The Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been kings of the regular season for two years running. Both times, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs without reaching the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee didn’t want that to happen in 2020-21, and it also didn’t want to lose the face of its franchise in Antetokounmpo. That led the Bucks to trade with the Pelicans for guard Jrue Holiday, one of the most underrated players in the NBA, for the dual purpose of getting Antetokounmpo to sign long term and then to support him as best as possible toward getting a ring. Holiday slots into the Bucks’ starting lineup in place of the traded away Eric Bledsoe.
Put a checkmark in the first box, because Antetokounmpo signed an extension, the richest contract in NBA history. All that’s left is for Holiday to take the court and make the Bucks better. As he’s toiled on mostly mediocre New Orleans teams, Holiday has been passed over for All-Star teams and rarely discussed in mainstream NBA media. The move to title-contenders Milwaukee raised Holiday’s profile overnight — soon, everyone will know why the Bucks needed him.
TRADE GRADES: Bucks go big with Jrue Holiday to help Giannis
Taking ball-handling pressure off Giannis Antetokounmpo
Bledsoe was a solid ball-handler and point guard, but Holiday is even better. Because of his ability to score from each level of the floor, each move he undertakes presents that much more threat. Bledsoe usually ended up heading toward the rim, but Holiday can get to the spots he wants to get the shots he wants for himself or his teammates.
It goes without saying that every team could use a dynamic ball-handler like Holiday. But it’s even more crucial on the Bucks, especially in the postseason. Teams have found ways to wall off Antetokounmpo in the playoffs, making his forays into the lane that much more difficult. But for the most part, Milwaukee hasn’t had any choice but to let Antetokounmpo handle the ball and take the good with the bad.
In Holiday, the Bucks have a true primary ball-handler. They could play Antetokounmpo on the block all game and be more than fine. Add in Khris Middleton’s microwave scoring ability and you’ve got a big three that can essentially rotate through each other’s offensive roles at any time.
Jrue Holiday’s shooting helps Giannis Antetokounmpo, too
For basically his whole career, Holiday has been at least a few percentage points better than Bledsoe from 3-point range on a higher volume of shots. In 2019-20, Holiday shot 35.3 percent from 3 while making 2.0 3-pointers per game.
When Holiday isn’t handling the ball to take pressure off of Antetokounmpo, he’ll be able to spot up as a threat to the defense. Any defender that sags off Holiday risks an open shot knocked down or a driving Holiday right past them if they close out too hard.
The Bucks attempted the fourth-most 3-pointers per game of any team in 2019-20. Holiday will be encouraged to shoot it from outside in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Over the course of a long season, Holiday being a slightly better perimeter shooter than Bledsoe will matter.
Jrue Holiday’s a lockdown defender
Here’s where this gets fun for the Bucks — their already potent defense should be even stronger. Bledsoe was a solid defender and a good stealer of the basketball, but Holiday’s at least his equal at that end of the floor and maybe better.
Antetokounmpo just won Defensive Player of the Year. Middleton is one of the league’s top wing defenders. Brook Lopez had a DPOY case last season, too, at center. And now add Holiday, who’s averaged 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game in his career while defending some of the league’s best perimeter players.
In 2019-20, Holiday faced the second-most field goal attempts while defending of any guard in the NBA at 13.1 per game. On those shots, his opponent shot 40.7 percent, roughly equivalent to what noted poor shooter Lonzo Ball shoots from the floor. That was the third-best rate of any guard who played at least 60 games last season.
Can Jrue Holiday make a championship difference in Milwaukee?
In each of Bledsoe’s last three seasons with the Bucks, his points per game fell by at least a point in the playoffs. He couldn’t help overcome the immense attention on Antetokounmpo. Holiday should be able to take advantage of that situation instead of struggling in it.
Whether the Bucks win the Eastern Conference in the regular season again or not won’t be the point for Milwaukee. Maybe it’ll take some time to fit Holiday into the mold. But this is a team that’s beyond worrying about the regular season. They want to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Holiday’s the best point guard Antetokounmpo’s played with in Milwaukee. He’s the best point guard that Middleton’s ever had setting him up, too. Holiday should make life easier for Lopez and Donte Divincenzo and anyone else to rotate through the Milwaukee starting lineup, too.
The Bucks had to take this shot on Holiday. If not, Antetokounmpo may have signed an extension with Milwaukee anyway only to want out when they keep running into the same postseason issues. Acquiring Holiday raised the ceiling of everyone on the Bucks. Now comes the fun part.
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