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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

What is Next for the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons, collecting the 2019 regular season MVP and the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award; it will be a surprise if he does not win the 2020 regular season MVP. However, Milwaukee lost 4-2 to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and then lost 4-1 to Miami in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals. In today's society, instant gratification is often elevated above all other considerations, so it is considered natural to assume that Antetokounmpo will leave Milwaukee to team up with another All-Star.

Every NBA title is meaningful and valuable, but some championships resonate more than others, and the ones that resonate the most for me involve a long-term partnership formed by a great player with his first NBA team:

1983: Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers
1989-90: Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons
1991-93, 1996-98: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
1994-95: Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets
1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014: Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs
2000-02, 2009-10: Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers
2011: Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks

Erving won two ABA titles (1974, 1976) with the New York Nets prior to the ABA-NBA merger, and then he spent his entire NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving led the 76ers to three NBA Finals (1977, 1980, 1982) before winning the championship in 1983. Erving could have left for greener pastures, or the 76ers could have decided to go in a different direction, but instead the legend and the franchise formed a partnership. Although free agency did not exist during that era in the way that it exists in the modern era, players who wanted to be traded could get traded--and teams have always been able to get rid of players who they do not want, so Erving and the 76ers only stayed together because both sides wanted to stay together. By 1983, Erving was the only 76er on the roster who played for the team during the 1977 NBA Finals. The 76ers put a team around Erving that complemented his talents, and they finally acquired the one essential asset for winning a title during the NBA's first several decades: an All-Star center (Moses Malone). With the exception of the 1975 Golden State Warriors, all of the NBA championship teams from 1951 (the first year that the NBA had an All-Star Game) through 1990 had a current or future All-Star at center (Bill Cartwright, the center for Chicago's 1991-93 championship teams, was a former All-Star and hardly an All-Star caliber player during his championship years). Pantheon level non-centers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird only won titles when playing alongside Hall of Fame centers.

Isiah Thomas joined the Pistons in 1981 when the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and eight years later he led a completely remade roster to the first of back to back titles. So much is said and written about the "Bad Boys"--much of it untrue or exaggerated--that it is easy to forget the deeper story: Thomas joined a dysfunctional organization, and his combination of talent and will power transformed the franchise into a team that could vanquish the legendary Celtics and Lakers squads, not to mention hold Jordan's Bulls at bay for a few years.

Michael Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984 when the Bulls were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and seven years later he led a completely remade roster to the first of three straight titles en route to winning six titles in an eight year span. Jordan embraced the challenge of elevating his game while also lifting his teammates. Jordan's Bulls supplanted Thomas' Pistons, beat Magic Johnson's Lakers, and then established the sport's most successful dynasty since Bill Russell's Celtics won eight straight titles/11 titles in 13 years.

Hakeem Olajuwon joined the Rockets in 1984 when the Rockets were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and 10 years later he led a completely remade roster to back to back titles. Yes, Olajuwon won his first ring during Jordan's baseball hiatus and he won his second ring shortly after Jordan's comeback, but that does not in any way diminish Olajuwon's two-way dominance, nor does it diminish the head to head superiority that he demonstrated versus David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and a young Shaquille O'Neal.

Tim Duncan joined the Spurs in 1997 after the Spurs had a down year in the midst of a solid run of playoff appearances, and in his second year he led the Spurs to the title. The team changed the roster a lot over the next decade and a half, but Duncan remained the one constant as the Spurs captured four more titles. Duncan became the greatest power forward ever (even if it seemed like he played center at least part of the time), and he played the most important role in building the Spurs' championship culture.

Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers in 1996, the same year that Shaquille O'Neal signed with the team. O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships in 2000-02, and then after O'Neal left the Lakers rebuilt around Bryant, who took the Lakers to three straight Finals, winning titles in 2009-10. Bryant changed his jersey number midway through his career, and it is remarkable that he had a Hall of Fame career with each jersey number.

Dirk Nowitzki joined the Mavericks in 1998 when the Mavericks were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and he persevered for more than a decade before outdueling Miami's star-studded superteam to lead Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Early in his career, Nowitzki received unfounded criticism for being soft, but he did not run away to join forces with an established star; he stayed the course in Dallas, and the Mavericks eventually surrounded him with the right supporting cast.

In contrast, LeBron James and Kevin Durant both left the teams that drafted them in order to win titles with teams stacked with multiple All-Stars. Each player won two championships with his new team before maneuvering his way out of town: James returned to Cleveland from Miami and won a championship in Cleveland before leaving again to join the L.A. Lakers, a team that he remade by running off several players to lure Anthony Davis to L.A.; Durant fled Golden State for Brooklyn, where he teamed up with Kyrie Irving (one of James' All-Star teammates during Cleveland's 2016 championship season) but has yet to play due to injury.

Antetokounmpo may follow the path laid out by James and Durant, but it would be great if Antetokounmpo instead takes the route traveled by Erving, Thomas, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Bryant, and Nowitzki. The pursuit of instant gratification is no guarantee for success, much less enduring happiness; there is value in struggling to earn an accomplishment as opposed to seeking out shortcuts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 PM



At Thursday, September 10, 2020 4:10:00 AM, Anonymous Cyber said...

I see a lot of parallels between 18 - 20 Giannis and 08 - 10 LeBron

08/18 - MVP caliber season, team won less than 50 games, went 7 with Boston

09/19 - Won MVP and finished 2nd in DPOY, league best record, lost in ECF
10/20 - Won MVP (would be shocked otherwise), league best record, lost in 2nd round to a 4/5 seed

Both very physically dominant but very flawed skillset wise

I do believe Giannis is a better competitor and leader than LeBron was and I expect him to stay with the Bucks. I see him as a throwback in that regard and hope that's how he handles FA

While I'm at it, their rosters during those 3 year spans were similarly constructed. It maybe an unpopular opinion (especially by the media) but LeBron might have had a better supporting cast than Giannis has had although Middleton is a better #2 than Mo Williams was. Probably a better coach, too, and while I'm at it both coaches a member of the Popovich coaching tree

And yet their mindset and rise to superstardom could not be any more different

At Thursday, September 10, 2020 12:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that there are strong parallels between young Giannis and young LeBron, and I have mentioned that in previous articles. I also agree that young LeBron had a better supporting cast even though Giannis has a better #2 option with Middleton; young LeBron had such a deep supporting cast that guys like Danny Green and Shannon Brown--rotation players on championship teams soon after they left Cleveland--could not even get on the court very often.

Young Giannis has a more focused mindset than young LeBron, and there is less drama associated with young Giannis; young LeBron was high maintenance (and current LeBron is still high maintenance, as we saw last year with all of the drama in L.A.), while young Giannis is low maintenance.

There is no way to prove it based on the publicly available evidence, but I believe that the attitude of George Hill--and possibly one or two others--had a corrosive effect on the team in the "bubble." Hill made it clear that he did not want to be in the "bubble," and it is hard to win a title without everyone being fully onboard. Hill shot 1-8 from the field with a team-worst -13 plus/minus number in game five, so Hill got his wish and he is no longer in the "bubble."

At Sunday, September 13, 2020 9:58:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The Bucks lineup including Brogdon was better than anything LeBron played with in Cleveland. Giannis and LeBron both play/played for coaches who couldn't make adjustments in the playoffs.

At Monday, September 14, 2020 2:21:00 AM, Blogger vanrijn said...

Giannis still has room to grow, but first and foremost he has to improve his outside shot. He is so gifted physically that during the regular season he can blow by people to get to the rim, and teams will let him in the grind of February. But in the play-offs good teams know how to wall him off and because he isn't a consistent threat from distance, his usual terrifying advantages are significantly nullified. Bud is a good, but not great coach, and seems to have a bit of Mike D'Antoni in his refusal make necessary adjustments. If Gianni's is smart he will leave the Bucks. Milwaukee's allowing Brogdon to leave town was a fatal miscalculation. I think Brogdon, with another year of continuity with the Bucks, solidifies their shooting, adds another playmaker, deepens their bench, and simply makes them a more well-rounded team. I thought management was penny-wise and pound foolish. Suddenly, the Bucks arenn't so well-stocked with talent, their coaching may be a bit suspect, and although ownership has made a killing with respect to the value of the team (given their initial investment) it seems unwilling to spend to keep even homegrown talent. Those aren't good signs for guy just entering his prime.

if they make the right moves they can re-stock and hopefully make shrewder moves in the coming years. Clearly, as currently constituted, this team isn't winning anything

At Monday, September 14, 2020 2:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The supporting cast surrounding young LeBron in Cleveland is underrated. Here are a couple articles that I wrote about Cleveland's roster during that era:

The Evolution of Cleveland's Roster Since 2007

Cavs Shock World, Win Game Without LeBron James: Stunned Bill Simmons Declares that Kobe Bryant is the MVP

At Monday, September 14, 2020 2:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Giannis needs to continue developing his skills.

Budenholzer has coached the Bucks to the top spot in the East two years in a row, and the team regularly ranks near the top of the league on both offense and defense. While it is true that he has room to grow as a postseason coach, I would rank him a little higher than you seem to rank him.

The Bucks faced a difficult choice with Brogdon. He is clearly a valuable player, but is he as valuable as the contract that he signed with Indiana?

I think that the Bucks "could" win a title as presently constructed, but whether or not they will is uncertain; Giannis needs to improve, and the postseason coaching needs to improve as well. As I noted in my article, some of the greatest teams of the past 40 years or so took a while to develop. Some of the offensive continuity that the Bucks displayed when Giannis was not on the court in the final two playoff games versus Miami could and should be incorporated into the team's regular offense. No, the Bucks are not better without Giannis, but their offense can and should be more diverse than just four players standing around while Giannis is the focal point of the defense. Without Giannis, the Bucks were forced to run better offensive sets.

At Monday, September 14, 2020 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Those lineup's were all role players or way past their prime all stars such as Shaq and Ben Wallace. There were not any other players who could consistently create their own offense, everything was off of LeBron. I was a Larry Hughes fan but he was always injured.

At Monday, September 14, 2020 10:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Those Cleveland teams were so deep that players like Danny Green and Shannon Brown--both of whom became rotation players for championship teams shortly after leaving Cleveland--rarely even got on the court. The Cavaliers were legitimately 10 deep with quality players. You are correct that Hughes was very injury-prone, but even when he was out of the lineup the Cavaliers were still deep. I covered many Cleveland games in person from 2005-2010, and I wrote a lot about those teams. The mainstream media narrative consistently denigrates LeBron's supporting cast to elevate LeBron. That pattern still exists today. LeBron is playing next to a top five player, plus a talented young third option, and a host of solid role players--one of whom is a lock Hall of Famer (Howard) and the other of whom will at the very least get serious consideration (Rondo)--but the seeds have already been planted in the media that if the Lakers lose it is not LeBron's fault because he supposedly does not have enough help. This Lakers team is more talented that either of Kobe's last two championship teams, and you could make a good case that this team is more talented from players 3-8 than the teams that Shaq and Kobe led to three straight titles. Derek Fisher was the third scoring option for the 2002 Lakers. I know all about Fisher's intangibles, but from a tangible standpoint Fisher shot .357 from the field during the 2002 playoffs. We keep hearing that LeBron does not have enough help, does not have enough shooting, has to carry too much of a burden. If 2002 Fisher were playing for the Lakers, he would rank 13th on the team in playoff field goal percentage, ahead of only J.R. Smith and Jared Dudley.

Paying too much attention to mainstream media narratives is a major impediment to understanding what is happening on the basketball court, and perhaps a major impediment to sanity.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 12:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Who was the best number 2 that LeBron played with and compare it to any of the 8 second round teams 1 and 2s. Danny Green and Shannon Brown pretty much only played their rookie years and very few rookies play on playoff teams.

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 8:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't evaluate supporting casts based just on how good the second option is. LeBron's supporting casts during his first stint in Cleveland--particularly from 2009-10 when the Cavs won more than 60 games in back to back seasons--were deep and versatile. Brown and Green did not play much in Cleveland precisely because of how deep the Cavs were, and they promptly became rotation players for championship teams after leaving Cleveland.

At Friday, September 18, 2020 4:32:00 AM, Blogger HP said...

(Part 1)

Hey David, I have been a long time reader of your blog (have argued in favor of the historically underrated 1982 Lakers and their incredible 2 guard attack) and I really appreciate your historical insight on the game and especially like your calling out of the narratives the media sometimes uses to either prop or bring down certain players. I want to thank you for your continued content on this blog even with the present worldwide circumstances.

However, I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that the 2009/2010 Cavs might have been a better supporting cast than the 2019/2020 Bucks. Let me try to do a quick skillset comparison of the most prominent players in each squad while focusing especially on the 2009/2019 squads, because that was the most successful Cavs season of the two as well as being the more "normal" of the seasons for the Bucks:

Brook Lopez is a 7 footer able to take around 6 three point shots per game (making them at league average efficiency) to space the floor offensively, while also doubling as an All Defense caliber rim protector on the other end. He is an instrumental defensive cog who allows Giannis to take risks defensively due to knowing he has an excellent anchor protecting the rim. His main weakness as a role player is not providing good rebounding (though he's excellent at boxing out guys to allow Giannis the rebound). He is also able to on occasion, use some basic post moves on short defenders who have switched on to him to get easy shots.

In comparison, Ilgauskas in 09 was an aging but effective offensive center who was a good floor spacer for the time (he was able to consistently hit long mid rangers), but was not near Brook Lopez as a rim protector (never was close to making an all defensive team and struggled on switches). Ilgauskas played more below the rim, and was able to on occasion score over shorter defenders, but by 2009 he was far removed from his peak. Very vulnerable on switches.

Mo Williams had the season of his career in 2009, but even at his peak, he was a 6'1 guard prone to disappearing in the playoffs due to the increased physicallity, and defensively was a player that could be taken advantage of. He was a very good shooter for the time though, and certainly made LeBrons life easier by relieving him of playmaking duties and providing excellent floor spacing, but he wasn't consistent in getting himself good shots because of his lack of ultimate speed and non-elite ball handling. Still a good player, but far from the 2nd options on championship teams of the time like Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett.

However, in trying to find a comparison for him, I find that the Milwaukee player he resembles most both statistically and as far as impact on the court is Brogdon.

Brogdon was the third option on the 2019 Bucks, yet still provided similar offensive output to Mo Williams, while being a much better defender and even one capable of credible defensive switching due to his height (6'5). He was a big guard able to effectively play the pick and roll and was also able to be used as a screener/floor spacer on offense.

Middleton, unlike Mo williams -who only made the 2009 All Star team due to a few players needing to be replaced due to injury- is a legit All Star capable of creating his shot and is also a tremendous defender with good size his position. He's even capable of filling for stretches as a #1 option, as he proved in Game 4 against Miami when he put up 38 points to prolong their season without Giannis playing the last 3 quarters + OT... something that Mo Williams would have had a tough time doing due to his physical limitations.

So, to recap, in my opinion I find Mo Williams (Cav's 2nd option) a similar caliber player to Brogdon (Buck's 3rd option) but would prefer Brogdon due to defense, size and being more effective across more matchups. Brook Lopez provides much superior spacing and defensive presence than Ilgauskas, and there's no player equal to Middleton on the Cavs.

At Friday, September 18, 2020 4:47:00 AM, Blogger HP said...

Part 2

Then you have to start trying to find a comparison to Eric Bledsoe, who in 2019 was a 1st All Defense guard as well as the 2nd leading playmaker on the Bucks (5.5 apg). He struggled with efficient shot creation in the playoffs, but is more than serviceable as a 4th option who's also a willing cutter/shooter.

His comparison would be Delonte West, a skilled player who could on occasion be called to create shots for himself on the midrange, but he was nowhere near the defensive presence Bledsoe was and didn't have the size Bledsoe did to allow him to easily switch onto stronger players.

The Cavs were one of the deepest teams of the era, yet when comparing the depth of both teams one finds this interesting fact:

The Cavs had 4 players who averaged 10+ points, and on top of that, 4 other players who averaged 6+ points. In comparison, the Bucks had 6 players who averaged 10+ points, and a further 6 other players who averaged 6+ points! So the depth argument is tough to argue I'm favor of the Cavs.

I agree that Mike Brown is a very underrated coach, but his resume without LeBron is not as good as Coach Bud's without Giannis, who coached an Atlanta team without a superstar to 60 wins. Yes, Bud has flaws regarding not playing his players enough, or not adjusting quickly in the playoffs, but he has proven more than Mike Brown without an MVP player on his team and is more highly regarded in NBA circles for having great gameplans on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball (Mike Brown is mainly lauded for the defense he is able to get his squads to play, but has been consistently criticised for his offense gameplanning).

But to get back to the original point: the 2009 Cavs in my opinion were certainly not a better supporting cast than the 2019 Bucks, mainly because Middleton and Brogdon are both more dependable playoff players and two way performers than Mo williams, and because Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe are also more impactful two way players than Ilgauskas/Delonte/Varejao were. Also, the Cavs just didn't have the bench two way talent the Bucks did (George Hill and Mirotic) nor the depth.

I would love to hear both yours and Cyber's responses.

At Saturday, September 19, 2020 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The two articles that I linked to in a previous comment--plus other archived articles on this website--describe in detail my take on LeBron's supporting casts during his first stint in Cleveland, so I don't feel compelled to restate my previous analysis. I will point out one comment that Mike Fratello made about LeBron's supporting cast: the Cavaliers had at least 10 players on their roster who had been starters for playoff teams. Collectively, the Cavaliers had great depth and great roster flexibility even if the team lacked an All-NBA level second option. The roster was built around size, paint defense, and rebounding, plus outside shooting to spread the court for LeBron. No roster is perfect, but the idea that LeBron singlehandedly won 61 and 66 regular season games is naive. LeBron had enough talent around him to win a title, but he had not yet figured out what Jordan and Bryant figured out: the best player has to find a way to make things work, not make excuses about what his team lacks. That is the advice that Jordan gave Bryant when Bryant went up against Boston's Big Three with Pau Gasol and little else, and that is the public comment that Bryant made when LeBron faced the Golden State Warriors.


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