Things couldn’t have gone more perfectly for the Milwaukee Bucks.
After their best season in decades, the Bucks faced some difficult contractual choices with superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency staring them in the face. Having already secured Eric Bledsoe going forward, the Bucks elected to lock in Khris Middleton and let Malcolm Brogdon leave. Milwaukee could have kept Brogdon, but it would have pinched the salary cap sheet, cost a lot of flexibility, and hit the ownership’s wallets in the form of luxury tax payments.
The risk was that the Bucks without Brogdon would take a step back and fall short, management would get tarred as cheap, and the whispers about Antetokounmpo leaving would get louder.
Instead, the Bucks are better than ever: 20-3 after a blistering win over the preseason title favorite Clippers, on pace for 71 wins. Every success puts the Brogdon question further out of earshot. The overwhelming team success is minimizing any specific critical attention on the performance of Middleton or Bledsoe. The sense of desperation one could attribute to Milwaukee when it signed Giannis’s brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo (a fringe NBA player) has dissipated.
Right now, the Bucks look like they have done everything they need to do in order to convince Giannis to stay in Milwaukee, based on what he’s said about prioritizing winning. Only one other team in the league is winning like the Bucks, and that’s the L.A. Lakers. Everyone knows the L.A. Lakers are never in the mix to poach star players in free agency. So the Bucks look pretty safe unless Giannis is actually interested or becomes interested in a bigger market in lieu of having the best chance at winning.
There are two complicating factors here, however. The first is that Giannis is the first, second, and third reason the Bucks are so good. His performance this season has been exemplary: he looked like the best player in the world much of last year, and he’s been significantly better in 2019-20. How much do you credit the Bucks and their plan for the team’s success and how much do you credit Giannis himself? An argument could be made that any team with Giannis right now has a chance to be the best in the league because he is so good. His complete dominance may detract from greater appreciation of the Bucks’ strategy and execution.
Second, this is merely the regular season. We all know that stars and teams and front offices and coaches are judged by postseason success, not gaudy win totals. If the Bucks get to 70 wins and miss or lose the NBA Finals, wins like Friday’s shredding of the Clippers will be forgotten. This isn’t totally fair because the element of luck is so rampant in the playoffs — consider how Kawhi Leonard’s magical bouncing shot to beat the Sixers last year eventually impacted the Bucks, Leonard’s good fortune against a different team may have ended up costing Milwaukee a title, when you consider the match-ups and what happened to the Warriors. But this is the paradigm we’re in: regular season excellence is totally discounted by postseason failure. Ask the 2015-16 Warriors. Ask Mike Budenholzer’s old Hawks teams.
In that sense, there’s actually nothing the Bucks can do before May and June to really build the case that this is the best place for Giannis for the rest of the prime of his career. They can lose the thread, but they can’t win it until the high-pressure playoffs. Sorry if that’s cynical and myopic. But this is American pro sports: of course things are cynical and myopic.
But the Bucks do look poised to dominate the East, having won 14 straight with the No. 2 offense and No. 1 defense in the league. Milwaukee’s starters beat up the Clippers, and then the Milwaukee bench beat up the Clippers. We saw Kawhi stand in tough on Giannis in the playoffs last season. That didn’t happen at all on Friday. Antetokounmpo was the best player on the floor by acclamation. Kawhi may have stole Giannis’s shine over the course of four games last May. Giannis snatched it back on Friday. James Harden is the best scorer in basketball right now, but it’s incredibly hard to argue the case for anyone over Giannis as the sport’s top player right now. And the Bucks are fulfilling their role as an amazing platform to showcase, focus, and enhance Antetokounmpo’s incredible talents.
Everything is lining up right for the Bucks after a controversial summer. Let’s see how it plays in the spring.