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Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe: Milwaukee Bucks will be worse this season

Ben Rohrbach
·6 min read
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The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.

Prior to two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo missing a handful of games around the All-Star break and before last season’s hiatus in March, the Milwaukee Bucks were 41-7, on pace to win 70 games and within earshot of the league record for regular-season victories. The Bucks were destroying teams by an average of 11.1 points per 100 possessions and a clearcut favorite to win the championship.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. It spelled Antetokounmpo’s sprained knee but was less kind to the momentum Milwaukee had ridden to the NBA’s best record. The Bucks eased into the schedule of eight seeding games and emerged with a 3-5 record, still good enough for a first-round warmup with the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic. Then came the Miami Heat, who blew the doors off Milwaukee in the second round.

So, who were the real Bucks? And does the addition of Jrue Holiday rebrand their identity?

Milwaukee can lean into the built-in excuse of Antetokounmpo’s ankle injury in those Eastern Conference semifinals, even if he has refused to use it. The Bucks had already lost the first two games of the series when Antetokounmpo first tweaked his right ankle in the first quarter of a Game 3 loss. He re-injured it in the second quarter of Game 4 and missed all of Miami’s closeout win in Game 5, his title hopes dashed.

Are they the team that blew out opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in the 1,763 minutes Antetokounmpo played prior to the suspension of last season? Or are they the one that posted a 3.5 playoff net rating — equivalent to a Utah Jazz team ousted in the first round — with Antetokounmpo on the floor?

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo can become a free agent at season's end. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo can become a free agent at season's end. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

How good will the Bucks be this season?

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. The Bucks were built for the regular season, and the first few months of last season were about as it good as it was going to get for Milwaukee — or any team in history. The chances of recreating that magic this season are slim, and oddsmakers agree, projecting their winning percentage closer to 68% than the 82% that had them 53-12 entering last season’s hiatus.

It seems a foregone conclusion the Bucks will be worse in the regular season, and that could still be good enough for a top seed in the East. The question is whether they are a better playoff team. To put it mildly, the playoff inconsistencies of co-stars Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have allowed opponents to scheme solely against Antetokounmpo, so Milwaukee has yet to unlock another dimension in the playoffs.

Antetokounmpo’s own game is fairly one-dimensional. What a dimension it is, but 80% of his made baskets last season came in the paint. Teams are happy to sag off him on the perimeter, where he shot sub-30% on above-the-break 3-pointers. And when teams are less wary of Middleton or Bledsoe, too, that clogs the paint for Antetokounmpo. It is a recipe for a middling playoff offense, and they got cooked.

Bledsoe’s deficiencies often led to Hill joining Milwaukee’s crunch-time lineup, and Holiday replaces both, presumably as a more reliable second or third option to Antetokounmpo and Middleton late in close games. None of Bucks general manager Jon Horst’s free-agent signings — D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Torrey Craig and Bryn Forbes — can be counted on in the clutch. There is a reason Horst pursued playmaking wing Bogdan Bogdanovic in a sign-and-trade deal, but that fell through in a blow to their playoff rotation.

The Bucks invested their future — three first-round picks and two pick swaps, along with Bledsoe and Hill — in Holiday, who on paper represents an upgrade at the point guard position. He is also entering his 12th NBA season, north of 30 years old, with an injury history that has claimed the equivalent of 15 or more games in six of the last seven years. That is a big bet on a player who has not been an All-Star since 2013.

Since limping through three games of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in 2015, Holiday has played nine playoff games, all in 2018. He was brilliant in the New Orleans Pelicans’ first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, averaging 27.6 points (on 57/35/71 shooting splits), 6.7 assists and four rebounds while playing lockdown defense opposite Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He was less effective in their five-game second-round loss to the Warriors, averaging 20-7-6 on 47/30/69 splits.

That still replicates the combined production of Bledsoe and Hill against Miami (22-9-7 on 39/28/74 splits), but the Bucks remain reliant on the likes of Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo on the wing. Wesley Matthews, who started at small forward for Milwaukee, left for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency.

The Bucks also released Ersan Ilyasova and lost fellow veteran Marvin Williams to retirement, putting the stretch forward onus on an untested Portis. Robin Lopez’s free-agency exit left a backup center void behind his twin brother Brook, who at 32 years old last season was not the floor spacer he had been the year prior.

It all leaves Milwaukee shallow beyond a star triumvirate of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday. The latter two have not proven themselves as second options on a true championship contender, all of which may not matter if Antetokounmpo’s shooting improves enough to unlock yet another dimension of his dominance. That is asking a lot from a player who already carries a massive load on both ends of the floor.

Finally, there is the matter of Antetokounmpo’s contract. He is entering the final year of his deal and has until Dec. 21 to sign an extension. Asked at training camp of his looming decision on a long-term deal, he told reporters, “Right now, I’m not focused on that. I’m just trying to focus on myself.” Non-answers will lead to more questions if the offer sits unsigned, and that can create an added burden for him and his team.

History has not been kind to superstars with one foot out the door, or those whose confidence in their team is waning. Once the tide starts turning on them in the playoffs, they get washed over. Everything has to go right for the Bucks to surpass what they have the last two seasons, and a whole lot more could go wrong.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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