Bucks may be first defending NBA champion to fly under the radar
It’s not every season that the defending NBA champions fly under the radar, but the Milwaukee Bucks have managed to do exactly that.
On the eve of the team taking its talents to New York to do preseason battle with the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name is not one that we’ve seen called very much since the Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA Finals.
Perhaps it’s due to Antetokounmpo’s extended absence from his on-court duties. The reigning Finals MVP only participated in his first practice of the offseason on Wednesday, as he’s been recovering from the knee injury he sustained in the Eastern Conference Finals back in June.
Afterward, and before the team departed for New York, Antetokounmpo offered that he’s “getting back healthy” and that he is “feeling good.” If he does play at all in the preseason, it is likely to only be for a cameo.
The Bucks, after all, can fully appreciate that being healthy in the end is much more important than it is in the beginning.
They are the defending champs, after all, even if we seem to have forgotten that.
Low key and working in stealth, it’s perhaps fitting for a team that has been content flying under the radar for nearly the entirety of its existence as a contender in the East, and even now as champions.
Milwaukee is steadfastly preparing for what it hopes will be a successful title defense, and it’s easy to imagine that the team is entering the 2021-22 season with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Las Vegas has installed the Los Angeles Lakers and Nets as the betting favorites in their respective conferences, and a fair amount of people believe that the Bucks wouldn’t have thwarted the Nets in the conference semifinals last season had it not been for the untimely injuries of both James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
Quietly, though, Milwaukee spent the offseason bolstering its platoon, recovering from the loss of P.J. Tucker by re-signing Bobby Portis and walking away from free agency with the services of Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye and George Hill.
For Hill in particular, it will be his second stint with the Bucks, and the veteran will provide a steady hand as a reserve playing behind Jrue Holiday. The club was without Donte DiVincenzo for all but three playoff games last season, so his return to the lineup with only help Milwaukee in its title defense.
Aside from asking why nobody is talking about the Bucks, another appropriate question is whether or not they’re a deeper team who will be emboldened by last year’s successful title run.
For what it’s worth, NBA.com has undertaken the very interesting exercise of polling the league’s general managers, and getting their predictions on what will transpire over the course of the coming season. In this year’s poll, 72% of the league’s GMs predicted that the Nets would walk away with the Larry O’Brien trophy, while 17% predicted that it would be the Lakers. The Bucks finished third with 10% of the vote.
Similarly, 83% of respondents predicted that the Nets would be the East’s top team this coming season, with 17% believing that the Bucks would earn that honor.
In MVP voting, Kevin Durant and Luka Doncic earned 37% and 33% of the vote, respectively, with Giannis placing third at 13%.
Interestingly enough, the Bucks received a lot of love in the survey when it came to their defensive prowess. Antetokounmpo, for example, received the most votes for both the best defensive player in the NBA, as well as the most versatile defender in the NBA. Jrue Holiday was declared the best perimeter defender in the league, while the Bucks also won the poll for being the best defensive team overall.
It’s hard to argue with those conclusions, but also interesting to note that — at least among the league’s general managers — being the top defensive team in the league isn’t believed to be enough.
That’s why they play the games, though, and as has become commonplace under Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee will certainly believe in its ability to defend its championship — even if nobody else does.
Around the league, plenty of teams have become stronger. In the East alone, Kyle Lowry’s addition to the Miami Heat will give the team another All-Star caliber performer who is no stranger to big games and big moments. The Chicago Bull have added the likes of Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso to what was already a promising young core. The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics will each be looking to build upon last season’s success, and it’s fair to conclude that the conference is getting stronger.
Despite that, though, as the reigning MVP boards his flight to head back to Barclays Center for the first time since the Bucks defeated the Nets in Game 7 of last postseason’s semifinal series, Milwaukee is wiser, more steadfast and emboldened.
More importantly, they’re champions. And as we prepare for the 2021-22 season to begin and make predictions for what lies ahead, we should all remember that fact.