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Milwaukee Sacrificed a Winning Formula to Find Its Best Self

The Bucks aren’t the runaway favorites in the East anymore, but a season-long reinvention may have put Giannis and Co. in better position to contend for a title

Scott Laven/Getty Images

Don’t mind the Milwaukee Bucks as they slip through the cracks of a misshapen NBA season and quietly threaten to win the whole damn thing.

It’s a bid for contention utterly resistant to the usual hype cycle. Rather than drag out his impending free agency, Giannis Antetokounmpo made a supermax commitment to the Bucks before the season even started, subverting the NBA’s entire dramatic structure. Yet once Milwaukee actually took the court with Giannis backed up by a new supporting cast, it wobbled to a modest, unremarkable start. It turned out to be the perfect cover. With all eyes on the shiny new superteam in Brooklyn and the game-breaking center rampaging in Philly, the Bucks treaded softly, kept moving forward, and made themselves a more credible challenger for the title.

Storming out of the gate never really mattered for Milwaukee. The past two Bucks teams made the regular season a conquest of certainty, outpacing every other club by knowing exactly how they wanted to play. In the dog days, that made them strong; by the second round, it left them rigid. The promise of their play now comes from a willingness to be less dogmatic. Rather than lean on the same base defense as a one-size-fits-all solution, the Bucks have gone to switching this season as a regular in-game adjustment—and traded for switch savant P.J. Tucker for the eventuality that they’ll need to live that way for a series or two. Coach Mike Budenholzer was among the most zone-averse coaches in the league a season ago, but now calls for it to break an opponent’s rhythm or prop up undermanned lineups.

None of which makes the Bucks pop in the way they did in previous seasons, what with their formerly league-leading defense and torrid net rating. Dropping a few ranks in the macro-level metrics is the cost of exploration. Milwaukee is near the top of the East but only near, and Antetokounmpo is around the MVP conversation but not exactly in it. That’s OK; every contender is vying for the same goal, but playing for something different. Racking up wins and awards became less meaningful for the Bucks than building proof that they could be a more adaptive team. The execution of those alternative defenses is still a bit spotty, but that’s what this final stretch is for: a bolstered and finally healthy team to get its Giannis-sized arms around everything it could be. Milwaukee has had Antetokounmpo and Tucker—probably the two most important switch defenders on the roster—available at the same time for only a handful of games thus far. There are 15 regular-season dates left to work out the details, but the broader case for the Bucks is already right there, front and center, in the balance struck between their three stars.

If playoff fates are decided by the synergy of a team’s best players, Milwaukee’s case might be cleaner than Philadelphia’s (whom it’ll play Thursday night) and more concrete than Brooklyn’s. Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton have absolutely crushed their minutes together thus far, almost all of which come lined up against an opposing team’s best players. Individually, there are almost no diminishing returns. The best version of Giannis is the one flanked by two versatile perimeter stars. The ideal situation for both Middleton and Holiday gives them room to work and relief from the grind of being an every-possession creator. This is perfect harmony:

Milwaukee’s Three Stars, When Playing Together

Player Points Per 36 Minutes Rebounds Per 36 Minutes Assists Per 36 Minutes eFG%
Player Points Per 36 Minutes Rebounds Per 36 Minutes Assists Per 36 Minutes eFG%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 30.2 12.0 5.3 60.5%
Khris Middleton 18.2 6.9 6.3 56.2%
Jrue Holiday 17.2 4.9 5.1 57.9%
Data courtesy of NBA Advanced Stats.

Take note of their equitable playmaking. It’s more difficult than ever to load up against the Bucks, who can run a quick handoff to completely change the nature of their attack. How a defense would set up to survive a Giannis iso wouldn’t fly if it turns into a quick flip to Middleton or a pick-and-roll with Holiday, which is how Milwaukee ends up with three genuine collaborators guiding its most important possessions. The best part is that no one really has to bend; their games just fit, slotting together in pairs to challenge the integrity of multiple matchups at once.

Middleton and Antetokounmpo have years of chemistry baked into their two-man game, which simultaneously forces an opposing big out to the perimeter to discourage Middleton’s pull-up jumper and asks a wing to grab on to Giannis’s leg and hold on for dear life:

Opponents are more likely to switch any two-man action between Middleton and Holiday outright, but doing so only sets up both to outmuscle their new defenders—Middleton with comfort-food post-ups over smaller guards, and Holiday by, well, doing this:

Holiday and Antetokounmpo have their own riffs on both of the above, though if the defense tilts in their direction at any point in the sequence, it risks turning a two-man action into a three-man haymaker:

The demands of guarding each of Milwaukee’s three stars are so different that the Bucks can neutralize some of the best defenders on the floor. Even if a team has a stout guard to check Holiday, how much say does that defender really have about Middleton shooting over his head or Giannis keeping him on his hip as he spins by? With the way the Bucks’ stars interact—and how easily creative responsibility shifts between them—the assignment of guarding Antetokounmpo, Middleton, or Holiday amounts to the work of guarding all three. Ben Simmons could likely manage that, but could Seth Curry? Could Danny Green? Could Kyrie Irving and James Harden?

In that way, replacing Eric Bledsoe with Holiday wasn’t just an upgrade—it changed the entire premise of the Bucks’ offense. Bledsoe was the sort of guard playoff opponents would leave to his own devices, leveraging his matchup as a free space to accomplish the broader goals of their scheme. Staying in front of him was as simple as going under a screen, and keeping tabs on him away from the ball just meant daring him to shoot. The more he was involved in creating against playoff-level defenses, the more he seemed to tangle the Bucks in their own efforts. That won’t happen with Holiday—it can’t, not when he shoots 40.4 percent from deep and, just as importantly, has the savvy to find creases in the defense and budge his way into scoring position. One guard was stuck in a straight-line style; the other is too resourceful to pin down, too elusive to exploit. The Bucks’ season, in a broader sense, hangs on the difference.

The known best practices for slowing Milwaukee down are pegged to a different team and a different time, but this one is still vulnerable—if not in the exact ways it used to be. Powerhouses like the Nets and the Sixers might overwhelm them, negating all the good that came from taking a hard look in the mirror. Milwaukee isn’t the front-runner to win the East, and that’s the point; the lesson of the Bucks’ past two seasons was that maybe they would be better off, in the end, if they weren’t.