This piece wasn’t supposed to run yet—not for weeks, or months, or maybe ever. The Milwaukee Bucks had the NBA’s best record and entered the postseason as championship favorites, and a postmortem on their 2022-23 season would have been obviated by another title.
At the very least, they should have coasted into the second round, as every other no. 1 seed has for the last decade. What they’ll do in the offseason should have been fodder for the summer, not now.
To say that Milwaukee entered its series against eighth-seeded Miami—which was outscored in the regular season and, in the play-in round, was blown out by the Hawks and trailed the Bulls late in the fourth quarter—as the heavy favorite is an understatement. Vegas odds considered the Bucks 92 percent likely to win. All 18 of ESPN’s experts who predicted the series selected the Bucks, and none thought the Heat would even push the top seed to seven games.
And yet Giannis Antetokounmpo effectively missed the first three games of the series because of a back injury. And yet the Heat, who ranked 27th in the regular season by shooting 34 percent on 3s, made 45 percent of their triples against Milwaukee despite Tyler Herro’s broken hand. And yet the Bucks, who led the league in clutch winning percentage in the regular season (27-8, or 77 percent), unfathomably blew late leads in Games 4 and 5.
And yet Miami completed a stunning five-game upset with a 128-126 comeback victory in overtime on Wednesday night, for only the sixth 8-over-1 surprise in NBA playoff history:
- 1994 Nuggets over SuperSonics
- 1999 Knicks over Heat
- 2007 Warriors over Mavericks
- 2011 Grizzlies over Spurs
- 2012 76ers over Bulls
- 2023 Heat over Bucks
Given the context surrounding both teams, and given that the Heat needed just five games to advance, and given that they beat a full-strength Bucks squad, with Giannis playing, in the final two contests—as opposed to when the 2012 Bulls lost after Derrick Rose tore his ACL—this might be the most monumental playoff upset in NBA history.
The Bucks don’t care about that past. Instead, it was their present and future that were so thoroughly dismantled by this bewildering defeat.
Milwaukee could have been forgiven for initially falling behind in this series: Miami’s first two wins came with Giannis limited or out entirely, and with abnormally accurate Heat shooting. (The Heat finished the series outperforming their expected effective field goal percentage by 8.4 percentage points, per Second Spectrum—the largest gap for any team in any playoff series in the last half decade.)
But the final losses were inexcusable, and they raised more alarming questions about the franchise’s future. In Game 4, Milwaukee seemed poised to regain home-court advantage, only to cough up a 101-89 lead midway through the fourth quarter as Jimmy Butler’s 56 points powered a Heat comeback. Game 5 was somehow even worse: Back at home, the Bucks led by 16 points through three quarters, only to surrender the lead and lose in overtime. From that juncture, Miami’s comeback was the largest in NBA history in a series-clinching win.
The shocking Game 5 collapse served as a microcosm of all the issues that have most plagued the Bucks throughout their five-year run as a dominant team in the Eastern Conference. On defense, they failed to make the proper adjustments to defend Butler; after the game, Giannis told reporters he wished he’d guarded Miami’s best player more, but the two were matched on only 10 Heat possessions throughout the series (and only four in Game 5), per Second Spectrum.
And on offense, Milwaukee’s half-court system—long the team’s bugaboo—was bogged down once again under the stress of playoff attention. This issue doomed the Bucks in their seven-game second-round loss to Boston last postseason (albeit with Khris Middleton injured), and in the 2020 bubble against the Heat, and in 2019 against the Raptors.
It reared its ugly head once again in their fall-from-ahead loss on Wednesday, as the Bucks shot 5-for-25 from the field and missed eight free throws across the fourth quarter and overtime. Give the Heat some credit for those figures; their decision to defend Giannis mostly one-on-one with Bam Adebayo while sticking to Milwaukee’s shooters paid off, and Adebayo is one of the only defenders in the world with the defensive chops to make that strategy viable.
But also blame the Bucks for a lack of creativity and offensive imagination. They played into Miami’s hands and veered away from the sets that had worked during their triumphs of postseasons past; namely, Giannis set only 12.7 screens per 100 possessions for Middleton in this series, per Second Spectrum, just more than half the number he set during the final stretches of their title run two years ago.
The Bucks also seemed to lose their typical sense of championship poise down the stretch. They threw the ball away on multiple late possessions. They inexplicably didn’t use a timeout to advance the ball and try to win the game at the buzzer in regulation, after Butler had tied the score with a circus shot. And in overtime, they didn’t even get a shot off before time expired on the final play of their season.
FINAL PLAY OF THE HEAT-BUCKS GAME pic.twitter.com/uFmDZy9wPr— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 27, 2023
Even Giannis’s on-again, off-again free throw problems reappeared in Game 5. The Bucks shot just 28-for-45 on free throws—again, in a two-point loss in overtime!—with Giannis accounting for 13 of those 17 misses.
Looking ahead to this summer and a chance at redemption in 2023-24, the Bucks aren’t remotely in “blow it up” territory, as are some other first-round losers. As long as they have Giannis, the Bucks will remain top championship contenders every year. Before this season, he received more than half the votes when NBA.com asked general managers, “If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?” (Incidentally, the only other vote getter was Luka Doncic, who can’t win the 2022-23 title, either.)
Yet even the two-time MVP is not enough by himself. The first—and perhaps only—realistic major change Milwaukee could consider this summer is a coaching change, after five years with Mike Budenholzer, who put the finishing touches on the Bucks’ 2021 title team. The Bucks finished seventh in the East, with a 44-38 record, in their final season before Budenholzer took the job. Since then, with Bud and his rigid systems at the helm, they have by far the most wins of any team in the league.
Over that same span, though, their playoff performance hasn’t matched that regular-season dominance, in large part because of a lack of appropriately urgent adjustments. The Athletic reported in 2021 that Budenholzer’s job was in jeopardy, barring a “deep playoff run.” Clearly, a championship fit that criterion—but might his seat be scorching once again, following such an embarrassingly early exit?
Beyond whether to keep Budenholzer, the Bucks also face three massive roster decisions this summer. The first is whether to re-sign Brook Lopez, who will be an unrestricted free agent. The second is how to handle Middleton’s contract, as the three-time All-Star can either exercise a $40.4 million player option or decline and reach free agency himself. And the third is how to bolster a frighteningly inferior supporting cast.
The solutions to the first two dilemmas, at least, should be simple: The Bucks’ best route is to bring back both Lopez and Middleton, thus retaining the core of the 2021 title team and the 2023 no. 1 seed. Their cap situation renders any other substantial upgrade untenable. And that core makes for an enviable group for any contender, anyway, as it comprises a two-time MVP still in his prime, two other perennial All-Star candidates, and a big man who just placed second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
It’s also aging, however, and has unclear longevity. The Bucks were the NBA’s oldest team this season, with an average age (weighted by minutes played) of 29.8 years old. In the playoffs, that average ticked up to a league-high 30.8 years old, as Budenholzer concentrated his playing time with proven vets.
Giannis is still in his 20s, but Middleton will turn 32 this summer, Jrue Holiday will turn 33, and Lopez just celebrated his 35th birthday. Middleton in particular offers more long-term uncertainty than is comfortable for a second banana who will command a contract to match, as he was inconsistent this season in his return from offseason wrist surgery and a nagging knee injury. Against Miami, the two-way star flashed glimpses of his peak self, at least on offense, but he looked especially weakened on defense, where Butler targeted him without mercy all series long.
The Bucks’ supporting cast is more in flux, as most of their bench players are impending free agents, and the new collective bargaining agreement will complicate the ability of luxury tax–paying teams to add around the edges of their stars. Had the new CBA’s rules been in effect last summer, for instance, the Bucks wouldn’t have been able to sign Joe Ingles, and The Athletic’s John Hollinger notes that they may need to shed a midsized salary, like Pat Connaughton’s, just to avoid the most onerous penalties next season.
For the Bucks, the new CBA’s restrictions on roster improvement will be compounded by their own mixed developmental record, as they’ve largely focused on present-day production in lieu of long-term prospecting while constructing this championship core. Milwaukee ranked 30th in our Young Core Rankings before the season and devoted all of five playoff minutes, exclusively in garbage time, to players younger than 27 (rookie MarJon Beauchamp).
The Bucks also place fourth in our NBA All In-dex, which ranks the teams that are most all in to win a title now. They don’t have a first-round selection this year and don’t control any of their own first-round picks until 2028, thanks to continued payments from the Holiday trade and other, smaller moves.
Those deals were worth the continued price, of course, because they brought Milwaukee its first NBA title in half a century. That’s an open-and-shut case. But they now limit the Bucks’ flexibility as they try to regain their perch atop the league’s hierarchy. Such is the life cycle of professional sports teams in North America; building a dynasty is an onerous challenge.
So is surrounding Giannis with the right role players, evidently, because the Bucks have exhibited a mixed track record in recent years. Bobby Portis was a huge hit, and P.J. Tucker started for a title team. Connaughton has had his moments as a two-way contributor. But other transactions wilted and presented tremendous opportunity cost for Milwaukee as well.
At the 2022 trade deadline, they dealt Donte DiVincenzo—one of their only successful draft picks since Giannis a decade ago, and now a valuable role player for the Warriors—for Serge Ibaka, who played 22 total playoff minutes for the Bucks. This season, they shipped five second-round picks for Jae Crowder, who never found his footing in Milwaukee and played just 41 non-impactful minutes in their first-round defeat.
Starting with the summer of 2013, when the Bucks selected a gangly teenager from Greece with the no. 15 pick in the draft and traded for an unheralded Pistons backup a month later, Milwaukee has mostly gotten the big decisions right. But stumbles with the smaller decisions that fill in the gaps have hampered its ability to return to the mountaintop, no matter how many regular-season wins it racks up year after year. This offseason, the Bucks must rectify those problems if they’re to avoid another playoff failure.
Or perhaps that’s not the right term, failure. Giannis doesn’t think so, as he expressed in a long, thoughtful answer when asked whether he considered the 2022-23 season a failure given how it ended.
“Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years was a failure?” Giannis asked rhetorically.
Giannis didn't like @eric_nehm's question about whether the season was a failure and went long in his answer pic.twitter.com/1gZkuf7vkC— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) April 27, 2023
He’s not wrong: Not every season can end in a title, and the 2022-23 season wasn’t a failure for the Bucks, per se. On an individual level, Giannis, Holiday, and Lopez will receive All-NBA and All-Defensive honors. On a team level, they provided dozens of nights of joy to millions of fans from Milwaukee to Greece and beyond.
But when a legitimate chance at a championship instead ends so abruptly, with such a bitter, stunning loss for a core with a ticking clock due to both contracts and age, it’s at least a missed opportunity, if not an outright failure. For better or worse, the Bucks with Giannis live in a different stratosphere, with loftier expectations, than do most NBA franchises. This group already won a title and at this point can amplify its legacy only with another.
In that sense, Budenholzer’s response when asked the same question is perhaps a better fit for the Bucks as they pick up the pieces from a playoff collapse and run it back in 2023-24.
“We made a push. We were the no. 1 seed,” the Bucks coach said. “But all that matters is the playoffs, so I think we’re just disappointed.”