Optimism is at an all-time high in Milwaukee. A franchise that hasn’t won an NBA Championship since 1971 is eager to return to the top, and many expect them to return to the NBA Finals for the first time in 45 years. After a season that saw them reach the Eastern Conference Finals, (the first time they had advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2001), the Bucks are the clear favorites to dominate the East after Kawhi Leonard’s departure from the Toronto Raptors.
But, can the Bucks live up to these monumental expectations? While optimists may base their predictions for the upcoming season based on last year, it’s also important to consider what happened across the league this offseason. Milwaukee may have showed promise last season, but I believe their subpar offseason will lead to another loss in the Eastern Conference Finals instead of a trip to the NBA Finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo may have led Milwaukee deep into the playoffs last season, but the team’s role players were instrumental in the team’s success. Alongside Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton had one of the best seasons of his career during the final year of his contract, notching his first All-Star appearance and earning a five year, $178 million dollar deal earlier this summer.
While Middleton played well last year, he has yet to prove himself on the biggest stage. Last year, he was Milwaukee’s second best player throughout the season, but his lackluster performance against Toronto in the playoffs was a major reason why the Bucks were eliminated. Often criticized for being a low motor player, Middleton could also take a step back this year, resting on his laurels after receiving his massive deal.
In addition to potentially losing some performance from Middleton, Milwaukee also has to deal with losing Malcolm Brogdon. Playing in a smaller market, it’s easy to forget that Brogdon burst onto the NBA scene, winning Rookie of the Year in 2016 after being drafted in the second round. Since then, he has played a crucial role in Milwaukee’s rise to success, taking on a bigger role in each of his three seasons with the team.
Last season, Brogdon was an integral and underappreciated member of the Eastern Conference Finalists. Throughout the season, Brogdon started 64 games for the Bucks, averaging a career high 15.6 points per game while becoming only the eighth player in NBA history to join the 40-50-90 club.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, the former Rookie of the Year was a free agent this offseason. Even though Milwaukee extended a qualifying offer to Brogdon, he eventually signed with the Pacers via a sign and trade deal, leaving Milwaukee with a big hole to fill.
While the Bucks did sign role players like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Kyle Korver, they failed to make any big moves to accommodate for Brogdon’s departure.
On the contrary, the Bucks main competitor in the Eastern Conference made strategic moves in order to finally conquer the East. Knowing that their main competition this year will likely come from Milwaukee, the Philadelphia 76ers have already begun to plan accordingly.
Even though the 76ers lost Jimmy Butler in free agency, they were able to maintain their core of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. In addition, they brought in a player that is known for being one of the best defenders of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the entire world: Al Horford.
Horford’s move to Philadelphia will prove vital this season. At 6’10” and 245 pounds, Horford is one of the few players in the league who possesses the combination of size and athleticism to stay in front of the Greek Freak.
With Giannis still lacking a consistent jump shot, Horford can focus on preventing him from penetrating into the lane instead of worrying about closing out on last year’s MVP. Even if Antetokounmpo does manage to sneak past Horford, the wily veteran will be able to slow Giannis down enough to allow Embiid, one of the league’s best shot blockers and one of the most intimidating defenders in the league, to shift over and block the Greek Freak’s path.
This offseason has been the busiest in recent memory, and changes occurred all across the league. While teams like Milwaukee may have performed well last season, their lack of action during free agency now sets them behind their competitors. Even though the Bucks may enter as the preseason favorites, their subpar summer means another underachieving postseason where they will once again fail to reach the NBA Finals.