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A lost Bucks season leaves more questions

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A year ago, after the eighth-seeded Miami Heat had bounced his top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks from the first round in five games, Giannis Antetokounmpo sat at the podium on locker cleanout day and refuted the notion that the season was a failure. Instead, he insisted, it should be viewed as "steps to success."

The Bucks did win one additional playoff game this year, but that's probably not the type of success Antetokounmpo envisioned stepping toward, especially after the team responded to last year's fiasco by firing Mike Budenholzer and trading Jrue Holiday along with basically all of its remaining draft assets for Damian Lillard.

You can't really call this season a failure, either, at least not relative to expectations. After all, Antetokounmpo didn't suit up once in the series against the Pacers, and Lillard aggravated an Achilles injury in Game 3 that caused him to miss Games 4 and 5 and return hobbled for Game 6. It would, however, be fair to characterize this as a lost season, and that's something the Bucks can ill afford given the age of their core group and how much of their future they sacrificed to compete for championships today.

The playoffs haven't been kind to the Bucks since they won the title three years ago. In 2022, they lost Khris Middleton in the first round and fell to a formidable Celtics team in seven games a round later. The nightmarish, franchise-altering Miami series last year likely would've gone differently if Antetokounmpo hadn't gotten injured in the first quarter of Game 1 and been sidelined until Game 4. This season now stands as another what-if for a team that's quickly running out of runway as it seeks to maximize the remainder of Antetokounmpo's prime.

Under the circumstances, Milwaukee performed admirably in the series. Before his injury, we saw moments of vintage Lillard-ian transcendence, namely when he dropped 35 first-half points in a Game 1 romp. We got a glimpse of peak Middleton for perhaps the first time since that knee injury two years ago as he nearly stole Game 4 in Indiana and then led a Game 5 beatdown. Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis leveraged their size and carried the offense for stretches. Rookie Andre Jackson Jr. had some moments.

Unfortunately, none of that matters to these Bucks, who have zero use for moral victories. Lopez, who remains the backbone of the team's defense and kept it halfway respectable this season, is 36. Lillard will turn 34 this summer, and he's showing signs of decline. Middleton will turn 33, and injuries cost him 76 games over the last two years. Antetokounmpo is heading into his age-30 campaign, and while he just had maybe the best offensive season of his career, his defense has slipped a couple of rungs.

Nathaniel S. Butler / NBA / Getty Images

There's a reason this front office has been acting with so much urgency, a reason it deemed it necessary to trade a player as beloved as Holiday, to fire a coach as successful as Budenholzer, and to fire his replacement just a half-season into his tenure, despite the team being 30-13 at the time. But after all that, we still don't have a clear sense of how good this version of the Bucks really is or what it might be capable of at full strength.

The season wasn't going swimmingly even before the untimely injuries, and the roster was peppered with red flags that suggested the Bucks would've been hard-pressed to survive the Knicks, let alone the Celtics. But those injuries robbed them of a shot at vindication, as well as some pretty crucial data points.

Without those data points, it's hard to say whether Doc Rivers is actually the right coach for this team, or how sustainable the defensive improvements the Bucks made under him were. It's clear they need to upgrade their perimeter defense, but it's unclear how much offense they can afford to sacrifice to do so (and unclear how far the taxpayer MLE and/or their soon-to-be-tradeable 2024 first-round pick can even get them on that front).

Lillard and Antetokounmpo steadily increased their pick-and-roll volume and efficiency after a choppy start, but it's unclear if that partnership can be as offensively potent as Milwaukee needs it to be to overcome a defense that now figures to be average at best. The Bucks outscored opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions with Lillard, Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Lopez on the floor together, but it's unclear how much can we take away from those 677 regular-season minutes.

The good news is all those guys are under contract for next season, and Lillard will get a proper offseason this time. The Bucks will have to do some roster shuffling around that core quartet - Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, and Jae Crowder are likely gone - but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if young guys like Jackson, A.J. Green, and MarJon Beauchamp are ready to step into bigger roles.

The uncertainty will linger until we see how the Bucks look when they step back on the court in October, but there's a universe in which this cursed season does in fact prove to be a step to success. For now, though, it just feels like a waste.

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