During the second half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference 1st Round series between the Pistons and the Bucks, a series sweep that saw Milwaukee run away in nearly every statistical category, TNT’s Reggie Miller made quite the flattering remark about MVP candidate forward Giannis Antetokounmpo:
“If [Giannis] can develop a 12-15 foot jump-shot, he’s going to be better than
Jordan…you heard me right, people, BETTER than Jordan!”
A bold take in the age of sports hot-takes, but the resurgence of the Buck franchise and the quick rise of Giannis’ star power may indicate some truth to those words. In only his 6th NBA season, Giannis has already made three All-Star teams, back-to-back All-NBA 2nd Teams, five Player of the Month Awards (four this season), and has managed to increase his scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage averages in each successive season throughout his career. He’s lead his team to its first playoff series
win since 2001 and has put together an MVP-caliber season at the tender age of 24, propelling his team to 60 wins and the league’s best record.
But, this season seems to be something different. Giannis isn’t just “The Freak” or a hard to pronounce last name. He’s got a different look, a different composure. Earlier in April, ESPN detailed his “over the top” pre-game routine of hot sauce and shooting- rituals and, later in the month, Giannis himself took a slight jab at the floppers of the
league and said he wouldn’t “look to the referees for protection” if the Pistons played him dirty. In that very same series, he’d average 26.3 points, 12 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 52% shooting, very similar to his already impressive regular season averages. He was a monster. Completely in his own zone. In his words, his actions and, most obviously, his play, he’s become something entirely different than what we’ve seen
And that’s a much larger theme this season for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, as well. This season for the franchise, in many ways, is replicative of Giannis’ launch to superstar status. Over the last 4 seasons, GM Jon Horst took large leaps to ensure that this squad would supply Giannis with a wealth of offensive weapons and defensive support, with many of his investments finally bearing the fruits of his labor. First, the
shooting. Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Eric Bledsoe have all stepped up and provided range to a previously meager Bucks offense. Along with Middleton’s continued positioning as Giannis’ #2, Bledsoe’s addition to the roster at the beginning of the 2017- 2018 season was a breath of fresh air to the Bucks rotation. He’s averaged a career high 48.4% from the field while averaging 15.9 points and 5.5 assists this season. Brogdon’s junior season was nothing short of an all-around upgrade as he shot a stunning 50.5% (42.6% from 3) and made a league-leading 92.8% of his free throws.
Veterans like Brook Lopez and Pau Gasol have also joined the roster this season, Lopez finding his was into Milwaukee after the Los Angeles Lakers mysteriously didn’t make an effort to re-sign the former All-Star veteran. Only two years removed from his run with the Nets, Lopez is a reinvented player, shooting a career high 36.5% from three and providing a young core of swing forwards with the defensive support they need to go from playoff powerhouse to championship contender.
However, going into this Eastern Conference Semi-Final matchup against the Celtics, a team filled with drama, indecision, and on-the-court problems throughout the season, the final pieces of this championship puzzle, the bench and the coaching staff, will be what truly elevates this team. For Reggie’s “Jordan’ premonition to ring true, Giannis will have to rely on a stellar coach that can utilize a diversely talented bench. Finally free of
the oft-confused and inefficient rotations of Jason Kidd, Milwaukee has found new life in Mike Budenholzer, a former Popovich assistant in San Antonio who signed onto his first head coaching job in 2013 with the Atlanta Hawks. He would make the playoffs in the first four seasons of his five year tenure with the team, having been fired in April 2018
and swiftly hired by Horst less than a month later. And, although his style is not a superstar focused as Phil Jackson’s was for Jordan, Budenholzer seems to have an excellent understanding of how to take his depth-reliant style and transform it into a winning formula. His development of young talent like Pat Connaughton and D.J. Wilson have infused quick, reliable shooting alongside the already proven talents like Ersan Ilyasova and George Hill, recent additions to the team that have already been fully
assimilated into coach Budenholzer’s system. Back in November, after two massive comeback wins against the Bulls and the Nuggets, both Eric Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo praised their head coach for his composure and impact on the team’s resiliency. Giannis mused, “Having a coach that trusts you and also keeps you accountable at all times helps you play with confidence and you always want to play as
hard as you can for him.”
So, the motivation is there, the pieces seem firmly in place, a roster full of young talent and aptly-recruited veterans alike, on top of Giannis already being in the top five in the league in Player Efficiency, scoring, rebounding and defensive efficiency, it’s hard not to understand Reggie’s comparison. In Jordan’s seventh season in the NBA, he was able to capture his first NBA title and Finals MVP with the Chicago Bulls. It is still to be decided whether or not the opportunity to make that moment a reality is in the Bucks
future, but they’ve already secured, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the generational talent they need to begin turning the wheels of destiny. The Freak has been let loose on the NBA.