Better Luck Next Year: Milwaukee Bucks edition

As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 21st edition focuses on the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Good

The full Giannis. For the fourth consecutive season, Giannis Antetokounmpo made a significant leap in his overall play. He went from All-Star to MVP candidate: 26.9 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.5 SPG and 1.4 BPG, with 53 percent shooting and excellent, versatile defense. In essence, it was a simple season for the Bucks: They were awesome when Giannis was on the court and lousy when he wasn't, but he was great enough in his 37 minutes a night (and 75 out of 82 games played) to lead the Bucks to 44 wins, even with a host of roster balance issues and some obvious sideline drama. He's at the point where, as long as he's in Milwaukee, the Deer are guaranteed to be at least somewhat relevant.

The Eric Bledsoe trade. You can quibble a little about the long-term impact, perhaps - particularly after this postseason - but the Bucks' talent level undoubtedly improved with their acquisition of borderline All-Star point guard Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix. The tough, speedy floor general averaged 18 and five on career-high 58 percent True Shooting during his first 71 games in Milwaukee, a huge two-way boon for a team fairly lacking in backcourt depth. All it cost was a bench-ridden Greg Monroe and a future first-rounder - almost a certain win for the Bucks, especially considering he has one more year on his deal at a relatively cheap $15 million.

What more could you ask for from Khris Middleton? Giannis isn't the only Young Buck who seems to level up nearly every season: After losing most of his 2016-17 to injury, swingman Khris Middleton - once a mere trade throw-in for the Bucks in their Brandon Jennings-for-Brandon Knight swap - essentially put up All-Star numbers, posting a 20-5-4 on 58 percent True Shooting with a career-high 17.4 PER. Those numbers nearly all spiked even higher in the playoffs, where Middleton averaged 25 a game on insane 60 percent shooting (that's FG%, not TS%), including a rapid-release three to send Game 1 against Boston into OT, sure to go down as one of the all-time ultimately inconsequential buzzer-beaters. His defensive effort may have slipped a little, but he's still one of the most valuable wings in the Eastern Conference.

Taking Boston to seven games. This was pretty impressive in real time, as the Bucks overcame their sluggish end to the regular season to push the Celtics to seven games in a hard-fought first-round series. Milwaukee's competitiveness came with an asterisk, as Boston was missing two of its star players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for the series, but given how the Celtics are currently a game away from sweeping the Philadelphia 76ers - not long ago considered a strong contender to be the Eastern Conference's Finals representative - it might've been more of an achievement for Giannis, Khris, and Co. than we initially realized.

Keeping their pick for this year. Milwaukee risked losing more than the sixth seed with their loss to the aforementioned Sixers in Game 82 - the club put themselves a coin-flip away from potentially losing its first-round pick for 2018. The Bucks owed the Suns that future first from the Bledsoe trade, and the protections were as such that if they'd ended up with a pick between Nos. 11-16 - as they had a 50 percent chance of doing, tied with Miami for the 16th-worst record - they'd have to fork it over to Phoenix. But the quarter came up tails (or heads or whatever), and the Bucks slid from No. 16 to No. 17, preserving their 2018 pick. They'll still have to give it to Phoenix eventually - potentially at a higher slot, if all goes wrong in Deer Park - but with their young core (and another prospect to add to the mix), the Bucks can reasonably hope the pick will be even lower in years to come.

The Bad

Malcolm Brogdon's injury. The improbable 2016-17 Rookie of the Year remained productive for Milwaukee in his sophomore season, averaging 13-3-3 on 58 percent True Shooting, improving his numbers despite mostly coming off the bench behind midseason pickup Bledsoe. Problem was, Malcolm Brogdon wasn't around for almost half the season: A torn quad tendon kept him out for nearly the entirety of February and March, a tough blow to the team's backcourt stability. He returned in time for the playoffs, and despite some good moments, was largely inconsistent, scoring just two points twice in the series, including in Game 7.

No bench depth. Brogdon's injury hurt what was already a pretty thin Milwaukee bench, with maladies suffered by Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova, and Mirza Teletovic - none of whom played even half of the Bucks' 82 games - leaving the Bucks critically undermanned for long stretches of the regular season. Unproven young'ns (Sterling Brown) and past-expired veterans (Jason Terry) alike were given an uncomfortable amount of roster responsibility, while fallen once-prospects (Jennings, Shabazz Muhammad) were thrown in the mix as Hail Marys at the last minute. Not even the starting lineup was safe: It seems impossible that the Bucks still haven't found a better answer at center than John Henson.

Boarded to death. Despite the Bucks' much-vaunted length, they don't seem able to grab the ball off the rim very often. The team rated in the league's bottom five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and worst in the NBA in total rebounds per game - and that's with Giannis still grabbing 10 a game. Giving the light-boarding Henson much of Monroe's minutes following the Bledsoe deal undoubtedly played a part in these lousy numbers - as does having Tony Snell in the lineup, since he doesn't do much of anything besides shoot and play D - but giving up an advantage on both sides of the boards can be a tough thing to overcome, especially in the playoffs, where Milwaukee was outrebounded by a combined 23 across its final two first-round losses.

Jason Kidd finally expelled. Midway through his fourth season in Milwaukee, fans and team brass had grown frustrated enough with Kidd's schematic stubbornness, his difficulty communicating with players and media, and his inability to wrangle elite performance out of what seemed to be an elite group of players. Kidd was at long last canned in January. His dismissal was an uncomfortable one for the franchise, in large part because Kidd told the media that just before his official firing, Antetokounmpo called him and offered to try saving his job, a conversation the Bucks star later said he wished the coach had kept private. Joe Prunty replaced the 2018 Hall of Famer on the Bucks' sideline, going 21-16 over the final 37 games.

Another first-round exit. The Bucks have made the playoffs eight times since they came a game away from the NBA Finals in 2001 - and each time, they've failed to make it to the second round, the longest postseason losing streak in the NBA. That was one thing when the team's best players were the likes of Michael Redd, Jennings, and/or Andrew Bogut, but now with a legitimate superstar in Antetokounmpo in tow, its first-round futility is increasingly unacceptable. The two-time All-Star took pushing the C's to the brink as a positive, anyway: "Wasn't able to win on the road, but we pushed the series to Game 7 ... It's a new experience. Now we know now what it takes to win a Game 7," he said postgame.

The Questions

Who's this team's coach of the future? Though Prunty had a better regular-season record than his predecessor in 2017-18 and pushed the Celtics to seven games in the first round, he's hardly the assumed favorite to be patrolling the sidelines next season. He's in the pool of candidates, according to GM Jon Horst, but the Bucks are badly in need of authority and stability, and will likely search for an option more certain to guarantee both. The team has reportedly included San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon in that pool of candidates, as well as short-lived Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt - and you can bet that nearly every other available coach will at least express interest in the position, given the potential on the roster.

Will Thon Maker ever live up to his hype? The buzz around 2016 first-rounder Thon Maker has been deafening in Milwaukee - teammate Parker has said he'll soon be the best 7-footer in the league, while one-time holder of that title Kevin Garnett said he'll one day be MVP - but the Sudanese center has only shown brief flashes of such potential on the court. His regular-season performance was largely unexceptional in 2017-18, as the second-year player averaged just five points and three rebounds on much lower shooting and efficiency than in his rookie season.

He stepped up in the Bucks' first two home games of the playoffs - hitting multiple threes and racked up five blocks each in Games 3 and 4, both wins - but then disappeared, scoring just 11 points with one block combined across the last three games of the series. The Bucks need Maker to reach his elite ceiling, and at just 21, he'll still have every chance to get there, but it's unclear if he's moving toward becoming that player.

How invested is Milwaukee in Jabari Parker? The former No. 2 overall pick in 2014 (taken one ahead of All-Star center Joel Embiid), Parker has had a rocky first four years in the NBA, already suffering two major leg injuries that required season-ending surgeries, averaging fewer than 50 games a season. When he's played, he's been largely productive - even averaging over 20 a game in 2016-17 - but his fit with the rest of the Bucks' core is a slightly murky one, and his defensive role has been particularly uncertain.

Parker is a restricted free agent this summer, and though his superstar teammate has opined that he "ain't going anywhere," Parker's own quotes have been significantly less resounding: "I just have to see what’s going to happen with my future, and that’s uncertain," he told the Washington Post in early April. "But I know for them, they’ll be fine regardless. They’ve been doing well." Even with his injury history, Parker has the star potential to entice some team to bet big on him long term, so it'll be interesting to see if Milwaukee feels it's seen enough from the skilled forward to match any such offer.

Can the bench be improved? If Parker walks, then that's yet another blow to the depth of a team that isn't really sure who it can count on beyond its three highest-paid players. As previously mentioned, the team does have the No. 17 pick in the draft coming to them, but it also already has over $100 million in guaranteed salary with or without Parker's return - with Bledsoe, Middleton, and Brogdon all nearing their contracts' end - meaning the Bucks' options will be limited in free agency. They'll need improvement from the likes of Maker and forward D.J. Wilson (who had an invisible rookie campaign after becoming the Bucks' first-round pick in '17), and they'll need to hit on a couple Jason Terry-like minimum vets to be fully stocked for a better run next season.

How long until Giannis gets frustrated? The Bucks' greatest player since at least Ray Allen - with the potential to be their greatest since the days of Lew Alcindor - has also been a model citizen off the court, rarely if ever complaining about any Milwaukee franchise dysfunction, and always showing ultimate patience with the team's slow-building progress. But that won't last forever, and Antetokounmpo will enter his sixth season as perhaps the league's best player yet to see the playoffs' second round, his Bucks having been lapped by the post-Process Sixers, and arguably by the reshuffled Pacers as well. He's sure to want more than that soon, and Milwaukee better hope it can do what it takes to appease him by then or face a potential showdown with its star player that no small-market team ever wants to deal with.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

Better Luck Next Year: Milwaukee Bucks edition
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