No matter how you might view the particular vulnerabilities of this Milwaukee Bucks team, this is a stunning development that they find themselves down 3-0 to the Miami Heat. Barring a recovery that has never once happened in the NBA, the Bucks, who came into the bubble with the best defense in the league, the almost certain back-to-back MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the fifth-best point differential in NBA history, are one loss away from going home in the second round.
It’s not to say nobody saw a tough series with the Heat coming, but a potential sweep?
Again, it’s stunning.
What’s not stunning, at least to me, is how it’s happening. The Bucks are extremely predictable on both ends of the floor. They allow a ton of 3-pointers with their big-dropping, non-switching principles, and the Heat have a ton of shooters. Offensively, they rely on a guy who can’t shoot. And in today’s NBA, that is eventually going to be a death sentence.
That guy, of course, is Antetokounmpo, who is one of the most uniquely gifted players in NBA history. But he can’t shoot. He doesn’t possess any particular moves as far as his handle or ability to separate with counters. Outside of trying to run through defenders like bowling pins, or the occasional post-up (which he should do more of), he can’t create much of any half-court offense as the primary initiator. And it’s a big problem.
When the Bucks eventually lose this series, there’s going to be a lot of talk about how Giannis needs better teammates, and whether he’ll leave Milwaukee to find them. You’re going to hear all about Mike Budenholzer and his inability, or unwillingness, to adapt from a schematic standpoint, remaining glued to his predictable principles at his team’s peril, not to mention his frustrating unwillingness to play Giannis more minutes (he hasn’t played more than 37 in a game this series).
There is fairness in all this criticism. It’s probably true that Giannis’ current teammates aren’t good enough to win a title, or evidently even compete for one. It’s definitely true that Bud’s coaching hasn’t been nearly flexible enough. But it’s also true that Giannis isn’t good enough. That’s what can’t get lost in this.
When you win back-to-back MVPs (again, Giannis will almost certainly win his second in a row this year), it is expected that you can be the main anchor of a championship-capable offense. So I don’t want to hear about all the “other” things Giannis does. Yes, he’s an elite, versatile defender. So was Draymond Green in his heyday. Yes, he’s a monster in transition. So is Ben Simmons, albeit it to a lesser degree. But neither of those guys are coming close to winning MVPs. Let alone two of them.
MVP players create offense entirely on their own. Do you still need help? Of course. These days everyone needs help. But LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kevin Durant — these guys can be the support that sustains everyone else. They ultimately cover for the flaws of others. Giannis, on the other hand, needs his teammates to cover for his one gaping flaw.
He cannot shoot.
I know that sounds simplistic, but basketball is pretty simple in a lot of ways. The Bucks are certainly simple. From an offensive standpoint, they operate on the premise that a defense can’t cover two things at once by putting 3-point shooters all around a supposedly unstoppable downhill force in Giannis. As the theory goes, if you come down off the shooters to stop Giannis, they hit you with threes. If you stay attached to the shooters. Giannis dunks. Pick your poison.
But it’s not that simple in the playoffs, where teams (Miami being one of them) are capable enough defensively to stunt down on a driver and still recover out to shooters. Toronto is another team with enough long, athletic defenders to guard against both options, and not coincidentally it was Toronto that sent Milwaukee home last season. If somehow Milwaukee were to come back to beat the Heat, it would see either Toronto (again) or Boston in the conference finals. Boston can do all the same things Toronto and Miami can.
Which is to say, Giannis, whether it was in the second round or one round later, was eventually going to need some kind of counter when it’s suddenly not as simple as putting his head down and barreling to the rim or making a basic kick-out pass to a wide-open shooter. Being able to get to the rim is great. But you need other paths to a bucket.
Multi-faceted defenses feast on one-dimensional perimeter players. If you’re a primary post player like prime Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan, not being able to shoot is a different story, obviously. Perimeter-initiating stars, though, have a ceiling when they have to be the best player without a reliable shot. It was true for Russell Westbrook after Kevin Durant left. It was true for Derrick Rose even in his MVP years. And it’s proving true for Giannis, who is undeniably great but more of a system-reliant player than we talk about. If everything is in perfect place and humming all around him, and a coach puts him in the most optimized positions, sure, he can feel unstoppable. But most multiple-time MVPs aren’t that dependent on circumstance.
Miami is forming not so much a wall in front of Giannis, but a bubble around him. They’re in his line of vision from all angles. He can’t just go one-on-one, get to a spot and use his length to pull up for a jumper before help digs down. He can’t step back for a three. He can’t, in fact, create any space to speak of, with his lack of creativity with his handle nearly as limiting as his lacking jumper. His one option is to put his head down, try to run over whoever’s in front of him, and when that doesn’t yield results, try to spin or Euro-step his way out of trouble. It works sometimes, most often in transition. But it doesn’t work nearly enough to serve as the primary support of an offensive system.
That was evident last year. It’s evident again this year. Perhaps Giannis will eventually become such a good shooter, like Kawhi has done, that it will flip the entire script on how he has to be guarded. But until then, incremental improvement isn’t going to be enough. Team will still force him to beat them that way, and over the long haul, he won’t be able to. Which means he probably needs more capable creators on his team to cover for this particular deficiency. Which, ultimately, means he isn’t quite the player that back-to back MVPs would suggest, at least not at this point. That type of player doesn’t get covered for; he does the covering.
Do the Bucks have the resources to bring in the types of players that can cover for Giannis, who can then be allowed to roam free and be evaluated for what he can do rather than what he can’t? Or will he need to go elsewhere to get that kind of support? There are no clear answers. Certainly no easy ones.
But right now what is clear is Giannis isn’t quite good enough relative to the situation he’s in to win a championship. Meaning one way or another, that situation is probably going to need to change. That could mean a coaching change. The Golden State Warriors flipped Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr when they didn’t feel the former was optimizing their star player, and they won the title the very next year.
It could also mean Milwaukee getting super creative without any cap room to bring in more capable reinforcements; a true creator off the dribble would be fantastic since Giannis is not that. Or it could mean Giannis individually getting significantly better as a shooter and playmaker. All l’m saying is we can’t ignore that last part. Giannis has a part in this, too. We can say he needs a better coach or he needs better teammates and that can be true, but to suggest Giannis’ flaw(s) aren’t also a part of this seemingly failing Bucks equation would be disingenuous.