Milwaukee Has A Problem and It’s Not Khris Middleton

49 years and 8 months. And counting. That’s how long a drought it has been for the Milwaukee Bucks. On April 30, 1971, the Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets to win the NBA title. Back then Milwaukee was in the West. They were the first West team to win the title since 1958, (St. Louis Hawks and Bob Petit won the ’58 title). In 1971, the Bucks were the first expansion team to win the title. When the Bucks beat the Lakers to advance to the ’71 Finals it ended a decade-long streak of L.A. in the Finals.

The Bucks-Bullets series wasn’t close.

The Bucks won game 1; the Bullets were tired having just beaten the Knicks two days earlier in a Game 7. Game 2 was four days later and a rout, a 19 point Bucks win. Game 3 was the closest, an 8 point Bucks win. The finale was a double-digit win for Milwaukee and a four-game sweep.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Bob Dandridge were the Bucks Big Three averaging 70.8 points. While the Bucks had three players posting 20+ ppg, the Bullets didn’t have one. Jack Marin, Earl Monroe, and Earl Carter averaged 49.9 points. Abdul-Jabbar was Finals MVP with 27.0 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists.

The next season, the Bucks lost in the WCF to a Lakers team that was considered one of the best teams all-time. During the regular season, the Lakers won 33 games in a row and capped it off with a title for Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.

Abdul-Jabbar would remain in Milwaukee for two more seasons. After the 1974-75 season in which the Bucks didn’t make the playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar forced a trade to the Lakers. The Bucks hardly got equal value with Junior Bridgeman, Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, and Dave Meyers.

For Abdul-Jabbar, it wasn’t a Milwaukee Bucks problem but an issue of culture. Milwaukee as a blue-collar city didn’t embrace the issues that were foundational to NYC-born and bred Abdul-Jabbar. “The things I relate to don’t happen in this city in any meaningful degree. Culturally, what I’m about and what Milwaukee is about are two different things.”

In that vein, the 2020 Bucks dodged a bullet with Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Greece. Whereas Milwaukee’s police brutality issues may have traumatically resonated with an African American superstar, Giannis was able to manage his social justice emotionality because he wants to deliver a title to the organization that first believed in him. An African American superstar may not have had the will to overlook the troubling record of MPD. At some point, you have to say enough already. Slogans on jerseys change absolutely nothing.

But it wasn’t a Giannis line in the sand and here the Bucks are.

Having lost both their road games, the opener in Boston, and a miserable game in New York to an average Knicks team, the Bucks are not that fun. Usually, when the Bucks underachieve it is the fault of Khris Middleton; he is the whipping boy. But Middleton’s start to the season has been phenomenal. It was Giannis, not Middleton who missed a free throw at Boston.

Middleton. 52.8%. 45.5% from three. 100% on free throws. 6.3 rebounds. 6.0 assists. 26.7 ppg. All career highs. His offensive rating is an unreal 144 and his PER is 32.0. His career-best PER was last season, 21.1. Chances that these numbers stay consistent all year long is unrealistic but he is off to a great start.

Middleton was mediocre from three in New York but the bigger Bucks problem, if they want to break the nearly 50-year drought, is defense. It’s awful.

They are giving up 117 points per game. Only 9 other NBA teams have a worst defensive rating. No one is defending. Not even Giannis. Teams are making nearly 40% of their threes against the Bucks. In a three-point league, that’s an ominous sign. Another bad sign: assists.

Last year with Eric Bledsoe the Bucks were 6th in assists. Now they are 20th.  Jrue Holiday isn’t feeding players the way Bledsoe did last year. The Bucks are playing way too much iso. The ball sticks.

Jrue Holiday Points 3Point% Assists Usage Jump Shots
2019-20 19.1 35.3% 6.7 24.5 37.2%
2020-21 15.0 11.1% 4.7 19.9 27.8%

Last year with the Pelicans, Holiday assisted 6.7 times per game. Holiday is making shots but just shooting 11% from three in an offense where the three-ball is necessary to create space inside. Last season, Holiday shot 35% from three. Holiday is only making 27% of his jumpers and hasn’t made a three if it’s not less than 3 minutes left in the quarter. He’s 16% on those sad occasions.

Because of the porous defense and Holiday’s early woes, you have a team that is no longer considered a lock to get to the Finals. Brooklyn and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have surpassed Milwaukee. The Nets have started off as expected. Even their losses are close.

Giannis did a favor for the Bucks when he re-signed. In an odd way, it took the pressure off this season and next. But in 2023, the clock will be ticking for the Bucks to do more than fill in holes. They’ll have to evaluate their coach. They must look at what they are doing in the off-season to create a dominant roster that can survive without Giannis. It’s great the Bucks have a superstar and a twice MVP plus a very good number two. Jrue Holiday will help but what about the rest of the roster?

Miami on Wednesday will tell us a lot.