The Milwaukee Bucks Are the Future

The Bucks have become the most promising young team in the league thanks to the NBA’s brightest young star.

No one expected Giannis Antetokounmpo to be this good this fast. When the Bucks took him with the 15th overall pick in 2013, the young Grecian was all arms and legs, a gold mine of potential waiting to be unearthed. It wasn’t hard to envision him developing into an impact player on both ends of the floor in a few years’ time.

But this? This is insane. At the age of 22, Giannis is having an unprecedented season for someone his age. Consider the following stat lines:

Player A (per 36): 24.1/5.9/5.3, 18.3 FGA, 7.9 FTA, 50.7 eFG%, 24.5 PER

Player B (per 36): 24.4/9.2/6.0, 16.4 FGA, 7.9 FTA, 55.8 eFG%, 28.8 PER

Those are comparable numbers, but that second line is clearly better than the first. Player A is 22-year-old LeBron; Player B is 2017 Giannis. Now, Giannis isn’t LeBron, and he probably never will be, but that kind of production from someone so young is unheard of. We can safely say Giannis has entered his prime and figured out how to maximize his physical advantages. If you were to build a perfect basketball body in a lab, the result would probably look something like Giannis. At 6’11” with a 7’3” wingspan and the largest hands in NBA history, there are times when the Greek Freak looks even bigger, and that body moving down the court at warp speed is unstoppable.

Giannis’ ability to grab and rebound and go makes him arguably the most exciting one-man fast break in the league, and those long strides and endless arms allow him to take off and finish from anywhere inside the paint. (Seriously, with a full head of steam, he doesn’t need more than three dribbles to go coast to coast.) So far, the only real answer to those galloping fast breaks has been fouling, a solution that still yields positive results for Milwaukee. Giannis has upped his free throw attempts from last year by over 1.5 per game, and he’s shooting a career-high 78 percent from the charity stripe.

That shooting stroke comes and goes, though. On the year, Giannis is shooting only 29.5 percent from deep, and he has an almost DeRozan-like aversion to taking threes, which makes sense given his uncanny length and ability to get to the basket. That number expectedly jumps to 35 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and nearly 36 percent with more than six feet of space, but those looks don’t come around too often. His form as improved since he first entered the NBA, but it’s still icky, something you might expect from a guy who’s still growing into his freakishly long arms.

He’ll need to develop his stroke if he’s going to become the superstar the Bucks need him to be. The easiest way to slow down Antetokounmpo is to pack the paint and go under screens, forcing him to be a jump-shooter, and teams will do that more and more if Milwaukee makes the playoffs.

Antetokounmpo might be most dangerous on the defensive end. Quickness, length, and a competitive mindset are the three most important qualities a defender needs, and Giannis has all three. With Khris Middleton out with a hamstring injury, the Bucks have turned Giannis as their stopper, and he’s becoming a terror on that end. How many guys in the league can cover the court like this?

In the span of about eight seconds, Giannis chases Jimmy Butler, closes out on Jerian Grant, and recovers to block Cristiano Felicio, all at distinctly different places on the court. He’s still learning the intricacies of being a premiere defender, and bigger guys can push him around a little bit on the block; but length makes up for a lot on defense, and to see Giannis already become such an imposing defensive force is promising.

Mike D’Antoni’s Suns sparked the small-ball movement, Steve Kerr’s Warriors popularized it, and now Jason Kidd’s Bucks are taking it a step further. The Bucks want not just to be able to play small, but to become positionless, and Antetokounmpo, a player that virtually transcends positions, might the face of the movement. When Milwaukee rolls out lineups with Giannis and a bunch of combo forwards and swingmen, it’s not always clear who is playing what position, and that’s a good thing.

With switchability and versatility becoming more and more essential in today’s NBA, teams are always in search of long, athletic players with multi-faceted skill sets and the ability to defend multiple positions. Every NBA team would love to play five athletic wings and still maintain some level of rim protection (duh), but the Bucks are really trying to make that a reality. Milwaukee operates under the principle that you can teach skills and strategy, but not size, length, or athleticism. With Giannis, Middleton, Jabari Parker, and Thon Maker (give him time!) already on the roster, it’s not hard to envision the Bucks developing into human versions of Monstars in a few years.

It’s encouraging that Milwaukee has been able to stay competitive without Middleton, a fantastic two-way wing. It speaks to how special Giannis has been, but also to the job Kidd has done and the reliability of the supporting cast. Antetokounmpo has an excellent running mate in Parker, who is already the second-best player on the team at only 21 years old. John Henson and Greg Monroe have formed a very productive tag team at center, and bench-heavy units featuring at least one of Parker and Antetokounmpo have been effective. Malcolm Brogdon may end up being the Rookie of the Year, and he may be a potential long-term answer at point guard.

You’d think Brogdon was a five-year veteran by the way he plays; he’s confident handling the ball, he already has a firm grasp of the team’s system on both ends of the floor, and his defensive quickness and positioning is fantastic. He’s started the Bucks’ last few games due to Matthew Dellavedova’s hamstring injury, and the team is over six points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than with him off.

Parker’s improvement has been somewhat overshadowed, but he’s made real strides on both ends of the floor. Nearly every one of his major stats is up from last season, and he looks more than capable of handling a second option’s offensive responsibilities. He’s hitting over 39 percent of his threes, by far a career high, and over 64 percent in the restricted area thanks to strong moves like this:

Parker has been assertive around the basket; nothing too fancy, he takes one or two hard dribbles and goes up strong, often finishing through contact or earning two shots at the line. He’s even dabbled as a play initiator after he grabs rebounds. If he catches at the elbow or the short corner, he’ll hit you with a variety of decisive dribble moves and spins to clear a path to the basket:

If his three-point surge is for real, Parker might be the team’s most well-rounded offensive weapon.

As explosive as Parker is vertically, his lateral quickness is probably his biggest weakness. He may never become a plus defender, but his attention to detail has gradually improved on that end, and playing as a full-time four helps keep him away from the perimeter on defense. But when good teams go small and play quick, stretchy fours, Parker is exploitable defensively.

The Bucks are better defensively as a team. They own the league’s fourth-best defensive field goal percentage, thanks in large part to the ridiculous length up and down their roster. That starts, of course, with Giannis, who is only beginning to realize his potential as a defender, but Henson, Snell, and even Parker all have above-average wingspans, even for NBA players. The overwhelming length the Bucks can put on the floor allows them to fly through passing lanes for high-flying jams on the other end, but more importantly, it gives them the ability to cover huge portions of the court as help-side defenders and harass opponents as on-ball defenders. Watch as Giannis uses his length to deflect what should be an easy skip pass from LeBron James to J.R. Smith:

Just by spreading their arms and being in good defensive position, the Bucks make it nearly impossible to make passes more than 15 feet away. With so much length and quickness, Milwaukee is one of the most switchable teams in the league. Giannis has the frame to guard damn near anyone in the league, and as Parker continues to improve his lateral movement, he’s becoming better at jumping out onto the perimeter and containing smaller dudes. Brogdon can already guard three positions, and Henson is surprisingly mobile for a guy his size.

The Bucks aren’t there yet, though. Their defense is more potential than results at the moment. For all their length, Milwaukee only gets 15.5 deflections per game, which ranks in the middle of the pack relative to the rest of the league. They defend the paint at about a league-average rate, and although they sport the fourth-lowest defensive three-point percentage in the league, teams are still canning ten threes per game against them, the seventh-worst mark in the NBA. Getting Middleton back will help tie the defense together; Snell is doing a fine job in his absence, but just isn’t the same player.

The biggest short-term concern for this team is perimeter shooting. The Bucks rank tenth in the league in three-point percentage, but attempt fewer than 24 triples a game. They want to attack the basket and shoot from the paint, and it feels like the team’s three-point percentage would plummet with too many more attempts. Still, it would be worth launching a few more bombs per game and discerning the actual shooters from the theoretical ones.

Middleton, a 40 percent career three-point shooter, should open up the floor a little bit when he comes back, but that likely won’t be until March or April, and it’s unclear who will provide floor spacing until then. Matthew Dellavedova is shooting just 33 percent from downtown, and Tony Snell, who the team acquired to help replace Middleton’s perimeter production, has hit at just a 34 percent clip. Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry have hit a combined 37 percent of their looks as spark plugs off the bench, while Brogdon leads the team—and all rookies—at 43 percent from beyond the arc, but he doesn’t attempt many triples.

Fortunately, these problems have time to work themselves out. It’s obviously a plus that Milwaukee will likely make the playoffs, but they’re not competing for a title right now. The present is about developing the franchise’s young talent and growing its current nucleus. These guys are young; they’ve already snatched the title of Best Young Core from Minnesota, they’ll become better shooters and defenders, and once they really learn how to play with one another, this team should seriously alter the NBA’s competitive balance. Whether they saw it coming or not, the Milwaukee Bucks are positioned to change to the landscape of the NBA, and maybe change the game itself.

All stats current as of Wednesday morning (1/4/17).

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.

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