DALLAS — The Anthony Davis saga erased for good any lingering doubts about whether interest in off-court spectacle has superseded the on-court action. For two weeks, NBA fans and media were consumed by his franchise-altering trade request, the calculated maneuvers to secure his services and the schadenfreude that set in once the sharp-elbowed Los Angeles Lakers struck out.
The deadline passed and Davis remained in New Orleans; All drama, no action. Yet no one complained, and the countdown to July’s rumor mill commenced. “We’re all just actors in a soap opera,” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said, his existential musing prompted by a similar round of hyperventilating concerning Kevin Durant’s impending free agency.
Into this inverted world step the Milwaukee Bucks, a juggernaut cruising along in plain sight and relative silence. Their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, rips apart defenses with punishing drives and greets microphones with soft-spoken cliches. Coach Mike Budenholzer, a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant, has imported Gregg Popovich’s desire for discipline, but not his antagonistic wit. And their 35-year-old general manager, Jon Horst, remains one of the league’s most anonymous executives, even as he’s accelerated his team’s growth with a series of tactical moves.
With Antetokounmpo leading the league in dunks and a five-out spread offense pouring in more three-pointers than anyone but the Houston Rockets, the Bucks are putting on the NBA’s most consistently entertaining basketball show. During a Friday road win over the Dallas Mavericks, their league-leading 31st by double digits, they racked up an astonishing 80 points in the paint for the second time this season.
“Eighty? That’s amazing,” said Antetokounmpo, who led the charge by finishing right-handed and left-handed dunks in traffic. “When you have great shooters, the paint is wide open. We’re just having fun and playing together. This is one of the best stretches in my career.”
That’s an understatement. Entering Saturday’s games, Milwaukee held the NBA’s best record (41-13) and was the only team that ranked in the top five in both offense and defense. The Bucks aren’t just beating teams, they’re smacking them. Milwaukee’s average point differential of plus-10.3 is on pace to be top 10 in NBA history.
While the Bucks are bound to be overlooked because they play in a small market and don’t seek headlines, their sharp rise from obscurity has also contributed to their delayed acceptance. Three years ago, they were the NBA’s second-youngest team and ranked 30th in three-point attempts. Last year, they were waylaid by Jason Kidd’s firing and failed to advance in the playoffs.
Since Christmas, the newcomers have looked dominant, going 19-3 while topping 130 points on four occasions. They win with a methodical attack built around Antetokounmpo, who remains among the MVP favorites by averaging 27 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists — numbers not seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976. “He’s been so unreal, so otherworldly, so special every night,” center Brook Lopez raved.
But after Kidd racked up the miles on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Budenholzer has liberally used his bench to lighten the load on his offensive stars. Remarkably the “Greek Freak” is getting his eye-popping stats in just 33 minutes per game, the fewest he’s played since 2014-15.
Horst has played a central role in acquiring the right kind of help. Sensing his 24-year-old franchise player’s rapid progress, the GM hired Budenholzer, the 2015 coach of the year with the Atlanta Hawks, and eschewed a slow-play approach to target veterans. He traded a pick last season for guard Eric Bledsoe, a dogged on-ball defender. He signed Lopez, a strong shooter, on a bargain deal last summer. He traded picks earlier this season for guard George Hill to solidify his backcourt rotation, then sent out four second-rounds picks to nab Nikola Mirotic, a proven stretch forward, at Thursday’s trade deadline.
Those moves, in aggregate, have given Budenholzer an experienced rotation that goes two deep at all five positions. Milwaukee can play big (Lopez) or small (Mirotic or Antetokounmpo) at center. Its preferred lineups feature four, if not five, shooting threats and at least three quality defenders. “We’ve added positional size, toughness, and basketball IQ,” Horst said. “And we’ve done that while creating more than $20 million in cap flexibility to keep our starting five together if that’s the way we decide to go.”
While the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers also executed major deadline moves, the Bucks’ steady roster retooling has made it possible to picture the franchise’s first NBA Finals trip since 1974.
“Everyone has a win-now mentality,” Budenholzer said. Trading for Mirotic “is going to help us add more depth and versatility. That’s what Toronto and Philly are doing also. There’s been a lot of teams and a lot movement. We’re more focused on us.”
Most importantly, all of Milwaukee’s major pieces fit cleanly around Antetokounmpo, who has gone from being a shaky ballhandler to an offensive initiator to a full-fledged game-manager in three years flat. With weapons on all sides, Antetokounmpo is now free to pace himself for when he’s needed down the stretch. As a result, Milwaukee ranks third in net rating in clutch situations, up from 28th just two seasons ago. “We’re definitely closing out games better,” Bledsoe said. “There’s been growth from last season.”
The Davis era fizzled in New Orleans because Pelicans management kept changing course, cycling coaches and struggling to identify and retain the right supporting cast pieces. Milwaukee once appeared to be headed down a similar path, but Horst and Budenholzer have delivered a clear vision and winning results.
“You feel the pressure [to build a winner around Antetokounmpo]," Horst said. “It’s an awesome responsibility to create the environment and success needed to recruit him from within. And Giannis is absolutely, undoubtedly, the MVP this year. When you and your team are doing it at the highest level, you deserve to be the MVP. We went from [17th] in defense last year to first because Giannis committed to it. He deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration too.”
The Bucks face plenty of questions going forward, with Middleton, Lopez, Bledsoe and Mirotic among their many free agents. But fretting about Horst’s busy summer or speculating about Antetokounmpo’s 2021 free agency completely misses the point. The Bucks are fun, athletic, modern, brilliantly designed and, yes, a bit bland. They might be a terrible soap opera, but they’re a terrific basketball team.
Read more on the NBA: