Can the Milwaukee Bucks Grab the Top Seed in the Eastern Conference?

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are entering a season where they must establish themselves as one of the contenders in the Eastern Conference. With the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers expected to be at the top of the conference, the Bucks came into the season overlooked by many.  

The Bucks are seen as a middle-seeded playoff team that can make it past the first round but is likely to fall to one of the teams mentioned previously. The Bucks made the right moves this offseason to prove those doubters wrong and make a run at the top seed in the East.

The Bucks got rid of head coach Jason Kidd in the middle of the season last year and played the rest of the season managed by interim coach, Joe Prunty. They put finding a new head coach at the top of their offseason to-do list, and they got arguably the best one on the market in Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer managed the Atlanta Hawks from 2013 to the end of 2017-18, and before losing most of his veteran talent, established an immediate culture of winning and teamwork. Budenholzer worked with the San Antonio Spurs and head coach Gregg Popovich, who was known for his system of heavy ball movement and chemistry, as an assistant before that. Budenholzer implemented the same system in Atlanta and saw astounding results.

In his best campaign with the Hawks in 2014-15, his heavy ball movement system and team of all above average players with no superstar was still able to finish 60-22 in the Eastern Conference and attain the top seed.  They eventually lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, as LeBron James proved to be the hurdle the Hawks could never leap over. Budenholzer did wind up winning NBA Coach of the Year honors that year, however.

After mutually agreeing with the Hawks to part ways, Budenholzer now takes the reigns of a team that comes with big expectations but has never been able to perform and advance in the playoffs to this point. Superstar point forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is the best player Budenholzer has ever had at his disposal, and his system should fit Giannis’s skill set perfectly.

Giannis is an absolute monster in transition, possessing incredible speed and control with the ball and uncanny length to contort around all defenders in the paint. In the former Kidd system, Giannis was forced to play a lot of isolation basketball and his lack of a reliable jump shot limited his abilities mainly to playing in the paint. Even with the spacing limitations of the Milwaukee Bucks offense and their lack of creativity, Giannis was still putting up averages of 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game last season.

Imagine what Giannis could do when opposing defenses have to stretch the floor more and give up more space for him to operate. He still lacks that reliable jump shot, although it is improving, but Budenholzer will make more use of the other assets on the Milwaukee Bucks roster.

When Antetokounmpo begins possessions in the half-court, no longer will there be his teammates standing in the corner and waiting for him to go to the rim. Budenholzer’s system highlights off-ball screens and other secondary movement to create looks. Think about how successful Kyle Korver was off of screens in Atlanta.

The Milwaukee Bucks have their own version of Korver in Khris Middleton, only the latter is better. He is not the pure shooter that Korver is, but his jump shot is one of the best in the league and his playmaking chops make him the ideal second option next to Giannis. Middleton is also a very gifted defender with good length to disrupt passing lanes on the perimeter, too. With two creators on the floor, all of the skill players on the Bucks will benefit under Budenholzer’s game plan.

Point guard Eric Bledsoe is a streaky shooter, but finishes well at the rim and is an underrated passer. He will benefit from the spacing of the Bucks’ new offense and will generate easier looks with the new emphasis on ball movement. Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon, and rookie Donte DiVincenzo figure to be the team’s primary role players. All players shoot the ball well from the outside and have great defensive versatility and length that the Bucks covet so much.

Thon Maker should also show improvement in this new style of offense as he fits the mold of the modern NBA center and is still just 21 years old. Matthew Dellavedova and Sterling Brown are also respectable shooters from outside and are defensive pests than cannot be ignored on the floor, either.

An underrated signing from the offseason was the addition of Brook Lopez to this team as well. While not known for his defense, Lopez is a great shot-maker from the mid-range and has shown better consistency from behind the arc in recent seasons. The Bucks have not had a center of his talents on their team in Giannis’ time, and both will benefit playing alongside one another.

Another previous problem with the Milwaukee Bucks was their rebounding. While being the longest team in the league, they were not good on the boards and lost a lot of games due to this. Budenholzer should have this team more able to rebound due to the defensive rotations that he implements. The great length on the wings will allow the bigs to collapse the paint more than they have ever been able to, and this should lead to grabbing more rebounds.

It is hard to see any glaring weakness with this Bucks squad to start the year. They have just advanced to 5-0 following a 125-95 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game where Giannis did not play particularly well. The Bucks are very deep and boast the necessary options to bail out their superstar on his worst days. They have been scoring at a quick pace while also boasting a formidable defense that only figures to get better as they get more acclimated to the new system.  

Through five games they already rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, and have also recorded over 50 team rebounds in five straight games for the first time since 1983-84. They have their superstar, their secondary option, and a great cast of shooters and defenders that can match up with any team in the East, and maybe the league.

With Budenholzer managing this cast of talents, putting it all together already appears to be no problem.  Watch out for the Milwaukee Bucks to make some serious noise and turn heads at the top of the Eastern Conference this year.