As Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone threatens to torpedo the Green Bay Packers’ season less than halfway into it, Wisconsin sports fans are looking for a reprieve. Thankfully, a new NBA campaign has tipped off, and your Milwaukee Bucks head into the season as early playoff favorites, having finally seemed to figure out the intricacies of coach Jason Kidd’s somewhat unconventional offense (opposing coaches have referred to the team as “positionless”). Before Wednesday night’s season opener against the suddenly Gordon Hayward-less Boston Celtics, have a look at the good, the bad and the maybes for the 2017-18 Milwaukee Bucks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, for starters. The Greek Freak was last year’s most improved player to the tune of 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists a game and is now creeping into the MVP conversation (Kobe Bryant has challenged him to win the award, and Kevin Durant thinks Giannis may be the best player to ever play the game). Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s newly minted superstars and he’s the closest to a sure thing the Bucks have. His history of playing the way he does day in and out is without question the team’s biggest asset, but it also leads to a biggest question: Yeah, we’ve got the Freak, but one guy can’t win the O’Brien Trophy single-handedly, so what else is there?
Luckily, Giannis has a supporting cast that’s mostly at full strength. One of the biggest issues for the Bucks last season was having shooting guard Khris Middleton sidelined about half the year with a bum hamstring. One of the NBA’s most underrated shooters — he shot a career-high 43.3% from beyond the arc last year — Middleton is one of the most important pieces in the Bucks’ puzzle. Middleton provides a steady, consistent outside shooting presence for a team that’s fairly wary about letting it fly (last year’s Bucks ranked 10th in the NBA in three-point percentage yet only 24th in attempts).
Miwaukee also locked up Tony Snell, a tenacious defender and perimeter shooter who’s more or less Diet Middleton, via a four-year, $46 million dollar deal, and will also depend a lot on last year’s Rookie of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon. A second-round pick who actually played all four years of college ball, Brogdon shocked a lot of people when he nabbed the trophy, but his averages (10.2 points and 4.2 assists over 26.4 minutes per game) more than earned it. Brogdon will open the season as the first promising one-guard the Bucks have started since Brandon Jennings.
The end of last season finally saw the young Bucks coalesce on the court. Even Greg Monroe, who I advocated either trading or throwing into a volcano on more than one occasion last year, is starting to figure out what his role is. So while the Bucks certainly do have some on-court issues that need to be sorted out (more on that in a minute), it seems their most pressing one is in the front office.
During the offseason, longtime general manager John Hammond departed for the Orlando Magic, leaving a vacancy many expected to be filled by Justin Zanik, a well-regarded young exec who the Bucks’ brass nabbed in 2016 to be GM-in-waiting behind Ol’ Hambone. However, this succession plan evidently caused a great deal of strife among the Bucks’ ownership group — so the story goes, two of the three owners were all in on Zanik, while the other stubbornly advocated for Ol’ Hambone’s eventual replacement, an unknown draft wonk named Jon Horst.
In his inaugural draft as GM, Horst used the Bucks’ first-round pick on D.J. Wilson, a problematic rebounder out of Michigan who was otherwise highly touted. Only time will tell if Horst was the right choice, but it isn’t promising that the ownership quarreled like they did over what was supposed to be an easy decision.
There are issues on the court that will need to be addressed, too. While the Bucks’ unconventional offense makes them an unpredictable scoring threat, their defense is also pretty unconventional. It’s built primarily on swarming perimeter shooters, and opposing teams that can both pass and shoot have figured out how to exploit it. Unless they switch up their style, the rest of the league is going to find their way around the Bucks’ length.
I’m not gonna mince words here: It’s about time for the Bucks to shit or get off the pot on Jabari Parker. The Bucks took the power forward with the second pick of the 2014 draft, in which he was considered (along with the No. 1 pick, Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins) to be a superstar in the making, the kind of franchise player a team could really build around. And to his credit, Parker is an All-Star-caliber player — when he’s healthy.
Parker has spent much of his first three seasons injured, including a gnarly ACL tear in 2014 that took him the better part of a year to come back from. However, when he is on the floor, Parker is stellar. In his first 51 games last season, he averaged 20.1 points and 6.1 boards in 33.9 minutes… before tearing his other ACL in February.
It’s a tricky situation for the Bucks. On one hand, you’ve got a guy you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into, someone who has proven he can do the work when called upon. If there were a guarantee that Parker’s knee would never explode again, I would sign him to a max deal in a heartbeat. But on the other hand, he’s got a bad case of what I like to call “Tracy McGrady Syndrome,” i.e. the inability of a high-level player to stay healthy — and with Parker’s explosive style of play, his knee is a constant risk. Parker sought a max deal this offseason when he became eligible for a contract extension but couldn’t reach a deal with the team, meaning he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
So 2018 will truly make or break Parker’s long-term future with the team. He’ll presumably return from his recent knee injury this winter and has demonstrated an uncanny ability to come back previously (just look at the numbers he was putting up last year after rehabbing the same injury), but the question has nothing to do with Parker’s ability — it’s whether the Bucks’ front office is comfortable committing a ton of money to player with such a checkered medical history. Currently they are not.
So there you have it. As long as the ownership group can make it through the year without killing each other, and assuming Giannis’ collarbones and other body parts remain intact, the Bucks should be poised for another playoff run and quite possibly the organization’s first postseason series win since 2001. This is the final year at the BMO Harris Bradley Center before moving into fancy new digs, so win or lose it will be a historic season. Let’s just hope that it’s the winning we see more of.