The Milwaukee Bucks begin the 2019-20 NBA season with something they haven’t had since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Championship expectations.
Following a magical 60-win season, two playoff series victories, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks have rocketed from “promising young team” to “bonafide championship contender” at a scary-quick pace. The #OwnTheFuture days are now in the past. This team, led by MVP megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo, has a good a chance as any to win the Finals. In June 2020, the city of Milwaukee could be enjoying its first championship parade in nearly 50 years. This could really happen.
Oddsmakers have the Bucks winning the most regular season games in the league this year, and have them with the best chance to win the Finals of any team based outside of Los Angeles. Before last season, the Bucks went 18 years without even winning a playoff series. Now, they’re expected to climb the highest mountain. Things change fast in the NBA.
And there are very real stakes involved for the Bucks this season. On July 1, 2020, Giannis will be eligible to sign a $247 million supermax contract extension—which the Bucks will most certainly offer—making him the highest paid player in NBA history, and keep him in Milwaukee through the 2026 season. Of course, we’ve seen over the past decade how often NBA basketball players change teams, so nothing is guaranteed, even for someone who seems as loyal as Antetokounmpo. But leading a long-suffering franchise to the promised land and getting his first ring at age 25 sure seems like it would go a long way toward keeping Giannis in town for a few more years.
There is a best case scenario—which is crazily not that unrealistic—where the Bucks win the Finals, Giannis is named MVP, and he goes on to sign an extension that keeps him in Milwaukee well into the 2020s. Who knows if this city could even handle the ensuing celebration; they might have to cancel the DNC a few weeks later.
After last year’s dominant but ultimately disappointing season left them just two wins short of the Finals, there will be no shortage of motivation to climb that highest mountain this year. At Bucks Media Day, center Brook Lopez said, “We have unfinished business,” and this feels like a team on a mission.
So with their eyes on the ultimate prize, the Bucks begin what’s sure to be a thrilling season. It’s not often we get to experience a team that’s this good and this much fun to watch on a night-to-night basis. Cherish these next few months, because who knows when an opportunity like this could come around again. So before the Bucks open their season on Thursday night against the Rockets, let’s take a look at what changed during the offseason and look ahead to the season.
1. Khris Middleton returns
The biggest question going into the Bucks offseason was whether they were going to be able to keep All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who was an unrestricted free agent. And they did, with a five-year, $178 million contract. Upon signing, Middleton had this to say in an essay titled “Why I’m Staying in MIlwaukee”:
“It means a little more to me to work to win a championship with this group in this city because I was there for those darker days. Giannis and I have been through it all together. We have been at the very bottom and close to the top. When you rebuild a franchise brick by brick like that, it means a little bit more because you have literally put your blood, sweat and tears into improving.
“I want to win a championship for this city. I’ve already gotten back in the gym this summer and am determined to make next season special. This team is on a mission to win it all.”
Middleton is terrific shooter, playmaker and defender, a perfect complement to Giannis, and any team with cap space would’ve jumped at the chance to sign him this offseason. Milwaukee is lucky to have a player like Middleton (who also does a ton of great work off the court, and was one of 10 finalists for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award). It’s a huge deal that he’s back.
2. …and twins!
Brook Lopez had a breakout season with the Bucks last year, and they were able to resign him for four years and $52 million. The 7-footer with the nickname “Splash Mountain” set the single-season record for most threes made by a center last season—187, which led the team. He also ranked 4th in the league in blocks, with 2.2 per game. He proved to be extremely valuable in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system on both ends of the court.
This year, Brook’s twin brother, Robin, joins the team. Robin isn’t the same offensive player Brook is, but he’s a stout defender and productive offensive role player, and will give the Bucks depth at the center position they didn’t have last year after trading John Henson and Thon Maker in mid-season deals. Budenholzer will be able to have a Lopez brother protecting the paint for all 48 minutes of each game.
Off-the-court, the Lopez brothers form quite possibly the funniest comedy duo the NBA has to offer. The two goofball siblings have a hilariously antagonistic relationship, always dumping on one another. They’re also two overgrown children obsessed with Disney movies, theme parks and comic books. Robin is a must-follow on Twitter, and likes to pretend to fight with every mascot in the league. These dudes are going to make things really fun this year. They’re guaranteed to be Milwaukee Record fan favorites.
Brook and @rolopez42 have been reunited as teammates for the first time since Stanford.
It's going to be…uh…interesting? pic.twitter.com/A8PUlX1NA8
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 18, 2019
3. Malcolm Brogdon was traded to Indiana, which is a bummer
The Bucks’ key offseason departure was Malcolm Brogdon. The efficient starting guard was dealt to the Indiana Pacers for a first-round and two second-round draft picks. The Bucks could have kept Brogdon and gone into the luxury tax match the Pacers’ offer, but decided that the four-year, $85 million deal he ultimately signed was too rich for the billionaire owners.
This will hurt the Bucks. The deal he signed is almost certainly an overpay, but losing Brogdon drops the overall talent level for this team. It would’ve been great to have him back to compete for a title. But the picks acquired in the deal will give General Manager Jon Horst some ammunition to make a mid-season trade if an opportunity is there.
If the Bucks falter, however, losing Brogdon will be the first thing anyone points to when searching for reasons why. In May and June, if Milwaukee is missing something from its backcourt, it will be tough to think of what might have been with Brogdon back on the Bucks.
4. Betting on experience
In addition to Robin Lopez, the Bucks added two key veterans to the roster (Kyle Korver, Wisconsin native Wesley Matthews), and brought back another (George Hill).
Matthews will likely start in Brogdon’s place at shooting guard, with sharpshooter Korver getting plenty of time there, as well. Both are terrific three-point gunners, and will be able to operate with space to shoot when defenses double- and triple-team Giannis as he drives to the hoop. They’ll be perfect fits in Budenholzer’s “let it fly” offense.
Hill really shined as the season went on for Milwaukee, and might prove to be one of the most important pieces on the team. He’ll likely close games for the Bucks, and is essentially their Sixth Man.
With Hill, Matthews, Korver, Ersan Ilyasova, and the Lopez brothers, the Bucks boast a really strong group of role-player veterans on the roster. For a team that came up two games short of the Finals in their first deep run, having that type of experience in the locker room could prove to be extremely valuable come playoff time.
5. More additions!
The Bucks now have two pairs of brothers on the roster after signing Giannis’ older brother Thanasis to a two-year deal. They also picked up former high draft pick Dragan Bender, hoping to revive his career after leaving the Phoenix Suns, along with point guard Frank Mason III, who signed a two-way contract and will see time with both the Bucks and the Wisconsin Herd. Each of the three had some strong moments during the Bucks’ undefeated preseason. With 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo also returning to full health after an injury-riddled rookie season, this Bucks team is really, really deep.
6. Bucks vs. Sixers
With Kawhi Leonard leaving the [grits teeth in anger] 2019 world champion Toronto Raptors in favor of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Kevin Durant out for the year on his new team the Brooklyn Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers stand as the only other major contender along with the Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
The 76ers made a whole bunch of big offseason moves, signing Al Horford away from Boston (for 4 years, $109 million), re-signing forward Tobias Harris (5 years, $180 million), extending “baby” Ben Simmons (5 years, $170 million), letting starting guard JJ Redick walk in free agency to join New Orleans, and choosing not to sign Jimmy Butler (trading him to Miami for swingman Josh Richardson instead).
With the amount of talent on both teams, it seems as if the Bucks and Sixers are on a collision course, and will inevitably face off for some meaningful games. Each of their meetings last year were memorable, and Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Joel Embiid is the hero/heel rivalry we all deserve.
The Bucks play the 76ers on Christmas Day in Philadelphia, in Milwaukee on February 6 and February 22, and in Philly on April 7. All four will be nationally televised, and they’ll be must-watch games.
7. The Deer Garden is pretty awesome
The area outside the arena grew into a destination all its own last season, especially as thousands packed the grounds during the playoffs. The atmosphere was everything you could’ve hoped it would be—high energy, a palpable buzz on the street, lots of options for places to watch games and get drinks, home to weird characters, and people braving terrible weather to be together as a city cheering on our team. It could’ve easily felt like a stale, anytown environment, but instead, it felt very Milwaukee in a fresh, new way.
And the area wasn’t even fully formed until the end of the season, as new pieces were added throughout its inaugural year. This year will have a full year of watching games at places like the MECCA or stopping at Good City for a brew before the game. The area had a great start, and it could keep getting better.
(And yes, we know it’s officially called the “Deer District,” but it’s more fun if fans use their own name for places like this, so why not give Deer Garden a shot?)
8. Giannis is magnificent
There’s no more enjoyable player or personality in the NBA than Giannis. He is a delight in every way. He’s a generational superstar, the heir to the thrones of Jordan and LeBron. We are beyond lucky to have him represent our city. Savor every rim-rattling moment.