The Milwaukee Bucks have been the top team in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the past two years. Their star forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has won the Most Valuable Player Award two years in a row, and their coach, Mike Budenholzer, won Coach of the Year in 2015 and 2019.
Despite all of this success, the team has not made it to the NBA Finals. However, they only have themselves to blame. This week they were eliminated from the playoffs by the fifth-seeded Miami Heat. Anyone who watched this series can tell that the Bucks have been making poor decisions that undermine their championship potential.
Firstly, let me examine Budenholzer, as he has probably faced the most criticism. He is certainly a great coach and he deserves his regular-season accolades, but his playoff strategy leaves much to be desired. In the Bucks’ first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic, Budenholzer didn’t play any of his players for more than 32 minutes per game. For comparison, most other teams’ star players played somewhere between 37 and 39 minutes per game in the first round.
While restricting minutes is a great regular-season strategy, it limits the team’s ability to win playoff games. If the Bucks are matched up against the Lakers, and LeBron James plays 40 minutes while Antetokounmpo plays 32, the Bucks will quickly lose the series.
While most coaches play eight to nine players in each playoff game, Budenholzer consistently plays 10 to 11. Once again, this is a good regular season strategy, as it prevents players from being overworked and can give a coach a better idea of his players’ strengths. But in the playoffs, coaches need to narrow this number down to increase the chemistry of their lineups and keep their best players in the game. If Budenholzer continues to implement these two regular-season strategies in the Bucks’ playoff games, fans may never get to see them play to their full potential.
The next one to be blamed is Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo dominates every game he plays, but frankly, he should be utterly unstoppable. He manages to be the best player in the world while still failing to maximize his strengths.
Antetokounmpo is so good because he is incredibly strong, incredibly tall and has guard-like skills. Despite all these, however, his default mode of offense is forcing his way into the paint and dunking. This has worked well because of his physical dominance, but it’s easy to imagine how he could benefit from a more diverse playstyle.
One of Antetokounmpo’s biggest weaknesses, in my view, is footwork. Earlier in his career, his long Euro-step was a beautiful example of this. But now, he hasn’t developed many new moves beyond that. He’s often compared to Shaquille O’Neal, but O’Neal was more unstoppable than Antetokounmpo because he had incredible footwork, especially in the low post. Antetokounmpo is already stronger than anyone who can keep up with him, so imagine how great he would be if he had the footwork to get to the rim from anywhere in the post.
People have been calling on Antetokounmpo to work on his free throws and three-pointers. These would be nice additions to his game, but neither is essential to what will make Antetokounmpo great. The “Greek Freak” is often seen stumbling on his way to the rim, and improved footwork would only help his ability to get to the rim and finish.
Lastly, I want to place some of the blame on the Bucks’ front office. People have lauded the team’s ability to surround Antetokounmpo with solid talent, but they are not setting themselves up for future success. Everyone around the league knows Antetokounmpo’s contract ends after next season, but no one seems to know if he will stay in Milwaukee.
If I were Antetokounmpo, I would be preparing to move on. Look at the team’s supporting cast; Khris Middleton (29 years old), Eric Bledsoe (30), Brook Lopez (32), Wesley Matthews (33), George Hill (34) and Marvin Williams (34) have all gotten playoff minutes. In two years all of these players will either be on the decline or out of the league. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo is 25 years old, and his prime years are still to come.
Imagine if Antetokounmpo instead went to a team like the Heat, that has players like Tyler Herro (20), Bam Adebayo (23), Derrick Jones Jr. (23), Kendrick Nunn (25) and Duncan Robinson (26). If Antetokounmpo went to a team with a lot of young talent, the entire team would be hitting their primes at the same time. That seems more enticing than attempting to carry a team of 35-year-olds or hoping the Bucks can trade their aging veterans for some younger players. By failing to create a team with overlapping primes, the Bucks are setting themselves up to either waste Antetokounmpo’s prime or lose him in free agency.
The good news for the Bucks is that these issues are mostly fixable. Budenholzer has already shown glimpses of trying a new playoff strategy. Antetokounmpo can take time this offseason to work on new skills. It may be difficult, but the Bucks should be able to acquire a few young assets over the next year and a half too. For the sake of Bucks fans and everyone who wants to see good basketball, these changes have to be made before it’s too late.