Almost to a fault at times, making a comparison is so easy when it comes to the NBA. Whether if it’s comparing teams or players, we always like to think someone or something reminds us of Team X or Player X.
This season is still in its infant stages, yet we’re already seeing reminded of us crews we’ve seen in previous years.
Take this year’s Golden State Warriors. Following their reign of dominance over the last several years, their best players are all so marred with injuries that their best course of action might just be to throw the season away in hopes of acquiring a high draft pick. That, then, could be following a path similar to the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.
Another example might be this year’s Chicago Bulls. We were so swept up in how promising the Bulls looked with their youth toward the end of last season that the overhyped was ultimately undeserved. The team currently stands at 2-6 and they haven’t exactly faced the toughest competition in that timespan. For contrast’s sake, Chicago may be a reincarnation of the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks.
Which brings us to the Bucks as they stand now. Milwaukee came into this season with many expecting them to be one of the better teams in the league. At 5-2, they look just about as good as advertised. The Bucks have an unstoppable, all-time player entering his prime, a brilliant coach and a bunch of players on the roster who, thanks to their shooting abilities, fit like a glove alongside their franchise player.
Let’s check that again and be a little more specific. They have a superstar player whose freakish abilities physically make him arguably the hardest player in the league to stop. Milwaukee has players that help their alpha dog because they can shoot the rock and a wisened coach who knows how to mix and match.
Sound familiar? It should because those were some of the exact components that made the Orlando Magic — way back when they were led by Dwight Howard — an elite franchise from 2008 to 2010.
Now, these two teams aren’t the exact same team detail-by-detail. In their primes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Howard had some distinct differences between each other. Howard’s natural athleticism — combined with his overpowering strength — made him an all-around terror on both ends of the floor. In fact, when he was at the peak of his power, Howard may have been the most terrifying shot-blocker the NBA has ever seen.
Antetokounmpo, by contrast, is renowned more for his length, handle and speed, three advantages that Howard never really had. The Greek Freak’s long limbs and body control make him a matchup nightmare for opponents — whether if it’s in the half-court or on the fast break.
The overarching theme between the two future Hall of Famers is that their physical gifts allowed their respective franchises to max out the full roster’s potential. Thanks to that, there are several similarities between these current Bucks and those Magic teams from a decade ago.
The Play Styles
At the height of their playing abilities, Orlando lived and died at the three-point. Back then, detractors labeled that sort of playing style as “soft.” Nowadays, they should be revered for being ahead of their time.
Back in the 2008-09 season, Orlando took 26.2 threes per game which, at the time, seemed absurd when you compare them to their other elite competitors like the Boston Celtics (16.5, ranked 21st), Los Angeles Lakers (18.5, 15th) and Denver Nuggets (18, tied for 17th). That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked fifth in three-point attempts a game, but they shot only 20.4 from distance.
Last season, only four teams took less three-point shots than the 2008-2009 Orlando Magic. But in 2008-09, only one team attempted more threes than the Magic. Yeah, the times have changed.
It was more of the same the following year, as the Magic led the league in three-point attempts with 27.3. Again, many scoffed at the idea of a team’s identity offensively centering so much on the three-ball. Now, you’re scoffed at if you don’t shoot enough from three-point land.
The offensive strategy could be boiled down to this: Surround Howard with floor spacers and playmakers that could let him do damage in the post. Back then, Howard was so imposing that opponents usually doubled him and left someone else open.
There was a good reason for this: From 2008 to 2010, the Magic had a wide array of dependable floor spacers to surround Dwight. Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Vince Carter, JJ Redick, Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Rafer Alston and Matt Barnes — all beyond capable three-point shooters. Over both years, they shot 38.1 and 37.5 percent from three, percentages that got them in the top ten league-wide.
It was an effective strategy that many believed wouldn’t work. Following the Warriors’ reign of terror, more teams than ever rely on shooting from the perimeter. It may have taken a few years, but the Bucks are following a similar pattern.
After adding players who turned out to be bad fits next to Antetokounmpo — Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe, Matthew Dellavedova — the Bucks realized last summer that consistent shooting would help more than anything else. Since the summer of 2018, they’ve added Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Nikola Mirotic (briefly), George Hill, Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver.
By adding this shooting, the Bucks’ offense not-so-coincidentally took off. Last season, they had the league’s fourth-highest offensive rating, scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Part of their newfound success was the improved shooting as they took 38.2 three-pointers a game — with the much-needed bonus of extra room for Antetokounmpo to operate.
When Howard started coming into his own around the end of 2007, the Magic knew he needed help around him for Orlando to take the next step. So, that summer, Otis Smith gave Rashard Lewis a near-max contract believing that he would be Dwight’s partner-in-crime.
Paying Lewis around $20 million seemed like an overpay for someone that had only made the All-Star Game once in his career, but it was a good addition in the prime of his career.
Lewis may not have been worth as much as Orlando was paying him, but he produced about as much as he could in a Magic uniform. His dead-eye shooting played a key role in the franchise making a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 2009, as he averaged 19 points on 45/39/78 splits. Those were good numbers, but were they numbers that of the second-best player on a championship-level team?
Whether it was or not, Lewis’ mysterious decline — or lack thereof — played a role in Orlando slipping in 2010 and taking a major step back the season after that. Lewis’ sharpshooting elevated the Magic to contender-status with Howard, but we were never sure if he was the best go-to guy next to your superstar.
Thusly, this brings us to Khris Middleton. Middleton has a very similar story to Lewis in regards to how he made it to the NBA. A second-round pick that gradually left his mark on basketball as he proved to be one of the league’s best shooters. But how he got paired with a titan for a teammate is a tad different.
While Lewis was brought in to be a dynamic duo with Howard via free agency, Middleton has been with Antetokounmpo from the beginning. In the six-plus years that they’ve been together, the two have had their highs and lows — eventually reaching where they are today: NBA contenders.
Giannis is now finally playing in an offense that helps him play to his full potential, while Middleton has established himself as a scoring threat thanks to his ability to shoot from just about anywhere.
The NBA has definitely taken notice of this. Middleton’s skill set earned him his first All-Star appearance. Middleton is the No. 2 option in Milwaukee for the same reason Lewis was in Orlando — he can shoot the rock. Now Lewis faced plenty of doubts surrounding if he could be the second guy on a title team, but he performed admirably in the role when the playoffs came. For Middleton though, he raised some red flags last year.
Overall, the two-way standout’s performance in the postseason wasn’t bad. He did his usual thing during the first two rounds, but it came against a team without their superstar (Detroit) and another that was already self-imploding (Boston). When the Bucks faced the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton couldn’t keep it up.
Outside of Game 5, Middleton’s production as a whole trailed off. He was barely a factor in any of the series, actually. Overall, he averaged 13.7 points on 41/34/55 splits, which are not acceptable for a guy who was playing 40-plus minutes a night.
While Middleton may not flame out as Lewis did, the question remains: Can a sharpshooter be your second-best player on a team looking to win it all?
The Lost Piece
Much has been said about how Milwaukee and Orlando were built around an all-time talent and a bunch of shooters — still, there is a little more nuance to it than that. Both franchises needed playmakers on their squads to get their offense rolling.
For the Magic, that member was Hedo Turkoglu, a savvy playmaker and shooter that had a reputation for coming through in the clutch. He wasn’t the best athlete, but he was unselfish and complemented Howard and Lewis as as much as he could.
Much like Lewis, Turkoglu played a pivotal role in getting the Magic to the NBA Finals. Averaging 16.8 points, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds while putting up 43/39/82 splits would convince any team to re-sign him long-term, but Orlando didn’t see it that way. They sign-and-traded him to the Raptors for Vince Carter in hopes of replacing, or possibly upgrading, in the process.
What does this have to do with the Bucks now? If you haven’t guessed yet, Milwaukee ran into a similar predicament with Malcolm Brogdon. In Milwaukee, he was never a star, but he was the guy that the Bucks relied on to make the extra play because of his fundamentals — both as a passer and as a shooter.
He was excellent in the role that the Bucks gave him and, in fact, there were times where he played like the second fiddle to Antetokounmpo. His sturdy play in the postseason also made it easier to stomach Eric Bledsoe’s struggles. Surely, hanging onto would have been wise, but Brogdon wanted to be more than the third guard. Conversely, the Bucks had already invested in so much of their roster that paying top dollar for a sixth man seemed steep.
However, herein lies a key difference between the Bucks of today and the Magic of 2010. The Bucks have not acquired someone in hopes of replacing what Malcolm Brogdon brought to the table, unlike the Magic that believed Carter would do an admirable job filling in for Turkoglu.
Given how Turkoglu did after he left the Magic in 2009, you can see why they opted not to keep him. Not to take away from how amazingly Brogdon has done in Indiana — he’s been worth every penny — but his would-be role with Milwaukee didn’t match up with the money the young player desired.
Both Orlando and Milwaukee had those glue guys that kept the team afloat — but their departures, as sensible as they may have been, left a hole that became tough to smooth over. For the Bucks, that lingering issue has not yet resolved itself.
But the overarching debate to come from all of this is: Are these similarities a good or bad thing for Milwaukee?
Well, on one hand, Orlando never came away with a championship with the core that they had and that window was only two years long. On the other, a few unexpected twists changed their fortunes for the worse, like Jameer Nelson’s shoulder injury in 2009, Lewis mysteriously falling out of his prime at 30 and a few missed free throws altering the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee’s window finally opened last year and, for now, it’ll be open until at least 2021. If they want to keep it that way — Antetokounmpo’s status could change overnight without palpable results — they may have to ask themselves if the best route is to follow that of the 2008-10 Orlando Magic or to go another path.