So many factors have played into the Bucks uprise into contention this season.
Giannis Antetokoumnpo’s ascent into an MVP candidate. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s brilliant first year calling the shots. Khris Middleton’s rise to stardom.
Those are just a few of the many elements that have made the Bucks arguably the best story of the season.
If there’s one storyline centered around the Bucks that’s not getting enough attention, it’s been the savvy moves made by the front office, led by general manager Jon Horst. It’s a shame because, of all the awards that the Bucks are definitely going to be in consideration for – Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year – Horst probably has the best case out of all three.
That’s not taking anything away from what either Giannis or Coach Bud have done this season.
Giannis has been one of the league’s best players for a few years, but up until now, the Bucks never built the proper team around him. Coach Bud has yet again proven to be one of the league’s best coaches, but he needs the right personnel to make a contender. It was Horst who made this all possible.
The most obvious qualifier for winning Executive of the Year is building a winning squad. For the past several years, the Bucks have had the main ingredient to a contender in Giannis. What they’ve put around him since his rise to elite status has been a little questionable. But, since Horst took over, the Bucks have made the right moves to assemble the best team they’ve had since the Ray Allen days.
That all started last year when the team traded Greg Monroe for Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe was productive last season until he largely disappeared when the Bucks faced the Celtics in the postseason. This season, he’s become a new man.
While his point average and three-point percentage have gone down from his first season – Eric’s never exactly been a real threat from downtown – Bledsoe has been playing much better overall in his second season with a Bucks. He’s putting up the best field goal percentage of his career (49.2) while upping his rebounding average (5.5) and assist average (4.7). His play has been so impressive that the Bucks gave him an extension just last week, totaling four years and $70 million.
All his production cost was Greg Monroe, who never was a good fit, and a late first-round pick. Considering what Bledsoe has done for them, that was well worth the price and then some. Of course, that move was made last season. What Horst has done this season has been even more impressive.
That starts with the offseason. Jon had the right idea in mind when he thought that the best players to put around Giannis were shooters, and he definitely got a haul.
First, he brought in Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova is a classic stretch-4 player. He is a feared three-point shooter and he’s actually one of the best in the league at taking charges. What made him especially appealing was his familiarity with the Bucks, as he spent the first seven years of his career in Milwaukee – the last two of which were with Antetokounmpo.
His numbers have taken a hit this season – primarily because his minutes have gone down – but Ilyasova has so far lived up to the three-year/$21 million deal he signed with Milwaukee.
If there’s one addition that has unquestionably exceeded what he’s being paid this season, it’s Brook Lopez. The one question everyone should be asking themselves is, “How did Brook Lopez fall of everyone’s radar last summer?” The guy played a huge role the Lakers’ late resurgence last season and yet somehow had to settle for signing a one-year, $3.3 million contract.
Lopez has by far and away been the best cost-effective addition of the season because he’s been a perfect fit for the Bucks. His floor-stretching has been a huge plus – he’s shooting almost 37 percent from three on 6.5 attempts a game – but his presence as a shot blocker has been a nice surprise. Brook is currently averaging 2.3 blocks a game, which is a career-high and the highest block average he’s had since 2013.
The one mistake the Bucks may have made was signing Lopez to a one-year deal, but thanks to the next trade, they should have the cap flexibility to keep Brook long-term.
A lot of fuss has been made about who Horst has brought in this season, but special note should be made of who the players he let go of. Props to him for letting Jabari Parker go, as Parker was a $20 million disaster in Chicago and will probably be on the market again this summer. Bigger props need to be given to Horst for trading away all the dead weight on the roster.
John Henson’s role was heavily reduced thanks to the additions of Lopez and Ilyasova. Ditto for Matthew Dellavedova as he struggled to find time over Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon. By trading both for George Hill, and his almost entirely non-guaranteed contract next season, the Bucks will have a ton of cap flexibility this summer.
Frankly, Hill hasn’t really done much, if at all, for Milwaukee. Let’s be honest though. Any positive contribution from him this season is an added bonus. The Bucks brought him in primarily to open up the books and retain who they can. If they’re able to do just that, then a deal like that is worth giving up a first-rounder.
Even when it seemed like the Bucks were set, they rightfully capitalized on the opportunity to get better. They traded expendable assets in Thon Maker – who disappointed following a good playoff performance again – Jason Smith, and four future second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic may be a defensive liability, but the three-ball he possesses could be lethal for the Bucks when the playoffs roll around. Mirotic was cold-blooded for the Pelicans last year in the playoffs – shooting a scorching 43 percent from deep. Now that he’s playing next to one of the league’s fiercest drivers in Giannis, he’s going to get a lot of wide-open looks.
So far, the offense has been a plus-20.5 with Niko on the court according to NBA.com. Remember, aside from maybe parting ways with the draft assets, he cost next to nothing to acquire.
Finally, the Bucks made one last good move while they still could – adding future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol to the squad. Gasol is by no means the dominant offensive force he once was and odds are he’s not going to see a lot of minutes in Wisconsin. There is one component he brings that Milwaukee lacks – championship experience.
Even if he’s nowhere near his prime days, Gasol’s advanced playoff pedigree could positively influence the Bucks when they enter the enhanced stakes of the postseason – whether he’s on the court or not.
All of this has gone so swimmingly thanks to what has been the best addition made by Horst in his tenure: Coach Bud.
Budenholzer has unlocked another level of basketball in Milwaukee, which he deserves major credit for, but it was Horst and the rest of the front office who deserve the credit for choosing him as head coach.
Now, Horst and the front office isn’t responsible for Milwaukee’s roster in its entirety. What they are responsible for is getting the Bucks to become the team we all thought they had the potential to be for years.
The Bucks now have a better team to surround the Greek Freak, the cap flexibility to work with this summer, and a head coach who can get the best out of everyone.
Because of Jon Horst, Milwaukee can finally say that they have much more bang for its buck.
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