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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Bucks on the Brink of Elimination

The fourth seed Miami Heat lead the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks 3-0, which is a stunning development considering that there have been no injuries or suspensions to tilt the balance so decisively in favor of the underdog. The Heat won the season series 2-1, and I expected this series to be competitive, but no one could have predicted that the Heat would be on the verge of sweeping a Milwaukee team that was on a 70 win pace for most of the season.

Milwaukee has been the top seed in the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons. Last year, the Bucks took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors but then Toronto won the next four games. Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 22.7 ppg, 13.5 rpg, and 5.5 apg in that series, but he shot just .448 from the field and was outplayed in key moments by Kawhi Leonard (29.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, .442 FG%).

Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 ppg, 15.0 rpg, and 6.4 apg through the first eight playoff games in 2020. He shot .543 from the field in those games. Those numbers are very similar to his 2019-20 regular season numbers (29.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, .556 FG%), though it is true that through the first three games of the Miami series Antetokounmpo's scoring and field goal percentage numbers are down (22.7 ppg, .455 FG%). That is a small sample size from which to draw broad conclusions, and Antetokounmpo's other numbers are excellent (13.3 rpg, 7.0 apg). Antetokounmpo needs to improve his midrange shot and his free throw shooting. At this stage, he is similar to a young LeBron James in terms of athleticism and ability to score in the paint; the differences are that Antetokounmpo is a better rebounder/defender but worse shooter/passer than young James was.

It must be noted that Jimmy Butler has been the best player in this playoff series, and neither he nor his teammates have been shy about pointing that out. Butler's career is a great story. He has worked his way up from obscurity to All-Star status to elite level. Anyone in Minnesota or Philadelphia who did not want to play with him or who did not think that he could be the best player on a championship contender was a loser and/or not very good at player evaluation. Butler is similar to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant from a personality standpoint: Butler is primarily focused on winning, he has a fanatical work ethic, and he does not care who he offends or disturbs (on his team or the opposing team) on the way to victory. Of course, Butler is a level below Jordan and Bryant in terms of skill set, but Butler is a two way player and he is a clutch performer. There is so much focus on what this series may mean for Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo that it is easy to ignore what this series means for Butler and Miami. Butler deserves full credit for how well he is playing, regardless of whether this becomes a sweep or not, and regardless of whether or not this scrappy Heat team wins the 2020 championship.

All of that being said, there was every reason to expect the Bucks to at least reach the NBA Finals, and now that they are virtually assured of not doing that this year--no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit, though if any team could do it Milwaukee in the "bubble" has as good of a shot as any team--it is inevitable that Milwaukee's front office, coaching staff, and players will face a lot of scrutiny.

One has to wonder how much of an impact the NBA's brief strike had on the Bucks. The Bucks were the first team to go on strike, at the instigation of reserve guard George Hill. Hill made it clear before, during and after the strike that he regretted coming to the "bubble"--and most of the NBA players made it clear after the brief strike that they wanted to be in the "bubble" and they did not want to cancel the playoffs. It is hard to imagine that Hill's attitude has had zero impact on the Bucks. That being said, the Bucks showed some signs of slippage in the final games prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and the team has a sub-.500 record in its past 21 games (spanning the original regular season, the seeding games and the eight playoff games), a shocking decline considering how well the team had played for the previous 140 games or so.

Overreaction is as much a part of the playoffs as matchups and buzzer beaters. Overheated commentators routinely declare that whatever happened in the most recent playoff game not only can be used to predict the outcome of the next game but also to write the definitive evaluation of the legacies of players, coaches, and franchises. Make no mistake, Miami has looked like the superior team for most of the series versus Milwaukee, but the 3-0 margin is a little deceptive: Miami won game two on a deadball free throw, a very unusual ending for a playoff game, and Miami won game three after posting the largest fourth quarter scoring margin in NBA playoff history. A couple bounces here or there, and we would be looking at this series very differently. For example, Toronto was a miracle shot away from falling down 3-0 versus Boston in the other Eastern Conference second round series--and now the series is tied 2-2. As the great Tex Winter used to say, "Everything turns on a trifle."

Commentators and fans face no repercussions from reacting emotionally, but if team executives make decisions based on emotions the results can be disastrous. It would be foolish to conclude that Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot lead a team to a title or that the whole roster surrounding him now needs to be changed. Consider a little history from less than 15 years ago. Young Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals. Then, in 2007 the scrappy Golden State Warriors got the better of Nowitzki and the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. How shortsighted would it have been for the Mavericks to give up on Nowitzki after back to back playoff disappointments? Four years later, Nowitzki outplayed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh as the Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. LeBron James spent the first half of his career falling short of ultimate success in the NBA playoffs before winning three titles in a five year span.

While several all-time greats won a championship early in their careers--including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird--others did not win their first title until they had played for many years. Skill set development, roster composition, playoff matchups--and, sometimes, injuries or other forms of uncontrollable misfortune--all impact a great player's chances to win a title.

I reject the notion that Antetokounmpo is unworthy of being regular season MVP based on his playoff performances thus far, and here I would distinguish him from Nowitzki. In 2007, I did not think that Nowitzki should have won the MVP because Kobe Bryant was a proven champion who also had a better regular season; Nowitzki had the far superior supporting cast that season and ended up not going any further in the playoffs than Bryant did in 2007. Antetokounmpo has been the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference for two years in a row. He deserved last season's regular MVP, and--regardless of what happens versus Miami in the playoffs--he will be a deserving winner if, as is widely expected, he wins the 2020 MVP. Kawhi Leonard is a better playoff performer than Antetokounmpo and that is why Leonard owns two championships and two Finals MVPs--but load management is not a recipe for winning the regular season MVP. You could make a strong case for LeBron James being the 2020 regular season MVP, but James spends more regular season time in self-described "chill mode" than Antetokounmpo does. James Harden is an All-Star/All-NBA player, but his game is too gimmicky to qualify him as an MVP candidate--and, while Antetokounmpo is a young player who is still developing, we already have a large enough body of evidence to understand that Harden will not win a championship as his team's best player playing the way that he does (though he might win a championship as his team's second best player with Russell Westbrook providing energy, leadership, and paint points).

Why do I still believe that Antetokounmpo is an MVP caliber player who could be the best player on a championship team and how would I contrast his game with Harden's game? Antetokounmpo is 25 years old, he is 6-11 or 7-0 tall, he is a two-way player, and he has already demonstrated that he not only has a great work ethic but also that he makes no excuses for his play or his team's play. Harden is older, smaller, not a two-way player, and he has demonstrated that he prefers to work on the skills he has already developed as opposed to adding new dimensions to his game. Harden has improved his defensive effort in spots, and he makes fewer excuses than he used to make, but he does not elevate his game on a year to year basis the way that Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant did. It is no coincidence that those players (along with Tim Duncan, who entered the NBA more fully developed after playing four years of college ball) have been the dominant champions of the past 40 years.

If I ran the Milwaukee Bucks, I would be a lot more concerned about George Hill and any other players who want out of the "bubble" than I would be about Antetokounmpo. Hill will likely get his wish very soon and be on his way out of the "bubble"; the Bucks have one more year to shore up the supporting cast around Antetokounmpo before he can leave as a free agent. I expect Antetokounmpo to continue to refine and improve his game, like Nowitzki and James did.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:12 PM



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