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Milwaukee Bucks

Why you should watch the Bucks in 2017-18

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) talks with Thon Maker (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
AP Photo/Aaron Gash

The Milwaukee Bucks are trendy in the Eastern Conference. They employ every basketball geek’s favorite anomaly, Giannis Antetokounmpo. They have several young players brimming with intrigue. With the Eastern Conference looking so weak after this summer, they have the potential to do significant damage.

A lot of people hoped they would do that damage a year ago. The Bucks looked like the sleeper team most pundits and fans wanted to anoint as the next big thing. With the Greek Freak turning into one of the superstars of the NBA, Milwaukee seemed poised to leap into the next tier in the East. Nobody expected the Bucks to start challenging LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but at the same time, they could start ruffling feathers elsewhere in the East and move up the Mortal Kombat ladder.

Then right before training camp began last year, the Bucks found out Khris Middleton had a torn hamstring. Early reports projected him to miss most of the season. While the Bucks looked good on paper, removing a two-way difference-maker like Middleton severely prevented them from rattling cages in the East. Giannis played ridiculous basketball throughout the season on his way to All-NBA Second Team honors. Jabari Parker blew out his knee again and Middleton came back earlier than originally expected.

The Bucks merely limped their way to 42 wins, which earned them the 6-seed in the East. They won nine more games than the previous season, but it still wasn’t the pre-training camp leap many hoped to see. They lasted six games in the first round before losing to Toronto. It wasn’t a disappointing season because the Bucks returned to the playoffs. This season, the Bucks have real expectations they probably need to make.

All season long, we’ll see if the Bucks can be a top-five team in the East and crack that top four. Regardless of where they finish, there are a ton of reasons to keep an eye on the Bucks and enjoy their 2017-18 season.

Thon Maker doing anything

You probably thought this was going to be Giannis first, right? We’ll get to him in a bit. The existence of Thon Maker within the construct of this team is fascinating. He’s just 20 years old, but last season the Bucks started him in 34 of his 57 games. He didn’t play a whole lot. Maker averaged 13.7 minutes as a starter and just 4.4 as a reserve. They’d throw him out there and see what he was capable of doing. Then the Bucks would usually move Greg Monroe or John Henson quickly into his spot and he wouldn’t play much. The Bucks just dipped Maker’s toes into the NBA water, but they made sure he saw tough competition when they did.

It’s tough to parse out much of what Maker is as an NBA player. He has barely played — when he did play, he was an afterthought. One area in which Maker excelled is the pick-and-roll. In very limited opportunities (39 possessions), Maker scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions. He showed good hands and great footwork to gather himself in a balanced way. He also stretched the floor with the pick-and-pop.

What intrigues people around the NBA so much is his shooting touch. He didn’t take a lot of outside shots but he knocked down 28 of 74 (37.8 percent) 3-pointers. He knocked down 16 of 40 (40 percent) open catch-and-shoot jumpers. It isn’t a big enough sample size to stamp him as a stretch big, but anything extra Maker can give the Bucks this season will make them all the more dangerous.

Their lineup of the present and future

Maker found himself in the most intriguing and effective lineups for the Bucks. Having Giannis, Maker, Middleton, and Tony Snell on the floor with a point guard killed for Milwaukee. That foursome cuts off a ton on the defensive end of the floor and can find a useful role on offense. Antetokounmpo is obviously the focal point who runs the unit well. When Malcolm Brogdon is on the court with them, they flirt with a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio (2.73). Replace Brogdon with Matthew Dellavedova and they’re still at a 2.10-1 assist-turnover ratio. That would be first in the NBA over the course of the regular season.

A big reason for such good ratios is that neither of those lineups turn the ball over. Both sit in the 10.3 to 10.4 percent turnover rate, respectively. Those two lineups play very slow and grind out possessions on both ends of the floor. It makes it easier that the wingspans constrict the floor and make it hard to breathe.

The foursome with Brogdon puts up 111.7 points per 100 possessions on offense and outscores opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Replace the Rookie of the Year with Dellavedova and the lineup outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. This lineup didn’t put up the same offensive numbers but they held opponents to just 94.4 per 100. Giannis, Middleton, Maker, and Snell will do a lot for them this season. Those lineups should be quite effective.

Full season of Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton can do a little bit of everything on the court really well. He plays extremely good defense, showing the ability to switch most situations and hold his own. He stands around 6-7 or 6-8, but his 7-foot wingspan shrinks the court in his favor. Middleton has excelled as a playmaker on the wing, rebounds solidly for his position, and can operate in the pick-and-roll to score. Mostly, what sets him apart from most non-star wings is his ability to do all of that while also being a dead-eye shooter.

Since joining the Bucks four years ago, Middleton has made 40.8 percent of his 3-pointers. Last season in 29 games, Middleton hit 43.3 percent of his deep shots. Over the course of a full season, that would have been the highest mark of his career. Most of his 3-point attempts come off the catch. He knocked down 46 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season. Any way you try to slice up his 3-point shooting, it remains consistently lethal across the board. His only weakness is shooting 3-pointers in a pull-up situation. But he rarely takes those.

A full season of Middleton next to Giannis should do real damage. When Middleton was on the court last season, the Bucks possessed a net rating of plus-5.7. Put him on the sidelines and their net rating dropped to minus-1.0. The previous season, the Bucks were minus-0.1 per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor. That net rating dropped to minus-12.6 per 100 with Middleton on the bench. Giannis needs Middleton to get the Bucks to realize their potential on the court.

Jabari Parker will eventually be back

It sounds like Jabari Parker won’t return to the court until sometime in February. That’s disappointing but understandable for a guy who has blown out his knee so many times. I don’t know what we’re supposed to expect out of him at that point. Parker is a potentially special scorer but he uses his athleticism a lot to do that. His jumper is smooth and improving, but he still got by often on his quick first step and crazy bounce.

Whenever he comes back, many just hope we’ll get the occasional Jabari Parker dunk highlight.

Here is Giannis in transition

What can you say about the Greek Freak that hasn’t been said already? His only drawback comes in the form of a weak outside shot, but everything else makes it look like a center playing basketball in a funhouse mirror. Giannis moves in a way that makes his opponents look like they’re trudging waist deep in a swamp. It’s hard to tell where his last stride ends and the next one begins.

Where he’s at his most freakish comes in transition. He chops up the length of the 94-foot floor with as few steps as inhumanly possible. Look at the way he not only runs the floor but stays nimble in getting past opponents. Nobody in the NBA shields the defender on the break better while still remaining completely under control for the layup. He slows his body’s momentum to have the scrambling defender get himself out of the way.

And of course, the nimble feet don’t always lead to layups. Giannis provides thunderous and deflating dunks in seemingly impossible situations.

Some of those takeoff points just don’t make any sense. That’s why he was the most effective high-volume transition scorer in basketball. Nine players finished with at least 300 transition possessions. Giannis was the most efficient at 128.1 points per 100 transition possessions. He’s ridiculous.

Here is Giannis blocking shots

That isn’t all Giannis is good for around the rim. He protects the other end of the floor extremely well. The most spectacular blocks usually come in chasedowns in transition. These are typically the most fun because everybody knows what’s going to happen. We can see Giannis chopping his steps up for the right timing. He stalks his prey and then unleashes a rude slap of the layup attempt. In reality, he should be offended an NBA player would even try him in the open floor.

That isn’t the only spot he blocks shots in. Antetokounmpo blocked 151 shots last season and allowed just 46.1 percent at the rim. Not bad for a point guard/point forward/regular forward/point center/problem. In the next video, there are actually a lot of plays in which Giannis screws up a defensive assignment or bites on a fake or just loses track of his man. Normally, opponents would take advantage of these lapses. However, Giannis is so quick to correct his mistake that it doesn’t matter. That wingspan doesn’t hurt either.

Whether or not Giannis finds a consistent jumper

Giannis’s biggest flaw is probably that he loves too much. His second biggest flaw comes in the form of a jumper. He really can’t shoot and while it doesn’t hinder him from being great, it doesn’t prevent him from intergalactic domination. At least for now. The biggest thing to look for in 2017-18 is whether he improved his jump shot.

He shot 34.7 percent on 118 3-point attempts as a rookie. In the three years since, Giannis has made just 25.2 percent of his 333 3-point shots. He can’t shoot from the outside yet. It doesn’t matter if it’s catch-and-shoot or off the dribble. He’s sub-30 percent no matter what. It doesn’t matter if he’s wide-open. Giannis doesn’t knock down those 3-pointers. He’s a bad mid-range shooter, as well.

Part of the problem is the gift and the curse of those long arms. With arms as long as his, the windup motion for the jumper takes a lot longer. It covers a lot more airspace. He has to get into that motion and complete before the defender can react. It’s like unlocking a tape measurer and watching the tape hurry back into the roll. Compacting that shooting motion so it doesn’t cover as much ground is really hard for anybody with those dimensions.

If Antetokounmpo starts finding a better shooting motion and consistency this season, it’ll all be over for the non-LeBron James part of the East. But even if he doesn’t, the Bucks will be some of the best stuff you see in the East. Watch them.

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