Five questions that will determine Giannis and the Bucks’ return to title contention

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As long as the Milwaukee Bucks have star Giannis Antetokounmpo in his prime, they begin every NBA season with championship expectations.

Despite losing Khris Middleton, arguably their second-best player, for the final 10 games of the 2022 playoffs with a sprained MCL in his left knee, the Bucks took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics to seven games before losing in an epic second-round playoff series. Milwaukee enters the 2022-23 season with the third-highest odds — behind last year’s two Finals teams, Boston and the Golden State Warriors — to win its second NBA championship in three years, according to Caesars Sportsbook.

The Bucks have won 50 games in three of the past four seasons (and they were on pace to win 50 games during a pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season), and they’re sticking to a formula that works, especially when their Big Three — Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday — are healthy. Put simply by Bucks general manager Jon Horst: “We believe in our group. It’s a group that’s proven they can win.”

That belief was reiterated by the Bucks’ actions this offseason, when the team decided to run it back with the highest roster retention rate in the NBA. Of the 20 players on the preseason roster, 16 were a part of the organization last season, the most in the league. Each of their top nine players by minutes played last season return this season, including 13 of the top 15.

“It’s just nice to have the same people around, people that you’ve won a championship with,” Antetokounmpo said at media day. “And we try to work harder and get better to win another one. You don’t see it very often in the NBA, when you have the same group of people and you just add to it.”

But keeping the same squad intact is only half the battle. At the start of training camp, Milwaukee still had key players recovering from injuries and tweaks to work out defensively as it aims to return to title contention. As the Bucks enter the season in pursuit of their second title in three years, here are five questions that will define their title run:


What new heights will Giannis Antetokounmpo ascend to this season?

After the Bucks’ Game 7 loss to the Celtics, Antetokounmpo, who had just played another 43 minutes in a series in which he averaged 40 minutes and a stat line of 33.9 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists, sat at the postgame lectern and talked about how much he enjoyed matching up with the Celtics’ top-ranked defense.

“I don’t think I shied away from the physicality of it. Any of the games,” Antetokounmpo said. “It definitely made me a better player.”

Just two months later, Antetokounmpo spent three weeks leading the Greek national team to the quarterfinals at Eurobasket. After the team’s loss to Germany, he called the European game “way harder than the NBA” because the international rules allow defenses to clog the lane. And that, again, he enjoyed it.

“Playing with so much less space just helps me figure out things,” Antetokounmpo said at Bucks media day. “Because now, when I go to an NBA game, I just feel like there’s much space for me to be able to operate and create for my teammates and for myself.”

Antetokounmpo finished third in MVP voting last season after averaging 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists, his highest finish since winning the award in back-to-back years in 2019-20. The Bucks plan to be smart about Antetokounmpo’s playing time during the preseason after he logged so much basketball over the summer, but when he’s on the floor, Antetokounmpo has made his dominance look routine over the past four seasons. In his preseason debut against the Atlanta Hawks in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Antetokounmpo put up 19 points, seven rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes.

“He looks great,” Bucks teammate Grayson Allen said. “He looks like he just battled hard in Eurobasket and is already in midseason shape.”

Talk to people around the Bucks, and they’ll tell you they can’t wait to see how their two-time MVP harnesses his summer lessons.

“Talking to Giannis, he loves when things are harder for him and he can learn and grow from those moments,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “And you just feel like he’s going to take it to this season, and he’s going to continue to improve and get better and be even more prepared for the playoffs when they come this season.”

And although Antetokounmpo has acknowledged he has moved on from focusing on the regular-season MVP award, if he continues to match the dominant production he has made routine for the past four seasons, he inevitably will be up for it again.


Will the Bucks have their Big Three on the floor when it matters?

Just like they ended last season, the Bucks are going to begin this season playing without Middleton as he recovers from offseason wrist surgery.

Middleton has healed from the MCL injury that kept him out of the end of the postseason, but he had surgery to repair a wrist he said he injured during a game in February. He has acknowledged he won’t be ready to play when the Bucks open the season in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, but the Bucks are optimistic his absence will be a short one. Middleton had the cast on his left wrist removed two weeks before the start of training camp, and team sources indicated his absence at the start of the season will be measured in weeks, not months.

Even if Middleton is not expected to be sidelined for long, his absence continues a trend from last season that the Bucks would like to not carry over. Each of the Bucks’ Big Three — Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday — missed at least 15 games last season.

During the past two seasons, including playoffs, when the Bucks have had their three best players on the floor, they have been nearly unbeatable, going 86-34 (.717 winning percentage). When one — or more — of those players sits, the team becomes much more vulnerable, going 34-35 overall (.493).

Antetokounmpo and Holiday have played 18 games together without Middleton over the past two seasons, 10 of which came in last year’s playoffs, and the Bucks have gone 11-7. To make up for Middleton’s absence, Budenholzer has turned to a few different options with his starting lineup: subbing in Allen or Pat Connaughton to provide more scoring or starting Bobby Portis alongside Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez for a supersized lineup with three bigs.

“Grayson’s ability to play as either a secondary ball handler, pick-and-roll guy or a guy we can play through a little bit, I think he’s really grown in his confidence,” Budenholzer said. “His ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands, I think that’s been great. To a lesser degree, same with Pat Connaughton. I would like to get the ball to him, get it in his hands a little bit more.

“Bobby’s versatility and Giannis’ versatility defensively to play some bigger lineups and have those guys guard some wings, try to be bigger, more physical and see if that’s a lineup that can give us some advantages. It’s really difficult to play without Khris, but I think there’s positives that come from it.”


Can the Bucks alter their defense to limit opponent 3s?

Since Budenholzer became coach in Milwaukee before the 2018-19 season, the Bucks have been known for their defensive prowess, leading the league in defensive efficiency twice during his tenure. Their scheme emphasized limiting shots at the rim while allowing opponents to shoot 3-pointers, primarily above the break, which are typically harder than corner 3s, and being selective about which shooters they leave open.

In three of the Bucks’ four seasons under Budenholzer, the Bucks have surrendered the most 3s per game in the NBA, but the proof was in the results, which is why Budenholzer stayed true to his strategy. However, two weeks into camp, Budenholzer’s defense is beginning to undergo a slight makeover, with more of an emphasis on limiting opponent 3s.

In 2021-22, the Bucks allowed 40.6 3-point attempts per game, the most in NBA history, and their defense fell to 14th in the league in defensive efficiency, after ranking No. 1, No. 1 and No. 9 in Budenholzer’s first three seasons. Through the first three preseason games, they’ve focused on cutting down on that number — limiting teams to 28, 22 and 31 3-point attempts so far.

“Certainly, I think Boston was a big part of it. You look at the box score, you look at the math, it was hard for us to win,” Budenholzer said last week. “Historically, we’ve been a very good defensive team and still allowed a lot of 3s, which isn’t something we liked, but you kind of live with it. But we backslid last year to a very average defensive team and still gave up a lot of 3s.”

Milwaukee allowed the most and third-most above-the-break 3-point attempts per game in NBA history the past two seasons, and opponents are starting to make its defense pay. The Bucks were 26th in 3-point field goal percentage allowed in the past two seasons, a drop-off after ranking in the middle of the pack in the first two seasons under Budenholzer.

The playoffs only exposed those issues more. During its conference semifinals series, Boston made 110 3-pointers, the third most in a playoff series all time, and hit 53 more 3-pointers than Milwaukee, the largest differential in any series in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Further proof is in the spacing. Consider Celtics reserve Grant Williams‘ Game 7; he shot 7-for-18 from beyond the arc and enjoyed an average of 9.5 feet of separation from his closest defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That’s the most recorded in a playoff series since tracking data began in 2014. There’s uncontested … and then there’s uncontested.

The Celtics made 70 uncontested 3s in the series, again the most since 2014.

“It’s just a little bit more of a focus on changing some of our habits from last year,” Allen said. “Just small positioning here and there. When a guy is driving, you don’t want to overhelp or shift all the way — you’re going to trust that either the guy guarding the ball is going to guard him straight up or it’s going to be Brook, Giannis … one of the bigger guys coming over. The guards are staying home. Trying to either completely limit the pass or be there to not let them get the shot off after.”


Could a healthy Lopez reinforce the Bucks’ protection at the rim?

From 2018 to ’21, the Bucks’ defense ranked first in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed at the rim. Last season, they dropped to 13th.

It’s no coincidence that fall coincided with the absence of their best rim protector in Lopez, who was limited to 13 regular-season games after undergoing back surgery in December.

“He really changes us,” Budenholzer said.

The Bucks are counting on a few veterans, including Lopez (34), Wesley Matthews — who will turn 36 on Oct. 14 and has missed the past two preseason games because of an ankle injury — and George Hill. The 36-year-old backup point guard said he contemplated retiring after an injury-riddled 2021-22 but decided to come back, because “as a competitor, I didn’t want to go out like that.”

But none are more important to the Bucks’ title hopes than Lopez, who is entering the final season of a four-year, $52 million contract he signed in 2019. Team sources have raved about the way Lopez showed up to training camp this season: leaner, in peak shape and motivated after missing most of the 2021-22 season to play his way into a contract extension.

Holiday and Allen both have said Lopez gives the team a safety net in the interior that makes them more comfortable sticking to their altered defensive strategy of staying home on 3-point shooters.

Per Second Spectrum tracking, the Bucks ranked 16th in defensive efficiency against on-ball screens last season, down from third from 2018 to ’21. The biggest difference was in the type of defensive coverage. Over the past four seasons, Milwaukee used drop coverage 53.1% of the time with Lopez in the lineup compared to 43.2% of the time when he’s off the court.

“He’s in the best physical condition I’ve seen,” Budenholzer said. “He seems hungry. … I feel like he’s moving well at both ends of the court. His aggressiveness is in a good place.”


Can forward Joe Ingles return from an ACL injury in time for a playoff run?

On media day, Horst rejected the notion that his team did not make any major moves during the offseason. Instead, he pointed to Ingles, who had surgery to repair his torn left ACL in February but signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract to join Milwaukee during free agency.

Ingles has not resumed basketball activities yet and the Bucks have cautioned that there are many steps along the way to complete his rehab, but Horst pointed to January as a realistic timeline for when Ingles could return to the court. While the Bucks wait, they have been raving about the prospects of adding his shooting, toughness and experience in the postseason.

“Joe is one of the ones that you hate to play against,” Holiday said. “He’s an a-hole playing against him, I’m not even gonna lie to you. Playing against him is the worst because he’s physical, he’s kinda dirty and talks trash. Now that he’s on my team, I’m happy.

“Getting him back and getting him healthy, what he brings to our team and what he brings to the game, I love. He can shoot, so he’s obviously an offensive threat, but the way that he passes and uses ball fakes, he’s super smart. “

Ingles, 35, was shooting a career-worst 34.7% from 3 for the Utah Jazz last season before the injury, but he has a long track record as a marksman. In his eight-year career, he is a 40.8% shooter from deep.

“Joe is a big deal for us,” Horst said. “We’ll either be right or wrong, that’s the way this business works, but that’s not just a minor thing. That’s a pretty big impact to our team.”

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