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Are We Sure … That the Bucks Aren’t a Finals Contender This Season?

Giannis is a year wiser and stronger, and Milwaukee just got him the ideal coach to take his game to yet another level. Even in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, that might be enough to make serious noise this season.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

The Bucks are the wild card in the Eastern Conference. Other than LeBron James going to Los Angeles and Kawhi Leonard coming to Toronto, the most important move of the offseason may have been Milwaukee hiring head coach Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks need Budenholzer — who asked out of his Hawks contract so that he wouldn’t have to oversee a rebuild in Atlanta — to improve an underachieving roster headlined by one of the best players in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract won’t expire for three seasons, but the clock is already ticking in Milwaukee. The good news for Budenholzer is that the team’s supporting cast has always fit well on paper around its superstar. He could become a front-runner for Coach of the Year next season just by making a few basic tweaks.

Budenholzer has never coached anyone like Giannis. The 23-year-old has improved in each of his five seasons in the NBA, and he still has room to get better. He’s coming off a LeBron-like season in which he led his team in points (26.9), rebounds (10.0), and blocks (1.4), and was second in assists (4.8) and steals (1.5). Giannis is listed at 6-foot-11 and 222 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, but he appears even bigger after a summer in the gym. He is right there with LeBron in terms of versatility. He can play all five positions on offense and guard all five on defense.

Defending Giannis is almost impossible. The Celtics had the no. 1 rated defense in the NBA last season, yet Antetokounmpo averaged 25.7 points a game on 57 percent shooting against them in the playoffs. He’s not a great 3-point shooter (30.7 percent from 3 on 1.9 attempts per game last season), but he’s so long and quick that he can get to wherever he wants on the floor and elevate over defenders. His performance in last season’s playoffs slipped under the radar because Boston didn’t have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. It looks more impressive in hindsight, after the Celtics killed the 76ers in the second round and took the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.

The biggest issue for the Bucks last season was their inability to create driving lanes for Giannis. His teammates couldn’t make defenses pay for leaving them open. Milwaukee was 25th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (24.5) and 24th in 3-point percentage (35.6 percent). They should be better after adding three shooters (Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, and Pat Connaughton) in free agency and drafting another (Donte DiVincenzo). Lopez is the key acquisition. The former All-Star has turned himself into a stretch 5 over the past two seasons, shooting 34.6 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game in 149 games. Defenses didn’t guard John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Lopez gives them a tougher choice: either let Giannis play one-on-one, or concede open 3s to Lopez.

The center rotation should be completely different. The Bucks will likely replace Henson and Zeller, who combined to shoot 35 3s last season, with Lopez and Thon Maker, who shot 429. Maker, the no. 10 overall pick in the 2016 draft, has been up-and-down in his first two seasons in the NBA, but he showed his potential in last season’s playoffs. Maker was given his first real opportunity to play in Game 3 against the Celtics, after the Bucks had fallen behind 2-0, and he changed the dynamic of the series. Milwaukee had a net rating of plus-16.3 in 130 minutes with him, and minus-7.2 in 211 minutes without him. While he does have some big holes in his game, his 3-and-D ability is exactly what the Bucks need at center next to Giannis.

Maker is one of several young players who could benefit from playing under Budenholzer. One of the most impressive aspects of Bud’s time in Atlanta was the way he developed players like DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Justin Holiday while keeping the team in the playoffs. Milwaukee has a young roster: Lopez and Ilyasova are their only rotation players over 30. And they have several promising wings on their bench: Malcolm Brogdon was the Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, Connaughton was a key part of the second unit in Portland last season, and Sterling Brown flashed 3-and-D potential as a rookie.

Not only is this the deepest team Giannis has played on, the players fit together better than in previous seasons. The Bucks have three primary scorers (Giannis, Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe) and nine players who can spot up for 3s (Lopez, Maker, and Ilyasova up front; Brogdon, Brown, Connaughton, DiVincenzo, Tony Snell, and Matthew Dellavedova on the perimeter), as well as the length and athleticism to match up with any team in the NBA. Budenholzer will have more flexibility to mix and match lineups than Jason Kidd, who was fired in January, and Joe Prunty, the interim who coached the rest of the season.

The previous Milwaukee coaches didn’t stagger their best players as much as they could have. Giannis and Middleton played an average of 26.6 minutes per game together last season. James Harden and Chris Paul, in contrast, averaged only 19.8. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni always kept one of the two on the floor, ensuring that he had one All-Star-caliber player to run the offense through, and minimizing the amount of time each played off the ball. Budenholzer should do the same with Middleton and Antetokounmpo. It would make both more effective since they are better with the ball, and both will have more space to operate in when the other is on the bench.

Middleton is a great player in his own right. At 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he’s a supersized wing with a well-rounded game and is one of the best midrange scorers in the league. Middleton had the third-highest shooting percentage (49.3 percent) from that area among the league’s top scorers, behind only Kyrie Irving (49.8 percent) and Kevin Durant (49.4 percent) and right ahead of Klay Thompson (49.1 percent). He killed the Celtics in the playoffs, averaging 24.7 points a game on 59.8 percent shooting, and he was one of only eight players in the league last season to average at least 20 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. The other seven were Giannis, Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, and Victor Oladipo.

Losing Jabari Parker, the no. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft, could be addition by subtraction the way it was in the second half of the 2016-17 season. It clears up the pecking order in Milwaukee and firmly establishes Bledsoe as the third option. Parker could be an elite scorer in the right situation, but he doesn’t space the floor, move the ball, or play much defense. Bledsoe, for all his struggles against Terry Rozier in the playoffs, is far ahead of Parker in the latter two categories. The Bucks traded for Bledsoe in late November, and there were too many cooks in the kitchen when Parker came back from an ACL injury in February. Something had to give. Jabari ripped the coaching staff in the playoffs for his lack of playing time. They rescinded his qualifying offer when the Bulls offered him a two-year, $40 million contract.

Parker’s departure should also improve their defense, which was rated no. 17 in the NBA last season. Kidd found immediate success in his first season in Milwaukee with a hyper-aggressive scheme that blitzed pick-and-rolls and forced turnovers, but he never made an adjustment after the league figured it out. The Bucks went from the no. 2 rated defense in his first season to three straight seasons hovering around the bottom third of the league. Modern NBA offenses spread the floor so well with shooters and playmakers that it was easy for them to pick Kidd’s defense apart. The double-teams he sent often led to open 3s:

Budenholzer, like Kidd, used an aggressive scheme when he first came to Atlanta. The difference is he changed in response to what other teams were doing, playing a more conservative style when guarding pick-and-rolls. Watching Kidd coach defense was like watching a World War I general send his men charging into machine guns, time and time again. The most telling stat when comparing the two coaches last season is the shooting percentage their teams allowed on corner 3s. Both teams gave up a similar number of corner 3s relative to the total number of 3s they allowed, but teams shot significantly worse on those shots against the Hawks (21st in the league) than the Bucks (sixth). The latter was giving up more open shots than the former despite having significantly more talent.

Budenholzer had his pick of coaching jobs this offseason. It’s easy to see why he chose Milwaukee. Giannis is an MVP front-runner, while Middleton could make the All-Star team, especially given how many stars moved west. Bledsoe struggled in the playoffs, but he still averaged 17.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting and 5.1 assists for the Bucks in the regular season. Their top three players are as good as any top three in the East, and their improved supporting cast should make each star a better version of himself next season. Milwaukee’s disappointing performance last season might have been for the best. This is like if Oklahoma City had moved on from Scott Brooks in 2013, when Durant had three seasons left on his contract, rather than in 2015, when he had only one.

Budenholzer could never get past LeBron in Atlanta, so he went out and found a guy who could be his version of LeBron. Giannis has another level he can reach. Harden wouldn’t have won the MVP on a team that spaced the floor as poorly as the Bucks last season. Budenholzer can open up the paint for Giannis, let him dominate the ball for longer stretches of the game, and feature him in a defensive scheme that takes advantage of his ability to switch screens. No one in the East wants to face him in a playoff series. He is the closest thing to LeBron since LeBron came into the NBA. Giannis is the logical successor to the throne, and he has better players around him than LeBron did in Cleveland last season. The King is gone, but there’s a new one ready to take his place in the East.