MILWAUKEE -- Early on Monday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks held their annual media day ahead of the start of training camp and a new season. General manager Jon Horst and coach Mike Budenholzer spoke, along with every member of the team -- save for Eric Bledsoe, who was with his family celebrating the birth of their new child.
It's an important season for the Bucks, fresh off their best campaign in nearly two decades. They surprised just about everyone last season by winning 60 games and reaching the Eastern Conference finals before falling short against the eventual champion Raptors. Now, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the squad are out to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, and they're true contenders for the title. Adding even more pressure is Giannis' looming contract situation, which is hanging like a cloud over this franchise.
Here's a look at the most interesting and noteworthy comments from an interesting day in Milwaukee
Giannis downplays contract situation
Giannis isn't set to be a free agent until the summer of 2021, but in today's fast-paced NBA world, it's already becoming a major topic. He's never hinted that he would like to leave. In fact, he's done the opposite. But it's expected any time a player of his magnitude is in a small market and has yet to reach the promised land.
It's not fair, and at times the discourse is going to reach ridiculous levels, but until he signs a new contract in two summers, the topic isn't going away. Judging by his answer at media day, however, it would seem he would prefer if it did.
"I thought about it this summer when I was sitting down with my family that if you have a great team -- and our goal is to win a championship and be the last team standing -- I think it's disrespectful to my teammates to talk about my free agency and what I'm going to do," Antetokounmpo said. "When the time is right we're all gonna talk about it. I don't think the time is right right now. I'm focused on getting better every day and going out there and competing as hard as we can. I'm not gonna talk about it a lot this season, and I'm not gonna try to address it."
The good news for the Bucks is that they're a clear contender in the East, and winning will help stem the tide in this department. Still, the prospects of a Giannis-less future adds even more pressure to capture a championship in the next few seasons.
Banking on continuity
The Bucks had plenty of hard decisions to make this summer, with many key members of their rotation hitting free agency. In the end, they decided to bring back everyone except Malcolm Brogdon, who they calculated was too expensive as an $85 million man. That decision will be litigated for years depending on how the two parties do, but they have to move forward with the team they have now.
And that includes Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and George Hill, all of whom played big roles last season alongside Antetokounmpo. In a wild summer in which teams across the league have made huge changes, the Bucks largely remained intact. While they don't have a big name free-agent signing to boast about, there are advantages to running it back after a successful season.
"We had a really exciting season last year, and we're most excited that we were able to keep the group together -- keep the core of the group together," GM Jon Horst said. "We believe in continuity, we think that gives us an advantage to have continuity."
Budenholzer echoed those thoughts from a coaching perspective.
"When you have a good team and have as much success as this group had last year, to keep the core together and basically bring the team back together in today's NBA is incredibly difficult," Budenholzer said. "The job that Jon did, the job that ownership did -- as the coach you love having that great year, and then you're like, 'are we going to be able to keep the team together?' Keeping a good team together is really, really hard to do, and that's why I'm so excited about what Jon was able to do, what we were able to do."
There's no question the Bucks will benefit from so many key players returning for the second season of the Budenholzer era. The system is already in place, and they can build off the work they did last season rather than relearning a new offensive and defensive scheme. But did they bring back the right group? And will that continuity be enough to boost them to a title? That remains to be seen.
Prior to last season, the Bucks hadn't won a playoff series since 2001, nearly two decades ago. So even though they had some talented young players, a new coach and were coming off two straight trips to the playoffs, expectations weren't incredibly high. In fact, if they had managed to break that playoff drought and get to the second round, it would have largely been seen as a success prior to the season.
Instead, everything clicked into gear right from training camp, Giannis became the MVP and they won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals. Now, the benchmark has been set and anything short of a back-to-back conference finals trip and/or NBA Finals appearance might be viewed as a disappointment.
That's a new feeling in Milwaukee, and especially for this group of players. With new expectations comes a new set of challenges, a new level of pressure, and it will be interesting to see how the Bucks respond. For now, they're pledging to remain focused on themselves and block out the noise, but that's what every young, ascendant team has claimed, and it doesn't always work out, no matter how hard teams try.
"Internal expectations are what matter to us," Horst said. "We've been saying this for over a year now, and we live it, we believe it. We care about getting better every day. We want to improve on what we did last year, we want to improve our flexibility from our roster, we want our players to develop organically and grow and become better players, we want our coaches become better coaches, we want our front office staff to become better. We're focused every single day on getting better and hopefully building something where we can sustain success over a long period of time."
Budenholzer said pretty much the exact same thing, while Giannis toed the company line as well.
"We've gotta do what we do," Giannis said. "We cannot start thinking about what other teams are going to do against us … We gotta focus on ourselves. That's getting better each day, competing in practice so it can carry over to the game, and just build that winning culture and the great habits that we built last year. If we do that, we're gonna be one of the teams that's last standing. And that's our goal, to get better and improve."
From management down to the players, everyone in Milwaukee is saying the right things. Translating that mindset into victories on the court is a different story, however, especially once you get deep into the playoffs. This team is going to be one of the best in the East -- they're too talented not to be -- but we'll see how things go in the spring.
Giannis growing as a leader
Giannis averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks last season en route to his first MVP Award. So how can he possibly get better? Aside from working on his jumper and continuing to improve his playmaking, it's leadership. According to Budenholzer, that aspect has been key for Giannis during the offseason.
"The great thing about Giannis is he will never rest," Budenholzer said. "He's constantly working to get better and improve. That's one of his greatest characteristics. He's working a lot on his leadership skills -- his ability to connect and communicate with his teammates. I've been so impressed with how his leadership continues to grow and improve. You would think that doesn't happen in the summer, but it does."
For his part, Giannis explained that his approach is to improve his communication skills -- not just lead by example.
"I know my team knows who I am, they trust me, they know I'm gonna put my body and everything on the line for the team," Antetokounmpo said. "Everything else is gonna take care of itself. As you grow older, you become more vocal. It's easier to talk to your teammates, talk to your coach and tell them your thoughts and what you think about the game and how the game should go. I think I've been able to take a jump each year in my career, and I think I'm gonna be able to take that jump also because I think by going to the ECF, by winning 60 games, by playing under a great coach like Mike Bud, it gives you a lot of experience, and hopefully I can use that experience to help my team benefit from that."
This is an aspect of the game that's hard to quantify, but it's a good sign that Giannis is taking this next step in his development -- especially after a tough ending to last season.