The Milwaukee Bucks 2019 Season was a Success
The 2019 Eastern Conference Finals have ended and with it the Milwaukee Bucks season. This was an incredible season for the Bucks, who took a huge leap forward using a combination of Mike Budenholzer’s new system and an MVP campaign from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Let’s take a quick look at how their season was so great and what they can do going forward.
Mike Budenholzer’s First Year
Perhaps the biggest move the Bucks made the last offseason was hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach. A disciple of the legendary Gregg Popovich, Budenholzer first made his name as the coach of the Atlanta Hawks. While a successful tenure, the Hawks could never get past LeBron James and eventually went into a rebuild. Budenholzer wanted to compete now, and so he parted ways with the Hawks in April 2018.
Coach Bud wouldn’t be without a job for long though. The Milwaukee Bucks front office had done an excellent job assembling a talented roster well equipped for the modern game. Most importantly they had an MVP level player in Giannis Antetokounmpo aka the Greek Freak. Unfortunately, their coach, Jason Kidd, had them running an archaic system that limited their ceiling. After a few years, the Bucks front office finally axed Kidd in January 2018 and started looking for a new head coach. By May 2018, the Bucks announced Mike Budenholzer would be their new head coach.
The first season of Budenholzer as head coach defied all expectations, in large part to the way he used the roster. At its core, the idea was to surround Antetokounmpo with 3-point shooters and let him work. This would spread the floor for his drives and give him an outlet to pass to in the event help defense or a double team happens. The front office bought into the idea, adding Brook Lopez, George Hill, and Nikola Mirotic to further bolster the shooting. The Bucks finished the regular season with a league-leading 60 wins. They also finished 4th in offensive rating, 1st in defensive rating, and 1st in net rating by a wide margin. In one year, Budenholzer turned the Bucks into a league juggernaut.
The Greek Freak’s MVP Campaign
One of the highlights of the Milwaukee Bucks 2018-2019 season was the ascension of Antetokounmpo to arguably the MVP of the regular season. As previously mentioned, Coach Budenholzer made Antetokounmpo the engine for the Bucks system and he not only shouldered the load but excelled while doing it.
After an offseason in the weight room, Antetokounmpo came in this year as a battering ram. It was a common sight to see him drive in and finish at the rim with his unique blend of athleticism, length, and touch. With the added space of the Bucks new system, as well as the threat of his passes to open shooters, defenses were helpless in the regular season before him. The Greek Freak wasn’t content just dominating the offensive end. A big reason why the Bucks finished first in defensive rating was Antetokounmpo. He was as skilled a perimeter defender as he was a rim protector and was a finalist for defensive player of the year.
On the statistical side, the Greek Freak filled every statistical category, averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. To make it even more impressive, he did all this in only 32.8 minutes per game. At this point, it’s safe to say the only flaw in Antetokounmpo’s game is his jump shot. Despite shooting 57.8% from the field, he still went 25.6% from 3-point range and 72.9% from the free-throw line. His mechanics still need work but overall that’s about the only thing he isn’t elite at.
By the end of the season, Antetokounmpo was one of two contenders for MVP. Were it not for the historic offensive season James Harden had, Antetokounmpo would easily win the award.
2019 Eastern Conference Playoffs Run
After dominating the league all season, the Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2019 playoffs confident they could make a Finals run. With King James finally vacating his throne over the East, there was real hope it could happen.
In the first round, the Bucks faced the eighth seed Detroit Pistons, whose star player Blake Griffin was out with a knee injury. Milwaukee crushed Detroit in the first two games at home. Griffin would return to the court when the series went to Detroit, but it made no difference. The Bucks still won Game 3 and 4 easily, sweeping the series.
In the second round, the Bucks faced the fourth seed Boston Celtics, who had knocked out the Bucks in seven last year. The Celtics implemented the same strategy they used last playoffs and blew out the Bucks in Game 1. The difference this year was the Bucks had a better head coach. Budenholzer made some adjustments and got everything back on track. The Bucks won the next 4 games dominantly and sent the Celtics packing.
The Eastern Conference Finals against the second seed Toronto Raptors would be the biggest test for the Bucks. Game 1 was close but the Bucks prevailed, while Game 2 was a blowout win. Following that, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse adjusted by putting Kawhi Leonard on Giannis. A back-to-back defensive player of the year, Leonard made life hell for Giannis, stalling the engine that drove the Bucks. Along with the resurgence of Kyle Lowry and a hot shooting streak from Fred VanVleet, the Raptors won the next four games to advance to the Finals. For perspective, the Bucks hadn’t lost more than two games in a row all season. In the end, they lost to an equally excellent team with an equally elite superstar player.
Key Players Hitting Free Agency This Summer
Success in one year does not guarantee success in the next for a number of reasons. Players leaving in free agency is one of those, and the problem the Bucks will face this summer.
First and foremost on their list is Khris Middleton, the Bucks only other All-Star this year besides Antetokounmpo. He has a player option for next season that he’ll almost certainly turn down to enter unrestricted free agency this year. Shooting 37.8% from 3 and an excellent perimeter defender, he’ll command max money in free agency. For the Bucks, he’s been the second most important player on the roster and usually acts as the closer. It’s vital the Bucks keep him, even if it means paying him the max.
After Middleton, the next player the Bucks will look to keep is Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon is a knockdown shooter, one of only eight players in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club. He’s been not only critical for spacing but an important player on defense; in the eastern conference finals, he was the best defender the Bucks had for Leonard. The good news for the Bucks is that Brogdon is going to be a restricted free agent, which gives them the right to match any offer.
Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic will also hit unrestricted free agency this year. Brook Lopez, or splash mountain as he was called, made 36.5% from 3 on 6.3 attempts from the center position. Lopez was signed to a one-year, 3 million contract last offseason and will certainly receive much higher offers this offseason. Mirotic came in at the trade deadline and was also a valuable shooter for his position.
For a system built on shooting, four of the Bucks most valuable shooters are hitting free agency at the same time.
Addressing Free Agency
There’s no easy out for the Bucks, unfortunately. Earlier this year they signed guard Eric Bledsoe to a 4-year 70 million extension. Resigning Middleton and Brogdon essentially locks the Bucks into a core of those three plus Antetokounmpo. The Bledsoe extension already looks like a bad deal given the way his shooting cratered in the playoffs. The Bucks would have been better off waiting until after the playoffs to extend him. But the damage has already been done. Now, the Bucks have limited money and probably won’t be able to keep Mirotic nor Lopez.
Most likely to add depth to the roster now the Bucks have to scrounge around for whatever’s left in free agency or hope they hit on their draft picks. Reproducing their success from last season will be difficult. Even with some regression though, the Bucks still have a proven head coach, a talented core, and a top five player. They will be good enough to be an Eastern Conference power for years to come. The 2018-2019 Milwaukee Bucks had great season overall, and hopefully the first of many.