Should Bucks make a big trade? Does Milwaukee have pieces for a 2024 title run?

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We took a decent chunk of questions out of the mailbag last week, but that bag from the start of the month is still full of questions as we head toward the regular season.

So, let’s get back to work and try to get to the bottom of this thing!

Editor’s note: Questions have been lightly edited for clarity.

David Thorpe at TrueHoop advocated for trading Giannis Antetokounmpo, blowing up the roster now while our guys still have value and we can pivot into a rebuild rather than waiting ’til it’s too late. That’s extremely unlikely, but it does feel like our window is closing. Do you see a path forward for the team with Giannis beyond his current contract? — Aaron H.

When is the earliest the Bucks could replace Khris Middleton with another player of similar quality? It seems like the consensus this year was that they could have let him walk but wouldn’t have been able to replace him. Was that mostly a function of the available players, or were there cap constraints? — Sam G.

I will try to tackle these questions in tandem.

I would agree, Aaron. I don’t think trading Antetokounmpo and blowing up the roster right now is something the Bucks would even consider. While I can understand the overall concept of trying to maximize value and get the most for the current core group of players, those players are still going to have value moving forward, especially Antetokounmpo. The list of teams willing to mortgage their future for the chance to add one of the best players in the world to their roster will be long, no matter if they would consider trading him now or next summer.

Overall though, your question about the team’s window and Sam’s question about the mechanics of replacing Middleton are important to consider, especially in light of Antetokounmpo’s recent comments.

We can start with this past offseason. If the Bucks had let Middleton and Brook Lopez walk this summer, they would have only been able to cobble together $14 million in cap space to sign a player to replace them and that would have been done through significant salary cap manipulation that would not have made much sense for building out the rest of the roster. Ultimately, if they wanted to maintain a competitive roster and have a chance to compete for a championship in the 2023-24 season, they didn’t have many options outside of re-signing Lopez and Middleton. So they did that.

Looking at their future, there is a pretty clear window for the Bucks to compete for championships for the next two seasons, which just so happens to align with the two remaining guaranteed years left on Antetokounmpo’s contract. (Antetokounmpo has a player option for the 2025-26 season.) In fact, at this time, the only things on the Bucks’ books for the 2025-26 season are player options for Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, plus non-guaranteed contracts for Andre Jackson and Chris Livingston and a team option on MarJon Beauchamp’s rookie contract.

Depending on what the team decides in the next two years, the 2025 offseason could end up being the organization’s first look at real cap space to find a new generation of talent to fill out the roster, but it would require Antetokounmpo to sign a new contract with the Bucks that summer and also successfully convince other players to sign up to join him in Milwaukee, which has always been a tough proposition, even for one of the best basketball players in the world.

However, if our reader Sam was looking to make a trade and find a player of Middleton’s stature or talent, the Bucks could consider a trade during this season. But there would be a few things to keep in mind:

  • Middleton is not eligible to be traded until Dec. 15 and Lopez is not eligible to be traded until Jan. 15. (There are different dates because of the differences in the contracts they signed in free agency.)
  • The lone first-round pick at their disposal to trade during this season is their 2029 first-round pick, but they could also offer up first-round pick swaps in 2028 and 2030.
  • The Bucks also have Portland’s 2024 second-round pick and their own 2027 second-round pick.

So, while a midseason trade could serve as a way for the Bucks to completely rearrange the team’s core by trading Holiday, Lopez or Middleton to acquire the type of player Sam is talking about, it seems more likely that a trade in the middle of the season would be a deal to add one final player to the Bucks’ core four to push the current version of the Bucks toward a championship. The type of move Sam is talking about would likely need to wait until the offseason.

What’s going on with Giannis’s knee? He’s been dealing with “knee soreness” for years. It seems to be getting more common every year, now to the point where he skipped international play. Is it just another way of saying “load management” or is something more serious going on? — Riley O.

Load management is obviously a major talking point around the league and a behavior the league is looking to curb with their new rules regarding player resting at the moment, but Antetokounmpo, to me, has never been someone who just sits out for the sake of sitting out.

His knee issues started to flare up in the summer of 2017 when he decided to sit out of the Eurobasket tournament for Greece because of knee soreness following his fourth NBA season. During his fifth season, Antetokounmpo told Greek reporter Nikos Varlos that those issues were due to “playing too much” and not taking the proper amount of rest during the offseason. Since then, the Bucks have been aggressive about watching his work load and making sure he does not overwork his knees.

This summer, Antetokounmpo underwent a cleanup procedure on his left knee and the recovery from that kept him out of participating in the World Cup with Greece. Bucks coach Adrian Griffin told reporters at the Bucks Foundation Golf Outing that Antetokounmpo has been in the gym working out and he is expected to be ready to go for training camp at the start of October.

Griff said he’d lean on his assistants. And, in my opinion, that’s most interesting from an offensive standpoint. The most recent Raps iteration didn’t feature many traditional guards. Terry Stotts’ Trail Blazers teams were built specifically around small guards. And Joe Prunty’s most recent stop was the pick-and-roll heavy Hawks. So, what does this offense look like? What are the overlaps/commonalities/mesh points of a Griff system, a Stotts system, and this roster heavy on bigs, maybe lower on creators? — Mike B.

What immediate schematic coaching changes should we expect to see from coach Griffin? If it’s too early to make an educated prediction, what changes would you like to see take effect immediately to set the tone for the new season? — Adam R.

When asked about specific changes to the Bucks’ schemes on either offense or defense, Griffin and assistant coach Terry Stotts have purposefully avoided giving away too many details in the lead-up to the season. It will be interesting to hear from players during training camp because sometimes coaches wait to roll everything out at once and teach these things to the group as a whole as opposed to revealing their vision individually. For example, former coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t fully explain his vision for the changes to the Bucks’ offense before the 2020-21 season until he put fresh blue boxes down on the floor for the first day of training camp.

“I like to think of myself as pretty intuitive, so some of the drills and some of the things I was doing with the assistant coaches, I kind of caught on that there was gonna be some changes as far as spacing and as far as offensive scheme in what we were trying to do, but I didn’t know exactly what it was until training camp,” Pat Connaughton told The Athletic in Jan. 2021. “I think that was kind of on purpose. I think coach wanted to make sure everyone was seeing at the same time, see how it looked and make sure everyone was learning it together.”

As training camp gets going, I think players will start to reveal some of the changes in their interviews, but for the most part, I don’t think we’ll get a great sense of what the Bucks are doing differently until they actually hit the floor. Once the Bucks start playing games, even preseason ones, the schematic changes will begin to reveal themselves somewhat quickly. Remember, in Mike Budenholzer’s first preseason game as head coach, the Bucks took 45 3-pointers, a tally that would have smashed the franchise’s regular season record for attempts (36).

That being said, I can’t imagine the changes will be quite as drastic this time around. Budenholzer totally revamped the Bucks’ offense and took the Bucks from a retro-fitted offensive unit under Jason Kidd to one of the league’s most efficiency-focused units. Eventually, Budenholzer made changes to tone down some of those first-month preferences as he figured out what his players needed as the season progressed and the Bucks progressed year-over-year.

On offense, I’m curious to see if Griffin implements more player and ball movement. When Budenholzer first got to Milwaukee, he taped five blue squares around the court to help his players understand the Bucks’ five-out spacing around the perimeter, but also for them to understand the areas on the floor they needed to fill as offensive action occurred during a play. That led to the most spread-out floor Antetokounmpo had ever seen in his NBA career to ruthlessly attack defenders one-on-one. Over time, that led to teams being able to load up against him defensively and also let them easily predict where needed to recover to find his teammates when he attacked. Also, the Bucks typically ranked near the bottom of the pack in regard to how frequently they ran pick-and-roll actions, so will that rise under Griffin? And what about dribble-handoffs?

Defensively, the one thing Griffin has said repeatedly is the desire to get more aggressive. As far as how that manifests itself next season, I’d suspect the Bucks will no longer be hyper-focused on controlling certain aspects of what teams do offensively and instead they will look to cause more chaos. During the last five seasons, Budenholzer focused on forcing teams to take shots in certain areas on the floor, never fouling, and doing everything possible to dominate the defensive glass. If Griffin is going to be focused on being more aggressive defensively, I’d suspect the Bucks’ control of those aspects of the game to lessen as they try to do more to create turnovers.

OK, Eric, you asked us and we responded in the fan survey. Are you confident that the Bucks have the pieces to win an NBA championship next season? — Ben R.

Thanks for the question, Ben. And fair is fair, so I will answer the question as well. Yes, I believe the Bucks have the elements they need to win an NBA championship in the 2023-24 season.

For me, it all starts with the players. There is little that suggests Antetokounmpo will stop being one of the best players on the planet in the next few seasons. He was dominant last season and, no matter what systems he gets put in offensively and defensively, he will be dominant again this season, his age-29 season. Having an MVP-level talent is the necessary base for any championship team. The Bucks have that.

To win a championship, you need to surround an MVP-type player with more high-level talent and the Bucks have that as well. While both will likely not end up being All-Stars this season — it tends to be difficult for three players to put up big enough numbers on the same team to all get elected to the team in the same season — Holiday and Middleton have proven to be talented enough to be All-Stars over the last three seasons. There are questions about the performance of both players — offensive playoff performance for Holiday, health for Middleton — but their track records are strong and their level of play should be high once again this season.

On top of that, the Bucks retained Lopez, who put together one of the best seasons of his career last season. He will be 35 years old, but his age was not much of a problem and even if there is some decline for him this season, he is still talented and smart. Those two things have allowed him to successfully adapt his game for 15 seasons.

The core four forms one of the best talent bases in the entire NBA. In this year’s edition of Seth Partnow’s NBA Tiers exercise, the Bucks and the Suns were the only two teams with three players in the top three tiers (the NBA’s top 39 players) and one of the only teams with four players in the top four tiers. There are undoubtedly other talented teams in the NBA that can compete with them, but the Bucks have enough top-end talent to win an NBA championship next season.

With a first-time head coach at the helm, the Bucks’ coaching talent is more of a question than it has been in the last two seasons with Budenholzer coming off a championship in 2021, but first-year head coaches have shown the ability to have success in the modern NBA. The Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship with Nick Nurse in his first season as an NBA head coach. In 2020, the Lakers won a championship with Frank Vogel, who was a veteran coach, but in his first year with the Lakers. Ime Udoka was a first-time NBA head coach who took the Celtics to the NBA Finals in 2022. Those examples don’t necessarily mean Griffin will automatically find success, but with a talented roster, it is possible for a first-year head coach to win a championship.

In the end, maybe the Bucks won’t have enough talent on the rest of the roster or the top of the roster will be too old or Griffin won’t be ready for the moment, but I am confident the Bucks are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA to have the pieces needed to win a championship this season.

(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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