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Nothing gold can stay. Just two seasons ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were the darlings of the NBA, a small-market team with a young, likable superstar that captured the hearts of neutral fans, along with the East’s top seed. But now, it looks like dawn might go down to day. After two ignominious early playoff exits in a row, the Bucks face Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency after this coming season. If he does leave, they immediately exit the ranks of title contenders. This is the Bucks’ most dramatic season yet.
The Bucks could be tempted to run it back. After all, this same roster is a little over a year removed from a double-overtime Game 3 loss against the Raptors from going up 3–0 in the Eastern Conference Finals that likely would’ve secured them a Finals bid. This season, they were rolling through the regular season when play paused due to the pandemic, and then they had to come back months later to play in the playoffs without the home-court advantage they had earned.
But even adjusting for extenuating circumstances, the Heat sure looked like an unsolvable problem for the Bucks. The series was not close; the Heat won 4–1, and it did not feel like they were particularly lucky. Antetokounmpo did miss time with a sprained ankle, but even that did not even have that great of an impact; Milwaukee was already down 3-0 when it occurred. The Heat had answers for everything the Bucks tried. Their strategy of walling off the paint from Antetokounmpo’s drives strangled Milwaukee’s offense, and their outside shooting and ball movement used the Bucks’ defensive strategy of keeping Antetokounmpo inside as a help defender against them. It is easy to see Miami using this strategy again against Milwaukee should they meet again, and now that it is out there, Boston has the personnel to do it too.
When Miami dared the Bucks’ players outside of Antetokounmpo to beat them, no one other than Khris Middleton could step up. Eric Bledsoe’s shooting woes have hindered him in the playoffs for several seasons in a row now; it seems like he just won’t be able to get it done when it matters most. On the wing, there is no one outside of Middleton who consistently offers shot-creation, defense, and shooting all at once. They have very little in the way of young players who could grow into that role either; only 2018 first-rounder Donte DiVincenzo offers much in the way of potential. When teams try to make Milwaukee’s non-Antetokounmpo, non-Middleton players beat them in next year’s playoffs, it will likely work unless Milwaukee makes major changes.
It will be tough for the Bucks to upgrade their roster. They are over the salary cap, taking them out of the running for the big free agents, though there are not many of them this year. They will be able to use an exception to sign a mid-tier guy, like one of the Morris twins or Jae Crowder, but that is unlikely to land them a true difference-maker. To acquire one, Milwaukee is probably going to have to swing a big trade.
The obvious answer for Milwaukee is to replace Bledsoe with a point guard who can shoot from outside and threaten the defense off the dribble. Bledsoe, despite his struggles in the playoffs, is still a decent trade asset; point guards who can get to the basket, make plays for others, and defend are not easy to find. With Oklahoma City rebuilding, could the Bucks tempt the Thunder with Bledsoe, DiVincenzo, and some picks for Chris Paul? The Wizards seem determined to hang on to Bradley Beal, but what if their season starts poorly? The Bucks have also been linked with trading for Victor Oladipo. There are guards to be had should Milwaukee opt for that path.
But the Bucks should be careful. There has been a lot on the internet about how the Bucks have to do something if only to prove to Antetokounmpo that they are willing to take a big swing after last offseason’s ill-fated decision to let Malcolm Brogdon walk. But I wouldn’t go that far. If the Bucks take a big swing and miss, that just makes it all the more likely Antetokounmpo leaves. He is not going to stay in a bad situation just because the owner is willing to spend. If he wanted that, he’d just sign with the Knicks. Still, it is urgent that the Bucks acquire another player who can create his own shot. It was a glaring weakness this postseason. They just have to get someone who is actually an upgrade, like Paul or Beal.
The Bucks are certainly in a precarious position. This time next year, they could easily be waving goodbye to Antetokounmpo as they stare at an aging roster led by Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez with no good prospects. But for this season at least, they still have the back-to-back reigning MVP. They are very much a title contender. With the right moves, they could get to the top. You have to risk it to get the biscuit.