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Milwaukee Bucks X-Factor: Jrue Holiday

There were fewer gulfs in impact during last season’s playoff run than Jrue Holiday’s menacing, versatile, overwhelming defense and his erratic, unpredictable, confusing scoring. When the Milwaukee Bucks opted to stop switching screens and keep Holiday tethered to Chris Paul in the NBA Finals, the Hall of Fame point guard struggled mightily to catalyze the offense the same way.

Holiday was an All-Defensive First Team honoree and looked the part as the Bucks pulverized teams defensively en route to a title. He was also a tremendous third scorer during the regular season, averaging 17.7 points on 59.2 percent true shooting (.503/.392/.787). Had he not missed 10 consecutive games in February due to COVID, there’s a chance he’d have received his second All-Star berth. That’s how good he was on both ends all regular season.

While the defensive chops translated to the playoffs and he remained a valuable distributor, the individual scoring became unreliable, when he averaged 17.3 points on 48.2 percent true shooting. His finishing and rim frequency deteriorated, he settled for more hurried midrange jumpers, and seemed to gravitate toward early clock pull-up threes on the break too often. As Milwaukee looks to defend its title, an improved scoring Holiday could loom large.

The Bucks should be a better team than last year. Donte DiVincenzo will return, who they missed mightily during the final three rounds of the playoff rounds. Acquiring Grayson Allen was a savvy move to add some shooting and playmaking. Post-title bumps for their stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, could be a legit phenomenon and both were better players by the end of the postseason than at the start. Maybe, they figured some stuff out.

Other contenders should be better as well, though. The Phoenix Suns bolstered their bench and can expect growth from the quartet of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were constantly bitten by the injury bug last season. Both enter the year seemingly much healthier, though Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status threatens to complicate the situation in Brooklyn.

That’s why a guy like Holiday being better equipped to handle the mantle of third scorer is crucial. Much of the talk surrounding Milwaukee last season centered on its diversified offense that was seemingly more playoff-ready. Yet when late May rolled around, the Bucks made most of their money defensively. They had the top-ranked defense of the postseason, while their offense finished 11th among 16 teams.

Some of that is because they played a handful of very good teams, especially the Nets, whose defense was stifling at times. But it’s also because Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday struggled earlier before the former two turned it on eventually. Holiday had some impressive scoring outings, including Games 5 and 6 against the Atlanta Hawks and Game 5 against Phoenix. Yet by and large, the Bucks would have benefitted from consistency. That hasn’t changed as their title defense begins this month.