Giannis Antetokounmpo spent the first month of his fifth season consecrating his own mind-melting ability. Just 22 years old, already nearing the end of his paralyzing transition from phenom to titan, Antetokounmpo wielded every statistical benchmark you'd find in an MVP, mutilating box scores without hesitation. He exploded off the starting blocks by averaging 30.6 points (with a 57.8 field goal percentage), 10.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. (If you want to get weird and talk like Elon Musk, Antetokounmpo became basketball’s very own alien dreadnought before our very eyes.)
Until opponents adjusted by coaxing more unremarkable jumpers, the kind that provided a prayer’s chance relative to his unstoppable production at the rim, Antetokounmpo mixed laudable agility with violent power and a 7’3” wingspan to hold the NBA hostage. His dominance popped on both ends. But as the year went on, defenses took a deep breathe and found relative “success” slowing him down, be it with consequential hustle back in transition or an even more urgent willingness to help off teammates in the half-court.
Sometimes neither strategy worked, even when executed to near perfection. Antetokounmpo's evolution was that overwhelming:
Now, almost an entire offseason removed from a disappointing first-round loss against the depleted Boston Celtics—a series someone in Antetokounmpo’s talent bracket should’ve dominated—the Milwaukee Bucks have made several moves to stimulate their franchise player in ways that mirror those carried out by one of the league’s best teams two summer summers ago.
In 2016, the Houston Rockets failed to put a second star (Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, etc.) next to James Harden. Instead—right after Kent Bazemore spurned them to re-sign with the Atlanta Hawks—Daryl Morey signed Ryan Anderson (four years, $80 million) and Eric Gordon (four years, $53 million) to deals that were longer and more expensive than many anticipated.
Both agreements were criticized for various reasons, but Morey knew that leveraging his most important player’s all-around craftsmanship in space would let Houston be the very best possible version of itself. The result was 14 more wins and the point differential of a legitimate championship contender.
What we’re seeing in Milwaukee almost qualifies as a marginalized version of that same approach. They added nobody on Gordon’s level, or a transparent specialist like Anderson. No new contracts will crush their cap sheet for years to come, either. But the bottom-line similarities should foster a situation where Antetokounmpo is finally able to play in space; if all goes according to plan, the Bucks should almost always have a center who can shoot threes by his side. The days of Greg Monroe, Miles Plumlee, Zaza Pachulia, and Larry Sanders will feel one million miles away.
In comes Ersan Ilyasova, just signed to a three-year (the third year is non-guaranteed), $21 million contract. (Ilyasova was Antetokounmpo's teammate for the first two seasons of his career, before Giannis became an impact player, hardly ever at the five.)
Ilyasova isn’t a complete player but, as someone who doesn’t get destroyed on the defensive end, can be a nuisance on the glass, and knock down open threes, it’s not surprising to see his on/off numbers be so positive over the past few years—particularly on offense. Lineups that put him as a stretch center next to Giannis, Khris Middleton, and just about any backcourt combination Mike Budenholzer wants to deploy, will be a nightmare. And, frankly, replacing Jabari Parker with Ilyasova should solve some unwanted problems.
The Bucks were bad when Parker and Antetokounmpo shared the floor last season, with the point differential of a team that could’ve picked third or fourth in the draft. Parker didn’t make his season debut until February 2, and coming off two ACL surgeries in the same knee it wasn’t fair to expect much. But enough was seen over the past few years to at least question their fit as long-term collaborators.
With Parker gone, addition by subtraction is a distinct possibility. The former second overall pick does not view himself as “the help,” and watching Antetokounmpo run high pick-and-roll from the corner wasn’t a sustainable way for him to function. He engaged himself with well-timed cuts along the baseline, but too often would trade purposeful movement with a restless boredom that destroyed Milwaukee’s spacing. It all bubbled into a palpable tension on more than one occasion; he was clearly upset with a role that forced him to play off Giannis instead of the other way around. Look how disgusted Parker gets below:
Parker is better than Ilysasova, but on this team, next to Antetokounmpo, in Budenholzer’s system, it’s not hard to see whose minutes would be more beneficial. There are, of course, so many different ways for Antetokounmpo to positively impact Milwaukee’s offense—be it as a putback monster or diving big man—but taking the ball out of his hands ultimately does the opposing team a favor.
When he wasn’t frolicking in the open floor, the Bucks loved to gift Antetokounmpo with a ball screen from one of their guards, a strategy that dissuaded a switch and let him get downhill. Unfortunately, running this too often with their center in the dunker’s spot, and non-shooters spotting up on the weakside, was less than ideal.
These sequences always had the right idea, but were often foiled by Milwaukee’s own detrimental personnel, whether it be Tyler Zeller or John Henson’s man who made it feel like the game was five on four.
The next man up is Brook Lopez, whose ideal role in Milwaukee should be as the fulcrum of its second unit, someone who can force double teams in the post and carry the offense for small stretches when Antetokounmpo is sidelined early in the second and fourth quarters. But run the actions seen above with him standing in for Henson and suddenly the Bucks are that much harder to guard. Lopez nearly shot 50 percent from the short corner and a third of all his shots last season were wide-open threes—he made 36 percent of them.
Imagine him on this play below, either available for a kickout or dragging Serge Ibaka to the perimeter.
Henson tries to make himself useful by setting a back pick on Kyle Lowry, but Ibaka could not care less about Antetokounmpo's vision (he's not Ben Simmons, LeBron James, or Harden), or Henson floating to the weak-side corner. Only four of Henson’s 552 shots were beyond the arc last year, according to Cleaning the Glass. He isn’t a bad player. Whenever his man would load up on the strongside to thwart Giannis in the post, he’d cut into an open pocket and either make himself available or drag a help defender off someone else.
But, at the end of the day, that’s not good enough. Every single person who Milwaukee pays from this moment forward needs to make Antetokounmpo’s life easier in an obvious way. Right now, it's preferred that help come from players who're just as effective without the ball. Lopez and Ilyasova will either unlatch driving lanes or find themselves launching a whole bunch of open threes; at least one of them should always be on the floor.
Against defenses that knew what he wanted to do, Antetokounmpo averaged 11 drives per game last year, a strong number relative to his position and size, but pretty weak once you consider how often the ball was in his hands, his skill-set, and how many minutes he played. Some of this is on him, to tighten up his handle in traffic and be less willing to settle for a long two when the defense turns the restricted area into a moat. But some of it's thanks to a noticeably cramped floor. That should change next season.
There will come a day when, just like the Rockets needed to add a ball-handling star like Chris Paul and more two-way wings, the Bucks will have to acquire talent at different positions, with more varied skill-sets, if they want to make a serious run at the title. What they've done this summer is a step in the right direction, but it’s not that. Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Eric Bledsoe are all unrestricted free agents in 2019, and even if the Bucks noticeably improve under Bud with more space and a fluid half-court offense, locking any two of the three up long-term will essentially cement what they are through the rest of Antetokounmpo’s current contract, which expires in 2021.
Smart money might be on trading one before this year’s deadline, letting another walk next summer (a la Parker), and then re-signing the last man standing to a fair deal. Depending on who fits which slot and what they get back in a potential trade, the Bucks can open max cap space (and then some) in the offseason before Antetokounmpo’s contract year. Until then, he's one of the most underpaid players in the league, on a team that's finally making a transparent effort to build around. It'd be a shame if the Bucks don't ever capitalize.
So much can change between now and a few years, but if Milwaukee wants to keep their best player for the rest of his career, it behooves them to bring in another legitimate All-Star sometime over the next two years. For now, tinkering around the edges with sensical companions who'll open the floor is a pretty good strategy. What happens beyond that is anybody’s guess.