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Can the Bucks Build a Team Fit for an MVP?

The Clippers, Warriors, Raptors, and others are all lining up for the Giannis sweepstakes. But Milwaukee may have enough options to convince its superstar to stay, whether it’s a Chris Paul trade or something else.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the Milwaukee Bucks officially out of the playoffs, our attention now turns to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will soon be offered a five-year contract extension worth a projected $247.3 million. If he chooses to pass on the Bucks’ offer, it’d be a LeBron James–style power move that’d put significant pressure on the Milwaukee front office to make win-now moves just one season before he can hit unrestricted free agency. Giannis signing on the dotted line would buy time for the team, but it shouldn’t change Milwaukee’s mindset. The Bucks still need to build the best possible team; otherwise there’s nothing stopping Giannis from demanding a trade, whether now or in the future. “Hopefully we can learn from this and get better as a team,” Giannis said after their Game 5 loss to Miami, which he missed with an ankle injury. “Hopefully we can build a culture in Milwaukee for many years that we can come out here and compete every single year for a championship.”

Giannis’s comments should inspire confidence for the Bucks that his preference is to stay. The question is: How can the Bucks get better? They won 75 percent of their regular-season games the past two seasons, yet there’s no way around the fact that the Heat exposed them just like the Raptors did in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. Head coach Mike Budenholzer was too slow or too stubborn to make adjustments. The supporting cast folded. Giannis wasn’t a threat to score outside of the restricted area, and the defense game-planned to contain his drives to the rim.

Giannis needs to be better. He’s got to become a threat to pull up from midrange, drain a turnaround jumper, and hit his free throws—nevermind actually hitting 3s at a league-average percentage. Giannis has attempted to add these types of shots to his arsenal, but thus far they are inefficient looks. He shot only 34.4 percent on attempts away from the rim, including only 21.4 percent from 3 in the series against Miami. Shot selection became an issue, too. Settling for pull-up 3s early in the shot clock is a good idea for efficient shooters, but not for Giannis. But he may have felt compelled to try to hit something from the perimeter since the Bucks clearly lack wings who can consistently shoot 3s and effectively defend, and more importantly, a perimeter shot creator who’s much better than Eric Bledsoe and George Hill.

Bledsoe is a terrific defender but has become an abhorrent offensive player in two consecutive postseasons. Defenses don’t respect his shot (he’s hit only 28.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in his Bucks career, including the playoffs) and he too often has made facepalm-inducing decisions that ruin a play. He is a fine rotation player, but isn’t qualified to rank second on a championship team in touches and possession time per game. Milwaukee desperately needs to upgrade at the position.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, the 2020 free-agent class is shallow, and they don’t have much salary cap flexibility aside from the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, projected to be worth about $10 million annually. A player like Fred VanVleet is well out of their range. Goran Dragic also could be too pricey, and league front office sources expect him to stay in Miami anyway.

It’s more likely that the Bucks will explore the trade market. But Milwaukee lacks trade assets—it has first-round picks only in 2020 (no. 24, via Indiana), 2024, and 2026, and the only promising young player on the team younger than 30 (besides Giannis, 25, and Khris Middleton, 29) is Donte DiVincenzo, who projects as a likely role player. League sources also expect a quiet trade market. Could Mike Conley be acquired from the Jazz? Or Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans? Maybe in NBA 2K, but not for what the Bucks can offer.

The obvious playmaking target is Chris Paul. The Thunder are heading toward a rebuild after parting ways with coach Billy Donovan on Tuesday night. The 35-year-old point guard would provide the Bucks with what they need as a primary shot creator who can manufacture shots for himself in tough, late-game situations and create easier looks for Giannis. A pick-and-roll combination with Antetokounmpo screening for Paul could end up leading the league in efficiency. Defenses can’t switch, since it’d put a smaller player on Giannis and a slower one on Paul. Opponents would likely have to drop Giannis’s defender into the paint or pressure Paul, meaning Giannis could receive the ball on the roll and pulverize defenses with dunks or find a shooter with the pass.

The pick-and-roll has been a missing piece of Giannis’s game throughout his career. Giannis scored a dominant 1.4 points per roll to the rim over the past two seasons, per Synergy Sports, but he’s logged only 156 plays in those 135 games. By comparison, this season alone, Domantas Sabonis had 211, Rudy Gobert had 207, and Bam Adebayo had 161. All of those bigs have guards capable of creating efficient shots for them out of the ball screen. Giannis doesn’t. Paul could effectively place Giannis into his ideal role: He’d have someone creating shots for him, so he wouldn’t have to do so much for himself. Giannis should view himself as the modern Shaquille O’Neal. It might be asking too much to hope for his own version of Kobe Bryant, but where is his Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, or Rick Fox?

Middleton would also benefit from Paul’s presence. He’s currently cast in a no. 2 role when he should be a no. 3. In Games 4 and 5, while Giannis was out with an ankle injury, we saw the good and bad that comes with Middleton carrying the load. He was hounded by Miami’s best defenders and struggled to create open looks; his scoring numbers were high, but he got there through volume, not efficiency. He’s at his best playing off of others, and the presence of Giannis and Paul could lead him to a career-best season.

Paul is still one of the NBA’s better defenders at point guard, which means the Bucks could feel comfortable with him replacing Bledsoe on that end. Putting the salaries together to acquire Paul wouldn’t be much of a challenge. Bledsoe, Hill, DiVincenzo, and D.J. Wilson would work. The trouble is that Oklahoma City likely prefers not to take on long-term salary, so a third team could be required. The Bucks would likely face competition in any pursuit of Paul. League sources say the Sixers front office has seriously debated the idea of chasing CP3. The Knicks, in desperate need of a player to lure prospective free agents, could also make a run at him after his former agent, Leon Rose, took over as team president. But there likely won’t be a lot of suitors for Paul. Not many teams need a point guard, nevermind an old one with an injury history making $41.4 million in 2020-21 with a player option to make $44.2 million in 2021-22. Paul proved this season he’s still a damn good player, but that doesn’t mean many teams want him.

If the Bucks don’t get him, they’re realistically looking at options along the lines of Dennis Schröder, Patty Mills, or Derrick Rose. Are any of them really moving the needle? It’s that, or running it back and hoping more chances come up down the line. As The New York Times’ Marc Stein first reported on Tuesday, league sources believe they’ll at least look into trading for Paul.

They should. These types of big moves are why the Bucks chose to let go of Malcolm Brogdon, who was signed and traded last summer to the Pacers for a 2020 first and two seconds. It was a bad decision to re-sign Bledsoe months prior considering his offensive deficiencies, but Milwaukee had its reasons. League sources say the Bucks had medical concerns about Brogdon (he has an extensive injury history going back to college), and at $21.2 million annually, keeping him was deemed not worth the risk. Had the Bucks kept Brogdon, they would’ve been in the luxury tax this year, which would mean they’d be in the repeater tax in 2021, the year a potential Giannis extension would kick in. The Bucks are already in a tough spot to make additions, but it’d be even more complex with massive tax penalties impacting each decision, all for a player who wouldn’t necessarily have changed the outcome this year. The Bucks took what they believe is the long view.

Giannis’s season often gets compared to LeBron dragging a bad Cavaliers team to 61 wins before a second-round upset in 2009-10, which prompted him to take his talents to South Beach. That Cleveland team was starting a past-his-prime Shaq only two years before he joined the set of Inside the NBA. Delonte West and an injured Zydrunas Ilgauskas were coming off the bench. Almost any team could have offered LeBron an upgrade to his supporting cast. These Bucks have a good squad around Giannis, and if his comments about wanting to commit to the Bucks are to be believed, then perhaps the latest superstar on the market will approach his future less like LeBron and more like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kevin Garnett.

Duncan could have left San Antonio for Orlando in 2000, but opted to stay, build a culture, and then won four more championships. Dirk signed multiple contracts with the Mavericks and even took a pay cut before finally winning his elusive title in 2011. KG had to get traded to Boston to win it all, but first signed multiple contracts to try and make things work with Minnesota. LeBron ushered in a new paradigm when he formed the Heatles in 2010. Giannis would be one of the few, along with Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, to want to stay put in today’s age of player movement. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction],” Giannis told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes on Tuesday. “I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.”

Maybe someday Giannis will have to leave in order to win a title, but for now, league sources consider the Bucks the clear favorite for Giannis in 2021. Still, teams will chase him. The Heat are setting up to make a splash in 2021, whether it’s Giannis or another top free agent. Golden State, Toronto, and Dallas hope to make runs at Antetokounmpo too, league sources say.

The truth is that Giannis can choose from all 30 teams, because every one would move whatever salaries necessary to create the cap space for him. Or, as Jimmy Butler’s move to Miami last summer showed, a sign-and-trade can be worked out. Take the Clippers, for example: Multiple league sources have recently said the Clippers plan to pursue a deal for Giannis. One of the sources said Giannis has an “admiration” for Clippers head coach Doc Rivers.

But who doesn’t have an admiration for Doc? Does that really even mean anything? Rumors will persist regarding Giannis’s future until he signs a deal with the Bucks or someone else.

Until then, there’s work to be done aside from finding a shot creator like Paul. Bucks general manager Jon Horst needs to find reinforcements at wing. The draft is loaded with wing options that could be available at the 24th pick, though rookies rarely make an impact right away. And the free-agent class is bleak at this position, too: Joe Harris, Jae Crowder, Marcus and Markieff Morris? Harris could end up costing more than the mid-level exception, and the others could easily stay put. It’s fun to imagine Giannis exerting his power to demand certain players be added, but there simply aren’t that many options. Giannis doesn’t fancy himself as a recruiter like LeBron anyway. He told The Athletic last year, “I don’t like doing that stuff. I don’t get an extra paycheck for doing Jon’s job or Coach Bud’s job or whoever’s job it is.”

If Giannis gets vocal about any potential changes, it should be where he’d have the most control: head coach. The Bucks hired Budenholzer after an extensive two-week, multiple-round interview process in 2018. Next season, he will be entering the third year of his four-year contract. If Giannis doesn’t feel he’s a championship coach—whether it’s for the lack of adjustments, the odd rotations, or the low minute totals for Milwaukee’s best players—he should express that to the front office. Same goes if he thinks Bud is the right coach for the job. After all, no amount of minutes would have given Giannis a threatening jump shot or turned Bledsoe into a reliable playmaker or made Middleton a top go-to scoring option.

Horst inherited a 42-win squad in 2017 with Mirza Teletovic, John Henson, and Matthew Dellavedova all making over $9.5 million annually. He dumped them for much better players and replaced Jason Kidd with a better coach in Budenholzer. He didn’t hit a home run in either of his two drafts and he’s taken short-term risks in cutting salary. But he’s built a good team around a potential all-time player.

Changes are needed to go from a good team to a great team, though. The Bucks got their hearts broken in the bubble, but they’re close to being special.