The Milwaukee Bucks tip off their 50th Season in Boston on Wednesday and appear poised and ready to take the next step towards an NBA championship behind the long legged strides and uber limbed wingspan of 'it's only a matter of time until he wins' MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
For the first time since Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Bucks have a legit superstar on their team and that is what will make all the difference.
Last year, Giannis was ranked 100 by Sports Illustrated in their Top 100 NBA Players Rankings.
This year, he is ranked 9th.
Even after flashes of brilliance and dominance during 'Point Giannis', there were still doubters, but Giannis took flight to a new stratosphere in the NBA hierarchy over the 2016-2017 season.
With averages of 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals, Giannis led the Bucks to their 5th winning season since 1991. The Bucks just haven't won consistently since the run of 7 Division Titles in the 1980's led by Don Nelson.
That is certainly going to change.
Giannis did all this after starter Khris Middleton went down with a hamstring injury before camp and through Jabari Parker tearing his ACL for a 2nd time during the Heat game that Khris Middleton returned in.
The Bucks lost to the Heat that night and were embarrassed by the Lakers a few days later. But, they regrouped to finish the season 20-10 the rest of the way including 14 March wins, a franchise best ever month.
While the Bucks have failed to meet expectations and faltered when attempting to follow up short runs of success such as 2001 Big Three Era or 2010 Fear The Deer run, this time it's different because Giannis is like no player the world has ever seen before.
Giannis fast break dunk gif highlights spread like wildfire on Twitter and have created a legion of adoring fans around the world as he was voted in as an All Star Starter for the Eastern Conference last year. The first Bucks All Star starter since Sidney Moncrief in 1986.
Giannis isn't just a once in a generation type player.
He's a once in a league type player.
Kevin Durant recently called the Greek Freak his favorite player to watch in the league and "could be the best ever". Durant has given Giannis high praise before and seems to go out of his way to make it known his love for Giannis game.
The Bucks season kicks off with a road tilt vs the new look Boston Celtics led by former Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving the day after Gordon Hayward suffered a brutal fractured ankle in the Cavs home opener.
I feel truly awful for Gordon and the Celtics franchise. Something like this makes you remember how fragile and special this game can be....and how cruel at times. This is a conference power shifting injury and Bucks will face the Celtics 24 hours after losing their prized free agent who came to play for his college coach.
Bucks then come home to open the BMO-Harris Bradley Center with a national game vs the Cavs and have the rare back to back home games with a Saturday matchup vs the Blazers.
This will be the final Bucks home opener at the BMO-Harris Bradley Center and so begins the swan song for the Petit's gift to Milwaukee. This time next year, Milwaukee will walk into the Bucks new arena. Just typing that out gives me chills.
pic via onmilwaukee.com
The Bucks will be tested early and often as they face Boston and Cleveland twice in their first ten games. They hope to get off to a fast start and believe they can in part due to lack of turnover of the roster.
The Bucks come into the season with 12 returning players and if you've read anything on the Bucks so far this preseason the word "continuity" has been used as a mantra to describe their offseason moves or lack thereof. GM Jon Horst went out of his way at Bucks media day to mention they were active in exploring all avenues of upgrades to their roster.
But, the reality of the salary structure is they had little available paths to improve the roster. Between Monroe and Hawes picking up options, Delly/Telly/Henson unmovable contracts and resigning Tony Snell to a $44M contract, all available cap space and roster space was gone. They let Michael Beasley walk and resigned Jet for the minimum. Then after hosting 6 camp invites, they cut them all and won a waiver claim for Deandre Liggins, a 3&D wing who has been on 7 teams this summer.
The Bucks 17th pick of DJ Wilson was surprising as few draft experts had him ranked that high. Touted with "Bucks DNA" for his versatile 6'10 frame he brings size, shooting and shot blocking ability to the NBA as his most ready made skills. Ten years ago, he would've just been labeled a tweener in the mold of Hakim Warrick or Charlie Villanueva, but the Bucks believe he fits the new NBA and their roster. Even though Bucks play positionless basketball, he will have to defend another NBA player to get minutes this year which could be a tall order.
With their 2nd round pick, they selected 4 year SMU guard, Sterling Brown. He had a rough start to the preseason but, Brown appears to be more NBA ready with his size and defense. If he can knock down threes better than Rashad, he may see early minutes off the bench.
Khris Middleton is healthy to begin the season and looking to build upon the strong finish to the Bucks season which saw them take the Raptors to 6 games. Khris is consistently called an underrated and relatively unknown player by opposing announcers but a player who possesses All Star talents. Playing next to Giannis will likely shine a brighter spotlight on the contributions of Khris and with the departure of a number of all stars in the Eastern Conference, Khris has a legit shot to make it this year.
The Bucks have been a better team with Khris next to Giannis than Jabari, but that's also a muddled argument because the Bucks haven't seen the three of them together much.
If the Bucks can finally have a good swing of luck though, they'll get to see the three of them play when Jabari returns in February. With Jabari already dunking in practice and going full speed, it's possible he could return early, but also very likely he will be kept out under the original timeline no matter how good he looks.
The deadline to extend Jabari passed with no news except they were unable to reach an agreement and Jabari will head to Restricted Free Agency next summer. I am hopeful the Bucks are able to retain Jabari as he is far more talented than most players the Bucks could look to sign in free agency.
Questions of health, fit, and defense are obvious factors. But putting Jabari next to Giannis on a fast break creates a tandem of terror and represents what I think is, the Bucks best chance at bringing home the Larry O'Brien and hanging a championship banner in Milwaukee's new arena.
Back to this season.
The others that must step up include 2016 free agent disappointments Matthew Dellevadova and Mirza Teletovic.
If both could be counted on for 10 points a piece of the bench, it would ease a number of fears about who on the bench is going to step up.
Delly started 54 games and basically matched minutes and stats from coming off the bench for the Cavs. So, he gave the Bucks exactly what he gave the Cavs. But the Bucks were looking for more out of him than he has the ability to give. The Bucks dire lack of playmaking pushed him into a role he was ill fit for. Delly will be entrenched with the second unit as Brogdon took the starting job and never let go.
Then there's Mirza, who was also on a minutes rollercoaster due to the presence of now Knick Michael Beasley. Mirza set the Suns bench on fire in 2015, but couldn't find the same stroke in a Bucks uniform. It's fair to think he can have an uptick in performance as well.
There's not much to say about Moose because I think he'll give the Bucks exactly what he gave them last year. 11 points, 6 rebounds and an off the bench performance willing of consideration for Sixth Man of the Year. An award that consistently goes to guards, some call Monroe the Bucks 3rd best player and many nights that could be be right. Monroe enters the last year of a 3 year contract after signing with the Bucks in 2015. I would say it's unlikely he returns to the Bucks after this season, so it's certainly possible he could be moved at the trade deadline.
Now to the two next most important Bucks (outside Giannis, Khris, Jabari) when it comes to how far this team and this roster can go.
Malcolm Brogdon became the Bucks first Rookie of the Year since Kareem and the NBA's first 2nd round pick ROY since 1955. Stat lines of 10.2 points, 4.2 assists and 40% 3 point shooting usually aren't enough, but leading the Bucks to a successful season factored in to Malcolm taking home the hardware. Many discredit Malcolm's ability to improve and take another step and he is what he is. But, I think that is selling short what kind of person Malcolm is and how hard he is going to work to elevate his game and his team to another level. His ability to switch defenders, space the floor and knock down outside shots are basically exactly the type of point guard the Bucks need with a Giannis-centric driving into the lane type of offense. He's not flashy or loud, but I can see a future with Brogdon becoming the strong and silent Cassell contributor.
Besides Khris Middleton though, Thon Maker's development might be the biggest key to the Bucks being successful this season. After Jabari went down, Thon became a starter and the Bucks took on a completely different defensive identity with the big mans ability to stretch the floor and switch on defenders. Kidds oft questioned heavily switching defense can work if Maker can stay out of foul trouble, play 20-25 minutes and be a big factor on this team.
His ability to switch and stay in front of Kyle Lowry here in the playoffs is unheard of.
Thon only played the final preseason game vs Detroit. But looked stronger and more able to hold position against Andre Drummond going for 8 rebounds, +28 in 26 minutes in the Bucks only preseason win.
Giannis is ready.
Milwaukee is ready.
Why Not Us? Why Not Now?
I believe your Milwaukee Bucks will win 50 games for the first time since 2000-2001 season when Ray, Glenn and Sam led them to the Eastern Conference Finals and a game from the NBA Finals.
They will not only win one playoff series. They will win two.
Official Prediction is Bucks will be the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference and will meet Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Losing in Six.