The Milwaukee Bucks have something to root for


The obvious way to describe this season for the Milwaukee Bucks is disappointing. A year after the Bucks were the league’s most improved team and gave the Chicago Bulls a battle in the first round of the playoffs, they are among the league’s worst teams on both offense and defense.

They expected to be in the thick of a playoff race this season, but Milwaukee’s emergence as a team on the rise appears to have stopped dead in its tracks. As of Tuesday, they are 29-38 and in the company of the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

There are, at least, some good reasons for this season’s disappointments. Last year was unexpectedly successful — Milwaukee was the league’s seventh youngest team, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker were just beginning their careers and Khris Middleton hadn’t emerged yet. The Bucks are even younger this year. On top of that, in the offseason, Milwaukee made a stylistic change at center — Zaza Pachulia out, Greg Monroe in — traded Jared Dudley and then lost head coach Jason Kidd for 17 games due to a hip injury.

But this, too, misses the point: the Bucks don’t need to be good now. Even if they had improved this year, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to take down the Cavs, and improving their record this season wouldn’t have changed the long-term potential of the team. Player development was the goal this year, not a better record, and the Bucks most important players — namely Antetokounmpo and Parker — have both gotten better in meaningful ways.

Giannis’s improvement has been the most drastic. In his third year in the NBA, he is no longer a wide-eyed, raw rookie with potential, who we love because of how much he loves smoothies. Antetokounmpo is good now, still getting better and growing in ways that aren’t wholly reliant on his freakish athleticism. Giannis’s skills are finally starting to catch up with his physical tools.

As a scorer, Giannis isn’t yet fully formed. He doesn’t take or make many threes — just 1.1 attempts per game at a 21.6 percent clip — but it hasn’t really mattered. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaged 20 points, 7.8 assists, and 9.7 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just under 50 percent over the same stretch (he’s shooting 50.4 percent from the field overall for the season) and is beginning to look like a positionless monster that can fill whatever role the Bucks need him to.

In last week’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Antetokounmpo was defended by Ricky Rubio on one end, and defended Karl-Anthony Towns on the other. A few nights later, Giannis defended Anthony Davis while being guarded interchangeably by guards and forwards. He is being deployed in an utterly unique way that allows him to create offensive mismatches on one end while filling an entirely different role on defense.

Giannis is the key to Bucks’ defense because of how many different types of players he can defend. They certainly miss Pachulia, but the building blocks for a good defense are still there. Middleton is a plus defender, Carter-Williams is pesky enough to deserve some playing time and Milwaukee has bigs like Miles Plumlee that can move fairly well. In time, with the right personal decisions and proper development, Milwaukee will be able to develop a good defense centered around Giannis’s versatility.

The most interesting way Giannis is being used is as a point guard. Point guard is perhaps Milwaukee’s weakest position. Michael Carter-Williams hasn’t proven to be a long term piece as he heads into restricted free agency, while Greivis Vasquez, who the Bucks traded a first-round pick for, hasn’t played since undergoing right ankle surgery in December. Giannis, along with Khris Middleton, has flourished running the offense. He’s not perfect as a distributor — he turns the ball over a bit more than you’d like and his court vision isn’t there just yet — but he’s improving rapidly.

Take a look at this assist from Sunday’s win against the Nets. It’s not flashy, but it shows how far he’s come. With the game close, the Bucks trusted Giannis enough to let him work on his own. Instead of forcing up a contested shot, he found a cutting Miles Plumlee for an easy two. From then, the Bucks pulled away and eventually won by nine.

That being said, Giannis’s athleticism is still a big part of his game, which is another good reason to believe he’s going to continue to improve. There are few players as long and as athletic as him, and even fewer that can pull off the type of move he pulled off Sunday in Brooklyn. You can probably count on one hand the number of players who can go from the free throw line to the opposite rim in three dribbles.

And don’t forget: Giannis is barely old enough to drink legally. In all likelihood, what we have seen this season are just the first steps on his path towards stardom.

Parker, while not as eye-catching as Giannis, is also having something of a breakout season, and is beginning to look every bit like the player Milwaukee thought they were drafting No. 2 overall last June. Parker seems to have recovered quickly from an ACL tear that prematurely ended his rookie season. From the outside looking in, it seems as if Parker has regained much, if not all, of his explosiveness. A six-foot-eight, 250-pound man shouldn’t be able to get up like this, especially if he is coming off an ACL injury:

Or this:

He can’t shoot beyond the mid-range — yet — and the Bucks have adjusted by getting him more touches in the post. Parker has taken just 16 threes in 61 games as of Monday, the same number he took in 25 games last season. He’s making just 18.8 percent of them — down 6.2 percentage points from last year — and any three-pointers he takes now are just practice. But it looks as if he has the explosiveness necessary to get enough lift on his jump shots to eventually make them effectively:

If and when he can start shooting threes, it’s seems likely Parker will take a big leap and develop into the Bucks’ No. 1 scoring option. He’s a beast inside, shooting 65.3 percent on shots inside 10-feet, and passing well enough to make teams pay by finding open teammates. He’s a limited scorer at the moment, but he’s a good one, and teams are already having to account for his presence on the floor.

There are still issues with his defense — he and Giannis both simply give up on plays at times, leaving Monroe and other bigs vulnerable — and he can be too aggressive. These problems, though, are easily solved, and despite some legitimate skepticism about his defensive upside coming out of Duke, he looks athletic and strong enough to be a good defender. He might always be best suited to defending fours, but the Bucks are uniquely qualified to compensate for that, even if Parker is playing the three next to Antetokounmpo.

With Giannis developing as a distributor and Khris Middleton filling the holes in both of their games, Milwaukee still has a trio to build around — regardless of how much their win percentage has dropped off this year. All three are under control for the foreseeable future. Whatever happens with Monroe (who is neither the solution nor the problem), the development of youngsters like Tyler Ennis and Rashad Vaughn, plus the drafts to come, gives Milwaukee a clear path to improvement within its roster.

The Bucks still have some building to do — finding a point guard who fits defensively and can shoot threes should probably be at the top of their wish list over the summer — but the major building blocks are already in place. Giannis and Jabari give the Bucks something to be excited about, now and in the future.