There are two standard forms of NBA contenders. The super team du jour tends to be built with the understanding that its shelf life is limited. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul don't have a decade of winning left in their bodies. The Lakers, Clippers and Nets all formed with a similar understanding, albeit with wildly varying levels of success. Win for as long as you can. Understand that may not be very long. Your typical "build through the draft" model offers a longer runway. Golden State has been winning for a decade straight now because Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all arrived at the same time. Denver, Memphis and Boston have opportunities for similar longevity.
The Bucks don't fall so neatly into a single box. In the span of around five weeks, the foundation of their eventual winner was built on two moves. In June of 2013, they drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo. In July, they traded Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight, but forced the Pistons to throw in a little-known second-round rookie named Khris Middleton. Suddenly, the Bucks had two cornerstone players before their 23rd birthday. Plans to support them organically were thwarted when John Hammond used a No. 2 overall pick on Jabari Parker instead of Joel Embiid and followed that up by using a No. 10 overall pick on Thon Maker instead of Domantas Sabonis.
So they went older. Players like Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday, P.J. Tucker, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews and George Hill were all acquired for what they could do immediately. Many of the moves were enormous successes. Banners fly forever. But the more time passed, the clearer it became that their players were going to wind up falling into separate boxes. That is where Milwaukee stands now, .
Antetokounmpo is 28. He's an MVP in his prime with years of winning ahead of him. The rest of his roster looks more like the aftermath of one of those microwaved super teams. Lopez is 35. Holiday turns 33 in June. Middleton is 32 in August. Matthews (36), Ingles (35), Crowder (32) and Pat Connaughton (30) are all, to put it mildly, past their peaks. Milwaukee's draft capital was spent on Holiday. The Bucks might have felt comfortable running it back next year if they hadn't just been knocked out by a No. 8 seed.
That reality is staring them in the face right now as they approach one of the most important offseasons in team history. Milwaukee has no obvious way to improve. It has no young talent, no draft picks to deal and no financial flexibility to pivot. Only drastic measures can shake this team up.
Middleton and Lopez are bound for free agency this offseason. Holiday can get there next summer. Antetokounmpo will be watching what the Bucks do with each of them closely, as he is eligible for a super max extension this offseason. Milwaukee's No. 1 priority is convincing Antetokounmpo to sign that extension. Their second priority is making sure there's a group of players around him capable of helping him win as he plays it out.
Which is where those decisions on Middleton, Holiday and Lopez come into play. The Bucks just won 58 games. Antetokounmpo missed most of the first three games against Miami. Milwaukee could credibly talk itself into another year at the top of the league. Maybe two. But the odds of actually winning a championship in that window are slim. The Bucks know that well. They've had the NBA's best regular-season record in three of the past five years. They didn't reach the Finals in any of those seasons. Fortune favors the bold, not the old.
The price of going all-in on those older players now might be Antetokounmpo later. He's said himself that he's keeping an open mind about his future. "I just love challenges. What's the next challenge? The next challenge might not be here." Antetokounmpo told GQ in 2021 after he won his only championship. "Me and my family chose to stay in this city that we all love and has taken care of us—for now. In two years, that might change."
It's two years later, and there's no obvious solution here. The Bucks are so thin on talent that simply letting Middleton or Lopez walk is a nonstarter. Sign-and-trades are tricky to maneuver. The players could likely be talked into deals for the right price. Both carry rare and valuable enough sklilsets to warrant considerable trade interest. But sign-and-trades trigger hard caps that cut off certain suitors for financial purposes. Fewer still have the sort of assets Milwaukee might want in return. Draft picks do the Bucks little good right now. Antetokounmpo needs teammates proven enough to help him now but young enough to win with him for years to come.
Does such a team even exist? Perhaps one could be created over the summer. Houston has a youth surplus and may bring back James Harden this offseason. Middleton might be a worthwhile partner for him, and the Bucks could snag one of the high lottery picks the Rockets have made in recent years in the process. Could Dallas skate far enough below the luxury tax apron to offer the Bucks their lottery pick for Lopez? Unlikely... but not impossible.
Holiday would have a bevy of suitors if the Bucks entertained offers for him. Denver was interested three offseasons ago, and if the Nuggets are knocked out before the Finals, they'd surely at least consider a deal centered around Michael Porter Jr. It'd be worth picking up the phone and calling the Minnesota Timberwolves about Karl-Anthony Towns after seeing the success they had while he was injured this season, but that's a long shot at best.
There are no easy answers here, nor should there be. The Bucks understood that adding older players would eventually catch up with them. The moves as a whole were unquestionably the correct ones. The Bucks won a championship. Needing to rebuild around the best player in the NBA while he's still in his prime is the NBA's ultimate first-world problem.
But it's a problem nonetheless, and it's one the Bucks are going to have to address here and now. The young, draft-built teams aren't going anywhere, and history tells us that new super teams are only going to crowd the championship picture further next season. If Milwaukee can't figure out to thread the needle between both philosophies this summer, they'll soon have to face the far greater problem of explaining to their superstar why his team is no longer contending.