08/09 Milwaukee Bucks Preview

Celtic's Blog has recruited blogs from around the web to preview every NBA team, so today we're taking our shot.  Check out a complete listing of Southwest and Atlantic previews here.

Last Year's Record: 26-56

Losses: Mo Williams, Desmond Mason, Yi Jianlian, Bobby Simmons, Michael Ruffin, Royal Ivey (maybe not a "loss" per se)

Additions: Richard Jefferson, Luke Ridnour, Joe Alexander, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tyronn Lue, Malik Allen, Francisco Elson, Adrian Griffin, the expiring contract of Damon Jones

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The Bucks' offseason as usual saw plenty of turnover, but the biggest difference might be behind the scenes.  John Hammond's hiring in April set about a much-needed overhaul of the front office and coaching staff, with former Suns and Bulls defensive mastermind Scott Skiles taking over for the overwhelmed Larry Krystkowiak days after the season ended.  The Bucks were last in defensive efficiency in 07/08 and haven't finished in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency since 1991, so Skiles certainly has his work cut out for him.

The big on-court difference will be at small forward, where Richard Jefferson should provide a huge upgrade over the Desmond Mason/Bobby Simmons platoon the Bucks used in 06/07. But while Jefferson scored a career-high 22.6 ppg last year, his once-stellar defense and rebounding have dropped off noticeably the past couple seasons--skills that Skiles will hopefully help him rediscover in his new digs.

The other major deal of the offseason saw mercurial point Mo Williams shipped to Cleveland for the talent-challenged but cap-friendly package of Luke Ridnour, Adrian Griffin and Damon Jones.  Williams was never lacking in ability but his shoot-first, defend-last partnership with Michael Redd was a disaster the past two seasons, so the Bucks will be hoping that the deal will represent addition by subtraction.  In spite of Ridnour's less than stellar credentials, it's somehow difficult to imagine the Bucks being worse with Ridnour than they were under Williams, which speaks to just how hapless the Bucks were in Williams' two years as starting PG.

The Bucks also added West Virginia jumping jack Joe Alexander (8th overall) and UCLA jack-of-all-trades Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (37th) in the draft, which left some scratching their heads since the two forwards were chosen just hours after Jefferson was acquired from New Jersey.  While neither looks to be an impact player--Alexander looked raw in Vegas while Mbah a Moute's offense will never be a calling card--expect both to make a bid for rotation minutes.  Mbah a Moute could even nip ahead of his more highly-touted teammate if the preseason is any indication.  Alexander missed two games with an abdominal injury and looked rather lost until he sparked the Bucks to their first preseason win on Wednesday in China. 

Mbah a Moute meanwhile has led the Bucks with 34 mpg in the preseason, struggling as expected with offensive efficiency but gaining Skiles' trust with his defensive versatility and hustle.  In other words, he could be the next in a long line of statistically underwhelming "Skiles types" who get minutes despite conventional wisdom suggesting they shouldn't (see Duhon, Chris).

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

While they haven't played a minute of regular season ball together, Jefferson and Redd should provide loads of wing scoring, something the Bucks could use following a season in which they ranked a disappointing 21st in offensive efficiency and were among the league's worst at both getting to the line and connecting from distance.  In recent years Redd has been the only Buck capable of getting to the line with regularity (6.8 fta/g), so Jefferson's ability to draw fouls (8.3 fta/g) should bring a little more self-sufficiency to the Bucks' attack. 

At center, Andrew Bogut continued his development in 07/08, averaging 16.3 ppg and 11.6 rpg after the all-star while also adding a shot-blocking element to his game.  Granted, the Bucks weren't winning games while he was excelling statistically, but it was still enough to earn a $60 million offseason extension that will keep him in Milwaukee for the long haul.  Bogut's unlikely to ever be a number one offensive option, especially with Redd and Jefferson on the court, but Skiles appears optimistic that he'll see plenty of post touches to better balance the Bucks' attack. 

Still, how far Bogut develops from here will come down more to him than his coaches or teammate.  Improving his accuracy from the line (just 58.7% last year) and adding a vaguely reliable 12-15 footer would do wonders for his game, though even without those skills he's developed into one of the league's most promising young bigs.  He shot threes with surprising accuracy for Australia at the Olympics in Beijing, so Bucks fans can once again hold out some hope that Bogut will finally rediscover the shooting touch that he actually showed a fair bit of in college.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Frontcourt depth was a problem last season and swapping Yi Jianlian and Michael Ruffin for Malik Allen and Francisco Elson won't do anything to change that.  Meanwhile, Dan Gadzuric has gone from a highly productive role player to a vastly overpaid bench warmer who isn't likely to turn things around with his 30th birthday now in the rearview mirror. At the very least Bucks fans can hope that Skiles will scare him away from shooting the turnaround jumpshot that he has developed a startling affinity for in recent years.

Aside from Bogut, Charlie Villanueva is the only other legit talent in the 4/5 rotation, and as such he'll have every opportunity to win major minutes following a disappointing 06/07.  His inconsistency and defensive lapses could also land him in Skiles' doghouse, but CV enters camp healthy and he should be hungry, too--restricted free agency beckons next summer.  Villanueva continues to be one of the more enigmatic players in the league, but that's not exactly a compliment.  Time and again he'll wow you with a smooth drive, no look pass, or floater that few players his size have any business making.  Yet all too often he flatters to deceive: his post game is unrefined outside of a righty push shot and his unreciprocated love affair with the three point shot contributed to a rather miserable true shooting percentage (50.2%), for a man of his size and skill level.  And that's not even mentioning his defense, which could be described as indifferent at best.

The point guard position could also be an adventure, as the Bucks will likely start Luke Ridnour ahead of veteran Tyronn Lue and one-month wonder Ramon Sessions.  Ridnour struggled mightily in Seattle a season ago, so the Bucks will have to hope that a return to good health and a better supporting cast will aid the 27-year old recapture the form that helped Seattle win 52 games in 2005.  Despite the gaudy stats he put up in April 2008, Sessions could find minutes hard to come by if Skiles opts for the veteran Lue as the primary backup.  Either way, the Bucks as of now have three backup-quality point guards.

Perhaps most importantly, on-court chemistry was severely lacking for the Bucks in 07/08, and the flurry of offseason changes won't simplify Skiles' task of creating a more cohesive unit on both ends of the floor.

4. What are the goals for this team?

With the East still weak outside the top five, the Bucks, like most everyone in the conference, will be gunning for a playoff spot--even if they've become disinterested in talking about it.  Still, fans might have to settle for more incremental improvement considering the club has won just 54 games combined over the past two years and once again underwent a major facelift in the offseason.  Skiles' Chicago teams were perennial slow starters and his first Milwaukee squad will likely be no different, as the Bucks will play 20 of their first 33 on the road.

Predicted Record: 37-45

On paper, the Bucks would appear to at least have the talent to compete with teams like the Wizards, Hawks, Bulls, Heat, Wizards and Pacers for the final East playoff spots. That's not an overwhelming endorsement considering none of those teams is close to legitimate contention, but the Bucks can at least consider themselves in the mix.  Then again, you could have made the same argument in previous seasons, when various combinations of injuries, coaching, inexperience, and terrible chemistry doomed the Bucks to mid-lottery purgatory.  

Since the Jefferson trade and Skiles hiring, I've generally felt like this was a 35-40 win team, though so much has changed on and off the court that the Bucks could certainly surprise either way.  The team's sluggish start to the preseason has tempered even those modest expectations a bit, but on some level that's not surprising given the broad scope of changes that happened in the offseason. 

Still, if Redd and Jefferson can stay healthy and develop well-defined roles while Bogut puts together an entire season similar to his last few months of 07/08, the Bucks should at least be respectable for a change.  A lot will also come down to Skiles' ability to bring his new club together, while x-factors like Villanueva and Sessions will also be worth keeping an eye on.  Playoffs in Milwaukee?  It won't be easy, but Skiles should at least give them a chance.

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