Milwaukee Bucks 2024 NBA offseason preview: It’s all about improving around the margins

2023-24 season: 49-33

Highlight of the season

Does the Sept. 27 acquisition of Damian Lillard count? It’s been an uphill battle for the Bucks all season, and going from Adrian Griffin to Doc Rivers only made things worse.

How it ended

With failed expectations. It’s impossible to fault the Bucks for the injuries to both Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, with the latter missing the entire postseason. Regardless, in this unapologetic world, results are all that matter, and the Bucks failed to live up to the championship-level expectations that were placed on them after the Lillard trade.

Lillard himself certainly raised some questions in regards to his long-term fit with the Bucks, as the soon-to-be 34-year-old didn’t sport the volume, nor shooting efficiency, of years’ past. Whether Lillard’s subpar season was just a minor hiccup or a sign of issues to come remains to be seen. But it’s difficult to envision him reaching the same level he did during his last year in Portland, when he averaged 32.2 points per game.

Further mucking up Milwaukee’s future is the health of Khris Middleton. The team’s third star played just 55 games, managing 27 minutes per contest, which isn’t likely to get much better as he enters his age-33 season next year.

The collective regressive health of Milwaukee’s star trio, and the hiring of Rivers — who isn’t known for bringing players together — has suddenly morphed the Bucks, who won the title just three years ago, into a team of constant concern, which stands in stark contrast to how they were perceived going into this season.

Of course, a full season with a full bill of health for all three dramatically changes the outlook of this franchise. But that seems overly optimistic at this stage.

Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots over Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard (2) during the second half of Game 6 on Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Indianapolis. Indiana advanced to the second round. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Biggest offseason need

The same as it’s been for the past two summers: youth. This Bucks team is old, and its three youngsters — MarJon Beauchamp, Andre Jackson Jr. and A.J. Green — are viewed more as complementary players than foundational pieces, complicating matters for a franchise that wishes to prolong its competitive window.

Organizational direction

The first impression of Antetokounmpo’s pairing with Lillard was the wrong one. Turns out trading Jrue Holiday for Lillard was a steep defensive downgrade, and an ill fit on both ends of the court cost Griffin, a first-year coach, his job. The midseason hiring of Rivers did little to resolve chemistry concerns, and an ill-timed injury to Antetokounmpo made matters worse.

However much optimism you might have in Milwaukee’s ability to retool around Antetokounmpo and Lillard, there are limits to what the Bucks can do. Brook Lopez, Lillard and Middleton will enter next season at 36, 34 and 33 years old, respectively. The Bucks have minimum contracts or middling trade chips to spend on defensive upgrades. Their top priority, though, is ensuring neither Antetokounmpo nor Lillard requests a trade before both stars get a chance to improve their two-man game over the summer. — Ben Rohrbach

Projected draft picks (pre-lottery)

Nos. 23, 33

Like the Suns, Milwaukee will have to make their first-round selection, given that they didn’t have one last year. They can trade the player after making the selection, but given their need of getting younger, this wouldn’t be advisable.

Draft focus

The Bucks have the luxury of simply adding pieces around Antetokounmpo and Lillard. Four-year college players who can be plugged in right away are Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. and Marquette’s Tyler Kolek. Both players were the top scoring options for their respective teams and can contribute right away to an established team. Antetokounmpo and 7-4 Purdue star Zach Edey would also be a fun duo to watch in the paint. — Krysten Peek

Key free agent

Malik Beasley (UFA)

Salary-cap breakdown

The Bucks are paying over $151 million next season for just four players in Antetokounmpo, Lillard, Middleton and Lopez. Add roughly $22 million for Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton, and it’s looking like the franchise will be deep into the tax and above the first apron, restricting its upgrade options.

The team is unquestionably in it to win it, so it stands to reason it’ll offer Beasley the best deal it can, which is 120% of his current $2.7 million salary. However, teams can easily beat that, so it remains to be seen if the sharpshooter returns.

Next season’s goal

A proper bounce-back. This season ended in absolute catastrophe, and the Bucks need to be mindful of the fact that Antetokounmpo could lose patience on a less-competitive team, putting extra emphasis on overall improvement.

What can move the fantasy needle

The Bucks need to take the summer off to get healthy. Middleton missed 27 games during the regular season, but the late-season injuries to Antetokounmpo (calf) and Lillard (Achilles) were the final nails in the coffin. Given Milwaukee’s lack of draft picks and cap space heading into next season, it should be prepping Jackson and Beauchamp for more minutes, a crucial step in their development. The Bucks got run out of the gym against the Pacers, and they’ll need the duo’s athleticism to pick up the pace and defend better if they want to remain a contender in the East. — Dan Titus

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