It’s been a busy offseason for the world champion Milwaukee Bucks. Though they’ve retained their starting 5 and overall core, this latest iteration of the Bucks is starting to look nothing like the squad that won them a championship just a few months ago.
Of the players who saw rotational minutes in the NBA Finals, for instance, PJ Tucker, Bryn Forbes, and Jeff Teague are no longer with the team heading into next season. Of course, this is not at all meant to imply that these names are great losses or that the inability to sign them back is some insurmountable failing on the part of team management. They’ve been replaced by equally competent names, to be sure, but the fact remains that these are new Bucks who will have to get acclimated to the team’s system on the basketball court.
As the euphoria of yesteryear’s playoff run becomes a thing of the past and all eyes inevitably set on the next few contenders eager for another shot, the Bucks find themselves with entirely different circumstances to those of the 2021 crew. Coupled with the ever-changing NBA landscape, this only makes the road to the championship a bit more muddled.
Make no mistake: regardless of the changes, the Milwaukee Bucks can still absolutely win the 2022 NBA championship. But a few things absolutely have to go their way if they want a fighting chance at a repeat.
Young Bucks and new acquisitions need to develop—and fast
One thing that seems lost in the popular discourse is that there is so much riding on Semi Ojeleye to be the next wing defender for the Bucks. Though they are definitely excellent defenders in their own right and for their size, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton simply won’t cut it when you need someone to chase, say, Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler around the perimeter.
Unfortunately, the numbers show that Ojeleye is simply not at the same level, at least for now. For all their similarities in body type and playstyle, the 6-foot-6 physical specimen is still largely lacking in his defensive fundamentals. Per NBA.com/stats tracking data, the 26-year-old held opposing forwards to 42.9% efficiency when he was the closest defender. He also managed to hold scoring centers to 43.8% field goal shooting, while guards sunk 49.6% of their shot attempts against him. Not bad, but not great, either.
It’s his best individual match-ups that are reasonably eye-raising despite the low volume. He held Karl Anthony-Towns and Rui Hachimura to 1/5 (20%) as the closest defender, while Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Danilo Gallinari shot just 33.3% against him.
All this means is that the potential is there. It’s clear he can use all his bulk and brawn to make things happen on defense. If a legitimate chance in a new environment is all it takes to unlock the potential he showed in Boston, then Ojeleye’s best days might yet be ahead of him.
Semi sweat session. pic.twitter.com/OZwPCZCRBP
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) September 22, 2021
Beyond Ojeleye, there are still young Bucks who can directly contribute to winning basketball if they develop the right way.
These crucial developmental questions still remain for the Bucks
For instance, can Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood become competent and consistent scorers in their positions? Allen seems to be a surefire sharpshooter to replace Forbes, albeit with a slight dip in his numbers that warrants a little less defensive gravity compared to the former.
Hood is a particularly interesting prospect, too, considering the ceiling he’s already flaunted once before as a scorer. Though last year was a miss, for the most part, you can’t deny the potential he showed in 2019-2020 when he scored 11 points per game on 49.3% shooting from distance in 21 games for the Portland Trail Blazers.
If he can get back to his old bucket-getting ways pre-injury, then the Bucks have an instant spark plug on offense coming off the bench. This is why Hood’s signing was a low-risk, high-reward move that can make all the difference for the Bucks whose offense routinely sputtered in the playoffs. It’s also possibly the best under-the-radar signing of this offseason.
Another question is this: Will DiVincenzo, for his part, take a leap in Year 4 with the Bucks? The arrival of Allen, after all, is so welcome in the Bucks fiefdom due in part to the reality that the team has never had a consistent fifth scoring option in the shooting guard position.
But the possibility that his days are numbered could give The Big Ragu the push he needs to put it all together this year. He’s already elite on the defensive side of the ball while the hustle and intangibles he’s shown on the boards are potentially generational. Becoming a consistent scoring threat is really the only hole left in his game, and giving the Bucks a fifth star could tip the scale against any playoff defense.
Address flaws from last season
It may seem strange to point to the flaws of a team that just outlasted the rest of the association a few short months ago. But for the Bucks who escaped a Brooklyn Nets series by the skin of their teeth, resting on their laurels is about the worst decision they can make at this point if they aim to defend their title.
One area in their play worth recalibrating is their production from beyond the arc.
Though their playoff run proved that three-point shooting grows less important in the postseason, the Bucks — who prided themselves on a “let it fly” mentality that placed a premium on making outside shots to space the floor for their interior minister in Giannis — had an up-and-down shooting season where they shot a tenth-ranked 36.7% from three after the All-Star break.
Will their new shooters be enough to bring the kind of shooting consistency they need with the departure of flamethrower Bryn Forbes?
The defending champs were far from perfect on both ends
Speaking of the three-ball, the Bucks’ defense on the perimeter was also suspect for much of the 2020-21 NBA season. Though their relentless switching largely addressed this later on, there were also a few moments in the postseason where this flaw came back to haunt them and ultimately proved fatal. Who could forget how Phoenix erased The Greek Freak’s monster performance in Game 2 of the Finals where they hit 20 of their 40 3-point attempts?
It’s also no secret that the Bucks won on the back of their stifling defense, which only conceded a league-best 106.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. But exactly how crucial this was to their success is accentuated by their putrid scoring, which saw them post a 112.2 offensive rating — good for 11th out of 16 playoff teams. Their offense just never looked the same in the playoffs, even if they made scoring a tall task for opposing offenses.
Here’s a telling statistic. Per NBA.com/stats, the Bucks’ 236.8 passes made per game ranked dead last in the league among playoff offenses. Will the return of playmakers like George Hill and DiVincenzo address this flaw in the next playoffs? We certainly hope so.
Dog mentality stays sans PJ Tucker
Some things are non-negotiable for a contending team. Defense and size are two of those things and are simply necessary to eke out championships in today’s NBA. The Bucks proved that quite masterfully through last year’s run.
Though the names they’re trotting out are different, they still arguably have high-caliber defense and switchability. But the lingering question is this: do they have the same mentality to commit to giving a hundred and ten percent on each and every possession?
It’s easy to write off the role PJ Tucker played for the defending champs—and many already have after his sudden departure. On paper, his 4.3 points per game on 32.2% shooting from three-point land seem utterly pedestrian for a team looking to win a title.
But it was his veteran leadership and locker room presence that made the difference for this team. He was the team’s top dog who did all the dirty work with his hustle and defense, and the stats prove it. With Tucker as the closest defender, guards shot 37/98 (37.8%), while forwards shot 60/131 (45.8%) in the playoffs. Scorers routinely found themselves in jail with Tucker draped on them.
Without him, are the Bucks still the same, hungry dogs they were?
Bobby Portis has that instinct. Connaughton and DiVincenzo, too, have shown willingness to dive on the floor for loose balls and push his body to go after every rebound. Giannis is Giannis, and his motor is one of the best things about him as a player. What about everyone else?
Perhaps Tucker himself said it best in his inebriated stupor at the championship parade: “We got dogs. They just didn’t know how to be dogs yet.” Let’s hope they do now after four months with their top dog to lead the way as their vocal leader.
Ultimately, the Bucks need to find their best selves once again
To be clear, this writer has no illusion that the Bucks can win another chip doing the exact same thing that won them one last year. No championship repeat is ever the same, and the Bucks shouldn’t be looking to replicate what they did a year ago down to the last detail. It’s a new squad, after all, which only means a new dynamic on the basketball court with new personalities and game styles that need to gell with one another.
If these things don’t happen, then so be it. Not every championship team is the same, and success can be carved in many different ways. The Warriors dynasty made a living off the three-ball, for instance, while the Bucks outlasted all playoff teams while shooting 32.1% from distance.
The most important thing for the Bucks is to find their best selves once more in the regular season. Both the players and team management have built a culture of focusing on getting better game by game.
We hope the season-by-season adjustments get the same attention, too.