May 29, 2020, 12:51 pm
Bitterness is one way to describe the mood in the Milwaukee metro when it comes to this iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s not often this team in one of the smallest markets in the league can get on the back of a super mega star that seems like he actually wants to shovel snow and wear a jacket until June in a place without the bright lights or the endorsement opportunities that would be available in a more lucrative place like New York City or Los Angeles or Miami. It’s also not often that this front office puts together the perfect combination of pieces that gel perfectly and compete for the best record in NBA history.
Of course, there are more important things in the world than the weird game with the orange ball and a nonsensically high basket where players just run back and forth for 48 minutes and we have to be cognizant of that, but it’s a gloomy time knowing this team that seemed destined to compete for a title in a modern NBA with the odds stacked against them will either never get a chance to get there or will always have an asterisk next to them for winning a title in a non-traditional fashion. The reality is that this doesn’t happen in Milwaukee often and this team didn’t cut any corners building this roster from the ground. There were no public phone calls compiling the star power. There was no jet-hunting or press conferences. There’s just basketball.
The formation of this roster has been years in the making. The core pieces were in place: Antetokounmpo was Batman, Khris Middleton was a less annoying Robin. Eric Bledsoe had spent a couple years becoming less of an athlete and more of a basketball player after some stops and starts in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Brook Lopez turned into an integral part of a championship-caliber team on an unprecedentedly affordable contract. Still, there were some problems to address coming in.
The primary issue was sorting out which of these players would stick around. Maloclm Brogdon was a restricted free agent demanding a lot of money after his 50-40-90 season. The Bucks had to address him, Middleton, and Lopez.
Brogdon drew the short straw and headed to Indiana in a sign-and-trade situation that netted a first-round draft pick. Middleton got a max deal. Lopez got compensated for playing above his contract in a one-year trial run with a four-year deal sitting around $13 million AAV.
As an aside, the Brook Lopez situation is fascinating. It’s not long ago that Lopez was scoring 20 points per game and rebounding a pathetic amount for his height (2017). The trade to Los Angeles and subsequent disaster season tanked his appeal in the current NBA and the Bucks smartly capitalized on an estranged asset who struggled more with the fit than anything else in Los Angeles.
Then there was the issue of George Hill. In a true team-context move, the Bucks waived his $18 million dollar expiring deal to sign him back for three years as a steady veteran for the second unit. The band was (mostly) back together. Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver were brought in to shoot. Robin Lopez was brought in to make fun of his brother. To overcome the sting of losing a series they maybe should have performed better in against the Raptors the year before, this Bucks team was asking some ancillary pieces to step up if Giannis couldn’t do it all. Fortunately for them, he basically can.
The Most Valuable Player… Ever?
At a point early in the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo was pacing out to have a PER over 33 and finish with the most impressive single season in NBA history. At the 10-game mark, Giannis’s PER was 33.68. From a real NBA perspective, his dominance was putting him as the frontrunner for the MVP once again with only LeBron James as the competition.
The stat line is immense with career-highs in points (29.6), rebounds (13.7) and 3-pointers (1.5). What’s more impressive is that these stats, complete with 5.8 assists, a steal and a blocked shot on 54.7% shooting from the floor (despite the added range), were compiled in a six-year low in minutes per game at only 30.9. The efficiency is staggering… except for the main issues that have deflated the tires on the Greek Freak bandwagon for his entire career from a fantasy perspective.
The turnovers continue to rise (now at 3.7 per contest), and the 63.3% from the charity stripe is 9.6% lower than 2018-19 and a 12.7% decline from 2017-18. To exacerbate the free throw hit, the 10 attempts per game at this poor efficiency made him the single biggest negative impact on any statistical category by any one player.
Again, it’s critical to remember that the standard roto/H2H category formats rate each of these categories evenly, and it’s very difficult to keep everything on the same level when the dunks and big-time blocks are more memorable than a couple missed free throws. The real-life production is his best output yet, but from a fantasy standpoint in 9-category formats, Antetokounmpo sits in 20th overall after three years of 5th, 7th and 6th respectively. There’s no way around the fact that the free throw percentage has to return to the mid-70s to become the top fantasy option in this league.
Khris Middleton, Silent Star
Khris Middleton is not the most talented player in the league. He’s not the most explosive, or the toughest, or the fastest, or the smartest. He is, however, the perfect fit for this team. He doesn’t demand the ball. He doesn’t play with an ego. This Bucks roster flourishes because the pieces just seem to fit and Middleton is the glue to that entire philosophy. He is consistent. He is reliable. He is the embodiment of Milwaukee basketball.
It may come as a surprise, but Middleton’s outspoken production equated to a very similar fantasy output as the megastar level flair of Antetokounmpo. Middleton ranked as the 22nd best player in 9-category formats at the time of the season pause, just two spots behind Antetkounmpo’s MVP stats. He got recognition from the league, making his second straight All-Star appearance, this time with an even more compelling case. His 2018 was… good. It was 18-6-4 with a steal on not horrible shooting. This season he took that to a whole new level with a career-high 21.1 points per game. The other counting stats remained amazingly consistent from the previous year:
2018: 18.3 PTS, 6.0 REB, 4.3 AST, 2.3 3-PT, 1.0 STL, 0.1 BLK, 2.3 TOV
2019: 21.1 PTS, 6.2 REB, 4.1 AST, 2.4 3-PT, 1.0 STL, 0.1 BLK, 2.1 TOV
Middleton’s 2018 season was good for the #63 player in fantasy basketball. This 41-spot jump in this season is a testament to the one thing we’ve purposely withheld when looking at these stat lines. One year removed from Malcolm Brogdon’s 50-40-90 season, Middleton had 50-40-90 in his sights as well. He was taking more shots than before (15.5 vs. 14.9 FGA and 3.6 vs. 3.4 FTA) and was making them at an incredible 49.9/41.4/90.8 clip.
Middleton’s propensity to turn a low-percentage mid-range jumper into an easy shot is reminiscent of the DeMar DeRozan/Dwyane Wade/Kobe Bryant mold that is really kind of a dying player archetype in the league today. Middleton is making it work and has been an incredible fantasy asset and boon for the Bucks taking this next step towards a championship.
The Bledshow’s Ratings are Down
Middleton’s step forward has had some unintended consequences. Eric Bledsoe has historically been an elite fantasy producer on account of his high-volume steals. He was never going to be a main scoring option on this Bucks team like he had been late in his time with the Suns, but his job is to be a bankable third option who could score when called upon and be a bulldog on the perimeter. That panned out for the first couple years in Milwaukee as a top-50 fantasy asset who was scoring in the high teens and stealing at will.
October was a rough month and a sign of things to come. In the first four games, Bledsoe averaged 10.5 points on 36.4% shooting, a far cry from his mid-teens expectation with good percentages for a point guard. The most concerning aspect of the early returns were the two steals across the four game sample.
In November, the Bledshow came back on air with a more palatable 17.1 points on 48.6% shooting. That was all well and good, but there remained a smudge on the screen with just 0.9 steals per game. We’d grown accustomed to 1.5-plus steals to buoy Bledsoe’s appeal and without that, he was just kind of a good fantasy asset that was looking like an overpay.
He yo-yoed back and forth all season, sometimes scoring well and not stealing, other times being a thief on one end and blowing layups on the other. A lot of times, he just looked lost and the Bucks had to go to George Hill in critical moments instead.
The reality of his situation is that he won’t be a high volume scorer as long as he’s on the Bucks and Antetokounmpo runs the show. The steals have to be there to make him an elite (underappreciated) fantasy guy. It’s what keeps him afloat in a shooting slump and the holding factor when everything else hits the fan. What’s more, he isn’t as integral to the Bucks’ success as we may have thought, because of the depth pieces that have stepped up and filled gaps, The next man up attitude isn’t ideal for players who aren’t stars in their own right and Bledsoe fits that mold.
The Bench Mob
One of the biggest strengths of this Bucks team was the lack of concentrated star power. Yes, Giannis is a super megastar but Middleton is no Anthony Davis to his LeBron. He’s not Russell Westbrook for James Harden. Bledsoe took a step back and didn’t produce what was expected. Brook Lopez is what he is. The big calling card of this roster is that all the pieces are just fitting together.
This stretches all the way to the bench with the steady hand of George Hill, the progression and energy of Donte DiVincenzo, the locker room linkup between the Lopez brothers. Kyle Korver was reliable for a big shot in a pinch. Ersan Ilyasova provided NBA-starter production when given the minutes. Pat Connaughton dunked. Marvin Williams came through late in the season through the buyout market as a solid veteran presence that could make a 3-pointer and shore up the defense like Wesley Matthews couldn’t.
The biggest surprise from this second unit was the development of Donte DiVincenzo. The Big Ragu seemed like a reach when the Bucks took him just outside the lottery in 2018 due to his NCAA tournament play and Final Four Most Outstanding Player honor. The first season was a total disaster marred by injury and ineffectiveness. Left heel bursitis knocked him out for a majority of the 2018 season and there was some real doubt about his ability to contribute to the cause. He played hard, he played smart, he made big shots and was a critical component to this roster. The steals and lack of backbreaking mistakes launched him into the top-100 for fantasy purposes.
Another member of the backcourt and a playoff veteran, Hill regularly outperformed Bledsoe and was solid every single night he played. He wasn’t a high-volume passer and didn’t have flashy numbers but the percentages were abnormally high for a small guard. Late-round value and reliability in crunch time from a player no one thinks about is what makes George Hill so critical.
Moving into the frontcourt, the shrewd acquisitions of Korver and Ilyasova have provided the squad with depth and, in Ilyasova’s case, some fantasy goodness when The Greek Freak has to miss time. Even Connaughton had flashes of deep-league value. It’s a blessing in real life but a curse for fantasy because it was hard to predict who would perform when. DiVincenzo and Hill were the constants on both ends of the floor but outside of that, it was a lot of minute counts that were interesting but not actionable, close but not ideal, dependable in real life but not in fantasy. They don’t care about our fantasy teams so shame on them.
The Wes Matthews Debacle
Mr. Wisconsin Basketball 2005 didn’t have to do a lot in his return to Milwaukee. The Marquette product (I’m obligated to say he went to a great school but I can’t because I can’t live like this with him.) just had to stand in the corners, make open 3-pointers and not get embarrassed on defense. He only made 1.6 3-pointers and only shot 39.7% from the field. He got embarrassed on defense and embarrassed everyone with his inability to not be an eyesore. He’s the bane of my existence and my kryptonite. Every single time I fall for him in this situation. I touted him as a waiver wire pickup early in the season because it seemed to make perfect sense that he would be some interpretation of his Dallas years where he hovered around the top-100 as a low-teens scorer who could cash in triples and swipe a ball or two if he was feeling frisky.
He never performs in the moment that’s needed, Donte DiVincenzo should start over him and at this point I just feel like the vendetta is personal. At this point in his career, he is just erratic and there’s no two ways around it. There was a time before the Achilles injury when Wes was a good NBA starter. We know those days are gone but he could have met us in the middle somewhere between Dallas and this tragic version. It’s supposed to be easier when defenses are collapsing around the league MVP. He’s getting less opportunities (24.7 minutes per game) and not cashing in on what he gets. It’s a recipe for disappointment and sadness.
There are at least 400 more words that describe my disdain for how badly this turned out. I’m sad. I’m upset. I’m furious. I’m horribly distraught. I’ve never wanted J.J. Redick to be a Buck again more in my entire life. I just want Wesley Matthews to not be on this team. He isn’t helping. If the NBA comes back, I want to see the redemption arc. Please stay, Giannis. It’s not Wes’s fault, he’s just washed up. It doesn’t snow that much in May.