This story was originally published on Dec. 9, six days before a fairly significant transaction. It has since been updated ahead of the start of the NBA season.
Everybody's always fussing about the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that won three-quarters of its regular-season games over the past two seasons and employs the back-to-back MVP. The well-worn criticism is that they've been too predictable, short on playmaking, not athletic enough and in need of better shooters. These imperfections don't seem to matter that much until they are magnified and exploited in the playoffs.
The Bucks aren't widely beloved like, say, the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns were, although the parallels between Joe Johnson's and Malcolm Brogdon's forays into restricted free agency demand an overserious essay. As far as teams with back-to-back MVPs that fell short of the Finals go, the 2009 and 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers are a better comparison. Entering this offseason, the story was simple: Milwaukee had to fix its flaws or risk losing its franchise player. The stakes could not have been higher.
On Dec. 15, nine days after his teammates gave him pens for his 26th birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo signed a meaningful and lucrative autograph. The extension immediately justified the price the Bucks paid to acquire Jrue Holiday (three first-round picks, two pick swaps, Eric Bledsoe and George Hill) and papered over the botched Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade. It has turned the volume down on all of the Milwaukee skepticism, if not muted it, but we'll hear it again as the playoffs approach, if not sooner.
For a team coming off two straight seasons with the best record and net rating in the league, the 2020-21 Bucks have a lot of turnover. Before Antetokounmpo committed, the big question was how he felt about the Holiday trade, the Pat Connaughton contract, Donte DiVincenzo's increased role or the signings of DJ Augustin, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig and Bobby Portis. Now it's whether or not Milwaukee's series of moves will add up to a Finals berth.
Now that another season is upon us, attention will shift from management to the coaching staff. In his first media availability of training camp, Mike Budenholzer said that Milwaukee needs to "be more diverse, to be able to do different things," and that the playoffs require defensive versatility. That's pretty interesting!
Taking the temperature
Bucks believer: I always knew Giannis would stay, but I can't believe the Bucks actually got Holiday. People were pining for Chris Paul, but I'll take the guy who's five years younger and still defends at an elite level. Giannis, Khris Middleton and Holiday is a real Big 3.
Why is everyone saying the Lakers won the offseason? Giannis' extension is easily the most important thing that happened, and Holiday is by far the best player any contender added.
Between Holiday, Augustin and Forbes, this team is much better on the perimeter now. Getting Craig at the minimum felt like a miracle, too -- think about the defense they'll play when he's sharing the court with Holiday, Giannis and Brook Lopez.
Bucks skeptic: Everyone's saying the champs won the offseason because they signed the exact type of center they needed, dramatically improved their second unit and added way more talent than could have been reasonably expected of a capped-out team. The Lakers addressed the weaknesses of last season's roster without sacrificing its strengths. I wish I could say the same about the Bucks.
Holiday is a bigger, better, more playoff-ready version of Bledsoe, but he could really use someone like Bogdanovic next to him. Augustin is a crafty pick-and-roll guard, but isn't in Hill's galaxy as a defender. Craig more than makes up for the loss of Wesley Matthews on the defensive end, but opponents don't respect his shot whatsoever. Opponents do respect Forbes' shot, but he can't guard anybody. This team desperately needed a big who can switch, but instead it signed Portis. Is it too late to convince Marvin Williams to come out of retirement?
Bucks believer: So you're telling me the Bucks' acquisitions aren't flawless? Wow, thanks! Care to tell me how Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell are going to help the Lakers defensively? While you're at, please remind me how the Lakers' offensive rebounding and vertical spacing are going to improve with Harrell and Marc Gasol replacing Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
In all seriousness, let's stay with this comparison. I actually like what the Lakers did in the offseason because they have the personnel to cover up for their weak defenders. The idea that everybody in your rotation has to be a lockdown guy is ludicrous, as is the notion that everybody has to be an awesome 3-point shooter. We just watched the Lakers win a title despite a below-average halfcourt offense, and we just watched the Heat make the Finals despite routinely playing lineups with two non-shooters and two defensive liabilities. I'm tired of hearing that the Bucks are fundamentally flawed, and I'm mystified that all the experts who have been calling Holiday underrated for years are suddenly overlooking him.
Bucks skeptic: Last season's Lakers and Heat were not perfect, but both were versatile. When Houston and Miami made Los Angeles pay for playing traditional bigs, Frank Vogel put Anthony Davis or Markieff Morris at center. The champs played some zone against the Rockets and the Nuggets, and the Heat made their zone a part of their identity. I don't expect Lopez to start switching onto guards like Davis or Bam Adebayo; I just want the Bucks to be able to adjust when their standard drop coverage isn't working. To do that effectively in the playoffs, they need to play multiple ways throughout the regular season.
Also, about the Lakers: Their halfcourt offense got better in the playoffs, and when it stagnated, their defense usually saved them.
Bucks believer: All of you haters are perfectly capable of identifying the Bucks' problems and completely unable to put them in perspective. It is possible to acknowledge that the organization was too conservative after losing to the Raptors without wildly exaggerating how far away it was -- and is -- from a championship. Toronto needed two overtimes to avoid going down 3-0 in 2019, and Miami needed a last-second whistle and a fourth-quarter comeback to get past the Bucks in the bubble. These series revealed that the Bucks had less room for error than their record suggested, not that they were doomed all along. They didn't need to radically reshape the roster this summer; they just needed to show Giannis that they were serious about improving it. The extension confirmed that he is convinced.
Bucks skeptic: It's funny you used the phrase "room for error." Giannis is staying, but I don't get why that means the Bucks should be forgiven for failing to adjust, for letting Malcolm Brogdon go, for limiting Giannis' playoff minutes, for messing up the Bogdanovic deal, for overpaying Connaughton as Matthews gave the Lakers a discount, for once again signing free agents who probably can't stay on the floor in the second round. When you have a superstar, you have a responsibility to get this stuff right. There isn't supposed to be much room for error.
Bucks believer: Eh. The Toronto series was a toss-up, and Miami was a rough matchup. They got Holiday. You need to relax.
Eye on: Donte DiVincenzo
As much as I'd love to focus on sharpshooter Sam Merrill (the No. 60 pick in the draft) and perpetually intriguing center Justin Patton (drafted No. 16 in 2017 and somehow more than a year younger than Merrill), this is a no-brainer: DiVincenzo is one of the biggest X-factors in the league.
Last season was extremely promising, even though his playoff performance was a mixed bag. The 23-year-old differentiated himself from Milwaukee's other young guards and became a fixture in Budenholzer's rotation, always bringing energy, rebounding and perimeter defense. DiVincenzo is not a polished playmaker just yet, but he's constantly making good stuff happen. If he improves his spot-up shooting, the Bucks' best offseason move (besides the Giannis extension) might be the one they didn't make.