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Best Case, Worst Case: Milwaukee Bucks

The no. 9 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings might finally have the system in place to maximize their generational superstar. But can they thrive in this era without a true second star?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 9

Last Season: 44-38 (seventh in East)

Notable Additions: Mike Budenholzer (coach), Brook Lopez (free agency), Ersan Ilyasova (free agency), Donte DiVincenzo (draft)

Notable Subtractions: Jabari Parker (free agency)

Vegas Over/Under: 46.5

Team MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Best-Case Scenario: Under Budenholzer’s guidance, the Bucks become the hyper-efficient 3-and-D squad they were always destined to be, and Milwaukee notches its first 50-win season since 2000-01. At the age of 24, Antetokounmpo takes home his first Most Valuable Player trophy, joining an illustrious group of NBA legends to have won their first MVP award at the same age—which includes Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, and LeBron James.

Building around a generational talent is both a gift and a curse, and one needs only to look toward former Bucks head coach Jason Kidd as to why. In his first season at the helm in Milwaukee, back in 2014-15, Kidd made a revolutionary proclamation about his star disciple: Antetokounmpo would be the team’s 6-foot-11 point guard. It was a lineup decision that became a team ethos. The Bucks would do things differently. With the temerity of youth, the team blitzed their way to the second-ranked defense in the league. But then, with the Bucks suddenly on everyone’s radar as the next great team in the East, a strange, three-season plateau occurred. The commitment to innovation was quickly lost, filled in with retrograde ideas about where basketball was headed. Kidd saw a vision of what Giannis could be, but the grandiosity of that dream obscured his focus of the team at large. The Bucks won 41 games in 2014-15, a 26-win improvement from the year prior; in the three ensuing seasons, the Bucks have yet to reach even 45 wins in a single campaign.

Enter Budenholzer, who has the luxury of seeing Antetokounmpo for what he is: not a nebulous expanse of potential, but a perennial MVP candidate yet to reach his prime. The former Hawks coach has developed a reputation for yielding more with less, but will now be tasked with untangling the systemic knots that have stymied a team led by a top-five talent. Bud’s training camp has brought the team back to basics: Everyone is encouraged to shoot 3s, and everyone is learning what to do with their hands on defense. Incremental changes like that ought to make a huge difference for a team that took the Celtics—a team one LeBron James away from advancing to the NBA Finals—to seven games in the first round last season.

After years of Bucks players routinely scrambling out of place on defense, Bud is simplifying the team’s objective on that end of the floor. The team promises to commit to fouling less and staying in position more—a truly novel idea! The Bucks had the second-worst foul rate in the league last season (21.6 fouls committed per 100 possessions) and allowed the fourth-most attempts at the free throw line. For years, the Bucks’ fabled length was counterintuitively being used against them as a result of messy and aggressive schemes. Taking those potential points off the board might be as important as any change the team makes this season. Milwaukee is built to take advantage of the league’s flattening of positional roles, and now have a coach that can actually get it there.

The emphasis on offensive spacing will undoubtedly take up most of the story lines: Milwaukee was in the bottom third of the league in all 3-point shooting metrics, and the team inflicted self-harm largely as a result of exercising bad habits. Khris Middleton had his best season as a pro last season and showed off a diverse array of star-level skills, but it was often disappointing to see him grind out points in the post off contested jumpers (even if he’s elite in that regard, compared with the rest of the league). It was less about what it meant for Middleton as an individual and more about what those difficult attempts meant for the offensive scheme in general.

The Bucks’ floor plan was almost cruel in how little space it created for its best player, a fact highlighted by Parker, who was more often than not an obstruction on offense by taking up space along the baseline and out at the elbows. Frontcourt additions like Lopez and Ilyasova, both excellent 3-point shooters at their position, make it clear that Bud won’t repeat the same mistakes of the past three seasons. Bud will also have a rotating cast of guards and wings largely built in the same mold: Malcolm Brogdon, Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, Matthew Dellavedova, and rookie Donte DiVincenzo are all roughly the same size with roughly the same function on the court, give or take a skill or two. As the season nears, the Bucks’ on-court mantra seems clear: It doesn’t matter what position you play; the central aspect of your job is to give Giannis the room to be great.

Worst-Case Scenario: New coach, same old mistakes.

The Bucks are committed to Bud for four seasons, and have Giannis’s services locked in for the next three seasons, but we’ve seen recently how the changing nature of player agency has trivialized the concept of a contract year. That could explain the rumors of a failed Jimmy Butler trade that centered around Middleton, a Hail Mary to land an established star next to Giannis. Of course, Middleton’s skill set might be more complementary than Butler’s, but that probably is beside the point. Had the team landed Butler, the optics of landing a player of Butler’s stature would have been more than enough. Milwaukee needs to make forward progress, and it needs to happen now.

Luckily, for the Bucks this season, progress can easily be defined. The Bucks have the potential to be a Finals contender. The only thing lacking is experience: Dellavedova and Tyler Zeller are the only players on the roster who have seen past the second round of the playoffs. Milwaukee will need to at least make it that far for the season to be a success. If it doesn’t, it likely won’t be because it’s in a lower talent stratum from the East’s elite. It’ll be because of an issue in the formula.

Antetokounmpo, by virtue of being a primary ball handler, controls his destiny on the court more than most stars his size. But his limitations as a shooter mean he’s beholden to the four players who take the floor alongside him, and how well their individual impulses can be subsumed into a grander road map. The Bucks roster has always, in theory, complemented Giannis’s skill set: long, active, multifaceted. The problem, during the past three seasons, has been finding any kind of coherence in that vision. Maybe Middleton just prefers shooting midrange turnarounds. Maybe Eric Bledsoe, having been groomed by Chris Paul early in his career and then honing his craft on some bad teams in his prime, will always have the instincts (and tendencies) of a ball-dominant point guard. Maybe Kidd just opted not to chase waterfalls. And maybe the knot Budenholzer was hired to untangle is a bit more complicated than we’re all expecting.

TL;DR: Budenholzer’s presence is a sorely needed breath of fresh air for the Bucks, but the ascent from good enough to great is never easy.