Giannis Antetokounmpo streaking up the floor, ball in hand and bearing down on the defense. Naturally he attracts all the defensive attention and in turn finds Malcolm Brogdon who had slid neatly into the left corner. Brogdon starts the side-top-side action that cripples most NBA defenses, only the ball stopped once it got to Brook Lopez. Lopez feigned the pass up top and threw a fastball to Antetokounmpo under the rim, easy bucket. Believe it or not, this is more-or-less an uncommon play for a center to make and it speaks to the vision Lopez has, and his ability to slow down the game. Pair that with an impressive post-repertoire, the softest hands in the Eastern Conference and a more than capable catch-and-shoot game, Lopez has the ability to supplant Eric Bledsoe as the Bucks 3rd star.

For years now, Antetokounmpo has been sharing the court with big men who couldn’t space the floor for him. Thon Maker does his best, but it’s not consistent and he gets bullied on the other end. Lopez spent last year toiling away with the Lakers as they were dedicated to growing their young core (Kuzma, Ingram, Ball) after a trade for D’angelo Russell displaced Brooklyn’s incumbent star. Lost in the shuffle of poor management of the Brooklyn franchise, some of the worst trades in history (Boston) brought a lot of star-power to the borough. Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Gerald Wallace all came through, and none of them could touch what Lopez was bringing to the floor. We’re only a year and a half removed from this:

https://youtu.be/NkMK5HDnTcM

Lopez is a marvel. When he’s spotting up behind the three-point-line he looks far more like Danilo Gallinari than he does Gorgui Dieng. Over the past two years he’s banging in over 40-percent of his corner triples and for those of you counting at home, he does shoot it better than Milwaukee’s point guard, Eric Bledsoe. It’s likely that Lopez will easily shoot it better than 50-percent from the floor with a ceiling of somewhere around 55-percent, considering that roughly 40-percent of his shots are going to be from downtown, that’s absurd. Lopez should dominate in the vast sea of emptiness that Antetokounmpo’s presence grants him. He’s big, skilled and reads the game at an extremely high level. When Antetokounmpo sat last year, the Bucks offense ground to a halt when he left the game. Forcing the Bucks to play a much faster pace trying to create baskets on the break, this ended up killing their defense as a result (115 D-RTG). If Lopez is staggered with Antetokounmpo at times, the Bucks bench will gain a release valve that should allow for some easy buckets, and will alleviate the need to always push the ball. More than likely causing less turnovers and allowing them to buckle down for defensive possessions

It’s still early of course and despite Lopez’s lackluster year with the Lakers he’s still one of the most gifted big men the league has and playing next to one of the league’s very best is the perfect place to age his game gracefully.

Removing the ‘Mid’ from Middleton

One of the league’s criminally underrated wing players, Khris Middleton also plays for the Bucks and his progression is one of the big factors when considering whether or not the Bucks can take a place among the East’s elite. There are a few players in the league who let loose from mid-range like Middleton does, namely: DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard. These are all elite wing-players in the NBA and #NBAtwitter collectively wrings their hands when these players plug away from mid-range. It happens a lot. This isn’t to say they’re bad from mid-range, they’re quite good. This is a boring take, and I apologize for it, but mid-range shots are often the worst shots a player can take. I’m not talking about end of game situations when you need a bucket and your best player finds a spot on the floor where he can get one up, those are generally good shots. I’m talking about settling throughout the game consistently, the worst version of this looks like Andrew Wiggins.

In the preseason Middleton pushed his 3PA rate over 50-percent. For his career he’s been a pretty consistent 30-percent 3PA rate, guy. In years past Middleton took roughly 40-percent of his shots from the mid-range. This year I’m expecting him to slice away a decent percentage of his mid-range jumpers and exchange them for 3-point attempts. As long as this method isn’t practiced with the idea that he’s Steph Curry this is a very good thing for the Bucks offense and Middleton’s game. I’m beating a dead horse by suggesting that opening the floor for Antetokounmpo is a good thing, but my god it’s great. Antetokounmpo could very well grab the MVP award this year and it’s going to come on the back of a lot of dunks in 1-on-1 situations. He doesn’t get this room down-low to jam on people if Middleton and co. aren’t letting it fly from deep.

Last year there was a larger drop off in the Bucks offense when Middleton was off the floor then when Antetokounmpo was (they shared a lot of minutes). He’s their only volume 3-point shooter and they’re very dependent on the spacing he brings to the team and his ability to generate buckets to give Antetokounmpo a break. Taking the next step this year and becoming an All-Star (put your money on it) is what Middleton needs to do, and come playoff time we’ll see the Bucks through the first round.

After all these years of building poorly around Antetokounmpo, this is the Bucks first year to assert a claim to the East’s elite and the addition of Lopez and progression of Middleton are chief in this step forward. The returns have been positive so far, cross your fingers for good health, the Bucks could be awesome.

If you liked this feel free to check out more from collabhouse.ca. Namely, the fantastic podcast with Moses Woldu and Tendo Bosa: “Beyond the Bleachers”, you can find it on iTunes/Google Play/all the places you listen to podcasts. As for me you can follow me on twitter @samfolkk or go check out RaptorsRepublic.com as I’m on staff over there.

Have a blessed day.