- Milwaukee Bucks GM Jon Horst sat down with Business Insider to discuss the Bucks’ impressive season so far.
- The Bucks could have the MVP, Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year, and No. 1 overall seed, something Horst called “exceptional.”
- Horst weighed in on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s growth as a player, calling him the “center point” of the franchise.
- With several key players hitting free agency this offseason, Horst said the Bucks want to keep their team together.
- Horst said that most metrics show the Bucks stack up well with previous championship contenders and that he believes they have a real chance to contend this season.
- Follow all of Business Insider’s NBA All-Star Weekend coverage here >
It’s been quite the season for the Milwaukee Bucks.
As they head out of the All-Star break, they own the best record in the NBA at 43-14, the MVP frontrunner in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a first-time All-Star in Khris Middleton, and a candidate for Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer.
The team has all the signs of being a real contender. They own the NBA’s biggest point differential, the best defence in the league, and the fourth-best offence. They’re the only team to rank in the top five in both categories.
Now, as they head into the home stretch of the season, they will be trying to prove they have what it takes to contend for a championship.
During All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bucks GM Jon Horst, a contender for Executive of the Year, spoke to Business Insider about building the best team in the league, the growth of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and their championship odds.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length.
Scott Davis: I know it’s early, but you could be looking at a season where you have the MVP, Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year, and the 1st seed in the East and NBA. How do you view that and the growth of the team in one year?
Jon Horst: I think it’s exceptional. It’s exceptional what we’ve done. A lot of the credit, obviously, to Giannis and to [head coach Mike] “Bud” [Budenholzer], and just everything they have done and the style of play that we have and how it fits.
I do think that we’ve done some really nice things with the roster, with Brook [Lopez] and Ersan [Ilyasova] and drafting Donte [DiVincenzo]. Sterling [Brown] and D.J. [Wilson] ended up becoming players that have helped us. But nothing overshadows just Giannis’ development. Continues to develop as a player, as a star, as a leader of our team, and the center point of our franchise. So, I think it’s remarkable and exceptional and a lot of fun to be a part of.
Davis: It’s a little simplistic to ask, but is there any part of your roster that is built around Giannis like a LeBron James team, where you have this unstoppable force going to the basket, with shooters around him?
Horst: I mean, honestly, no. I think Giannis and LeBron are similar in that they’re both great players, and Giannis would tell you that he wants to accomplish the things that LeBron has accomplished and more. We want to do that as a franchise.
But I think they’re very different players, actually. They do it in a different way. Giannis’ agility and his finesse and his touch and his length and his reach and all these things that he does, I think they’re very different players. The very basic level of creating space for your best player and your superstar to operate, I would say yes. But I think they have very different skill sets and different areas where they get guys shots, different ways in which they get guys shots, different ways in which they get their own shots.
Davis: In what areas have you seen Giannis grow? I recall a Sports Illustrated profile a year ago in which he said he’s not the same kid who was talking about how much he loves smoothies anymore. What do you see that has changed in him, as a person?
Horst: He’s changed in so many ways. He’s grown physically in stature, he’s grown in his understanding of our culture, and he’s grown in his language, he’s grown in his interpersonal relationships, and family dynamics that he has. He’s grown as a leader with our team and how he handles that. He’s grown in a lot of ways, a lot of which is maturity. Very proud of him. He’s extremely intelligent, extremely humble, extremely loyal. Really just a blessing to have part of our group.
Davis: You hear so often about the idea of players who lead by example, which can often mean they’re not terribly vocal. Is Giannis like that or has he grown in his vocal leadership, too?
Horst: He’s always been that lead-by-example guy because he plays so hard, he’s so intense, so competitive, and does the right things. He is a true, passionate superstar in doing the right things every step of the way to maximise what he can be. But he’s definitely grown in the verbal aspect.
Davis: You made a trade at the deadline for Nikola Mirotic. He certainly fits your system, but how did you identify him, specifically, among available players?
Horst: How do we identify? The same way we identify everything we do. We have a process, and it’s holistic, from an analytics perspective, scouting perspective, operationally, where are we going to get our advantages in a cap and strategy aspect. Coaching dynamic, bringing in the coaches into the discussion to understand what they see and how they think the fit goes. And from a performance standpoint – ageing curves, past injury history, upside, and athletic performance, etc. etc.
So, everything we do, that’s how we do it, that’s how we identify. And with Nikola, as is sometimes the case, kinda like all the stars align. And everything kinda pointed to him being a great fit and being the right opportunity. And he wasn’t the only one; there were other guys. And then we go into our process of trying to talk to the teams and negotiate the best deals that we can. But he was clearly our No. 1 target, and our goal was to go in and try and get a deal done and get him and do the best that we could.
Davis: Is there concern defensively about playing him and Brook Lopez at the 4 and 5?
Horst: No. And really that’s a credit to Brook. I think he’s a super underrated defender. Really needs to get more credit for his impact on our on- [the court], off- [the court splits] offensively and defensively are exceptional, maybe even one of the best on our team. Top five or six in the league, I think in blocked shots. His impact on rebounding is significant. Even though he doesn’t average a lot of rebounds per game, the team rebounding percentages go up significantly when Brook is on the floor.
And so, Brook at the back of our defence really cleans up a lot for all of our guys. And Giannis will tell you that, Khris and Eric [Bledsoe] will tell you that … And Niko is really intelligent and will be in the right places, and I think he’ll do just as well.
Davis: Brook’s three-point shooting gets a lot of attention, and some people say he’s been one of the best signings of the offseason. He’s shooting it from deep more often and hitting them at a great clip. Who has been instrumental in taking him to that next level?
Horst: He’s really now one of the best shooters in our league, and so, it starts with him. People don’t know this about Brook, but he’s a tireless worker, one of the first guys in the gym. Loves the gym. He’s a gym rat. Loves the group, loves to be around, loves to shoot, loves to work on his game. All you gotta do is watch one of his pregame workouts to see how hard he goes at it.
But Ben Sullivan is the guy who does a lot of work with him shooting, and Ben has done a great job, a tremendous job in kind of extending his range, getting him more comfortable shooting against the contest, being a little more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, making a move to get to his shot. And so, he’s definitely worked on a lot of these things. But the credit really starts with Brook and his work ethic.
Davis: I know you have to be careful with these things, but the Bucks were reportedly on the list of destinations for a star player who wants a trade. What does that tell you about Milwaukee as a city, a market, and a team?
Horst: Not specific to the first part of the question about being on a list or not on a list, but I think, for us, in Milwaukee, we love our core group. We love our guys. Giannis is a superstar of our franchise, great supporting cast with Malcolm [Brogdon] and Khris and Eric and Brook, and the depth of our roster. Bud as a coach. We love what we have.
We talk every day about trying to recruit from within. And so, we first and foremost want to recruit from within and maintain and keep our guys. We think we have a great group and a great core. We think with our brand new facilities, the powerful ownership we have, Giannis as a superstar, Bud as a coach, all the things that we’re doing in Milwaukee, the excitement that we have, that it will become a destination, more than it has been in the past. And that players will wanna play, not only with Giannis but in our city, with our group of guys.
Davis: There’s the idea of “pre-agency,” where teams have to consider the prospect of keeping star players before their contracts are up. Giannis is not far away from that now. How do you guys plan to handle that?
Horst: He is far away from it. He’s got two more years on his contract. That’s a pretty long time in the NBA, so we’re not thinking about Giannis’ free agency. Giannis is the core of our franchise; we’re the No. 1 team in the NBA, we think we have a chance to compete and do some really special things this year. We plan on keeping this team together going forward, starting next year with some of the free agents that we actually do have, with guys like Eric and Khris and Malcolm and Brook. And we think we’ll have a great case for Giannis now and going forward.
Davis: As you mentioned, you have some big players coming up on free agency like Middleton, Lopez, and Bledsoe. Is there a result this season that would dictate how you handle the offseason?
Horst: We believe in this group. They have proven to this point that they can be very successful regular season play. The playoffs are gonna be a good tell for this team. But just if, for whatever reason, we don’t have the success that we wanna have in the playoffs, it’s not an indictment on this group – it’s just another learning curve, another step for a young superstar, a young core group of guys that have proven to be as good as anyone in the league in the regular season. So, if we have a gap at the end of the season, we’ll figure out how to fill that gap also. We wanna keep this group together.
Davis: You’re leading the league in net rating. By point differential, you’re in the same group as the Warriors in recent years, the Rockets last year, and some other recent contenders. What do some of the advanced numbers tell you guys about what this team is and where you might be able to go?
Horst: Great question. In terms of regular season performance as an indicator for being a contender – which there’s something to that, obviously – your overall win-loss record is a key factor, what your net margin is is a key factor, and what you’re really, what we think your offensive rating and defensive rating, those are key metrics. And we’ve tested those throughout history, and they really are good indicators for success and contending. We’re the only team in the NBA in the top five rating offensively and defensively. We’re No. 1 in defence and No. 5 or 4 in offence. We have the No. 1 net margin in the league, and our net margin is historic and lines up with some of the teams that have won the championship in the last couple of years – Golden State, as you mentioned. And then our record against the better teams in the NBA is actually really good this year. So we’ve played well against the best teams.
What that tells us, is that we are built for a team that can contend. But this team has not won a playoff series in 17 years. This franchise has not won a playoff series in 17 years. Giannis, Khris, and Malcolm have never been part of a playoff series win. George Hill, Brook, some of those guys have won a little bit, but there’s a lot of unknown going into the playoffs. So we wanna build off of last year. We wanna have a first-round playoff series win. And then we wanna see what goes on from there.
Davis: This is a bit more anecdotal than the last question, but the league is obviously built on superstars. You have a superstar in Giannis, and Khris is a first-time All-Star, but you’re not lumped in the “superteams” group. Do you feel like you have enough to compete with the other stacked teams in the league?
Horst: I could say the whole thing again, but really, my answer would be what I just said. If you look at the metrics and numbers – and we trust data – this team is one of the top-scoring teams, not only in the NBA but in the last couple of years, as constructed.
I think what that means is, even though, guys like Khris or Eric or Malcolm or Brook don’t have the whole statistics … these guys have sacrificed for a style of play to win and to be really good. You know, Khris Middleton, on a per-36 [minutes] basis, is kinda playing like, not a superstar, but definitely, like a pretty solid All-Star. He’s an All-Star this year. The guy’s playing 31 minutes per game. Well, he’s playing 31 minutes a game because we’re beating people by double-digits every night. And so if Khris were playing 35, 36 minutes per game, he might be averaging 24 points per game. If Eric Bledsoe was playing 35, 36 minutes, I think Eric could be averaging 20. And so, we’re really good. I think we have really talented players that fit a system and fit our superstar, and I think that we have a real chance.
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