The Milwaukee Bucks’ five-game series loss to the Miami Heat was like watching a car crash in slow motion. The Bucks’ obituary was being written in real time as Miami exposed glaring weaknesses in both their game plan and roster construction, but Milwaukee was either unable or unwilling to hit the brakes until it was too late.
There is no point in sugarcoating it: a second round elimination amounts to a total organizational failure for the Bucks. Blame starts with ownership, trickles down to the basketball decision-makers in the front office, fully encompasses the coaching staff, and finally hits the players. This series can’t be seen as anything but a referendum on each decision that ultimately led to the result.
The reality is that the Bucks were a great team that had an amazing season — that’s why anything less than a trip to the Finals was always going to be catastrophic. Milwaukee was playing at a 70-win pace during the regular season. Giannis Antetokounmpo deserved to win both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards soon to be on his mantle. The Bucks had the league’s best defense, finished No. 8 in offense, and lapped the field in net rating — finishing +3.1 points per game better than the second best team in the NBA.
The Bucks were awesome this year. Unfortunately, to steal a line, it doesn’t mean a thing without the ring. It’s hard to blame Bucks fans if they’re already feeling exhausted by it all.
While Milwaukee’s failure will get all the attention, it’s worth emphasizing that the Heat won this series even more so than Milwaukee lost it. If the Bucks’ loss falls on every level of the organization, the Heat deserve the same widespread credit for their five-game win. It’s not just that the No. 5 seed Heat pulled off the upset — it’s that the series was never even close. There was no doubt Miami was the superior team and superior organization from the opening tip.
Now that it’s over, let’s look back on the all the ways the Bucks failed — and where Miami shined.
Bucks owners made an unforgivable mistake by playing it cheap with Malcolm Brogdon
Malcolm Brodgon was one of Milwaukee’s very few success stories in the NBA draft after Antetokounmpo was already on the roster. Brodgon established himself as one of the team’s best players during his run to the Rookie of the Year award in 2017. As he entered restricted free agency in the summer of 2019, Brogdon was coming off a remarkably efficient season where he joined the exclusive 50/40/90 club and also proved himself to be the Bucks’ top guard in the playoffs.
Milwaukee could have kept Brodgon at the cost of nothing but ownership’s money. Instead, Milwaukee chose to trade him to the Indiana Pacers for their first round draft pick after he had agreed to a four-year, $80 million deal. Ownership didn’t even try to cover it up at the time — Brogdon was let go only because the team didn’t want to pay the luxury tax.
“Was re-signing Malcolm an imperative?” Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry asked in a news conference before the season. “I think re-signing Malcolm was a luxury.
“Our view was that Malcolm is a phenomenal player. But for that amount of money, we thought we could have those dollars better spent elsewhere.
“And we’ll find out.”
Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the Bucks did spent a lot of money locking up Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Eric Bledsoe, who were all set to hit the open market at the same time as Brogdon. The Bucks still had the second-highest payroll in the NBA and no team finished the season above the luxury tax threshold. There were rumors that Brogdon wanted a larger role that he apparently wasn’t going to find in Milwaukee.
None of that is a legitimate excuse. The Bucks knew they were in for a championship-or-bust season. They know Giannis becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021. Ownership should have been doing everything they could to put the best team on the floor, and that went out the window when they decided to play it cheap with Brogdon.
Brogdon was essentially the exact player the Bucks needed against the Heat: an elite spot-up shooter who could also run offense and create for teammates. Brogdon had an excellent year for the Pacers, making a strong push for All-Star consideration as he took on more playmaking duties. Even as the Pacers were swept out of the playoffs by the Heat, Brogdon still averaged 21.5 points and 10 assists per game in the series.
What’s even more insulting is that ownership decided not to pay the luxury tax with a championship contender after they asked Wisconsin tax payers to contribute $250 million to the team’s new stadium. Bucks ownership — led by New York hedge fund managers Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan — paid $550 million for a franchise that is now valued at $1.6 billion. They still put half the cost of the new arena on tax payers and just watched one of the team’s best players leave because they were too cheap to pay him.
Hey, Wisconsin taxpayers did their part ♂️— NoTechBen (@NoTechBen) September 5, 2020
Eventually Bucks ownership will sell the team at a massive profit. The tax payers will be left with the burden of a paying off a depreciating asset with the new arena in the years to come. The very least they could have done is re-signed Brogdon to give Giannis the best possible chance at winning a championship. Here’s what Antetokounmpo told The Athletic on Brogdon in November.
“Definitely wish he was still here,” Antetokounmpo said. “One of my friends, one of the guys that I always teased every day when I see him — call him ugly, we’re just going back and forth. I’m going to miss that, but at the end of the day, you got to do what’s best for you. I wish him the best, I wish his team the best and I’m excited to play against him.”
Giannis shouldn’t be framing this as Brogdon’s decision to move on. Brogdon had no control over his future as a restricted free agent. Ownership could have and should have kept him. The coaching staff could have given him the additional creation duties he wanted.
Is Brogdon still a “luxury” for the Bucks after a five-game loss to the Heat? It sure doesn’t feel like it.
Mike Budenholzer’s philosophy on minute-management doesn’t make any sense
There’s a good chance the Bucks-Heat series would still be going on if head coach Mike Budenholzer played his best players more minutes. Think about how infuriating that sentence is for a second.
Coach Bud’s philosophy towards minutes distribution is well known. Antetokounmpo is poised to win MVP again despite finishing No. 71 in minutes per game during the regular season. Giannis actually played more minutes in the All-Star Game than he did during the Bucks’ march to the best record in the NBA. While it could be seen as admirable to protect your best players during the dog days of January and February, Budenholzer’s complete inability to adjust his minute allocations during the postseason is baffling.
Antetokounmpo played 37 minutes in Game 1, 36 minutes in Game 2, and 35 minutes in Game 3 against the Heat — all losses for the Bucks. Co-star Khris Middleton also didn’t crack 37 minutes in a game before the Bucks were down 3-0 in the series. Here’s what Budenholzer said after the Game 3 loss, when he referred to his best players getting 36 minutes as “pushing the ceiling.”
Here is Mike Budenholzer's full response when I asked if he regretted not playing Giannis Antetokounmpo (34:54) or Khris Middleton (36:02) more tonight: pic.twitter.com/qdj5LrltQ9— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) September 5, 2020
It’s worth noting Miami’s best players played similar minutes in the series, but they were also winning the entire time. The better comparison is the team that ended Milwaukee’s season last year, the Toronto Raptors. Head coach Nick Nurse has regularly pushed his stars past the 40-minute mark in his team’s series against the Boston Celtics to battle out of an 0-2 hole to tie the seres.
Budenholzer eventually played Middleton 48 minutes in the Bucks’ Game 4 overtime victory after Giannis hurt his ankle. The Bucks won that game, and they wouldn’t have if Middleton played his customary 36 minutes in regulation. It was simply too late at that point for any real adjustments — the series was already out of hand.
Budenholzer will say that Antetokounmpo played so few minutes because he was going so hard during those minutes. That’s fair, but it’s also true that the regular season should have been used to ramp up for the playoffs. Giannis and Middleton had to learn how to handle 40+ minutes per night at times during the regular season so they were used to it in the playoffs.
The most disappointing thing about this was Budenholzer’s inability to learn from his own mistakes. The exact same scenario played out last season for the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors. Middleton only played 36.8 minutes per game in that series, and Antetokounmpo played 38.5. Milwaukee lost four straight games to lose that series after starting out up 2-0.
Budenholzer’s minutes management isn’t the only thing wrong with the Bucks’ coaching decisions — it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Budenholzer’s lack of tactical adjustments were a killer
It isn’t hard to see why Budenholzer was so obstinate in changing his game plan in the playoffs: his strategies helped make the Bucks the best regular season team in basketball. The Bucks played one style and they played it really well. But as we see in the playoffs every year, the best coaches are the ones who are willing to adjust when things aren’t working. Coach Bud refused to do that until it was too late.
The Bucks built the best defense in the league by putting Brook Lopez in drop coverage against the pick-and-roll all year. Miami was able to exploit it with Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic hitting pull-up jumpers and floaters away from the rim. The obvious move for the Bucks was to start switching screens to take away the in-between space where the Heat were thriving, but there was only one problem: the Bucks never practiced it during the regular season.
The Bucks being so ill-prepared to adjust their defense showed the most when Lopez wasn’t on the floor. In lineups with Giannis or Marvin Williams at center — more mobile defenders than Lopez — Budenholzer still played drop coverage.
Bucks go small with Giannis but they love to keep him in a drop. Instead of a switch and taking away the roll and making Herro go vs. Giannis, Herro is able to make a routing play. Come off, wait for the defense to help on the roll and skip to Dragic for a 3. pic.twitter.com/iOgeH3SH12— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) September 5, 2020
A refusal to tailor scheme to personnel was maddening for Bucks fans to watch. Again: this should have been worked on in the regular season so the team could be ready to switch in the playoffs.
Budenholzer also showed a lack of imagination in how he used both Giannis and Middleton. As Miami followed the game plan to defend Antetokounmpo put together by the Raptors last year — building a wall with multiple defenders to deny his drives to the paint — the Bucks kept ramming Giannis into that wall over and over. There were so many other ways to get him the ball in advantageous positions that the Bucks chose not to explore.
Why didn’t we see more actions with Middleton as the ball handler and Giannis as the screener? It worked effectively whenever Milwaukee went to it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has only 18 possessions so far in the Playoff as the PnR Rollman.— Dean Maniatt (@AllTheBucks) September 4, 2020
He's 11/12 (91.7%) from the field in these possessions, producing 1.56 PPP, while also drawing 6 shooting fouls.
Just 18 possessions.
This is the Middleton/Antetokounmpo Side PnR I mentioned as a way to get good looks. The Bucks run it in the 2nd possession of the game. The Heat know that Giannis will slip, they both go under to switch, so Middleton gets a wide-open 3.— Dean Maniatt (@AllTheBucks) September 5, 2020
The Bucks went back to that play never. pic.twitter.com/ICzjVcNmMX
If the Bucks want to see what good coaching looks like in the playoffs, look no further than the Heat. Miami played drop coverage during the start of the regular season before going with a more switch-heavy scheme after the trade deadline, as detailed by the great Nekias Duncan.
It’s hard to win in the playoffs only playing one style, regardless of how successful you’ve been with that style earlier in the year. The Bucks needed a changeup, but Budenholzer didn’t have them ready for it.
The Bucks’ roster was also flawed after too many failed draft picks
Budenholzer’s coaching certainly cost Milwaukee a chance at the series, but the Bucks’ struggles go beyond even that. Ultimately, Milwaukee’s roster just wasn’t good enough. Even scarier, they don’t have many realistic avenues towards improving it in the immediate future.
Beyond the decision to let Brogdon walk over money, Milwaukee has simply been terrible in the draft since selecting Giannis in 2013. Here’s what the Bucks have done with their recet draft picks:
- Jabari Parker with the No. 2 overall pick in 2014
- Rashad Vaughn with the No. 17 pick in 2015
- Thon Maker with the No. 10 pick in 2016
- D.J. Wilson with the No. 17 pick in 2017
- Donte DiVincenzo with the No. 17 pick in 2018
The Bucks used their first round pick last year to trade Tony Snell in another cost-cutting move. DiVincenzo, who had something of a breakout year this season, is the only one of those draft picks to work out to any degree.
Hindsight is of course 2020, but teams simply cannot screw up the draft so often and expect to build a title contender. Joel Embiid went one pick after Parker in 2014. Montrezl Harrell and Larry Nance Jr. went after Vaughan in 2015. Domantas Sabonis went one pick after Maker in 2016. OG Anunoby went shortly after Wilson in 2017.
By blowing the draft so often, the Bucks had to rely on older veterans in the postseason that simply didn’t have enough athleticism to keep up with the Heat’s younger roster. If George Hill, Ersan İlyasova, Kyle Korver, and Robin Lopez weren’t good enough this year, they certainly won’t be in the future either as they’re all in their mid-30s. Eric Bledsoe was a disaster offensively, too, averaging 11.8 points per game on 32 percent shooting for the series.
The Bucks now need to overhaul parts their roster in the final season of Giannis’ contract next year. The only problem is they have no cap space and very few appealing trade assets. In that way, letting Brogdon go actually gave the team less flexibility, as he still would have been tradeable on his $80 million deal. What are the Bucks supposed to do now?
The Heat shined in all the ways the Bucks failed
Miami nailed two first round draft picks with Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, both taken outside the top-10. It made a hugely beneficial trade in-season by acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala from Memphis. It landed a marquee free agent in Jimmy Butler. It also has a coach in Erik Spoelstra who isn’t scared to adjust his game plan in the pressure cooker of the NBA playoffs.
Yes, Giannis deserves some blame. He only hit 52.7 percent of his free throws in the series and had a noticeable lack of counters beat Miami’s wall. He certainly needs to add a mid-range jumper to his arsenal, among other things. Giannis will be better in the future. He’s still only 26 years old, an age where LeBron James and Michael Jordan came up short, too. It was the Bucks’ job to surround Giannis with the best environment possible, and they botched that by having a coach who wouldn’t adjust within a playoff series, by letting Brogdon go to save money, by wasting draft picks nearly every single year since his arrival.
Antetokounmpo said all the right things after Milwaukee’s second round playoff exit. He has talked publicly about wanting to stay in Milwaukee long-term so many times that it might be hard for him to actually leave as a free agent next summer. If Giannis takes a step back and looks at the reality of the situation, though, he’ll see a team that doesn’t have many good young players or appealing trade assets, owned by people who refused to pay up to keep one of his better teammates.
If Giannis really is happy in Milwaukee, the Bucks will have plenty more chances to win a championship. Maybe there’s a miracle Chris Paul trade around the corner even if it feels like other teams can beat Milwaukee’s best offer. Maybe this loss had more to the do with the matchup than anything else — Miami had also beat the Bucks twice in the regular season at full strength.
It’s just hard to look for positives right now. The Bucks blew it and the entire organization deserves to feel the heat. The nature of NBA basketball means the star player will get most of the blame, but the Bucks’ problems aren’t about Giannis. They’re about everything else.