a wicked case of injuries, that developmental arc would, in theory, be progressing at a Eastern Conference–altering clip. Instead, 22-year-old Jabari Parker, the no. 2 pick in the 2014 draft and the only non-Giannis Buck with anything approaching star potential, has sustained two ACL tears on the same knee in a span of 26 months. Khris Middleton, a spidery 40 percent 3-point shooter who, as recently as the 2015-16 season, was the team’s leading scorer, played only 29 regular-season games last year because of a hamstring injury. Once upon a time, John Henson seemed brimming with potential; his per-36 career line of 15 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks still has the power to raise eyebrows. But he’s been hampered by various nicks and placid, low-motor play and appeared in only 58 games last season. The Bucks are rumored to be trying to move him.
The result of these injuries is lack of depth. The Bucks going 42-40 while missing their future secondary star in Parker and a crucial deep-shooting rotation player in Middleton is impressive. But an injury to Giannis or Brogdon would be disastrous. And Greg Monroe picking up his his nearly $18 million player option, along with Snell’s new deal, limits the team’s flexibility. The Bucks are simultaneously on the verge of relevance and on the brink of disaster. The good news: With the Cavaliers and the Celtics sure to dominate the East and Golden State looking nowhere near done out West, there’s little pressure on the Bucks—so long as they make the playoffs.
More ominous, perhaps, than the prospect of roster shredding injuries, is the spectre of problems at the ownership level. In 2014, New York City–based hedge fund billionaires Marc Lasry, Wes Edens, and Jamie Dinan purchased the Bucks. They agreed to settle all major issues by vote. And, though a 2-1 majority would carry the day, they resolved to try to find enough common ground to rule unanimously. Then came the confused attempt to have Jazz executive Justin Zanik succeed long-running Bucks GM John Hammond. Zanik, apparently, came onboard with the understanding that once Hammond moved on, the top job would be his. All well and good. Then Hammond left and things stalled. Reportedly, Dinan and Lasry were supportive of Zanik ascending to the job, while Edens was unsure. A wide-ranging GM search was held, after which Dinan and Lasry were still, reportedly, pro-Zanik. Instead, the Bucks promoted salary-cap expert Jon Horst from within, and Zanik has left the organization to return to the Jazz.
Did Edens, as the team’s designated governor, overrule his partners and the 2-1 majority rule the three agreed to in 2014? No one knows. But chaotic ownership is the most damaging malady that can befall a sports team. Just ask the Kings and the Knicks.
TL;DR: As long as Giannis stays healthy and the owners aren’t at each other’s throats, the Bucks are a playoff team.