Are We Seeing the Milwaukee Bucks’ Ceiling?

Thursday night, the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Brooklyn Nets 86-83, closing their series deficit to two games to one, with the home team having won all three contests so far.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, that 86 points just happened to match their total when they got ritually slaughtered in Game 2 by a 125-86 score, and what’s more, the Bucks’ pathetic 94.5 Offensive Rating in the series so far does not augur well for them unless everyone on the team who isn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton suddenly remembers they’re professional basketball players and they start getting with the program.

A Nets squad with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, even if they don’t have James Harden around due to his ongoing problems with a hamstring injury, has so far proven more than a match for Milwaukee’s top two. Only a complete pooping of the bed in Game 3 kept them from effectively putting the series away.

(this is where I get all disclaimer-y and point out that this won’t age well if the Bucks rally and win the series, but the stats are pretty convincing so far.)

The biggest problem for the Bucks is that we’ve heard this song and seen this dance before.

Last year, it was a 4-1 second-round loss to Miami, a team that would go on to make the NBA Finals before falling to the Lakers.

In 2019, it was falling at home in Game 5 to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, losing the Eastern Conference Finals in Canada in Game 6, and having a first-place regular-season finish go to waste.

On the bright side, that 2019 campaign was the first time Milwaukee had gotten past the first round of the playoffs since the 2001 team took the Philadelphia 76ers to seven games in the ECF before falling short in the deciding game.

The Bucks are officially on the hook for five years and $222 million to Greekazoid after Antetokounmpo agreed to stay in town on a supermax extension, but while that’s great for fans in the city of the schlemiel, schlamazzle, and Hasenpfeffer Incorporated, are they really gonna do it? Does Milwaukee have any chance at winning a title?

Or have the past three years, falling short in every instance of even making the Finals, represent the ceiling for this team, a point from which they will only regress as their salary cap problems inevitably creep up on them over the next five seasons?

After all, Middleton is himself on a big contract, the second year of a five-year, $177.5 million deal he signed in 2019.

Jrue Holiday is set to make around $130 million between now and 2025.

Holiday hasn’t been an All-Star since his lone appearance in 2013. Middleton was an All-Star in 2019 and 2020 but not in 2021, and a guy who puts up right around 20 points a game to go with six rebounds and just over five assists is good, but only a fool thinks he’s $35.5 million worth of good, the average of the years on his deal.

Sure, Giannis is a two-time MVP and perpetual candidate for that award, plus he’s only 26, so of course no amount of money is too much for a guy like that.

But one can’t help but look at Milwaukee, a team that has its entire cap locked into three guys, two of which are “pretty good” but miles short of being superstars, and think to themselves that this is a team that has just about no chance of making a championship run over the duration of that supermax deal for their best player.

The team may very well have locked itself into a ceiling of repeated flameouts in the second round, maybe the conference finals, all while setting the stage for their best player’s legacy to end up being something to the effect of the fate that befell Steve Nash.

10 or 20 years from now, will we be mentioning Giannis alongside Nash and, if Phoenix flames out this year short of the NBA Finals, Chris Paul? That is, when we have the debate of the greatest NBA players in history who never so much as made the Finals, will the Greek Freak’s name be on the short list?

Unless either Milwaukee wins a championship despite being capped out with sub-championship talent in Middleton and Holiday, or Giannis decamps at 31, takes less money in order to chase a ring, and basically pulls a Dwight Howard late in his career in order to get a title and secure his legacy, that’s got to be his ceiling, right?

We are bearing witness, in real time, to one of the greatest wastes of individual talent in the history of the league. We are watching a team that has set its ceiling at losing to eventual champions or at least eventual Finals runners-up. Indeed, if Brooklyn wins this series then disposes of either Philadelphia or Atlanta in the ECF, regardless of whether they beat the winner of the West, that’ll be three years in a row for the Bucks of exactly that scenario. It will go along, in franchise history, with losses to the 2001 Sixers, 1989 Pistons, 1984, ’86, and ’87 Celtics, 1982 and ’83 Sixers.

That’s 40 seasons where every time the Bucks got to at least the East semis, they lost to the eventual conference champion. You have to go back to 1981, when the Bucks lost to the Sixers but Philadelphia then lost the ECF to the Celtics, to find a Milwaukee team in the East semis or better that wasn’t just a speed bump on the road to the Finals for some conference rival.

The last time the Bucks made the Finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were still on the team, in the Big O’s last season in 1974.

That may well stand for years to come, and it was the effort to retain a generational talent that will be to blame.