Amid the most dormant part of an NBA cycle, we at Liberty Ballers will be sizing up the Philadelphia 76ers’ 14 Eastern Conference foes. Next up are the Milwaukee Bucks.
Previously on our offseason review series: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors.
Entering the 2022 playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks looked to be in a prime position to maintain their title of the NBA’s best. Their 51 regular season wins, tied for the second-most in the East with the Sixers and Celtics, allowed them to secure the East’s three-seed. Boasting one of the league’s top-three offenses and quite possibly the best player in the world in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a repeat looked like a legitimate possibility.
Instead, the Bucks were the biggest “what if” by season’s end. What if Khris Middleton didn’t suffer an ultimately season-ending MCL sprain in the second game of Milwaukee’s opening-round matchup, which they won in a gentleman’s sweep, against the Bulls? And after taking a 3-2 lead in their second-round series against the Boston Celtics, what if Boston didn’t shoot lights out (22-of-55 from three-point range) and the Bucks didn’t go ice cold (4-of-33 from three-point range) in a decisive seventh game the Celtics ended up winning to send Milwaukee home packing? In an alternate universe, had a few things broken their way, the Bucks could very well have found themselves right back in the Finals.
But of course, in our world, the Bucks saw their title defense end much, much earlier than they would’ve liked. Still, they enter the 2022-23 season well-suited to go after their second title in three seasons.
Compared to other teams throughout the league, it’s been a mostly uneventful offseason to this point in Milwaukee. On draft night, they used the 24th overall pick to select the G League Ignite’s MarJon Beauchamp. At the outset of free agency, they retained all of their notable free agents: Pat Connaughton, Wesley Matthews, Bobby Portis and Jevon Carter. On top of that, they brought in Joe Ingles, who is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in January but is expected to return to action at some point this season. They are all solid, if unspectacular, moves that a recent champion would make.
Maintaining continuity was clearly the name of the game for the Bucks, and frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Connaughton and Matthews both provide competent outside shooting and tough, steady defense for a team that did experience some slippage in that department, as Milwaukee ranked outside of the top-ten in defensive rating for the first time since the 2017-18 season. Portis, the people’s champion and versatile spark plug down low, is coming off yet another productive season that saw him average his most points per game in a season (14.6). Should Ingles come back and manage to regain some semblance of his former self, he’d provide valuable depth at the wing. Brook Lopez will also be looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled season that limited him to just 13 regular season games prior to the playoffs. All things considered, this once again has the look of a championship-caliber supporting cast.
Of course, Milwaukee will only go as far as their big three of Giannis, Middleton and Jrue Holiday will take them. Giannis is still Giannis, which is a nearly indomitable force; en route to earning his fourth-straight first team All-NBA nod and once again finishing in the top-five in MVP voting, he recorded a league-high 55 games with 25 or more points while finishing second in scoring (29.9 points per game). Holiday is still a premier defensive talent, being named All-Defense for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Middleton, still recovering from wrist surgery he underwent in July, is a bit more of a question mark to begin the season but should still be expected to continue supplying a steady stream of buckets.
With all of that being said, Milwaukee clearly has all of the pieces they would need to remain a major player in what is shaping up to be an extremely competitive Eastern Conference. Both the Celtics and Sixers, two teams the Bucks will likely be jockeying with for positioning at the top, upgraded their rosters this summer. The Nets (for now) remain intact and have a more than talented-enough roster to make some noise. The Cavs could be primed for a breakout year after adding Donovan Mitchell to their young core of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. The Heat are still lurking despite a somewhat dormant summer. That’s not to mention teams like the Raptors, Hawks and Bulls who are all looking to take major leaps. Nothing in the East is going to come easy.
Nevertheless, expect the Bucks to remain right in the thick of the title race yet again. As long as Giannis still performs like an absolutely unstoppable force and other core guys stay healthy and produce, the Larry O’Brien trophy could very well return to Milwaukee this upcoming season.