Mired in mediocrity for the better part of three decades, the Milwaukee Bucks' surge into title contention has coincided with the opening of the sparkling new Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee.
A building far too pristine to be housing the longtime 'eighth seed or bust' Bucks, the new building has become home to Mike Budenholzer's 'let it fly' iteration of the small-market franchise.
Behind back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee has rattled off a 116-39 win-loss record over the course of the last two regular seasons. Only the coronavirus shutdown prevented them from consecutive 60-win campaigns for the first time since the early 1970s when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to its lone championship.
The major difference between the two squads is the fact the Bucks won the title in 1971 in the first of those 60-win seasons, while the current version has thus far faulted in the postseason, as pressure mounts to capitalize on their window of opportunity.
The number one storyline heading into free agency league-wide is the Antetokounmpo decision, with the 26-year-old eligible to sign a five-year supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee in what would be the richest deal in NBA history - projected at $227 million.
While Antetokounmpo is yet to face the media as training camp gets underway, the dark cloud of unrestricted free agency next offseason continues to hover over the team as the Dec. 21 deadline draws near.
"I mean, my situation last year, he told me how he felt and that's all I could do in return," teammate Khris Middleton told reporters. "As you know, I think we're more than friends at this point. We spent eight years together. We've been through a lot together also. So, at the end of the day, I know and I want him to do what's best for him and his family. He knows that I deeply want him to return and sign this extension, but at the same time, I know he's got a big decision that he's got to work through himself and with his family at home. Those are the most important people."
Antetokounmpo is a private superstar and the fact there has been no indication one way or the other should be no surprise to anyone. This is how he operates and in many respects, this is why Milwaukee has been the perfect destination for him to get accustomed to life in the United States and transform into the unlikely generational talent he has become.
An insatiably fierce competitor, Antetokounmpo can be seen in the locker room postgame after a loss sitting in silence, seemingly equally as frustrated with a playoff loss as he is with falling to the New York Knicks in January. It's that consistently ferocious attitude that has fuelled the Bucks' regular season dominance, yet, his team is yet to crack the postseason code.
Regardless of whether or not he signs on the dotted line before the season begins, the Bucks find themselves on the clock with the current group, as a sneakily ageing roster attempts to beat father time with the championship window is still open.
Brook Lopez has been a phenomenon in his two years as a Buck but is set to turn 33 in April. Recently acquired backup point guard DJ Augustin is expected to play a critical role in the rotation and has already turned 33. Jrue Holiday is 30 with only one year guaranteed on his contract while Khris Middleton will tick over that mark in August.
"I think we always embrace and feel fortunate that we feel we have the roster, we feel like we have players that are incredibly talented on both ends of the court and we're in the mix to be the last team standing," Budenholzer told reporters on day one of media availability earlier this week.
"I think the goal is real. The opportunity is real. But I think that if it's ever, you know, if you're an organization or a team that doesn't embrace that, you're probably, maybe, in the wrong business. But, at the same time, to think that a season is 'championship or bust' is certainly not the way we've approached it."
While it wouldn't be wise for Budenholzer to declare 2021 'championship or bust' in training camp, the uncertain futures of Antetokounmpo and Holiday increasingly add pressure on the franchise to deliver.
The acquisition of Jrue Holiday should not be understated. Arguably the best defensive guard in the league, Holiday is also a genuine 20 point a night scorer who can find the bottom of the basket from all levels.
MORE: Is Holiday the answer the Bucks have been seeking?
Perhaps most importantly in relation to this Bucks team is his playoff record, with Holiday pouring in 23.7 points and dishing out 6.3 assists per game during the Pelicans 2018 postseason run. Shooting 51 percent from the floor and 32 percent from deep, Holiday produced 41 and 33-point performances in that run, carrying the offence for stretches in the upset sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers.
"If you can't handle pressure you probably shouldn't be in this line of work to be honest with you," Holiday responded when asked about being viewed as the missing piece in the Bucks championship pursuit. "I want a chance to put a ring on my finger and you can see in their eyes they do too."
In order to do so, the Bucks will need improved shooting in the playoffs, with their deplorable outside marks bringing about their demise against Toronto and Miami in consecutive seasons.
For further emphasis on the Bucks shooting implosion, they registered a 23-for-89 (25.8 percent) mark in the fourth quarter from deep across those two series while Toronto and Miami combined for 35-for-91 (38.4 percent). Put simply, the Bucks haven't delivered when the heat has been turned up to the max.
In searching for added marksmen from the outisde, the Bucks have acquired Augustin, Holiday, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis while also drafting two of the best shooters in the class in Jordan Nwora and Sam Merrill.
Ultimately though, the Bucks achieving their goal of an NBA championship will rest on the shoulders of Antetokounmpo, who has been a tremendous playoff performer with one potentially fatal flaw.
Averaging 25.9 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists across the last two postseasons, Antetokounmpo is the only player to average 25/10/5 across the last two playoffs. While the effectiveness of the much-publicized 'Giannis-stopping wall' is an entirely different story on its own, the free-throw line is where the most obvious leap can be made.
A 72 percent shooter from the stripe on 6.7 attempts per game across his regular season career, Antetokounmpo has languished at 56.4 percent on 10.1 attempts per game in the series against Toronto and Miami. It could be playoff pressure, it could be fatigue, it could be mechanical, with the most likely truth being a combination of all, but the Bucks need Antetokounmpo to see an uptick from the free-throw line, particularly in close playoff games.
The hot take is to suggest the Bucks are simply a regular season team not built for the postseason, but looking back on both of their defeats you'll find they were closer than you are perhaps led to believe.
However, it doesn't matter how close they were, they lost, and with each stumble, the pressure increases. Perhaps Holiday is the steadying postseason presence they need. Perhaps Antetokounmpo finds his stroke at the free-throw line. Perhaps Budenholzer shortens his playoff rotation in order to maximize the impact of his best players.
Sure, an Antetokounmpo extension would significantly release the blowtorch being shined on the franchise from all angles, but the recent examples of Anthony Davis in New Orleans and the current James Harden situation in Houston are sharp reminders that nothing is for certain even if he signs on the dotted line.
"The conversations between Giannis and myself have been really, really good," Budenholzer said. "Whether it be as we made it through the summer or through these first few days of training camp. To me it's just all about winning with Giannis, that's all he cares about so from a coach's perspective it makes it very easy to have great conversations with him."
"I think he's in a really good place, we're in a really good place. We want to win at the highest levels, he wants the same thing so I think we all feel really good about those conversations and that day-to-day interaction. We feel incredibly fortunate that he's with us. He's the best of the best and we're fortunate to have him in our building, have him practicing every day."
This season will mark the 50-year anniversary of the Bucks' sole championship as the franchise enters arguably the most important in its history. How's that for pressure?
"There's always a sense of urgency to win, especially these last couple of years. We're in a great position, we have a great opportunity ahead of us after we lost a couple opportunities behind us," Middleton said. "We gotta take advantage of this time while we can because that window, it's not as big, as open, as it used to be. Or I should say, it's not as easy. You got to take advantage of those years when you can."
The clock is ticking.
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