In 2022, when Milwaukee lost Game 3 to the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Jrue Holiday collectively scored 80 points of their 103-point total. I brought it up last year, the year before that, and I’m bringing it up again this year because it’s the nexus of the 2021 defending champ’s struggles trying to run it back. In what was evident from both the Nuggets and the Heat’s run to the finals last year, you still need a five-man team, good defense, and bench depth to win a championship. Might sound silly to say after Giannis won the 2021 NBA Finals by putting down 50 points on his own for the trophy, but you can’t go Super Saiyan every game.
Changes had to happen if Milwaukee was going to become a title contender once again, especially after Miami upset the No. 1-seeded Bucks in the first round. Still, I didn’t expect Damian Lillard. Before the big trade, it seemed like the Bucks were going to just try and run it back again. In fact, they probably were. They re-signed Khris Middleton to a three-year, $102 million contract; and they even kept Brook Lopez despite a scare from the Rockets stealing him away in free agency.
But everything changed after Antetokounmpo stated his dissatisfaction. “At the end of the day, I feel like all my teammates know and the organization knows that I want to win a championship,” he told The New York Times. “As long as we’re on the same page with that and you show me and we go together to win a championship, I’m all for it. The moment I feel like, oh, yeah, we’re trying to rebuild… I don’t want to be 20 years on the same team and don’t win another championship.”
With words like that, Milwaukee knew they had to keep their star happy. Of course, it’s also a big contract year for Giannis. He was eligible to sign an extension with Milwaukee, but announced that he was going to wait to see how things played out—with or without the Bucks.
So, Milwaukee made a big move. They traded their star point-guard and everyone’s favorite teammate Jrue Holiday—alongside Grayson Allen and a 2029 first-round pick—to the Trail Blazers for Damian Lillard. The surprise trade came just a day after Holiday told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he was a “Buck for life.” He went on to say, “I don’t want to play for any other team. I think we have a chance to continue to do great things.” According to his wife, former pro national soccer team player Lauren Cheney, he woke up from a nap to hear the news and was completely blindsided. Portland GM Joe Cronin then worked with Holiday on getting him to another contender, and he’ll still have that chance in Boston. But all together—not even mentioning the Deandre Ayton move included as well—it was without a doubt one of the biggest moves of the past decade.
I was half asleep that day when the trade finally hit, jolting me awake like a quadruple espresso shot. Imagining the Dame and Giannis pick-and-roll is something you previously could have only done in your wildest NBA2K league simulators. Looking at Dame in a Bucks jersey, Holiday in a Celtics jersey, and Chris Paul in a Warriors jersey feels like when my NBA 2K league gets to 2030 and everyone is all jumbled up because the AI doesn’t understand how free agency actually works.
But here we are, in a new NBA where Dame can go crazy offensively and his defensive faults can be covered by two former Defensive Player of the Year winners. Middleton and Pat Connaughton can space the floor, hit threes, and give Giannis more driving lines, and you have what is most undoubtedly the top contender in the East. (Celtics fans, we’ll get to you later).
“It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to play with a guy like that,” Antetokounmpo told Andscape‘s Marc J. Spears. “A guy that is built from the same cloth as you. A guy that is a killer. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been good for so many years in the league… Having a guy that you can go to war every single day that wants it as bad as you want. It is always a good feeling.”
Lillard, in my opinion, is also in a way better position to win a championship here than he was going to be in his preferred destination in Miami. He seems happy with it too, even as he goes through an upcoming divorce to his wife of TK years. Dame joked with reporters about the union at the Bucks official Media Day, stating, “They’re not gonna allow [Giannis] to come downhill and just dunk every time,” when it comes to his opponents’ strategy. “Which one are you gonna do? Are you gonna clog up the paint or are you gonna allow me to make 9 threes?”
I’ve seen some commentators mention potential bench depth as an issue, but Milwaukee did a fairly decent job shoring up veteran talent in my book. They acquired backup point guard Cameron Payne (Suns) and Malik Beasley (Lakers) in free agency. Plus, they retained both Jae Crowder (who they fought for hard last year) and Bobby Portis. Hell, they even got Robin Lopez to come and hang with his brother. Sure, I haven’t even mentioned yet that they fired head coach Mike Budenholzer and replaced him with former Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin. Maybe that will have some effect, who knows. But, if I was a Bucks fan, I would be going wild right now. Power ranking: infinity.