• The Bucks entered the season with enormous expectations after landing Damian Lillard in a blockbuster deal with the Blazers on September 27th. There were some skeptics who worried about losing Jrue Holiday’s defense, and the lack of depth behind Milwaukee’s stars, but most NBA fans and experts believed this would be a move that would take the Bucks over the edge. Especially in the Eastern Conference, where the skill seems so consolidated, any team seemed just a move or two away from the NBA Finals. This would be the third season since their fantastic championship run, so pushing their chips in now seemed like good business to pretty much everyone.

    How’d It Go?

    It was an unmitigated disaster, pretty much from the get-go. The Bucks finished third in the Eastern Conference, but it never felt like they were able to achieve the ceiling they were promising. Adding Damian Lillard raised their offensive profile to be sure, as they wound up fourth in points scored and fifth in three-pointers made with a pace in the top third of the league. However, they couldn’t guard anyone as they ranked 21st in opponent points and 19th in defensive rating. They say defense wins championships, and it appears that statement held true here to a large degree.

    One of the biggest storylines of the season was the dismissal of head coach Adrian Griffin, which still comes as a bit of a shock as the Bucks sat on a 30-13 record. They’d go on to hire Doc Rivers (of all people) and went 19-20 the rest of the way. Nothing Rivers did meaningfully improved the Bucks, but the rumors were swirling that the Bucks didn’t understand their roles and players were starting to step on the coach’s authority. The Griffin firing still seems to be strange in both timing and reasoning, though we may never know the full truth. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Rivers return next season with the baked-in excuse that he didn’t get a full offseason to “work on things.” It still feels like a rushed (and poor) fit though.

    It must be painful to see former point guard Jrue Holiday in the NBA Finals, especially since he could aid much of what seems to be broken for the Bucks of late. There were certainly some success stories though, and we can celebrate the fact that we got a healthy Khris Middleton about a month into the season, finally. Of course, he then missed 16 games from February to March with a left ankle injury. Otherwise, he was a fantastic trade target somewhere in that first month as the Bucks kept his minutes in check.

    The other big news of the season was the underwhelming play Damian Lillard. We all assumed this team would go as the stars would go, and both Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo were being drafted in the first or second round at the latest. Neither paid off on that draft capital if you played fantasy leagues straight up, but Giannis certainly did if you decided to punt FT%. That’s been the case for several seasons now for the Greek Freak.

    Brook Lopez continued to plod along as a severely underrated starting center in both real life and fantasy, but he’ll be 36 next season with a lengthy injury history behind him. I always find him a little bit harder to trust with each passing year. Bobby Portis had some standout performances as a top-tier injury-replacement player. When the Bucks were healthy, he was tough to hold though.

    I wish I could say one of the role players on this team significantly rose above their station, but in truth it was a pretty boring season from a fantasy standpoint. Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez were season-long studs, though Lillard was not at the level to which we’re accustomed. Middleton kind of had a tale of two seasons. Portis was an elite streamer. Otherwise, this was a pretty forgettable season if all you care about is the stats.

    Coaching

    I’m going to be one of the few to give Adrian Griffin some props. He wound up getting fired for it, but he came in and asked the Bucks to play a defensive scheme that was far more aggressive than they had been playing. Specifically, he was asking Lopez at the very start of the season to stay on the level with guards in the pick-and-roll. Ultimately, the players held an intervention and got Griffin to let go of this idea, letting Lopez play in drop coverage as he is comfortable doing. This led to much better play from Lopez and gave him those coveted blocks we want in fantasy.

    While you need the right personnel to run certain things in the NBA, I kind of like that the new head coach was trying to put his thumbprint on the game. Griffin clearly felt strongly about his defensive schemes and didn’t want to let them go. That’s conviction and sometimes that level of stubborn is what gives teams their edge. Think about Tom Thibodeau and how he runs his teams. If the players can’t execute what he wants to do, he simply doesn’t play them and goes to the guy who can. Unfortunately, the Bucks had no talent behind their top 6-7 players, so there was no real pivot here for Griffin to use.

    We have never seen Giannis so vocal and adamant with a head coach before. He seems like the type to follow whoever is in charge and just do his best, but we had Giannis in huddles drawing up plays ON CAMERA. We had altercations at the scorer’s table. We had direct quotes about the team needing to be coached better.

    Then there was the on-court product, which was a far cry from the championship-level we’d all projected for the team. The defense was bad, sure, but the offense wasn’t ever really that great either despite what the statistics say. There was a vision with Lillard and Giannis in an unstoppable pick-and-roll that never came to fruition. When they needed buckets in clutch situations, it was Dame Time hero ball instead, which was at least mildly surprising. Lillard is still capable of coming through in those spots, but the frequency is less and less with the passage of time.

    The switch to Doc Rivers was just plain awkward. Even though the team vibes seemed fraught and the on-court product was underwhelming, firing a coach that has won 70% of their games is always a tough sell with me. If you think Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson didn’t have their run-ins, I think you’re probably just too young to remember or are a casual fan. This kind of conflict is good for a team, in general, as challenging each other can lead to the best versions of each person involved. Getting each side to compromise can help you get to what works.

    Rivers did nothing of note after taking over except losing winnable basketball games and proceeding to throw everyone else under the bus. It’s a shock that the Bucks went that route, and even that Doc took the gig when he was already employed as an announcer. It seemed like a good fit for him alongside Mike Breen and Doris Burke, but he answered the siren song of coaching a talented team yet again, only to once again fail in key moments.

    The Bucks were inarguably worse under Doc than they had been under Griffin, though it’s hard to say if he comes back as the head coach next season or not. Neither outcome would shock me, honestly.

    The Players

    Damian Lillard
    PG, Milwaukee Bucks
    SeasonTeamGPGSMPG FGMFGAFG% FTMFTAFT% 3PTM3PTA3PT% PTSREBAST STLBLKTO
    23-24 MIL 73 73 35.3 7.4 17.5 42.4 6.5 7.0 92.0 3.0 8.5 35.4 24.3 4.4 7.0 1.0 0.2 2.6
    22-23 POR 58 58 36.3 9.6 20.7 46.3 8.8 9.6 91.4 4.2 11.3 37.1 32.2 4.8 7.3 0.9 0.3 3.3
    21-22 POR 29 29 36.3 7.7 19.0 40.2 5.5 6.2 87.8 3.2 9.8 32.4 24.0 4.1 7.3 0.6 0.4 2.9

    ADP: 11.7/19.5 (Yahoo/ESPN) | Total Value: 18/19 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 22/21 (8/9-cat)

    Lillard continued to put up counting stats, but the efficiency continued to slide and there was a noticeable difficulty in getting to his spots and past the defender this season that should be worrisome for fantasy managers and Bucks fans alike. He’ll never be an elite defender, but the offense should come easily and that was not the case at all despite arguably having a better supporting roster than ever before in his career.

    There were still plenty of “Dame Time” moments as he closed out close wins and pointed to his wrist, but in general, the season fell short of expectations. This season represented his lowest three-point output since 2018-19, his third-lowest three-point percentage in a season, and his lowest usage since 2018-19 as well. A volume dip was expected, but Lillard was also expected to increase his efficiency to buoy his first-round value. He managed to stay healthy through most of the season, which is one of the saving graces here, but he wasn’t able to return the value we’d be hoping to nab with a borderline first-round pick.

    Lillard should return to the Bucks next season where he’ll hope for a roster shakeup that helps him reach his ceiling. The Bucks will need to surround him with lengthy defenders to hide his utter lack of defense on the regular. Teams went at Dame relentlessly this season and he did not respond well. Giannis can be an elite defender, but they’ll need at least one more guy to give Dame a rest on that end.

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