7 things that would make a successful 2017-18 season for the Bucks
Coming off an encouraging season last year – in which the Bucks went 42-40 and put up a strong fight in their first-round playoff series against Toronto, Giannis Antetokounmpo emerged as an ascendant NBA superstar and the young basketball talent and local fan buzz finally seemed to match up with the organization's much-hyped vision of the fast-coming future – the question now is: What does a successful 2017-18 look like for Milwaukee?
Despite playing in a small Midwestern market that's given the league little reason to notice it over the past three decades, the Bucks are suddenly, optimistically and exhilaratingly relevant. Antetokounmpo, the Most Improved Player last year and perhaps also the most breathtakingly exciting to watch, is the darling of the NBA; a couple years ago, nobody could pronounce his name, and now his jersey is among the league's most popular. The Bucks, with their fast-paced and high-flying style, have become must-see TV, and they have twice as many nationally broadcast games this year as they had last season.
Milwaukee arguably won the 2016 draft, picking huge-upside, 7-foot-1, 19-year-old center Thon Maker in the first round, and later getting point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who went on to become the first second-round pick in NBA history to win the Rookie of the Year award. Forward Jabari Parker looked like a legitimate offensive force last year before tearing his ACL for the second time, but the team actually played even better when it got wing Khris Middleton back from injury.
Tony Snell played well as a 3-and-D shooting guard, center Greg Monroe transitioned effectively to a bench role and Jason Terry made everyone smile a lot. Head coach Jason Kidd seems to be getting better at teaching, leading and managing his squad.
And so, despite some concerns – the Bucks endured front-office turmoil that seemed to result from ownership discord; no one knows what Parker will be like when he returns; there are still questions about the second unit; and, in truth, perhaps expectations are too high too soon for this group – there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Milwaukee's 2017-18 season.
The Bucks aren't winning the NBA championship this year, and probably not next year either. But here are seven things that would make this basketball season a success in Milwaukee.
1. Win a first-round playoff series
We'll start with the big one. There's been lots of debate and discussion about how many games the Bucks will or should win this year – are they a 46-win team? 48? 50? – and certainly victories are important, even in the diluted Eastern Conference. But what really matters is winning in the playoffs, and Milwaukee hasn't advanced out of the first round of the postseason since 2001. That's 16 years! If Giannis and Co. want to be among the big boys in the NBA, they need to be successful on the biggest stage.
2. Giannis is first-team All-NBA
He's number one in our hearts, and was among the top-10 players in the league last year, when he earned Second-Team All-NBA honors. Everyone is watching with bated breath to see if Antetokounmpo, who has improved significantly in every statistical category over his first four professional seasons, makes another huge leap this year. He's positionless, undefinable and many smart basketball people say he doesn't have a ceiling, because no one's seen someone do the things he can do. If Antetokounmpo is named All-NBA First-Team, he's one of the top-five players in the league.
3. Parker returns and resembles 2016-17 Jabari
When Jabari Parker got hurt on Feb. 8 last season, tearing his left ACL for the second time in three years, he was averaging 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds with a player efficiency rating (PER) over 19. The sample size of players tearing the same ACL twice in such a short amount of time and playing again is very small; the number that have returned as good or better than before is virtually zero. Parker's work ethic and attitude throughout his rehab has been unquestionably incredible, but it's a tall hill to climb. If Parker can come back next February and, by April, be putting up similar numbers to last season, that will be an unequivocal success.
4. Middleton averages 20 a night
Antetokounmpo is the clear leader, the main guy, the go-to offensive option for the Bucks. But he needs a No. 2. The last time Middleton played a full season, in 2015-16, he looked like that dude – in fact, at the time, he looked like a potential top scorer, averaging 18.2 points per game. With Parker and his 20 points a night sidelined for the first five months, Milwaukee – and Giannis – need Middleton to step up and into the scoring void. If the complementary Middleton, who scores in a completely different way than Antetokounmpo and provides balance to the offense, can get 20 a game on 3-pointers and midrange jumpers, he'll be a valuable floor spacer.
5. Maker and Brogdon both get 20 percent better
What does that mean? Incremental, steady gains for the two second-year players. For Maker, who was sparsely used for most of the regular season before becoming a starter later in the year and taking on an important role in the playoffs, it means improving 20 percent on his postseason output. Having established himself as an athletic defensive presence and floor stretcher against the Raptors, Maker needs to average around 22 minutes, 7.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. For Brogdon, a poised and mature playmaker who was excellent during the campaign but seemed to hit the rookie wall in the playoffs, the 20-percent improvement is on his regular-season numbers and would look like this: 31.7 minutes, 12.3 points, 5.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
6. Bucks take three more 3-pointers per game
Last year, Milwaukee ranked 10th in 3-point field-goal accuracy (37.0 percent) but was 24th in 3-point attempts (23.7 per game). Gotta take more of 'em! With shooters like Middleton, Snell, Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and potentially Maker out there, the Bucks have the weapons to be a decent 3-point shooting team. If they take three more treys per game than they did last year, they'd be at 26.7 average attempts, which would have ranked 14th in the league. If they can do that, Antetokounmpo, Monroe and others will feast in the paint.
7. Bucks average 17,000 fans
The first-round playoff series against the Raptors last year felt like a turning point, a moment when the city and its sports fans truly embraced the Bucks. With a beloved, heart-stopping star like Antetokounmpo, a likable roster of improving players, a first-class business operations team and underrated in-game environment, the Bucks should bring in more fans. Last year, they averaged just 15,828 per home game, which was the fourth-worst draw in the league. The BMO Harris Bradley Center has a capacity of 18,600; if Milwaukee can average 17,000 fans per game, the arena would be at 91 percent capacity and the Bucks would be at least in the top two-thirds of the NBA in home attendance.
And, if nothing else and none of those things happen, if Jason Terry flies the Jet around the BMO Harris Bradley Center and up through the stands, leading a conga line of Jetting Bucks fans, after a big win, then the season will still be a success.
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