While the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics are the front-runners for the Eastern Conference Finals, let us not forget the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are portrayed as the superior team in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics are now viewed as being on their level with the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors a few legs back.
Despite stubborn upon conclusions, the Milwaukee Bucks are right in the mix and the underdogs of the conference.
Last year, the Bucks endured a second-half surge which helped them snatch the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, they were unable to make a deep playoff run, as the Raptors defeated them 4-2 in the first round.
Regardless of their early first-round exit, the Bucks have an enormous amount of potential this upcoming year — enough to scare the top of the conference.
The biggest thing the Bucks have going for themselves is their youth. One of the youngest teams in the league, they have the potential to be a star-studded bunch and inject imminent fear into the top of the conference.
When assessing their rotation, the “Greek Freak” — Giannis Antetokounmpo — stands out loud and proud. The 6’11” 22-year-old has established himself as a top 20 player in the association.
Ranging from his ability to fly above the rim, play off the dribble, hit the boards, pose as a shot blocker and play pick pocket on the defensive end, Antetokounmpo presents an elite two-way threat. Averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in the 2016-17 season, the Greek Freak showcased his ability to be a triple double threat on any given night. However, the Bucks core is not reliant on just him.
In addition to Antetokounmpo, the Bucks possess a number of intriguing and budding wings — one being second-year man, Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon serves as a combo guard for head coach Jason Kidd. Ranging from his ability to take defenders off the dribble, hit the outside jumper, help facilitate for his teammates and hold his own on the defensive end, Brogdon provides Kidd and company with another two-way asset. That play also granted him the Rookie of the Year Award — a more than impressive feat.
Much like Brogdon, Khris Middleton grants Milwaukee a two-way presence out on the perimeter.
Middleton, who inked a five-year, $70 million deal in the 2015 offseason, missed the first half of the year with a hamstring injury. Once he was healthy, he became a key contributor for the Bucks, averaging 14.7 points per game while shooting 43.3 percent from behind the arc.
Entering this upcoming season in good health, it would be fair to assume that Middleton will improve.
To round out their front line, the Bucks have a good mix of veterans and youth. With the physical specimen that’s the 7’1″ Thon Maker, the tenured John Henson and veteran Greg Monroe all present, the Bucks possess depth — especially down low.
The Bucks also have the gritty Matthew Dellavedova — who can hit the outside jumper and guard man-to-man –, swingman Tony Snell (who shot a career high 40.6% from the outside) and forward Jabari Parker — who they hope will return from his second ACL tear in 2018.
When you put together a core consisting of Antetokoumpo, Brogdon, Middleton, Maker, Henson, Monroe, Dellavedova and possibly Parker, the Bucks own a very dangerous and underrated unit. They’re a versatile, athletic and defensive savvy bunch poised to make a deep playoff run.
When looking at Antetokounmpo — a budding superstar — you can’t help but ponder whether he’s on course to be a top five player in the near future? Outside of his inconsistent, but not horrific outside shooting, there’s virtually nothing he can’t do. He has the ability to go coast to coast, hit the boards and lock down on the defensive end. His skill set, given his stature, is unique and one that puts him in the superstar conversation.
Then you look at the pieces around the Greek Freak. Brogdon is bound to have a great year, if and when he’s given the minutes (he played less than 27 minutes a night in his rookie year). Middleton will be healthy going into training camp. Maker will become more adept at playing in the middle. Parker may make an appearance towards the end of the season. And they have Monroe and Dellavedova in place to complement their youth.
So now the biggest question of all. How does this Bucks team match up versus the rest of the East? Well lets start with the Raptors.
Though they defeated the Bucks in the playoffs last season, the Raptors have since peaked. Their core, which consists of Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, has little room for growth. That core of players are either in their prime or on the back nine. Meanwhile, the Bucks play at their level and haven’t even come close to reaching their potential.
The Washington Wizards have a stellar backcourt in place with John Wall and Bradley Beal. That duo, as well as Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat are what they are and have little room to grow. The majority of the Wizards’ core has hit their full potential and/or has failed to improve aspects of their game (Beal’s perimeter defense, Gortat’s interior defense).
Then there’s the Cavaliers. While LeBron James, Thomas, Kevin Love and company are all but likely the clear-cut favorites to make it out of the East for a fourth consecutive year, the Bucks have the athleticism and versatility to, at the very least, tire them out. Plus, if and when James leaves next summer, the East opens up entirely and no team will be in better position to take over than the Bucks.
Overall, chances are Milwaukee won’t be playing in the Finals, but they do have the young, budding talent to insert fear into the Eastern Conference.
The case could be made for them leapfrogging both Toronto and Washington, while also possibly putting the pressure on Boston in a seven-game series — making them the underdogs of the Conference.