The Milwaukee Bucks seem to rarely catch a break. They have an exciting young core in place but if Giannis Antetokounmpo, the most important player in that core, does not continue to improve the future might not be as bright as initially expected.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the poster boy of the Milwaukee’s “Own the Future” movement and it’s easy to see why. Last season, at the tender age of 21, he posted already strong per game numbers: 16.9 points (on 50.6 percent shooting from the field), 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game.
Looking at his performance after the All-Star break is an even better indicator of just how good he became. The implementation of the Greek’s abilities in a “point forward” role led to him dominating the league in a Russell Westbrook on stilts sort of way.
In those final 28 games he averaged 18.8 points (50.9 percent shooting from the field), 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game along with five triple-doubles.
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It feels like no one in their right mind would predict that Giannis will stagnate next year, much less regress. The rate at which he has been improving at his young age gives most the confidence that he is just going to get better and better and better.
Still in a world with very little certainty, it’s naive to not ask the question that nobody wants to hear. What if, against all of our hopes and expectations for the Greek Freak, it all goes wrong? I don’t believe it will, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment.
With very little choice but to embrace youth in order to overcome perennial mediocrity, Own The Future has become more than just a marketing ploy for the Bucks. Still, as much as the team is now packed with young talent, that entire thought process may not have come about if not for the exceptional promise and rapid development initially shown by Antetokounmpo.
Just as he was the catalyst that really kickstarted the project, if Giannis’ steep growth curve of recent years suddenly plateaus, then owning the future will get significantly more difficult for Milwaukee. The pressure for both Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton to pick up the slack left behind would likely be too great of a burden for them to carry.
So how might this happen? How could the Bucks most important youngling go from star on the rise to top tier role player or merely a good starter so quickly?
The answer is a simple one. NBA teams have a wealth of knowledge and resources at their disposal, and never stop searching for the next competitive advantage. That can come in the larger picture, but it can also be as simple as figuring out how to manage certain types of matchups.
They pay millions of dollars to supremely intelligent and hardworking coaching staffs just so they can try to figure out how to stop some of the most talented, physically and athletically gifted people in the world. All it takes is for one coach to figure out how to slow a guy down and the rest of the league will pick it up quickly and execute it like they’ve been doing it for years.
It’s incredibly rare for NBA coaches to be unable to solve the puzzle of how to stop a particular player or player type. In fact, there might be no better measure of greatness than noting the players who can’t be game-planned for. That’s a lot to ask of Antetokounmpo, but with his unique physique that’s really what the Bucks community’s expectations seem to be holding out for him to become.
Most above average players get ‘figured out’ and lose some of their effectiveness. That’s not to say that they become ineffective, but a minor adjustment from opposing players and coaching staffs can lead to a need for major adjustments from the player in question. Players who get figured out don’t become bad players, but their potential that may once have seemed limitless gets suddenly capped.
If Antetokounmpo’s success proved to be largely attributable to the lack of understanding teams have in dealing with a player equipped with the Greek’s physical tools, then he could someday be thwarted.
At the moment, thankfully, it looks like Antetokounmpo could well be one of those transcendent exceptions, but at this early point of his career, the odds would technically still be against him reaching those heady heights. So much can change in such a short space of time in the NBA.
The Bucks and their fans know this better than most. As a team, they have tended to reside in a dark timeline in recent years (and decades). More recently, that continuous gloom has appeared to be coming to an end. Milwaukee has a young core that most teams in the association are envious of, but the dark timeline has provided smokescreens before. For a fanbase that wants nothing more than a chance to root for a consistent winner again, we have to hope fate won’t be so cruel.
The Bucks have won their division only once since 1987. In those 29 seasons, they have had a record at or above 0.500 on 12 occasions and have made the playoffs 13 times. Even if everything goes right for Milwaukee, next year may still not be one to celebrate. As they continue to grow, with their eyes on much bigger prizes in the future, the Bucks could still be unable to add another playoff berth or winning season to their ledger in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.
If that proves to be the case, for all intents and purposes the bad times will have spanned 30 years when the upcoming season completes.
With a clear direction, the hope is that no matter what the team’s record reads next season, the Bucks are building for something bigger. Giannis Antetokounmpo seems set to be at the center of that, but it’s important not to take the next steps in his development for granted.
Antetokounmpo is already a very good NBA player, but taking the next step up to be a player who verges on unstoppable is no easy task. There’s every reason for optimism to continue, but there’s always a chance that things just won’t pan out.
The Bucks are holding out hope for the Greek Freak to be breathing in rarefied NBA air in the coming years. Let’s just hope the fans won’t have their hearts broken again.