Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013-2014 Season Preview: Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks are the antithesis of the so-called Oklahoma City model (i.e. being terrible for a spell and then drafting a few studs to slowly morph into a contender).  Their owner, Herb Kohl, is notoriously insistent on fielding (or trying to field) a winning team, and as a result Milwaukee, while never really being a true contender since around the turn of the century or so, always manages to be in the chase for one of the final playoff spots in the East.  Unfortunately, even when they manage to reach the playoffs, the team has often been eliminated by a much better team with home court advantage.  The Bucks have been to the playoffs 8 times in the past 15 years, and lost in the first round 7 of those times. 

Milwaukee is similar to the Dallas Mavericks in that they attempt to better the team on the fly via free agent acquisitions and savvy non-lottery draft picks, but, unlike the Mavs, they don’t have a franchise cornerstone similar to Dirk, and they don’t have the promise of warm weather, no income tax, and a wealthy owner who splurges on fancy locker rooms and private jets.  They’ve also suffered from some major coaching ineptitude over the years and in the front office, as well.  Oddly enough though, by skill or pure dumb luck, they have managed to assemble one of the most intriguing rosters in all of the NBA this year (particularly in the front-court )  Time to take a closer look and determine whether we should actually Fear the Deer this season.

Additions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Stephen Graham, Brandon Knight, OJ Mayo, Khris Middleton, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia, Luke Ridnour, Miroslav Raduljica, Nate Wolters

Subtractions: Samuel Dalembert, Marquis Daniels, Mike Dunleavy, Monta Ellis, Drew Gooden, Brandon Jennings, Luc Mbah a Moute

You won’t find very many teams that had such a huge roster turnover on paper but don’t project to be drastically better or worse than they were last season.  The Bucks lost a lot of middle-of-the-road role players, and they brought in a lot of middle-of-the-road role players.  Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino are back for their second run with the team, and Ridnour might actually be the Bucks best pure point guard.  OJ Mayo is the Bucks likely “star” on offense, which could be a not so bad thing or a very bad thing.  Gary Neal will actually be relied on a lot as a shot creator and one of the Bucks best shooters.  Brandon Knight is a young, underachieving player with upside (though exactly how much upside is still unclear), and Caron Butler may not have much left in the tank but will be a solid veteran and locker room guy.  Antetokounmpo may legitimately be the rookie with the most buzz in the NBA. 

In other news, the Brandon Jennings era ended in Milwaukee over the off-season but the team may miss Mike Dunleavy more.  One player they won’t miss is the chronically inconsistent and underachieving Dalembert.  Mbah a Moute was a Milwaukee mainstay, and while the Bucks will have plenty of long-armed youngsters to protect the rim this year, they may miss his grittiness on the perimeter.

OJ Mayo

Mayo could be the key to Milwaukee’s success (or lack thereof) on offense now that Jennings and Monta Ellis are gone.  The 25-year old guard had a modest scoring average of 15.5 PPG in his one season in Dallas, but that’s higher than any of his current teammate averaged last year.  He is also one of the few Bucks who can create offense for himself, having ranked top 20 in the league on isolation plays last year and top 50 as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations according to Synergy.  Mayo was signed by the Bucks over the summer at a reasonable rate of $24 million for three years (although some still thought he was overpaid), but he could really be a bargain at that price if he can regain some of the magic he displayed for the Mavericks early last year when he averaged 18 points on 47% shooting between November and January.  From that point, however, his scoring average decreased every month, bottoming out in April at an abysmal 8.6 PPG.  Whether Mayo suffered from chemistry issues with Dirk Nowitzki (who returned from injury in December), or was simply exhausted from logging heavy minutes for an entire season (he had only started 17 games the previous two seasons combined) is hard to say.  But the Bucks will rely on him a lot this season.  He is a good passer and ball handler who can take some pressure off Brandon Knight, and hopefully prevent the offense from stagnating (especially when the team decides to play some combination of the slightly offensively challenged trio of Sanders, Henson, and Udoh).  Additionally, Sanders was very effective as the roll man in P&R situations last year, so if he and Mayo could develop some chemistry in that regard it would be a plus.

Larry Sanders

The Bucks were a mediocre team last year, but Larry Sanders was must-see TV.  Coming into the year probably more famous for sharing his name with an HBO sitcom than for his actual play, by the end of the season Sanders was one of the most buzz-worthy players in the league.  He became a league pass staple for his highlight blocks and for his occasionally erratic behavior, but the questions the Bucks (and Bucks fans) have now is this: can he develop into a consistent contributor on both sides of the ball?  Or he is just a one-trick pony (who is very good at that one trick)? 24 years old and entering his fourth year in the league, Sanders still has a lot to prove.  Defensively, he is obviously a game-changer: in addition to blocking the second most shots per game in the league last year, Sanders was top 10 in defensive rating and the Bucks surrendered over six points more per 100 possessions when he wasn't on the floor (making him more of a difference-maker in that regard than Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan).  In addition to a frightening wingspan, Sanders has impeccable timing and patience on defense which, coupled with surprising balance and quickness, make him an elite defender.  Yes, LARRY SANDERS (as he is called) doesn't need to do much more on the defensive end aside from fouling less (and reacting less explosively when he is called for a foul).  Offensively, he has a lot more work to do.  His range is nonexistent (he shot only 32% from mid-range last year).  He isn't a reliable post-up option (he posted up only 7.5% of the time last year and shot a measly 36% in those situations).  And he doesn't create for his teammates (his assist percentage last year was only 6.8%).  Just about the only time he does score is on offensive rebounds or as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.  That will have to change next year.  The Bucks have to get offense from somewhere and Sanders should get more minutes to score in provided he can stay foul-free.

John Henson

Highly mobile and sporting a Sanders-esque wingspan, the 6’11” Henson was one of the most intriguing first-year players in the league last year.  But he was too raw (and perhaps too frail; Henson vaguely resembles a stick figure come to life) to get many meaningful minutes for the team.  Despite that up-and-down rookie campaign, Henson was dominant in summer league this year, which has led many to predict he could be headed for a breakout similar to the one his teammate Sanders enjoyed last season.  Because we've seen so little of Henson in meaningful regular season or playoff action, it’s a little difficult to ascertain how good he is right now, but one thing is clear:  he is a physical marvel.  Additionally, he is actually a superior scorer to Sanders in the paint (on limited attempts of course) but is an unreliable shooter from mid-range at merely 23% despite being advertised as a guy who can step out and make those shots occasionally.  He also posted up about twice as often as Sanders (to mixed results), but, of course, got most of his baskets on cuts to the basket and offensive rebounds.  He rebounded at a slightly better rate than Sanders per-minute as well (mostly because he is a monster on the offensive boards), but is far away from being a difference-maker on defense.  In fact, the Bucks actually defended slightly better with him off the court last year.  His free throw shooting is also a work in progress.  Expectations are high for Henson in some corners, but he is still a somewhat raw second-year player for a (potential) lottery team.  Milwaukee will bring him along slowly, and any progress he makes this year will be considered a bonus.  Hopefully his point guards can actually get him the ball occasionally so we can see a little more of what Henson is made of.

Most exciting player to watch: Giannis Antetokounmpo

“The Alphabet”.  “The Greak Freak”.  “Greece Lightning”.  Antetokounmpo hasn't played 1 minute of regular-season NBA basketball, and he already has more nicknames than most players accumulate over an entire career.  But that’s just a testament to the amount of excitement the youngest player in the league is generating.  Antetokounmpo went from a virtually unknown prospect to one of the most enthralling talents in the league virtually overnight by way of an impressive run of preseason performances.  When the Bucks drafted the 18-year old, very few people had ever seen him play and even less had an idea of his game.  But in the preseason, Antetokounmpo, while obviously raw, flashed a little bit of everything: he stepped out and demonstrated some range on his jumper.  He blocked shots.  He ran the floor and dunked, and even flashed some moves in the post.  The expectation was that Antetokounmpo would spend this season shackled to the bench, but there will now be a lot of pressure on Milwaukee Coach Larry Drew to get the kid some playing time as the losses pile up.  In this era of 24/7 access to all the information we could ever want, this rookie piques our interest precisely because of how little we know about him.  At this moment, he is almost 100% upside, and there’s something inherently exciting about that. 

Prediction: 32 wins

If the Bucks have one thing going for them (if you consider winning games to be the primary objective in sports), it’s that they aren't part of Tankapalooza 2013.  There will be a lot of wins to be taken easily from the East bottom feeders like Charlotte, Orlando, and Philadelphia.  But I simply don’t think the Bucks have the horses to compete for a playoff spot.  If any two of the following three scenarios come to fruition then the Bucks might have a fringe playoff shot: 1.) Sanders and Henson BOTH make substantial leaps forward 2.) Mayo proves to be a reliable number one option on offense, or 3.) Brandon Knight plays consistently like an above average NBA point guard.  But that is a lot of “what if’s?” and the Bucks haven’t been a particularly lucky franchise during their existence.  Right now, they have no shortage of great, young assets.  They just lack a star player and a point guard to make it all work.  If they can make those additions in the coming years, the rest of the league will have every reason to be afraid.


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