Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Bucks running out of time to fix aging roster before Giannis Antetokounmpo gets antsy again

We’ve been doing the “will Giannis Antetokounmpo ask out of Milwaukee” dance for a solid half-decade now. There are a number of reasons why. His own quotes, from as recently as last offseason, haven’t exactly suggested he’s fully committed to retiring as a Buck. Milwaukee is the sort of market stars so often leave. As successful as the Bucks have been, they’ve hardly been the picture of stability. Antetokounmpo has played for five full-time head coaches, including three in the past two seasons. The Bucks have a unique ownership structure in which governorship, and the decision-making power that comes with it, transfers every five years. Jon Horst has grown into a strong and decisive general manager. The process that led to his hiring was controversial to say the least. There are rumors that he may be heading to Detroit after the season.

But there’s a far simpler explanation for all of this. The Bucks are old. They’ve been old for quite some time and this season was the moment it really started to stick. Khris Middleton is 32 and has an extensive injury history. Damian Lillard turns 34 in July, and small guards like him have spotty track records when it comes to aging. Brook Lopez is 36 and nearly left for Houston last offseason. 

That isn’t to say that this was always necessarily a bad idea. The Bucks won a championship. That’s the whole goal. Once you’ve done that, you’ve justified everything that led up to it. They’re just paying the price for it now. This group is on a ticking clock. Antetokounmpo isn’t. Giannis — who was sidelined with a calf injury for the duration of the Bucks’ brief playoff run — is still only 29 and presumably has years and years of MVP-caliber basketball ahead of him. There was always going to come a point at which he was still capable of winning but his roster was not.

That added to the risk of Milwaukee’s roster-building strategy. The Bucks never made any sort of attempts to emphasize youth around their two-time MVP. He put so much pressure on them to win now that they just kept doubling-down. They traded most of their draft capital for Jrue Holiday and the rest of it along with Holiday for Lillard. They flipped a then-25-year-old Donte DiVincenzo for a decaying Serge Ibaka at the 2022 trade deadline because he was struggling to return to form after a serious ankle injury. Even lower-end youngsters like Sam Merill, Luke Kornet and Sandro Mamukelashvili have grown into viable NBA reserves after joining teams more committed to developing youth.

That’s a big part of what makes Milwaukee’s first-round exit against the Indiana Pacers so disappointing. There’s nothing coming up the pipeline. There’s not some recent draft pick that looks primed to fill in the gaps of the declining players. The Bucks are just old, and getting older. They’re devoid of the assets they’d need to trade for help, and they’re already hovering around the second luxury-tax apron for next season, so they’re not going to have the money in free agency to sign younger players either. They’re not going to be able to address the flaws of this year’s teams with minor moves around the edges.

Those flaws were pretty significant. There may not be a weaker group of point-of-attack defenders in all of basketball. Milwaukee’s rebounding rate never slipped out of the top six under Mike Budenholzer. It was ranked 16th this season. The offense fell off of a cliff whenever Antetokounmpo rested because the depth was just so minimal. These aren’t problems you fix with minimum contracts. Things might even get worse. As overmatched as he was at times defensively, the Bucks just got high-level starter-caliber offense out of Malik Beasley for the minimum. Odds are, he’s getting a raise somewhere else. Good luck replacing 224 3-pointers for $2 million.

These are problems that require more drastic measures to truly address, but the Bucks have every reason to avoid drastic measures. The injuries Lillard and Antetokounmpo dealt with in the playoffs are an excuse to run it back. Doc Rivers rarely had those two and Khris Middleton on the court together. Had the Bucks simply lost at full strength to the Knicks or Celtics as they likely would have if healthy, they might have been more open-minded about necessary changes. But now, they can talk themselves into injuries killing their season instead of ineptitude. Inertia is the most powerful force in NBA decision-making. That will prove especially true if the Bucks have to replace Horst this offseason. No new GM is going to want to come in and be the person who immediately traded away Middleton or Lopez for a sensible 3-and-D guard and a young, developmental center even if that’s probably the right move. 

Middleton, for all of the injury fears he now comes with, is a proven, Finals-caliber late-game shotmaker who just had a very strong series against Indiana. His trade value is never going to be higher than it will be this summer, and an offense with Lillard and Antetokounmpo by themselves is going to be very good. If Milwaukee can turn him into viable defense and perhaps a bit of youth, well, that’s probably a better idea on paper than they’d care to admit. Of course, it would also mean ditching a team legend and depriving Antetokounmpo of his longest-tenured teammate.

Those are the sort of hard decisions that await Milwaukee this offseason, and they are the consequence of building in the way that they have. Everything the Bucks have done for the past five years has been geared toward appeasing Giannis. Even if it has worked, it has also put Milwaukee in the precarious position it is now in: too old and too flawed to realistically contend for a championship with him, which inevitably ends with them eventually confronting a future without him.

Avoiding such a future is going to involve risks that teams in Milwaukee’s position rarely take. They might have to make moves Antetokounmpo disagrees with in the moment to give themselves a chance to fix what went wrong. If they do nothing, all of those voices about Antetokounmpo’s post-Wisconsin future are going to get louder and louder. This roster, as currently constructed, is too old and too flawed to keep him in contention much longer. If they don’t fix it now, they may never get the chance.

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