Moore: Milwaukee’s Big Bet on Giannis Antetokounmpo Pays Off With NBA Title
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Did the Milwaukee Bucks go all in? Or did they trust in themselves to run it back?
Milwaukee celebrated its first championship in 50 years on Tuesday. The Bucks were led by the franchise star they did everything to keep. They drafted a 19-year-old who had only started playing basketball a few years prior. They developed him and watch him relentlessly attack his career.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was the star they needed.
They added a 2nd rounder from Detroit in Khris Middleton and watched him become one of the best guards in the league. They added young pieces like Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo. Brook Lopez left the Lakers and became a vital piece of their size and defense.
They hired Mike Budenholzer, and right away, things were different. The team absolutely burst past expectations immediately and became the No. 1 seed in the East with the best record in the league, only to fall short in the conference finals to a Toronto Raptors team blessed with destiny (and outlier shooting from Fred VanVleet).
They ran it back. They ran into the Miami Heat, the perfect counter to them in every way in the bubble, without home court — amid strife and turmoil and a global pandemic — and were toppled.
Giannis was up for an extension. Pressure was high to fire Budenholzer based on playoff struggles to adapt and adjust. It was thought that everything could fall apart. So many superstars in Giannis’ possession had taken the easy way out, demanded a trade and enjoyed the perks of a shiny new city on a coast.
The Bucks made the move.
They traded everything. Their starting point guard (who himself had been dealt to Milwaukee for two first-rounders) and five — FIVE (!!!) — first-round picks for Jrue Holiday, who had just one All-Star appearance seven years earlier.
That deal sinks the franchise if the bet doesn’t pay off. If Antetokounmpo looks at it and says “Nah, I’d rather it be easier. I’ll just go join the Warriors,” the Bucks are completely sunk. They’d have a good roster without a superstar with no draft capital for half a decade.
They even swung out on the other move, an attempt to add Bogdan Bogdanovic. That deal was either foiled by: A) tampering charges; B) a better offer from the Hawks; or, C) Bogdanovic’s agent, who has — let’s just say — an interesting past in free-agency discussions.
But then, Giannis did something remarkable.
He signed. He took the most money and the most years to stay with the team that drafted him, just like the NBA system had been designed.
It wasn’t enough to completely squash the conversation. Executives still wondered if it would be enough. If they fell short again, what would happen? With the way superstars were bailing with years left on their deals, who knows?
But here they are, NBA champions. It all worked out. Even if the team never reaches the summit again, most teams and their fans would trade five years of draft assets for one title without much of a thought.
The lesson of course is twofold. You can’t run it back and you shouldn’t blow it up just because something didn’t work.
The Bucks were largely considered old news going into the playoffs. Antetokounmpo’s lack of a jumper was too easy to gameplan against in the playoffs. The Bucks’ shooters couldn’t be trusted and would always underperform. And Budenholzer simply wasn’t made for the postseason.
Antetokuonmpo proved something incredible on the free throws front. If you simply don’t care about the stress of make-or-miss, if you keep your eyes on the prize in terms of forcing the defense to foul you, limiting their minutes and affecting their rotations, and giving yourself the chance for even on a bad average 1.0 points per possession… then it doesn’t matter how you look.
Count to 10 all you want. Say that Giannis has no bag to your heart’s content. He’s still one of only two players in NBA history to clinch a title in Game 6 or 7 with 50 points or more in the NBA Finals. He made his free throws — 16 of 17 to be exact — and won the title.
In a league so defined in the modern age by capering launchers from distance, Giannis’ Game 6 for the ages was hammer against iron. Just absolutely bending the Suns’ defense blow by blow until it caved. It wasn’t a glorious set of moves and fadeaway jumpers. Instead, it was leaping above and beyond defenders to cram the ball into the basket from close range over and over.
Giannis Antetokounmpo did not make the game sing for him. He beat the absolute Hell out of it until it crumbled.
The Bucks’ shooters had their usual struggles in this postseason until Game 5. On the road, in a 2-2 series, the least likely place it could be, Milwaukee had the highest differential between their actual eFG% and expected eFG% in three playoff runs. They shot the lights out at just the right time. Holiday was a big part of that.
And Budenholzer pushed all the right buttons. He played drop coverage early in the series against the Suns, and switched to a switch-all scheme later in games after the team had tired and grew desperate. He inserted Bobby Portis and removed Bryn Forbes when the matchup demanded it.
Budenholzer faced deficits of 0-2 vs. Brooklyn; 0-1 against the Hawks; and, 0-2 vs. the Suns, but came out on the other side. He adjusted his rotations and approaches to counter what was in front of him.
Ultimately, the Bucks’ title is a beacon for small markets and superstars struggling to win without every advantage. It’s an example to other stars in those cities that if things go right, they can reach the summit.
The Bucks bet on Giannis. Giannis bet on the Bucks.
And their tickets finally cashed.