It’s been an eventful sort of offseason for the former NBA champions. A year removed from their Finals heroics in Phoenix, the Bucks ultimately fell short against the Finals-bound Boston Celtics sans their best player. It wasn’t as humbling a defeat this time around, though, as the Giannis-led Bucks bowed out in seven games with a roster that just couldn’t generate enough offense without its smooth-shooting swingman in Khris Middleton to round out its triumvirate of stars.
With the Cream City roster all but set, let’s take a look at the new pieces they acquired to plug the holes that were exposed by the Celtics. What are the new-look Bucks looking like heading into this season, and do they have a chance to make another deep playoff run?
The Big Three (and company)
It’s almost destined to be a forgotten fact, but recent history proves this to be true: Milwaukee’s core trio in Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are still one of the league’s most dominant units. In games where the three are healthy enough to play together, they’re a safe bet to take on any other trio in a seven-game series.
Their strength is not in their overall talent quotient but in their seamless cohesion. There are no overlaps in their roles, and their skill sets allow them to play off each other in a way that makes each piece of the trio better.
They’re probably not going to go down as a “Big Three” in contrast to the titan trios lording over the association these days, and that’s perfectly okay. Pound-for-pound, they’re still the best triumvirate in an association that erroneously believes you can never have too many pounds.
Though not part of the Bucks’ headlining trio, Brook Lopez deserves to be mentioned alongside them given the critical role he has played (and hopefully, will continue to play) for the team’s interior defense. He averaged the fifth-most blocks in the 2022 playoffs and was sorely missed throughout the regular season as evidenced by the team’s middling defense all season long.
Ask any assortment of Bucks fans, and a consensus immediately becomes clear: Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis were integral to the team’s 2021 title run and are nearly just as important as the starters mentioned before them.
This offseason, the Bucks’ most effectual moves were perhaps not in their additions but in their maneuvering to keep the aforestated super-subs. It might not show up so loudly in the box score, but the grit and personality that Connaughton and Portis bring to the court have always had everything to do with Milwaukee’s success in the past two years. Though not necessarily stars, they do practically everything the Bucks need to eke out wins: they space the floor, play spirited defense irregardless of the matchup, and score timely buckets when the situation calls for it.
Connaughton, a do-everything guard who recorded his best season from beyond the arc with a 39.5 percent three-point clip and 5.7 attempts per game, is never lacking in effort. He finished the season fifth in contested shots per game (6.8) among guards, per NBA.com/stats. And that’s not even his best quality: he’s also a nimble, switchable defender who can take on quicker guards as swiftly as he can keep step with heftier forwards.
On the other hand, Portis also made things happen for the Bucks in the absence of Brook Lopez, pouring in career-bests in points (14.6) and rebounds (9.1) per game while shooting 39.3 percent from deep. Per PBP Stats, the Bucks outscored opponents by a net plus-7.0 in the minutes Portis played versus minus-0.7 with him on the bench.
The Bucks also re-signed fan favorite Jevon Carter for tertiary ball-handling duties and above-average ball-hawking at the point guard position. More than just being a dogged defender, Carter knocked down 55.8 percent of his threes with the Bucks last season, showing he’s more than capable of being that complementary guard off the bench.
Much to the chagrin of the Bucks faithful, though, he hardly got any run in the playoffs, and it still remains to be seen if his value in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s eyes has finally turned around.
Serge Ibaka, a dog in his own right, is also likely coming off the bench to give Lopez a rest without sacrificing much in the way of rim protection and floor-spacing from the five spot. Just like Jevon, though, Budenholzer never saw the need to plug Ibaka into lineups, and he may just be on the team for insurance purposes in the event Lopez’s lingering back issues rear their heads once more.
Without a doubt, the most consequential acquisitions this season are Marjon Beauchamp and Joe Ingles.
In the best-case scenario, Ingles, though coming into the season still nursing injuries, would serve as a tertiary ball-handler to carry some of the playmaking load for Jrue Holiday to focus on defense and shot-creation. If such a title were to exist, Ingles would manifestly be recognized as an All-League role-player with his all-around play as the Utah Jazz’s principal glue guy in their playoff runs of years past.
He’s not as spry as he once was, but he still managed to hold guards to 41.1 percent efficiency through 45 games a year ago, per NBA.com/stats. He was called the poor man’s Draymond Green for a reason, and those talents would be best utilized by a Bucks team that spent practically all of last season looking for a PJ Tucker replacement. His long ball took a bit of a dip in that time at 34.7 percent, though, and fans will be waiting to see if the 34-year-old will be able to bounce back on the offensive end post-injury.
And while it’s tough to lean on a rookie so heavily, Beauchamp has the potential and physical tools to take on the hardest defensive matchups for Budenholzer as he showed for the Bucks in the Summer League. In just 26.5 minutes per game, the 24th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft hit 45.8 percent of his 3-point attempts while consistently making plays against the opposition’s best scorers. It’s not a conclusive picture of the kind of player he can eventually be, but it does mean that the potential is there for the Bucks to build on.
It could be argued that the Bucks have not had a perimeter defender of his caliber in a minute; last season, they had to depend on an aging Wesley Matthews to play that role after losing Tucker to the Miami Heat in free agency. Now it’s just a matter of whether or not he can earn those minutes in practice.
Though not a wing, Sandro Mamukelashvili is also another wildcard to look out for, particularly early in the season. From the NBA Summer League to the FIBA World Cup, Mamu has shown every indication that he’s poised to make a big leap in his sophomore season. He’s shown marked improvement in practically every aspect of his game on the offensive end, and the playmaking and floor-spacing at his size that made him such an interesting prospect in college are slowly turning out to be his biggest strengths.
At the end of the day, though, his biggest question mark has been his rather shoddy defense both on the perimeter and in the paint. Only time will tell if he’s able to outgrow this rather glaring limitation in his game.
The situational plug-ins
After Grayson Allen started for most of the season and impressed with his scorching hot shooting against Chicago, his role on the Bucks is suddenly up in the air after subpar showings thereafter. Where he once looked like the team’s starting shooting guard of the future, his offensive limitations and overall inconsistency in the last playoffs might be seen as liabilities moving forward into the next season.
At the same time, while his role is in question, his fit never has been. Allen could just as easily start for them again this season given his competent floor-spacing ability. But if his defensive chops and offensive limitations don’t improve from what they were a year ago, he could be just another shooter to complement Antetokounmpo’s inward gravity ala Bryn Forbes, and Budenholzer may have to look elsewhere to fill his starting shooting guard spot next to the Big Three.
Speaking of which, the 35-year-old Wesley Matthews has proven himself to still be a remarkably competent perimeter defender and serviceable long-range bomber at this point in his career. Most notably, he started for the Bucks in their last playoff run and took on the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Jayson Tatum.
It’s tough to say how much he’ll still have left in the tank heading into his 13th season in the league, but his talents will always be a welcome addition to a defensive-minded Bucks squad hungry for another deep playoff run.
As it currently stands, there are also indications that the Bucks’ offseason is still far from over. First reported by Brett Siegel of Sports Illustrated, the Bucks were one of at least three teams inquiring on the availability of slashing wing Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz. The feasibility of the potential deal makes sense after Utah already traded two of its best players and is clearly looking to load up on draft capital to build for the future.
The Bucks did just hand sharpshooting forward Jordan Nwora a qualifying offer and it remains to be seen if Nwora will see another game in a Bucks uniform after two largely underwhelming seasons with the team. The team’s front office could also be looking at offloading playoff underperformers like Grayson Allen and George Hill in favor of some more scoring punch off the bench.
Clarkson would be the perfect player to slot into that role. In his last season, he put up averages of 16.0 points, 3.5 boards, and 2.5 assists per game on decent splits. His ability to get to the rim would offset the lack of tertiary playmaking on the team’s secondary unit, while his established chemistry with Joe Ingles could do wonders for the team’s bottom-10 bench production a year ago.
After a narrow Game 7 elimination this year sans their second-best player, the Bucks put in a reasonably successful postseason after plugging a few of their remaining holes and retaining the most important members of their core. All things considered, this is by and large the same team that won the NBA Finals in 2021 with a few extra pieces in tow. With a full offseason of rest for the starters and a season of development for their younger pieces, the Bucks should be a safe bet for another deep playoff run — even with the growth of the rest of the league around them.