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NBA Daily: An Early Look At Eastern Conference Contenders

A new offense and a new MVP headlined the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018-19, one that resulted in 60 wins and their first conference finals appearance since 2001.

But a season that may look successful from the outside is deeply disappointing from the inside.

The Bucks were on top of the mountain, up 2-0 on the Toronto Raptors and appearing poised to represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage.

They proceeded to drop four in a row and watched from home as the eventual champion took advantage of a dynasty that became ravaged by injury. Now, back with virtually the same roster (save Malcolm Brogdon), the winningest team from a year ago looks to learn from last season’s mistakes and get to The Finals in the most wide-open NBA season of the past decade.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Many things this writer predicted last season were wrong, but picking Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year was spot on. He unlocked even more out of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a playmaker, using player perimeter gravity as a formula to let the Greek Freak drive down the lane and take it from there. It’s either a pass to the corner, ferocious finish at the rim or a drawn foul nearly every time. While keeping Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez was absolutely necessary, it came at the price of losing Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers. Jon Horst brought in Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Dragan Bender, as well as Thanasis Antetokounmpo, as his offseason acquisitions. George Hill agreed to return in addition. The Bucks are still in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Let’s see if they take the next step to the NBA Finals in Year 2 under Coach Bud.

1st Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Bucks were two games away from reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, they proceeded to lose four straight games to the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard now in the West, the Bucks presumably should be the favorites to come out of the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is only getting better, which is a scary thought considering how good he already is. The front office has done a solid job surrounding him with players that can all stretch the floor and shoot from distance. Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were big pickups. They’re going to miss some of the defensive edge that Malcolm Brogdon brought to the team, but they’re hoping Matthews can replicate some of that. A lot really hinges though on Antetokounmpo’s development. He’s the best player in the Eastern Conference and the one who Milwaukee’s Finals hopes depend on. With Kevin Durant injured, the Bucks are the clear cut favorite in the East, with only the Philadelphia 76ers coming close as a potential challenger. The Finals is the goal this season and anything less, barring any major injuries, would be a failure.

1st Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

Even though the Bucks didn’t win the Eastern Conference last season, they will still have a huge target on their collective backs in 2019-20. They will be graded harshly this season if they don’t win the Eastern Conference – and I’m not sure they have the requisite depth to do so. But with Kawhi Leonard moving West, the Bucks are at least expected to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While they mostly flew under the radar, the Bucks offseason was more detrimental than most assume – namely because they lost their clear third option from 2018-19 – Malcolm Brogdon – to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. Signing Wesley Matthews is a low-risk move that could partially mitigate the hurt from losing Brogdon, but he’s a different player than he once was and you can’t expect too much from him (at least he only costs $2.56 million). The Bucks also signed Robin Lopez to back up his brother, Brook. It’s not a home run move, but it adds much needed depth up front. However, that isn’t the only pair of siblings on the roster. They also continued to try to appease Giannis by signing his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo – and as far as appeasements go, this isn’t a bad start toward resigning Antetokounmpo to a long-term contact. But ultimately the Bucks will have to prove they can win at a high level.

1st Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

Lump me in with the group of people who think the Bucks are going to miss Malcolm Brogdon more than the Bucks will publicly admit. I might feel differently if Eric Bledsoe didn’t struggle so mightily in the playoffs, but that has been an ongoing issue and it’s hard to say with any confidence that will change this upcoming season. While losing Brogdon will be an adjustment for the Bucks, they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still just 24 years old and improving seemingly every day. Milwaukee also did well in bringing back Brook Lopez and adding on his twin brother, Robin. The Bucks will need as much size and physicality as they can get with the Philadelphia 76ers adding Al Horford and now featuring a massive overall roster. I have been a believer in the Bucks for a long time and think the sky is the limit for this team this upcoming season. But I just think Milwaukee should have valued Brogdon more and done whatever was necessary to bring him back.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Stop me if you have heard this before – “He is wired differently, he’d never leave,” or, “He’s too loyal, he loves this market.” These have to be the phrases that strike fear into the hearts of the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. Pick a superstar in the NBA that is no longer with the team that drafted him, and those phrases were said about them at this point in their careers too. While it is true Giannis Antetokounmpo has operated differently than almost anyone not named Tim Duncan, there is a reality that Giannis has just scratched the surface of how good he could be, and he was the runaway MVP a season ago. Imagine what he’ll be when he reaches his prime? That’s why the Bucks had to go all-in on their free agents this summer and why they can’t allow the season to get off the rails this year. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a franchise, especially a franchise that doesn’t have extremely bright lights and glamor appeal. The Bucks have an impressive win-now roster, which should make them one of the favorites in the East, but it also means there won’t be a big margin for error either.

1st Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Bucks made a significant sacrifice this summer, choosing to sign and trade Malcolm Brogdon to the Indiana Pacers, instead of forcing the guard to play the restricted free agent game with an offer sheet. Instead, the team dropped under the salary cap to re-sign Brook Lopez. Milwaukee also made a sizable investment in paying Khris Middleton $177.5 million over five seasons.

Now the franchise is right under the luxury tax line of $132.6 million. They have no additional spending tools, outside of minimum contracts, but could venture over mid-season trade. Before November, the team needs to decide on options for D.J. Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo. Looming over the horizon is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract which ends after the 2020-21 season. The clear goal will be locking him down to a Supermax extension when eligible next summer.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning league MVP also continues his reign as Milwaukee’s best offensive player as we move into 2019-20. Antetokounmpo won the MVP on the back of a season that saw his traditional counting stat averages finish at 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Per Cleaning the Glass, Antetokounmpo’s effective field goal percentage was a ridiculous 60.2 percent, his on/off difference was in the 92nd percentile at plus-8.7, and he was in the 98th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts at 129.9.

Giannis also led the NBA in player efficiency rating, and with a roster built exclusively around him, the Bucks were fourth in offensive rating and second in both effective field goal and true shooting percentage, trailing only Golden State in the latter two.

He did all of this despite still shooting 25.6 percent from three, which remains his only glaring weakness. However, last season Giannis took and made more threes than he ever has. He appeared to find a certain level of comfort stepping into them from the extended elbows during the back-half of the season; if he can get to league average on three or four attempts per game, it will really be over for the rest of the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Surprise, surprise: Antetokounmpo is also Milwaukee’s best defensive player. He was second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, leading the Bucks to an NBA-best 104.9 defensive rating and finishing second in individual defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus.

He was also second in total rebounds and sixth in rebounds per game, the only non-Russell Westbrook perimeter player to finish in the top 15 in that category.

Antetokounmpo is the most physically gifted player in the league and uses his strength and size to switch across all five positions. You won’t find a more versatile defender, and this writer would bet on him beating out Rudy Gobert for a DPOY over the next few years.

Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This may be getting repetitive, but with a player this good, it’s hard to look anywhere else.

As mentioned, Milwaukee filled out their roster specifically to enhance Antetokounmpo’s strengths. Head coach Mike Budenholzer spaced the floor around Giannis (a la the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’s first stint with the team) and gave him all the room to drive and kick out to shooters. This resulted in Antetokounmpo leading his team in total assists and assists per game, and assisting on 29.3 percent of his teammates made field goals – in the 98th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Empowering Giannis to play as the de facto point guard for long stretches allowed him to become one of the better playmakers in the league. Entering year two of Coach Bud’s offense, it’s fair to expect him to be even better.

Top Clutch Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

This isn’t a referendum on the rest of the team, but a testament to just how good Giannis was as a 24-year-old MVP. According to NBA.com, during clutch time Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring and shot 62.5 percent from the field while doing so. When the game is on the line, Milwaukee’s spread offense becomes even more pronounced, and they live and die by Giannis’s penetration and playmaking.

Their reliance on Giannis late in games was as evident as ever during Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs against Boston. Giannis scored 17 in the fourth quarter on his way to 39 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. He was everywhere in the fourth – scoring isolation on the block, driving and kicking to shooter, and attacking the offensive glass. He’s the Bucks’ best player, and their best clutch one, too.

The Unheralded Player: Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez was a revelation last season. After Los Angeles inexplicably let him walk, Lopez came to Milwaukee and fully transformed from post-up specialist to seven-foot spot-up shooter. Lopez hit from three at a 36.5 percent clip on 6.3 attempts per game, often the beneficiary of Giannis drives. Lopez even extended his range and regularly hitting from far beyond the line and thus giving Antetokounmpo even more room with which to work.

Lopez’s ability to shoot as a big was invaluable in Milwaukee’s offense, but he was effective when he posted up as well. He may well be the second most useful offensive player on the Bucks’ roster, and he too should see a bump in production and efficiency in his second year in the offense.

Best New Addition: Kyle Korver

We’ve talked a lot about Milwaukee’s offense, both stylistically and as a vehicle to augment Giannis’s gifts. Not many players fit this bill better than all-time great shooter Kyle Korver. Korver enters his 19th season fourth on the all-time three-pointers-made list and with a career three-point percentage of 42.9 percent. He will provide another floor spacer on the perimeter and will likely be a factor down the stretch of tight games.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Khris Middleton

After averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2017-18, Middleton regressed a tad last season. But, he still put up a line of 18.3/6.0/4.3 and was named to his first All-Star game. Middleton is the clear-cut second option to Giannis and operates as the Bucks’ secondary playmaker. Expect Middleton to bounce back and push for another All-Star bid this year.

2. Ersan Ilyasova

In his second stint with Milwaukee, Ilyasova had a quiet 2018-19. He averaged just 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game but continued to be reliable from three, shooting 36.3 percent. He’s been a dependable role player and has deep ties not only with the Bucks organization, but with Mike Budenholzer, and will remain a steady and trustworthy stretch big.

3. George Hill

Hill is another player who had a down 2018-19, playing his fewest minutes since he entered the league in 2008. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50 percent to 49.3, and he shot 28 percent from three. So why is he a guy we like? Because Hill flipped a switch in the playoffs and became one of Milwaukee’s best players during their run.

In 15 games, Hill put up 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest on 53.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 61.9 percent and stepped in as a ball-handler when Eric Bledsoe performed his disappearing act.

Hill, like Ilyasova, is a seasoned veteran that can be counted on when the games matter. Last year was likely an aberration, and his play will level out again in 2019-20.

4. Sterling Brown

The full effect of Malcolm Brogdon’s departure has yet to be seen, but one place it will inevitably show up is in the form of opportunity for Sterling Brown. Brown played 58 games last season, starting seven and playing just under 18 minutes per game. He has a similar physical profile to Brogdon, and they have somewhat comparable per-36-minute averages. While Brown is certainly less efficient than Brogdon – who is sneakily one of the most efficient in the league – he should be able to fill some of the gaps left behind with his aggressiveness on both sides of the ball.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Milwaukee’s strengths from last season will be the same this season. They will lean heavily on Antetokounmpo and, to a much lesser extent, Middleton. They should hold their ground as a top-five team in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage offensively and defensively. Even in a stronger Eastern Conference, they will likely again push for 60 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

What were the Bucks’ strengths during the regular season became their weaknesses in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the four straight losses to Toronto, Giannis struggled (under his standards), and as a result, Milwaukee struggled mightily. The supporting cast was unable to pick up the slack. In a league where stars are doubling and tripling off for, the Bucks have only a fringe All-Star behind their MVP. When playoff defenses tighten up and force Giannis to shoot, can the role players do enough to get over the hump?

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Milwaukee get to The Finals after last year’s disappointing Eastern Conference Finals exit?

The 2018-19 season was filled with stretches that showed us how good Milwaukee could be. They won 60 games, had a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and looked sure to move on to face the Warriors in the championship. And then, they collapsed. No matter how well they space the floor and shoot threes, no matter how much better Giannis is, the same issues will arise.

Even with Kawhi Leonard’s departure and Kevin Durant’s redshirt year in the East, the lack of star power outside the MVP probably hurt them again. Philadelphia looks more Finals-ready than the Bucks.

Unless, of course, Giannis starts hitting threes. If he does that, all bets are off; Milwaukee could be back in The Finals for the first time since 1974.

– Drew Mays

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