By: Chris Harrison
Led by their most exciting duo since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, the Milwaukee Bucks are entering the 2023-24 season with huge expectations.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard set to work their magic, the Bucks will be looking to rebound from a massively disappointing playoff exit and bring a third trophy to Cream City.
How did last season go?
The Bucks finished last season with a league-leading 58 wins despite Khris Middleton missing most of the season, only to falter in their first-round series against the 8-seed Miami Heat.
The five-game loss to Miami looks a little less embarrassing in retrospect – Miami also beat the 2-seed Boston Celtics and advanced to the NBA Finals – but the season was a massive letdown nonetheless. The Bucks’ often stagnant halfcourt offence cost them, as Jrue Holiday and Antetokounmpo struggled to score and they lacked the depth to compensate.
After the season came to a close, they fired coach Mike Budenholzer, who coached them to the 2021 title.
What’s new this year?
The Bucks made a huge splash, moving defensive stalwart Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, and multiple picks and pick swaps in a blockbuster three-team deal for Damian Lillard. The looming threat of Giannis entering free agency in 2025 plus the pressure he has exerted on the Bucks’ front office to keep the team in title contention led the organization to swing for the fences, going all-in on winning another championship while Lillard is still in his prime. That big move has paid off so far, with Giannis inking a massive 3-year, $186 million extension this week.
Lillard will be joining a roster that currently employs a former MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year (Giannis), last year’s DOPY runner-up and league-leading shot blocker (Brook Lopez), and a three-time All-Star (Middleton).
Not only did the Bucks trade for a genuine superstar, they traded for one who should be a natural complement for their franchise player, with little overlap in skillset or role. Lillard-Giannis pick-and-rolls could be absolutely devastating, with the league’s most dominant interior scorer working in concert with a shooter with logo range. Trapping Lillard leaves Giannis, himself a capable ballhandler and playmaker, free to rampage in the paint in 4-on-3 situations. Overplaying Giannis leaves Lillard open to bomb away from three.
Opposing defences will be in a nearly unsolvable bind. On some nights, they’ll be reduced to simply hoping the other three Bucks can’t buy a bucket. If Middleton returns to anything close to pre-injury form, this offence could be downright terrifying.
The defence (fourth in the league last year) should take a step back without Holiday and teams will attack Lillard on that end in the playoffs, but having Giannis and Lopez anchoring the backline should mitigate that somewhat. They’ll likely still be a top-10 unit and should be able to get stops when they need to, even if they don’t have a top-notch perimeter stopper.
The biggest issue for this Bucks team will be depth. Outside of the starters (Lillard, Middletown, Giannis, Lopez, and likely Pat Connaughton), there are few reliable two-way players. Cam Payne is a capable backup point guard but has always been streaky. Jae Crowder, an accomplished three-and-D combo forward, saw his role reduced last year and had little impact in the postseason. Malik Beasley is a willing shooter but his three-point accuracy has dropped off, with him posting below-average percentages in each of the last three seasons. Milwaukee will be hoping he’ll benefit from the open looks he’ll get on his new team.
The Bucks also have a new coach. Adrian Griffin, a former Toronto Raptors assistant, also had a nine-year career as a role player in the NBA and they will look for him to bring all of that experience to the table. The Bucks will hope he’ll inject some dynamism into their offence, although it remains to be seen if one offseason storyline – assistant Terry Stotts reportedly stepped down after an incident with Griffin in practice – could become a distraction.
The Bucks will also need good health from Lillard and Middleton, who have missed 77 and 65 games in the last two seasons, respectively.
X-Factor: Malik Beasley
Aside from adjusting to the presence of a newly arrived superstar, the Bucks will likely spend much of the season figuring out their rotation. In particular, they need to find the right fifth player to close out games alongside their established stars. Players like Connaughton and Crowder will get a shot, but Connaughton is a mediocre outside shooter on low volume and the seemingly declining Crowder is better at guarding wings than opposing guards. This makes Beasley their best bet at saving Lillard from taxing himself guarding star point guards. He’s also more than happy to let shots fly when left open, which he will be, frequently. If he can play solid defence and hit outside shots at a good clip, he could earn a lot of playing time this season.
Damian Lillard led the league in pull-up three-point attempts last year, with a whopping 7.1 per game, while hitting 37.2%. That’s a higher rate than the average player hits threes in general. Meanwhile, Giannis led the league in points in the paint and put up a ridiculous 198 dunks in just 63 games. That inside-outside combo will have defences tying themselves in knots.
Franchise fun fact:
The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team to have won a championship in both the Eastern and Western Conference.
The Bucks will ride a dominant starting lineup, decent health, and just enough depth (perhaps with a midseason buyout joining) to an Eastern Conference title. From there, it’s all about matchups, but I have them as tentative title favourites alongside the Denver Nuggets.