When the Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs, they became just the sixth No. 1 seed to be eliminated by an 8-seed in NBA playoff history.
2x-MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s limitations as an offensive player were once again exposed by a team that has been very successful defending him in the past. Part of this has been due to roster construction. For years now, many people like myself have been hoping the Bucks would surround him with a guard that can put Giannis in more advantageous situations to maximize his strengths as a finisher.
And then it happened.
On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks shocked the basketball world by pulling off a three-team trade to acquire Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard was dealt to Milwaukee in a three-team trade with Portland and Phoenix. Perhaps the most shocking part about the trade, besides Milwaukee being the recipient of Lillard, is that they only had to give up Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, a 2029 unprotected first-round pick and two pick swaps to Portland.
Last season, Damian Lillard was fourth in the NBA in adjusted scoring rate, averaging 32.5 points per 75 possessions. He now joins Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was second in the league in adjusted scoring rate at 34.6 points per 75.
This deadly combination of two dangerous scorers is deeper than the box score though. These two complement each other perfectly. Giannis is one of the best inside scorers in league history, routinely shooting 75% at the rim on 12–13 attempts a game. That is on par with peak Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James, who also were around 74-75% on similar volume.
In transition, teams have even developed what is now known as the “Giannis Wall,” where teams pack the paint in an attempt to prevent him from slashing to the basket. Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors first tried this back in 2019 and had pretty good success. Since then, many teams tried it as well because the Bucks didn’t have anyone else that could create advantages.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Damian Lillard was wasting his peak years on teams that couldn’t play defense or provide him with a secondary shot-creator besides CJ McCollum.
For the last three years, Lillard has put up historically good numbers on losing teams. In game five of the 2021 playoffs against the Denver Nuggets, Damian Lillard had the most efficient 50+ point game in playoff history, scoring 55 points on almost 97% true shooting. It also set a single-game playoff record with 12 made 3-pointers.
Lillard is one of the greatest outside shooters in league history, possessing the capability to hit shots from 40 feet out. Because of this, teams respond to his threat to score by trapping him near half-court.
That is, when Lillard would showcase his playmaking. I’m not a fan of the assist metric at all, but Lillard was 10th in the league last year and fourth in the league in shot creation estimates. Simply put, Lillard is one of the league’s five best offensive players.
Many times last season, teams ran a box-and-one against Portland in an effort to neutralize Damian Lillard. Now that one of history’s best outside shooters is paired with one of history’s best paint finishers, I’m not sure how teams will be able to guard these two, especially when they run pick-and-roll.
This brings us to the third player in this new Big Three: Khris Middleton. Middleton is not on the level of Giannis and Lillard, but he is an all-star caliber player who has been with the Bucks for over a decade.
He was the team’s best shot creator in 2021 when they won the NBA championship. Injuries have limited his effectiveness lately, but Middleton is a very good three-point and mid-range shooter, which provides this team with all the versatility needed when paired with Lillard and Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee Bucks head coach Adrain Griffin will now have the ability to run Spain pick-and-roll with Lillard as the primary ball-handler, leveraging his scoring and playmaking threat, with Giannis rolling to the basket and Khris Middleton screening and flashing to the three-point line.
They will be surrounded by one of the league’s best stretch fives in Brook Lopez and solid shooting wings.
This has the potential to be one of the most creative, beautiful and unstoppable offenses we’ve ever seen. Obviously, concerns about the Bucks’ point-of-attack defense are now a serious concern, but the team employs a unique drop coverage scheme that might be able to mask some of these issues, at least in the regular season.
As for now, it is safe to say the Bucks have now put together a duo that has a chance to produce an all-time great offense and now makes Milwaukee the championship favorite.