It’s a legitimately overdone film trope. Still, the endearing self-help montages of old (off the bat, legends like Rocky Balboa and the Karate Kid come to mind) have always held a certain charm and gravitas for this writer.
For some five minutes of screen time, we see our protagonists lifting heavy things, jumping rope, punching a bag, or sprinting across a vast expanse of plains. We watch them nod at themselves with newfound verve at a conveniently-placed mirror as if to say “Look at you. You really did it.” Queue the next few frames, and suddenly they’re in their live-laugh-love era, whatever that means.
For the defending world champion Milwaukee Bucks, the road to greatness was, in much the opposite way, a slow burn that rolled out over the three seasons of basketball. It was an arduous process of trial-and-error that saw them failing and failing – until they weren’t anymore.
Thanks to the Toronto Raptors, the end of 2019 was ugly and painful. The Bucks were on the cusp a year later — with the league’s best record, best defense, and best offense — and things only got more agonizing care of the Jimmy Butler-led Miami Heat.
In reality, the seasons of growth and self-improvement encapsulated in the brief montages of 70s dramas that saturated Western cinema are more often than not set against the backdrop of lengthy, hour-long playlists rather than the soaring bridge of a singular classic rock song.
They’re rarely as cloying or as maudlin as you’d expect. Good habits take time to build. What popular culture doesn’t show is that there is a lot of drudgery and going through the motions that takes place before they’re actually set in stone. In the final analysis, it’s always the long game that matters. Milwaukee realized this by treating the regular season as a laboratory to find their best selves, sacrificing a top defense and offense in search of postseason versatility.
Fortunately for the Milwaukee faithful, it seems as though the defending champions are right on the same track this time around, if the preseason showings and opening wins are any indication. Here’s a profile of the defending champions heading into the young season.
Let this truth be suggested about the Milwaukee Bucks’ three best players: they are not – and likely never will be – a Big Three in their conference, let alone the entire league. Properly, they simply don’t fit the unsaid criteria set by a superstar-laden league in this era of player empowerment, even with the services of two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This is not to minimize the talents of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, without whom Milwaukee’s half-century title drought would no doubt still be dragging on.
On the contrary, this is only to point to the cohesion of a team constructed to basketball perfection by a former Executive of the Year. In an era where stockpiling premium talent is seen as the only path to success, the Bucks’ harmonious trio has evolved into something more than just the sum of its parts in much the same way that the 2014 Spurs’ Big Three did.
On both ends of the floor, their three-pronged attack contorts the opposition in a dizzying number of ways. Good things happen when opposing teams are forced to reckon with Holiday’s defense, playmaking and versatility, Middleton’s mid-range mastery and touch from beyond, and Antetokounmpo’s size and inward gravity, all at the same time. All three are genuine two-way forces.
Bucks trio when playing together
|Player||Ast %||Reb %||eFG%|
Their coexistence is a pleasant contrast to the league’s popular and isolation-heavy culture today. By carrying out their distinct and well-defined roles, they control contests not with their individual talent, but with their potentially unmatched reciprocity and interdependence.
The numbers are proof of this: they’re simply their best selves whenever they’re on the floor together. Giannis, Middleton and Holiday finished third in net rating (plus-12.7) and second in defensive rating (103.7 points per 100 possessions) among all three-man lineups with at least 50 games and 900 minutes together, per NBA.com/stats.
In this league, sticking to your well-oiled guns — especially ones that fit together like a glove, rather than command the individual spotlight — is an act of defiance, as the 2021 world champions have already shown.
That two bench players consistently appear in Bucks’ lineups alongside their three anchors is no coincidence. It’s as much an illustration of the effect of the team’s stars as it is their depth. Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, it’s Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis who best exemplify the team’s brazen next-man-up mentality.
The hyper-energetic Bobby Portis, rightfully nicknamed “The People’s Champ,” has cemented his place as a super-sub for Brook Lopez. Portis ended the season third in the league in three-point percentage after draining 47.1 percent of his attempts from deep. He was the only center among the top 25 sharpshooters in this statistic.
Bucks’ Top Two-Man Lineups (min. 50 games played)
|Players||Net||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
Connaughton, a do-everything glue guy, has always played much bigger than his 6-foot-5 frame would suggest. While he has always been a relatively undersized swingman, his hustle and floor spacing have always been valuable assets in Mike Budenholzer’s system.
Planet Pat’s minutes saw him directly contributing to the team’s most decisive advantages in the postseason: their size and switchability. When Pat was on the floor, the Bucks rebounded 32.0 percent of their misses, putting him in the 92nd percentile in that statistic, per Cleaning the Glass. It helped, too, that he shot the three-ball on 44.1 percent efficiency after shooting 37.5 percent in the past three playoff series combined.
Add to this already-capable bench mob another capable wing in Grayson Allen, and you’re all set in the depth department. Allen has already shown himself to be a more than competent scorer and defender, particularly with his ability to space the floor and run the pick-and-roll. With Allen’s 45.8% three-point shooting preseason in the books, Antetokounmpo has a replacement for Bryn Forbes in the inverted pick and roll.
The lingering question
Defense wins championships, and the Wisconsin team proved that quite convincingly with their first championship trophy in 50 years. The big question since defensive hound PJ Tucker migrated to South Beach is: Who now takes the toughest wing matchups?
Incidentally, it was probably against Tucker’s newest home that the Bucks’ need for his services was seen front and center. The Bucks had few answers for scoring wings like Tyler Herro and Butler as they absorbed a 137-95 drubbing on Friday.
It might seem like a luxury for a team already sporting ball-stoppers like Holiday and Antetokounmpo to worry about options on the defensive end. But this problem, in particular, is a Tucker-sized one; it was the Big Dog who afforded the Bucks the versatility they needed to switch their way to a title on the back of the playoffs’ best defensive unit.
Middleton might be a step slow against more nimble matchups. Holiday can’t sustainably take on scorers with more girth and brawn for an entire seven-game series.
Could this finally be the season where Antetokounmpo takes on a more active perimeter role? We’ve always known he had the tools to be a difference-maker on that end, but he simply hasn’t had the reps to do so amidst Budenholzer’s insistence on having him be the primary help defender in the paint.
Antetokounmpo’s 2020-21 season on defense by play type
|Play||Percentile||eFG%||Points per possession||Frequency|
|P&R (ball handler)||54.8||43.2%||0.88||16.0%|
Despite the endless potential of his physical tools, play-type data betray his rawness in this aspect of the game after years of being Budenholzer’s defensive anchor in the interior.
It remains to be seen if this is a conscious coaching decision moving forward. With the reigning Finals MVP’s recalibrated jump shot looking better than ever, it would be a shame to see his meteoric growth stop short of a retooled defensive role as well.
He’s already seen defensive matchups on James Harden and Kevin Durant in their season-opener last week. The Brooklyn Nets superstars shot just 33.3 percent apiece when guarded by Antetokounmpo.
This year, it’s clear that both the Bucks front office and coaching staff have worked to ameliorate the offensive woes that saw Milwaukee drop a litany of opening playoff games with their oftentimes stagnant scoring attack. Depending on how the team develops, though, they might have taken a step back, too, on the other end.
Perhaps we’re in the middle of the Bucks’ self-improvement montage, or maybe we’re also at the very introduction of their newest iteration. Whatever the case, the great dynasties of the league have taught us that once your good habits are installed and your commitment to excellence refined, there’s no going back. The National Basketball Association may find that when champions get better, much like Balboa, there’s little you can do but move out of the way.