When the NBA season resumed in Orlando in July, the Milwaukee Bucks were the prohibitive favorite to win the East and potentially secure their first championship since 1971. They had the best record in basketball, the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a seemingly sufficient supporting cast surrounding him.
However, when the playoffs began, the Miami Heat defeated the top-seeded Bucks in the second round. They did so by exposing one glaring flaw: their lack of three-point shooting. In one of the most shocking upsets in recent postseason history, Miami beat Milwaukee 4-1 to send them home far earlier than most fans expected.
Antentokounmpo remains one of the few NBA superstars without a consistent outside jump shot. That deficiency loomed large in the playoffs. The Orlando Magic stole a game from the Bucks in the first round by forcing them to score from the perimeter. The Heat followed suit soon after. Though he launched a playoff career-high 4.4 threes per game this postseason, Antentokounmpo made just 33% of them, below the league average of 34%.
Still, the Bucks’ struggles cannot solely be attributed to Antetokounmpo. Khris Middleton, an All-Star in his own right and typically the Bucks’ most dependable outside shooter, saw his three-point percentage drop from 42% in the regular season to 35% in the playoffs. In addition, his 39% from the field marked a 10% drop from his regular-season output.
How the Heat Stopped the Bucks
During the regular season, Milwaukee thrived when Antetokounmpo and Middleton drove into the lane and kicked the ball out to open shooters waiting at the three-point line. Opposing defenses had to respect their ability to finish in the paint. That often resulted in defenders over-helping to the point of giving the other Bucks enough space to launch plenty of jumpers.
However, in these playoffs, that strategy fell apart. Only four of Milwaukee’s role players shot above the league average from three during the regular season, and Miami took full advantage of that weakness in their victories over the Bucks. Not a single Bucks starter shot 40% from downtown in the playoffs, and little-used Kyle Korver and Marvin Williams ended up being the only players in their rotation to eclipse that number.
On defense, the Heat formed wall after wall in the paint. They forced Antetokounmpo to kick the ball back out to the perimeter. In doing so, they neutralized one of the best finishers in the world, holding him to a negative plus-minus in three of the four games in which he appeared. Antetokounmpo sat out Game 5 of the series due to an ankle injury, but Miami had already revealed his fallibility to the rest of the league.
The entire Milwaukee rotation remains responsible for their early exit, but all eyes will be on Antetokounmpo when he hits free agency in the summer of 2021. Fresh off back-to-back MVP awards, he’ll be one of the most sought-after free agents in a long time. He has yet to lead the Bucks to the NBA Finals in his seven years with the team. Nevertheless, he is bound to have countless suitors due to his unrestricted free agent status.
If Milwaukee retains Antetokounmpo, they’ll have to revamp their rotation in order to create a legitimate contender. Re-signing Pat Connaughton this year would likely be in their best interest, but there aren’t many good reasons for keeping aging veterans like Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova, and Korver on the payroll.
What Milwaukee Needs
To construct a lineup built to succeed, they need to insert more efficient 3-and-D players around Antentokounmpo and Middleton. Ideally, these players would be more willing to let others create shots for them instead of constantly needing the ball in their hands. And, assuming Milwaukee hands Antetokounmpo a monster deal, these free agents would need to be affordable.
Players set to hit the open market in 2021 who fit that description include Nicolas Batum, Tim Hardaway Jr., Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, Doug McDermott, Rodney Hood, Mike Scott, and Avery Bradley. Other candidates will surely emerge, but these players would fit seamlessly into the Bucks’ scheme. They all provide both efficient shooting and veteran experience right away.
A Milwaukee team with this year’s core and two or three of these free agents mixed into the rotation would provide Giannis with the best opportunity he’s ever had to finally win his first title.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images