TORONTO -- When your superstar makes a quantum leap and becomes one of the best players in the league, it is natural for expectations to ramp up in a hurry.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo turning into a Most Valuable Player candidate this season and the addition of Eric Bledsoe in a November trade, the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 20-16 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, are dealing with those expectations.
Suddenly, the question has changed from if the Bucks will become a contender in the East to when.
Despite that, head coach Jason Kidd refuses to evaluate his team based on wins and losses this season.
"Some people will look at the win total," Kidd said. "You can always look at it that way. But for us, being a young team, it's the process of seeing different things over and over again and being able to apply them offensively and defensively."
The Bucks have the seventh-best offense in the league. Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks, and he is shooting 54.9 percent from the field. There is no player like him in the league. When Milwaukee's offense breaks down in the half court, he can find a way to create his own shot or get to the rim. In transition, he is unstoppable.
Even without a consistent jump shot, Antetokounmpo is already one of the most unguardable players in the league, and Kidd believes it's only a matter of time before his star player makes another leap.
"LeBron [James] wasn't shooting the ball at a high rate when he first came in," Kidd said. "As he's gotten older, the percentages have gone up. The jump shot will come, and then the question will be whether [Giannis] can balance the jump shot and still be aggressive in attacking."
When Antetokounmpo sits, the Bucks have a -10.6 net rating, but the offense hasn't just been a one-man show. Khris Middleton is averaging 20.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists and has been the most efficient mid-range shooter in the league. Per NBA.com, of players who have attempted at least 100 field goals from 15-19 feet, Middleton leads the league with a 54.5 percent shooting percentage. Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova are all hitting over 38 percent from three.
The addition of Bledsoe has added another element to Milwaukee's offense.
"He gives us speed," Kidd said. "We haven't had speed. He's another playmaker. He's a guy who can get to the basket. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That was something we didn't have." With the arrival of a more traditional point guard, Antetokounmpo doesn't need to initiate the offense as much. "It's taken the ball out of his hands," Kidd said. "I've talked to him about making that change and he's done a great job with that. In the past, we gave him the ball to be our point guard. Now, he's become more of a screen setter. It'll help Giannis. He doesn't have to make every play."
Three games into this season, Bledsoe was sent home by the Suns after he expressed his displeasure with the team on social media. Years of rebuilding and being shut down early last season in order for Phoenix to be in better position in the draft lottery was frustrating for the 28-year-old point guard, but he's ready to move on.
"I had a lot of great memories there," Bledsoe said. "I can't complain about anything. Throughout my career I've had tons of lessons I've had to learn and overcome." In Milwaukee, Bledsoe has marveled at the things Antetokounmpo can do on the court. "His length is unmatched," he said. "There's just some things you can't teach."
In December, Bledsoe averaged nearly 20 points per game and has given the Bucks another offensive weapon. Milwaukee is 16-10 with him in the lineup. Over a full season, that translates into a 50-win pace. Per NBA.com, the five-man lineup of Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, Middleton, Snell and John Henson has blitzed opponents to the tune of a +13.2 net rating in 272 minutes.
Bledsoe provides an upgrade on the defensive end, as well. He's averaging nearly two steals per game and is among the league leaders in deflections and loose balls recovered per game. Antetokounmpo disrupts what opposing teams try to do on offense with his quickness and wingspan for someone his size. When the two-man tandem of Antetokounmpo and Henson has been on the floor together, the Bucks are holding opponents to 103.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would approach a top-five defense in the league.
"Some passes just don't get through [against us]," Henson said. "A lot of teams don't have that length like we do."
Despite the talent on the roster, the Bucks are 22nd on defense. It's been a three-year trend for this team, which finished 19th last season and 22nd two years ago, after a 2014-15 season in which they finished second in defensive efficiency. The Bucks are one of the best teams in the league in forcing turnovers on defense, but a scheme predicated on trapping and being overly aggressive with the ball handler has its downsides, too.
One example came in the final minute of the fourth quarter in Monday's loss to the Raptors. The Bucks double-teamed DeMar DeRozan to force the ball out of his hands, but they didn't rotate in time when DeRozan made the pass to the open man, which led to a game-tying 3-pointer.
Kidd has continued to tinker with the team's defensive scheme, dialing the aggression up and down as he sees fit. Afterward, he was asked about that specific possession and said his team needed to execute better.
"If we can say at the end of this season that we got better at reading plays defensively," Kidd said. "That would be a big improvement for a young team."
The Bucks have the pieces to become a league-average defense, but figuring out the right scheme that fits this personnel is a question that will need to be answered. It will likely determine whether Milwaukee can finish as a top-four team in the East or be fighting for a playoff spot toward the end of the regular season.
If the Bucks get to the playoffs, Antetokounmpo is the type of game-changing player who can swing a series or two by himself. There's more talent on this team than the one that won 42 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs last season. In the locker room, his teammates realize the opportunity that exists for the Bucks this season. "There are a lot of little things we need to fix, but we're close," Henson said.
Brogdon believes reaching the Eastern Conference Finals is a realistic goal. "We definitely have enough talent to do it," he said.
Antetokounmpo signed a four-year, $100 million contract extension last year. The core group is mostly locked up for the long-term, which means the roster has time to grow together but also closes the team's ability to maneuver under the salary cap to make significant changes if this group isn't good enough. A key question mark will be Jabari Parker, who is recovering from his second torn ACL injury in three seasons and is expected back later this season. Parker will be a restricted free agent this season, and the Bucks will have to decide whether they want to make a sizable financial commitment to him, given his injury history and his potential fit next to Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe.
How the second half of this season plays out for the Bucks, with their inconsistent defense, and how Parker can fit with the roster when he returns, will help Milwaukee figure out exactly what it has and if it's enough to contend in the East beyond this season. In the meantime, Kidd continues to preach patience.
"This is a marathon," Kidd said. "You're not going to satisfy everybody inside and outside the organization. The one thing you can do is try to get the guys to be better. As a player, that's all I could do. As a coach, I'm taking that same approach. We're learning how to win as an organization."