The next two months will be slow for Milwaukee basketball.
The last four years of Milwaukee Bucks basketball have been a wild ride, but that ride has included a successful trip to the NBA Finals. The championship round is still on the path for this team, which has largely remained intact and avoided the constant roster churn that has come to define the league’s offseason in recent years. By and large we expect that to be a good thing for Milwaukee, but there’s a fine line between maintaining momentum and becoming stagnant.
Fortunately, the Bucks have built a culture focused around consistent iterative improvement. The refrain of “Get better, every day.” is a common utterance from head coach Mike Budenholzer, and there is a long stretch of days between now and when the Bucks kick off preseason (schedule still to be released) in October 2022. That means there’s a ton of improvement to be had…right?
No matter how old the dog, you can always teach them a new trick. It’s just more challenging, and it end up closer to “fine-tuning” an existing trick. With one of the older rosters in the NBA (the current group of 14 players have accumulated 120 seasons of experience between them, 8.6 seasons per), it may seem that there’s not as much capacity in Milwaukee for significant development. After all, the only players who qualify as “young guys” are MarJon Beauchamp, Grayson Allen, and Jevon Carter.
So perhaps this summer isn’t about continued growth as a player for everyone, and more applicable is putting attention on areas that give each individual the best chance of coming into camp with the best chance to start off strong. What does that look like for everyone on the roster?
Giannis is the center of the Bucks’ on-court universe, and has always – always! – come back each season better than the season before. That said, the big guy could probably use some rest so maybe Giannis will just take things nice and ea–
— FIBA #EuroBasket 2022 (@EuroBasket) July 21, 2022
Easy? Giannis? Dream on! His loyalty to Milwaukee is behind only his loyalty to his family and his home country of Greece, the latter of which he’ll be the focal piece for the National Team during EuroBasket 2022. The tournament kicks off on September 1, meaning that Antetokounmpo (who has been overseas for a while already) will certainly be in playing shape by the time the NBA preseason commences in early October.
In terms of next season with the Bucks, all that matters is that Giannis is healthy and kept fresh for the postseason. I’m not going to ask him to shore up his perimeter shot selection, or further improve his free throw accuracy, or any of that. He’ll do that on his own. Just as long as Giannis stays healthy during his “break” we can consider his offseason a success.
Widely considered the pivotal piece of the 2021 championship team, Holiday’s performance in the 2022 playoffs (at least on offense) is seen by some as a significant reason that Milwaukee could not withstand the absence of Khris Middleton. Such is the duality of Jrue (Jrue-ality?); he gives you so much consistent effort on defense that sometimes things on offense don’t work out.
At the same time, this assessment is not particularly fair to Holiday. Did you see what he was doing out there, forcing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into tough shots and off nights? Do we recall exactly what Jrue did to Marcus Smart at the end of Game 5?!
In any case, it is equally true that Holiday had an awful offensive series against Boston (21.0 points, 6.3 assists, 6.0 rebounds, but shooting 36.4% from the field and 30.0% on threes) and still was not the reason that Milwaukee lost. The fact of the matter is that Jrue is human, and therefore has limits; expecting him to maintain both the primary defensive role on the perimeter and act as an offensive hub in a seven-game series against a terrific Celtics defense is simply an untenable situation, and it didn’t work out.
Unlike Giannis, Jrue doesn’t have any National Team commitments (unlike last summer!) and hopefully is able to rest and recharge with his family. Beyond that, it’s hard to ask him to do much more; the only area that stands out as one worth improving is his consistency as a shooter, but even that feels like splitting hairs. Having just turned 32, Holiday largely is who he is…and the Bucks are still lucky to have him.
It was a tough few months for Middleton, who was primed to reprise his role from the previous playoffs before getting knocked out with an MCL sprain against Chicago and suffering a (non-shooting) wrist injury that required surgery earlier in July. It’s widely assumed that a healthy Khris would have led to a Bucks series victory back in May, so it stands to reason that maintaining Khris’ physical well-being is a priority for the upcoming season. With any major surgery for a professional athlete, rehabilitation will undoubtedly be a major focus in the short term…which might end up being the best-case scenario for Middleton’s 2022-23 outlook.
The past three NBA seasons have been weird. We’ve had COVID-19 shut everything down, the Bubble in Orlando, and the return to a normal (read: strenuous) NBA schedule, all since March 2020. Those factors play a role in any sort of observation of any player, but Middleton (who turns 31 in August) is at the point where minor injuries become lingering ones, and those short 1-2 game absences can start turning into 4-5 game stretches of inaction. Khris has earned his reputation as a steady contributor, so the key to offseason success for him is putting in the work to maintain that reputation in the campaign to come. This is very different than the goal for Giannis (which boils down to “just stay healthy!”) because for Giannis, he needs to avoid getting hurt now; for Khris, he needs to be able to avoid getting hurt later, which takes a bunch more prep work.
Are you seeing a pattern here? So far, there has been very little discussion of players’ on-court skills that need work, in favor of hoping that everyone just gets through the summer unscathed and recharged. So what do you do about the guy who trains (literally) harder than anybody else in the history of the league?!
— Jimmy Kimmel Live (@JimmyKimmelLive) June 12, 2022
All jokes aside, Lopez is 34 and approaching a bit of a crossroads in his career. After reinventing himself as a defensive mobile fortress in Milwaukee, Brook is entering the final year of his $52M contract, which may well be his last big pay-day. There’s nothing to suggest that he will transform his style of play at this point, and it’s unlikely that any teams besides the Bucks will make a compelling offer to him next summer, partially because of his fit and (presumed) preference for Milwaukee, and partially because of questions about his longevity.
Big men with back issues don’t typically last very long in professional sports; Brook is already an outlier in this regard. Is he playing through next season with the end of his career in mind, or will he continue to pursue NBA employment going forward? The answer to that question is unknowable to us, and could drastically affect what Brook would work on this summer. Is there any benefit to him trying to get his three-point shot up a few percentage points as compared to further polishing his low-post game on offense? Or is the safe choice to simply follow suit with Khris, and make long-term availability the priority of the offseason? If I were to make a guess, I would go with the latter, but Brook’s future is an underrated storyline for the upcoming season.
If you looked up “hustle” in the dictionary, you’d get a pretty good idea of what Bobby Portis is about. Consistent hard work? Check. Stellar effort on the margins? Check. Finding ways to squeeze out just a little bit more? You know it’s a check. He even got himself a summer job: hype man!
Hey Milwaukee, I got you. Meet your HYPE MAN! Let’s do this! https://t.co/9CFiDHm2Cv
— Bobby BP Portis (@BPortistime) July 22, 2022
Portis re-signed with Milwaukee on a multi-year deal, and he probably has the highest approval rating of any non-superstar Wisconsin athlete since Donald Driver. What other bench player could instantaneously drop a full-fledged video celebrating his return and have it work so well? On the court, Portis has already drastically improved since joining the Bucks, particularly as a scorer, rebounder, floor-runner, and defensive non-turnstile. What’s left for an UnderDog to work on?
Briefly re-visiting the Brook Lopez conversation above, it appears that Bobby Portis has not just found his long-term home here in Milwaukee, but that he might find a new long-term home on the Bucks’ roster. Depending on where things go with Brook, Portis may make the move from super-sub to starting center, and it could happen as early as next season. Given Bobby’s smaller (relatively speaking) stature as compared to Brook, it would not behoove the Bucks to ask Portis to copy Lopez on defense. Bobby’s mobility and length is an asset worth leveraging, so it would be most useful in the long term for Portis’ focus to stick around on that side of his game for the summer. If Bobby can become some version of what we all hoped rangy former Bucks could turn into (most notably Thon Maker), the Bucks may have already secured their long-term solution at the 5.
Planet Pat did the Bucks a solid by opting in to his $5.7M player option for this season, and the front office paid him back with a lucrative multi-year extension. Connaughton is a key playoff piece for this team, so locking up a wing with his skillset was almost a no-brainer.
“Milwaukee is treating me like family.” pic.twitter.com/jvyuMAx8Fm
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 19, 2022
Pat’s value is built upon his versatility; few wings are able to compete in so many different defensive situations, cover both the perimeter and the boards at a high level, while also adding value on offense. At a certain point, there may be diminishing returns with adding more tools to the tool-kit with Connaughton, but he’s proven himself to be a reliable member of the rotation by specifically demonstrating that he can keep doing new things; last year’s embrace of the “high catch three” being the latest example. Betting against Planet Pat has proven to be a losing strategy so far, so we can opt for optimism and hope Connaughton has room to grow as a ball-handler or play-maker in the Bucks’ backcourt. He’s shown flashes over the past two seasons, so it’s not the most unreasonable pipe dream. Let’s see what he can do!
It’s tough to imagine how last year could have gone better for Wes Matthews. After getting their Bubble burst Wes left the Bucks behind, and spent an eminently forgettable season with the Lakers. He was unsigned, potentially on the road to being out of the league entirely, before Jon Horst brought him in and Wes resumed his role as a rough-and-tumble 3&D wing, taking on a major role in the Bucks’ eventual defeat against Boston.
But Wes is 35 now, and while he has a guaranteed spot on the roster, his age and physical limitations (mostly due to that old Achilles injury) suggest that the avenues for further development are mostly exhausted. More than anything, Matthews can succeed by focusing on his specializations: physical perimeter defense and accurate three-point shooting. His make-rate fell nearly four points below his career average last season (33.8% vs. 37.7%), and he hasn’t hit anything close to his long-term standard since 2019. Can Wes find – and keep – his shot dialed-in while keeping his legs fresh over the course of the season? There’s only one way to find out, and Milwaukee will need him to this year.
Joe Ingles & George Hill
I decided to group these two together because each are in a similar predicament: any contributions on the court from Ingles and Hill will be governed by how much they can physically handle. Ingles, of course, is still recovering from a torn ACL and is largely thought to eyeing a return in December or January. Hill, on the other hand, dealt with abdominal, back, and neck issues for most of last season, to the point of general (but not total) ineffectiveness when he took the floor in the postseason.
If either player can simply return to what they were before when they were fully healthy, the Bucks will have a pair of smart, capable perimeter veterans in their rotation. As it happens, there simply is no guarantee that either (or both!) will ever return to that point, and that can be clearly characterized as the main obstacle standing between them and contributing to another Milwaukee run towards the NBA Finals. The Bucks could certainly use both Ingles and Hill, but there are many steps on the journey between now and becoming available for major rotation minutes.
I have nothing but love for Thanasis, but the level of skill development he would need to become a reliable rotation player is off the charts. He’s still an elite athlete and a frantic defender, but Thanasis is already a star in his role: hyping up the team from the bench and providing any and all familial support to his younger brother.
Last year’s major trade deadline addition added very little to the team in the postseason, given that his size was not a necessary asset against the overmatched Bulls or the small-ball Celtics. Ibaka’s return was a pleasant surprise, and he’ll be set to return to the role of “break glass in case of emergency” big man behind Brook, Giannis, and Bobby.
To be clear, that is truly all Ibaka needs to be on the court this year. The number of minutes he plays at center will directly deduct the total number of minutes that Giannis has to play at center, which is an investment in the team’s long-term interests. Giannis-at-center lineups are best used sparingly and in moderation; Ibaka-at-center lineups are what will help those Giannis groups maintain maximum effectiveness in the playoffs next season.
With Carter, we finally get to one of the players who stands a reasonable chance of significant skill improvement during a dedicated offseason with the team. After bouncing around between Memphis, Phoenix, and Brooklyn for a few years, Carter seems to finally have found a home here, and not a moment too soon.
After Holiday and Hill – and with apologies to Luca Vildoza, Lindell Wigginton, and any other Vegas hopefuls – Carter is the Bucks’ only reserve point guard. With Hill already firmly on the downslope of his career, it stands to reason that Carter will have an opportunity to inherit the role of the Bucks’ backup point guard, occasionally pairing with Jrue (who has always toggled between the 1 and the 2). As a result, Carter will be called upon to contribute at a much higher level than his current role would require, and meeting that call will put a significant demand on Carter’s offensive abilities.
Jevon’s defense is already an impressive tool, and a point of adoration with most Bucks fans. Few guards are able to actually pick up opponents and press them for all 94 feet, but Carter’s tenacity has proven why his nickname (“Bulldog”) is so apt. He’s a bit on the small side but plays with enough strength to overcome any vertical disadvantages, and has a good chance to earn Coach Bud’s trust on the defensive end.
To take the next step in his career and rise up in the Bucks’ rotation, Carter needs to find his game on offense. There’s already the indication that he’s a capable shooter (38.3% since debuting in 2018), but his resumé is a collection of small sample sizes without consistent playing time. His handle has never been used as a weapon to drive inside, his passing is average for his position, and his shooting figures inside the arc are all over the place. “3&D” is a valid archetype for a wing, but it doesn’t work as well for a point guard. What does Jevon Carter look like on offense this season? That answer will make a world of difference, in both the short- and long-term.
Rarely does opinion swing so quickly from one extreme to the other than it did for Grayson Allen in the playoffs. Almost immediately after playing a major role in dispatching the Bulls in the first round, Allen was targeted mercilessly by the Celtics…and the Bucks had limited options to replace him with since they were so limited on the wing. Maybe if Rodney Hood or Semi Ojeleye had worked out, but…they didn’t.
So what does Allen have to worry about, besides being a centerpiece of every trade proposal Bucks Twitter can concoct? Well, he got married on July 23, so that’s probably a current focus (congratulations, lovebirds!), but in basketball terms Allen has one job for the upcoming season: minimize the team’s liability on the defensive end. As an offensive player, Allen fits what the Bucks need particularly well. He’s a great shooter who can get good looks in a variety of ways, he can dribble the ball adequately and when there’s an open seam, he’s not shy about driving inside and finishing. As a tertiary option, that’s exactly the kind of versatile player Milwaukee wants to surround their stars with.
But the only way Allen can fill that role is if he isn’t thrust into a larger offensive role and if he can be relied upon defensively, and that has not consistently been the case. It hasn’t been due to lack of effort; Allen plays hard, he just has found himself overmatched too often, partially explaining why Mike Budenholzer reassigned him and gave Wes Matthews the starting nod towards the end of last season. Is it a matter of strength or speed? How Allen chooses to answer that question will determine how much his defense improves, which will drastically shape what his playoff role becomes next April.
God put me in this position… I prayed.. worked and spoke this into existence ✝️ From living in apartments my whole life ❤️ To Giving my mom her first house ever … God is Good… My whole plan is Holy✝️ @ESPNNBA @SportsCenter @BleacherReport @NBA @nbagleague pic.twitter.com/LNm0KmdrDI
— MarJon Beauchamp (MJB) (@Marjon32) July 22, 2022
Beauchamp has one job: learn how to apply his game to the NBA environment. Because of his inexperience, MarJon has nothing but time to spend learning and leeway to use developing on the floor. If he can simply defend wings and knock down shots as a rookie, then Beauchamp’s debut season will be judged a success. Anything he does on top of that, be it rebounding or rim protection or slashing, will simply be a bonus for the Bucks.
That’s a summary of what I think each Buck could stand to focus on this summer. What about you? What’s one thing that would benefit each player for this upcoming season? What’s best for the team? Let us know in the comments!