Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s best player — that is, in the regular season. This past Friday, Antetokounmpo was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the second straight season, averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, while also capturing Defensive Player of the Year honors. For the second straight season, Milwaukee finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record behind Antetokounmpo’s play and an all-around great team, including All-Star Khris Middleton and All-Defensive talents Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez.The Bucks were excellent on both ends of the floor, finishing the regular season with the NBA’s eighth-best offensive rating in addition to the league’s best defensive rating and best overall net rating, both by a wide margin, according to NBA.com. They were a historically great team.
Yet, for the second straight year, as the playoffs roll on, Milwaukee is at home watching the action unfold. Last season, it took a heroic effort from small forward Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors to come back from a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals to bounce the Bucks. This year, the Milawukee didn’t even get that far. The Jimmy Butler-led Miami Heat ousted the Bucks in convincing fashion in five games during the Eastern Conference semifinals, an embarrassing loss for a team with such high expectations. The Bucks are in trouble, and they need to make some changes — fast.
The Bucks’ first mistake was letting former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon walk to the rival Indiana Pacers, who looked like the second best player on the Bucks last year. Fortunately for them, there is a guy even better than Brogdon who may just be available to trade for this offseason. Future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul is 35 years old and on a maximum contract, but he’s just what Milwaukee needs. Bringing in Paul would offer a consistent late-game shot maker and a consistent point guard play.
Mike Budenholzer’s playoff coaching is another issue plaguing the team. Budenholzer has proven to be a tremendous regular season coach, taking several Atlanta Hawks teams devoid of star power to incredible heights and the Bucks team from just good to historic. He even won Coach of the Year for the 2018-19 season, his first with Milwaukee. In the playoffs, however, Budenholzer has a track record of disappointing finishes. It was pretty clear going into the Bucks’ second-round series with the Heat which team had more talent. While Miami is a great team in its own right — its two best players are All-Stars power forward Bam Adebayo and small forward Jimmy Butler — neither is nearly the caliber player Antetokounmpo is. While the Bucks’ offense was just as good as it was in the regular season, its defense was not. Budenholzer’s defense is predicated on dropping deep on pick and rolls and protecting the rim, forcing the opposition to shoot difficult three-pointers. While that strategy may work in the regular season, it did not work against the Heat, a team with deadly three-point shooting. It would be tough to blame Budenholzer for this failure, except there was an easy adjustment for him to make. In fact, Miami’s coach Erik Spoelstra made the adjustment himself just before the playoffs began.
Spoelstra started three-point specialist Meyers Leonard at center and Adebayo at power forward for the entire regular season. But when the bubble began, Leonard was removed from the rotation, and the extremely versatile Adebayo moved up to center. This shift allowed the Heat to switch on almost any screen without issue, as Adebayo can protect the paint and defend on the perimeter with the best in the league. Antetokounmpo won Defensive Player of the Year this season based on his defensive versatility, similar to Adebayo. Instead of shuttling center Brook Lopez to the bench, he allowed his seven-footer to repeatedly get torched on switches in crunchtime. By moving Antetokounmpo to the five to match Miami, the Bucks could have stayed in this series and maybe even won it. Instead, Budenholzer stuck with Lopez and paid the price. Budenholzer also refused to play his stars during the minutes he should have. In the end, it comes down to this truth: Great coaches make adjustments in the playoffs. Budenholzer refuses to, and, if he does not change, he could be the downfall of this Bucks team and the reason Antetokounmpo leaves next summer.
Now, for the elephant in the room: Antetokounmpo’s lackluster play. While his playoff statistics this season were barely different from his regular season numbers, the stats are not his issue. Antetokounmpo will be able to get his points; even if teams make a game plan to stop him, there is only so much you can do for most of the game. For the Bucks’ last two playoff runs, in 29 clutch minutes, games within five points with under five minutes left, Antetokounmpo has 12 points on 44% shooting. While these games are a small sample size, it illustrates a bigger issue: Antetokounmpo can carry an offense for most of a game, but he needs some help closing out late-game situations. And while he is undoubtedly one of the NBA’s five best players, this flaw may hinder the Bucks no matter what they do, which is why they need to tailor their team better around their MVP.
Running it back next year cannot be an option for the Bucks. If next season does not go well, Antetokounmpo will have every reason to bolt for greener pastures. Even if trading for Chris Paul, shaking up the roster in some other way or Budenholzer changing his ways — or getting fired — does not work, at least the Bucks will have tried. Hopefully, that adjustment will be enough for Antetokounmpo to re-sign, which should be a priority, considering he’s the two-time reigning MVP and, without him, the Bucks will be right back to where they were without him: nowhere.
Tim Brennan is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.