Below you'll find our contribution to the annual season previews that the good folks at Celtics Blog have been hosting for the last couple years.
Last Year's Record: 34-48
Not-So-Key Additions: Roko Ukic
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Where to begin?
The Bucks have had a penchant in recent years for turning over half their roster each summer--funny how mediocrity encourages that kind of thing--yet they managed to outdo themselves over the last few months, allowing their three "leading scorers" to depart through either free agency or trades and replacing them with a mixed bag of young talent and proven veterans--all on reasonable deals. With their cap number lurking dangerously close to the tax both this year and next, trading Richard Jefferson for what eventually amounted to Kurt Thomas, Carlos Delfino, Roko Ukic and salary flexibility was largely a necessity given Jefferson's deal greatly outpaced his productivity.
The real question is whether the Bucks actually took enough advantage of the flexibility provided by RJ's departure. While the Bucks' decision not to make a qualifying offer to Charlie Villanueva drew some quizzical looks, the truth was that Villanueva's inconsistent, defenseless style meant he was never in the Bucks long-term plans. Realistically, signing the productive Hakim Warrick for just $3 million and the return of Ersan Ilyasova on a three-year deal for just $7 million is likely to provide far more value to the Bucks than locking Villanueva into a long-term deal. The pair is likely to gather the lion's share of PF minutes this season, though it's also possible Kurt Thomas grabs minutes next to Andrew Bogut rather than simply backing him up.
But perhaps the most intriguing decision was to select Brandon Jennings as the effective replacement for Ramon Sessions. Sure, Jennings beats Sessions on sex appeal and "potential," but the odds of him being able to replace Sessions' productivity in the near term? Doubtful. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited to watch the youngster learn on the job, but there will be some seriously long nights as the kid figures out the NBA game (and how to make jumpshots). That's why Luke Ridnourhealthy and looking improved in the preseason--will probably get the starting nod on opening night. The tragedy is that the Bucks' inability to lock in Sessions earlier in the summer led them to effectively use their remaining dollars under the tax on Warrick, Delfino, and Ukic. If Sessions had signed a max MLE deal watching him leave would have been somewhat tolerable, but for four years and $16 million it's tougher to stomach. (Frank)
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Scott Skiles. Ethnic diversity.
And, um...scrappiness? OK, maybe I'm being redundant. It's actually pretty simple: the success of the 09/10 Bucks will be mostly dependent on their ability to take another step forward defensively and rebound the way they did in the first half of 09/10.
That doesn't mean they'll be boring. Skiles' teams have always relied on defense and rebounding to play at a fast pace, and that was the formula we began to see a year ago. Before Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut were lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucks were a top five rebounding team and top ten defensively--no small feat for a franchise that had finished in the lower half of the league's defensive efficiency rankings every year since 1991. Leading that effort is '08 second rounder Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who will compete with Delfino for the starting SF spot and will regularly draw the task of guarding the opponent's best wing scorer.
While they ended up middle-of-the-pack in both rebounding and defensive efficiency, they forced more turnovers than any other team in the league and should be even better now that they've added the ballhawking Jennings, don't have Villanueva getting minutes at PF, and will (hopefully) have Bogut back full-time in the middle. In other words, the Bucks will win by minimizing opponent opportunities (by forcing turnovers and not giving up second chances) and pushing the pace the other way. (Frank)
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Losing Jefferson, Sessions, and Villanueva necessarily leaves the cupboard rather bare offensively, but those losses will be blunted by the return of Redd and Bogut. Still, don't expect the Bucks to win any shootouts, as they're short on guys who can create their own shot and only Redd and Warrick have shown any ability to get to the line consistently.
More generally, the Bucks simply don't have clear-cut NBA starters aside from Redd and Bogut. There's no shortage of athletes or quality role players, but having the best roster from 11-15 doesn't get you all that much--and it's generally pretty pointless to being pay a few vaguely capable guys to wear street clothes each night. So while there's been lots of talk by the Bucks about being three-deep at every position, that's largely just distracting from the lack of proven quality at most positions. Skiles has admitted the rotation is something of a free-for-all at the moment, with virtually everyone on the roster capable of getting rotation minutes at some point this season. But would that be true if the Bucks had more established players at the point and forward spots? No.
With Bogut back and Villanueva gone, the Bucks also will hope to shore up their porous interior defense. As part of that, the Bucks led the league in fouls a year ago and early indications from the preseason are that not much has changed on that front, though Bogut has played sparingly as well. Bogut has improved steadily over the years in that department, and Kurt Thomas immediately provides a big boost as well. (Frank)
4. What are the goals for this team?
Media, fans, players--certainly they all have different ideas, though all can agree that after five straight last-place finishes in the Central, escaping the division basement would provide a long overdue baby step in the right direction and toward respectability. If that doesn’t happen, well, don’t count the national media among those surprised: they have lower expectations for Milwaukee this year than their usual, remarkably low expectations. Most who follow the team closely however probably peg the Bucks as a similarly capable side to last year. The offseason headlines naturally tilt toward the big names lost or dealt away, but if the team’s two most important chips (Redd and Bogut) return to health, the Bucks should be a mildly competitive team.
So, what should Redd and Bogut aim for, realistically? They are mainstays on these last-place finishers, but the last time either played 80 games, they both did--and the Bucks won 40 games and made the playoffs (2005-06). The chances the Bucks do the same this year are probably the same as the odds Redd and Bogut both stay on the floor without a scrape. Likely? No. Possible? Possible. (Alex)
Projected Finish: 34-48. We're projecting the same record as a year ago for a reason. While the losses of Sessions and Jefferson leave a void at two key positions, don't underestimate the impact of having Redd and Bogut healthy again. Bogut in particular has a chance to prove he's worth the $60 million contract he inked two summers ago, as he'll get every chance to be a bigger factor offensively in addition to his usual role of anchoring the defense. If he can't score 15+ ppg it will only further exacerbate the Bucks' lack of scoring depth.
Moreover, the Bucks' bench is deeper and should offset some of the uncertainty surrounding the starting forward and point guard positions. There's certainly enough upside to contend for one of the final playoff spots, but it will require the health (and productivity) of the big names, Skiles to again get the most out of his team defensively, and at least a couple of the young players--Ilyasova, Jennings, and Mbah a Moute primarily--to make an impact. Given the Bucks never seem to get everything to go their way, we won't hold our breath.