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Can these Bucks be great? They’re running out of time to find out

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During the middle of a frustrating 2015-16 season, Jason Kidd stopped a film session and polled Milwaukee's players one-by-one as they all sat together: Who did each think was the best player on the team?

It was an attempt to clarify a pecking order.? Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn't a full-on freak yet; Kidd would unleash him as Point Giannis in another couple of months. Greg Monroe was the starriest free-agent acquisition in franchise history, Michael Carter-Williams a former Rookie of the Year for whom the Bucks passed up a lightly protected future Lakers pick (whoops). Jabari Parker was a No. 2 pick who likely expected the "best player" mantle would one day be his. Khris Middleton was surging.

Most of the players pegged Middleton as the alpha, according to multiple people who recalled the session. Then it was Antetokounmpo's turn. Without hesitation, sources recall, he nominated himself. Some in the room disagreed, but everyone admired his chutzpah.

The exercise was very Kidd. He didn't mind confrontation, or making players uncomfortable — to the detriment of morale in the end. He once benched Antetokounmpo for a breach in practice, and kept Malcolm Brogdon on the pine for almost an entire half without explanation. Some players eventually craved more communication and support.

Kidd had a sometimes strained relationship with the team's medical staff, per sources, and engaged in the occasional back-and-forth with ownership. When owners summoned Kidd to a meeting at a restaurant in New York after Milwaukee's exit from the playoffs last season, there was a chance — perhaps a small one, but a real one — that they would decide right then and there to fire him, sources say. (It is unclear if Kidd was aware of this.) Instead, he agreed to tweak some things, and everyone chose the status quo.

Nine months later, Kidd is gone, and the Bucks are undefeated without him against a cupcake schedule. Time and Antetokounmpo have answered Kidd's poll question, a reality Parker must face as he returns Friday after tearing his ACL again.

Parker conceives of himself as a star — a max player. Extension talks between Parker and Bucks fizzled in October, and Parker will enter restricted free agency this summer. The Bucks were prepared during those October talks to offer a three-year deal worth around $54 million, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The two sides discussed other permutations — shorter deals, incentive-laden four-year deals — and the talks never narrowed to a single on-paper offer. Still: Milwaukee's upper limit in annual salary — about $18 million per season — was clear, sources say.

Parker bet on himself. If he plays well over the next two months, he will have suitors. The Bucks, at risk of crossing the luxury-tax threshold, will face hard choices.

The Bucks with Parker are good, perhaps very good, but any team lucky enough to find a top-10 (and likely top-five) player must chase greatness during that guy's prime. The Bucks are running out of time to see if this core can be great, and they risk running low on trade assets if they pay everyone and discover it isn't.

Contracts tied to Eric Bledsoe, Middleton, and Brogdon expire after next season. Bledsoe and Middleton will be eligible for contract extensions before then, but either way, they will expect raises in 2019.

It might be feasible to pay Parker, Middleton, Bledsoe, and Antetokounmpo over those next few years, and still have enough room underneath the tax to fill the rest of the roster with decent role players. Deals for John Henson, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tony Snell (a fine contract) will all expire in that time. Brogdon and Thon Maker, meanwhile, will require new ones.

But is that the team Milwaukee wants to lock into as the end of Antetokounmpo's new four-year contract approaches in 2021? (The original sin was failing to sign Antetokounmpo to an ironclad five-year extension in the fall of 2016. Antetokounmpo wasn't a no-brainer superstar then, but there was also no reason to expect Parker would be better — and to save the five-year deal for him.)

Is that roster good enough to keep up with Philly and Boston? Despite Kidd's revelation (via ESPN's Ramona Shelburne) that Antetokounmpo offered to try to save his job, Kidd's firing will cause no lingering rift between the Bucks and their star, sources close to him say. Nudging up against a hard ceiling every spring might.

Antetokounmpo is so singularly talented, it's not crazy to suggest he might be able to drag this supporting cast to the Finals at some point. But Milwaukee doesn't yet have a championship-level second banana — unless Parker gets there. And they may have to trade one of the Middleton/Bledsoe/Parker trio to maintain payroll flexibility.

Pay them all and fall short, and they could be stuck. Parker's future trade value is a huge unknown. Brogdon is a powerful trade chip on his current deal, but perhaps not on his next one. Bledsoe won't have as much appeal approaching 30 on a richer deal as he did this season. Middleton is still just 26, but what happens if he goes from underpaid to fairly paid?

The Bucks have been active in trade talks, including for DeAndre Jordan, and adding another huge long-term salary would likely cost one of their core players this summer. (Talks with the Clippers have not gotten anywhere near serious.) They could rent a center on an expiring contract — Derrick Favors, maybe — but it's unclear if they have the assets to work that sort of deal.

Spend on all their key current guys, and the Bucks could be short of both cap space and trade assets. They already traded one future first-round pick for Bledsoe. (The Bucks and Hawks discussed a similar deal for Dennis Schroder before Bledsoe became available, according to several league sources.) They botched a chance to trade Brandon Knight for a Lakers first-round pick that became the league's golden chip. (Philly got the pick instead, in exchange for Carter-Williams as part of a three-team deal.) Flipping the picks that became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby to Toronto for Greivis Vasquez was inexplicable the moment it happened.

They picked Rashad Vaughn over Bobby Portis after a famously heated debate. Their first-round picks in the half-decade before Antetokounmpo left behind little as players or trade return.?(In looking forward, we are all guilty sometimes of forgetting that past transactions — even ones that are almost invisible today — have a ripple effect that carries for years.)

It's not really fair to criticize the drafting acumen of the team that found Antetokounmpo at No. 15 and the only second-round pick ever to win Rookie of the Year (Brogdon). Sterling Brown, Milwaukee's second-round pick last spring, looks like a a potential two-way rotation wing — a precious commodity. But the Bucks have wrung very little value from a lot of assets, including their cap room — in part because of the constant, churning, "get the No. 8 seed at all costs" ethos dating to Herb Kohl's ownership.

Even the post-Kohl signings of Teletovic, Henson, Miles Plumlee, and Dellavedova — all in the dreaded midlevel-veteran range that rarely pays out — followed that pattern. Milwaukee's unexpected .500 season in 2014-15 — Kidd's first season, starring a ragtag cast of veterans that included Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley — cost them a chance at one final high draft pick.

Parker has to become either their dream No. 2 player, or their best trade asset. Parker and Antetokounmpo can mesh on offense despite sharing a nominal position (power forward). Parker drilled 36.5 percent from deep last season before his injury; he can space the floor for Antetokounmpo, and attack off the catch as a secondary option.?And he will be a distant second option.

Joe Prunty, Kidd's replacement on an interim basis, has already made it clear that everything runs through Antetokounmpo now. Prunty has scrapped some of Kidd's motion-based action for simpler high pick-and-rolls between Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee's centers:

Antetokounmpo used about 14 ball screens per 100 possessions this season under Kidd, according to Second Spectrum analysis of NBA Advanced Stats. That is up to 26.7 in four games under Prunty.

Opponents try to snuff those plays by ducking under screens, walling off the paint and inviting Antetokounmpo to launch jumpers. Sometimes, that will work. But Antetokounmpo is going to win a lot of those games-within-the-game.

The Bucks under Prunty also have cleared out more, and let Antetokounmpo work one-on-one in the Dirk spot at the center of the foul line. One half-spin, and he can reach the rim. Antetokounmpo has averaged about 16.7 isolation plays per 100 possessions under Prunty, up from 10.6 before, per Second Spectrum.

Milwaukee also is trying to push the pace, and setting a few more improvised "drag" screens for Antetokounmpo just after he crosses half court.

This isn't a complete overhaul — at least not yet. Milwaukee is playing at almost the same pace under Prunty. They still run a lot of Kidd's pet flex-style sets, centered around the elbows.

Prunty makes good use of one of Kidd's favorite gambits: having point guards sprint ahead of Antetokounmpo, hit the brakes, and U-turn into a screen for him — an unconventional pick-and-roll that presents defenses with a bunch of bad choices. Switch, and Antetokounmpo has a one-foot height advantage (the height difference is so dramatic, it's circus-like) in the post. This works even better when Maker replaces Henson, and spots up in the corner — uncluttering the lane.

Defenses can switch Antetokounmpo-Parker pick-and-rolls, one reason skeptics wonder how the two might fit. That shouldn't worry Milwaukee. Even that switch will produce a slight mismatch on a lot of nights, and both of those guys are skilled enough — and explosive enough — to destroy slight mismatches. Milwaukee's offense has cratered without Antetokounmpo, and Parker can go whole hog in those minutes.

Parker might also unlock more Giannis-at-center lineups — groups Prunty hasn't used yet. Parker has a lower center of gravity than Antetokounmpo, and he might be able to jostle with opposing centers on the block so Antetokounmpo doesn't have to. Antetokounmpo can guard any position.

The bigger questions for Parker come on that end, where he has mostly been a disaster. Life might be easier for him without Kidd.

Prunty has dialed back Kidd's frenzied, trapping scheme on pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Milwaukee's big men might scamper up to the point of the screen, but they go no higher. Sometimes they sit back near the foul line, and corral ball handlers there:

Milwaukee's wing defenders can stick closer to opposing shooters instead of sprinting into the paint to bump opposing bigs rolling free to the rim; Milwaukee is almost defending some pick-and-rolls 2-on-2:

Watch Jason Terry give Joe Harris the Kyle Korver treatment in the right corner:

You rarely saw that under Kidd. Milwaukee has switched more under Prunty, especially against shooting big men — like Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic:

Those switches fuel Antetokounmpo's lethal, mean-spirited transition runs. As defenders crisscross the court, trying to normalize the matchups after Milwaukee's switching jumbled them, Antetokounmpo slices through chaos to rain screaming hellfire. Switches can be predatory.

Elements of Kidd's approach are still here, and likely will be for a long time. Even his critics within the organization credit him for instilling basic habits. Maker ventures out further than Henson in smothering pick-and-rolls. Middleton is a more adventurous help defender; Milwaukee's coaches respect his hoops IQ and give him leeway. On side pick-and-rolls, they still bring weakside defenders way into the paint — and early:

The Bucks under Prunty are still aggressive, but they are normal aggressive. They look more like the Mike Budenholzer Hawks (before this season) or the Hornets. They make distinctions between shooters and non-shooters. They even went under picks against Ben Simmons on Monday! They don't trap guys who don't merit traps. They don't do stuff that had become, frankly, self-defeating under Kidd.

Ask Parker to do a little less — less thinking, rotating, moving — and he might be better.

The team should be better, too. Opponents had figured out how to pass around Milwaukee's traps by the early part of the 2015-16 season — I asked Kidd about that way back in December 2015 — and work their way toward corner 3s, layups, and other tasty shots. The average team shoots about 28 percent more 3s now than in 2014-15, Kidd's first season, when Milwaukee ranked No. 2 in points allowed per possession. Teams take the first semi-decent 3 instead of passing the ball around. Fewer passes means fewer chances for Milwaukee's go-go-Gadget arms to pluck steals.. The math stopped working.

Prunty hasn't changed that math much yet, by the way. The Bucks have still allowed a ton of 3s and shots at the rim in this 4-0 stretch, per Cleaning The Glass. The slate of opponents has a lot to do with that, but the Bucks are also very lucky those opponents have missed open shots; no team has seen opponents underperform their expected effective field goal percentage — based on the location of shots and nearby defenders — by a larger margin than Milwaukee since the Kidd firing, per Second Spectrum data.

Still: The schematic changes are real, and should work over time.

The Bucks will almost certainly have a new coach next season. The hiring will have massive leaguewide ramifications. The Bucks need a new calm — to get everyone pulling in the same direction again. Uncertainty over Kidd's future spawned an anxiety that hung over everything. Tensions extended into ownership, too. The team's three primary owners disagreed over filling the vacant GM position last spring, leading to a chaotic and prolonged search that became an organizational embarrassment — even if everyone seems happy with the job Jon Horst, the new GM, has done since.

Teams that win at the highest level spend close to 100 percent of their collective brain space on winning. It's much harder to win, even with one transcendent talent, when you waste some of that brain space walking on eggshells and navigating internecine squabbles.

By all accounts, things are calmer now. That's often the case after a coaching change. Milwaukee has beaten three lottery teams, and the Sixers without Joel Embiid. Harder challenges are coming.

Let's see how they — and Parker — handle them. Milwaukee faces major questions over the next 18 months, and what happens in these next three will influence some of the answers.

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