A Bucks Postmortem Examination

With last night's loss to the Pacers, the Milwaukee Bucks saw the last glimmer of hope for a playoff berth fade away.  A surprising 2009-10 season, culminating in the exciting first round playoff series loss to Atlanta, propelled the Bucks from anonymity to the periphery of the national discussion.  A team built without superstar free agents or athletic specimens, the Bucks used smart offense and stingy defense to dictate the terms of the game, usually with a favorable outcome.  

That was then, and this is now.  What was supposed to be an underdog team crashing the party turned out to be an unspectacular collapse.  What happened here?

The Starting Point: What Went Right

The year before (2008-2009), the Bucks were dismal for a number of reasons, but more than anything else was a lack of talent.  Two major injuries (Andrew Bogut's back and Michael Redd's first left knee disintegration) forced the team to rely on Richard Jefferson, Ramon Sessions, and Charlie Villenueva as the team's top trio, an approach that simply didn't work.  The following offseason, all three moved on (two via free agency, one via trade), and the team was redesigned.

Scott Skiles is notorious for getting more out of less, as far as roster talent is concerned.  In 2009-2010, though, the meshing of Skiles' coaching strengths and the available roster pushed the team beyond what anyone thought possible.  The team was third in defensive efficiency, had a +1.7 point differential, and was able to earn the 6th seed in the perennially-weak Eastern Conference.  Brandon Jennings' debut season, Andrew Bogut finally putting it all together, and a slew of capable role players (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Kurt Thomas, and Luke Ridnour) all buying into Skiles' program proved to be a successful formula.

An Underrated Offseason Loss

And at season's end, we all thought that the formula would be repeated.  Bogut showed that he could handle being the focal point on both ends of the court.  Jennings, no matter how erratic his offense was, could capably run the offense and surprised everyone with his defense.  Mbah a Moute, Delfino, and Ilyasova were there to do all the little things (setting screens, rebounding, shooting the open shot, etc.).  There was just one key cog missing.

Luke Ridnour's career shooting year in 2009-10 (.478/.381/.907 for FG/3PT/FT) was the glue that kept everything together.  If Jennings' jumper was struggling (as it often did), it was Ridnour who could come in and keep the offense on track.  He was a special role player that isn't often found on an NBA roster: talented enough to start but not talented enough to take games over, willing to take as many minutes as were necessary, shooting smart shots, making smart passes, and playing smart defense.  Even though he was getting just a shade over 20 minutes per game, he was easily the third most important player on the team.

John Hammond and Co, though, thought differently.  They declined to resign him outright, instead letting Minnesota pay him $16 million over 4 years to join their plethora of point guards.  The rationale was, at the time, solid.  "Jennings is ready to run the team permanently, we need the cap space to get more help on the wings, and Ridnour's numbers are bound to regress to his career averages."  As it turns out, points one and two were true, but not the third.  Currently, Ridnour is shooting .468/.446/.888 (TS% of .571).  In about 8 more minutes per game, his points, assists, and rebounds are all up, while his fouls and turnovers are about the same, and his PER is an average 15.32.  Below average for a starter, but great for a backup, and would have been perfect off the bench in Milwaukee.

Trying To Buy The Solution On Offense

Ridnour's departure allowed the team more flexibility under the salary cap, and the vision for the team was clear: continue the defensive performance, but get some players to help get buckets and earn free throws.  The 23rd-best offensive efficiency in the league wasn't good enough to get past the first round of the playoffs, even with John Salmons coming off the hottest streak of his career.  We all remember how it went down:

Step one: trade Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric for Corey Maggette (career: 16.3 ppg).  Two overpaid non-factors for an athletic wing who can flat-out score, both from the floor and from the line.

Step two: sign Drew Gooden (career: 11.8 ppg).  A big man who can rebound like crazy, and maybe shoot a bit.  

Step three: re-sign John Salmons (career: 10.1 ppg).  The savior from the year prior, able to shoot from distance and work his way to the basket for layups and fouls.

Step four: sign Keyon Dooling (career: 7.2 ppg).  With Ridnour gone, a backup PG was a must, and Dooling was a decent replacement.  Not as good a shooter, but a better athlete who was better suited to slide over to the 2 when he and Jennings were on the court together.

Between those four players, the Bucks added 45.4 points per game for the price of $25.44 million (2010-11 salary numbers).  That breaks down to about $560,035/point.  

But It Looks So Good On Paper

The rotation truly did look formidable on paper.  Running out a starting five of Jennings, Salmons, Delfino, Gooden, and Bogut was far more potent than the lineup from the year prior, and the second unit of Maggette, Dooling, Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute, and Sanders/Brockman seemed able to put points up as well.

But, as the saying goes, the games aren't played on paper.  Skiles' efforts to find a way to focus the theoretical offensive firepower were not enough, and the offense never found a groove.  Maggette, an all-world ball-stopper, struggled to get the free throws we all thought he could get, and eventually got himself moved to the end of the bench.  Gooden, the eternal space cadet, struggled with plantar fasciitis all year.  Salmons pulled the old Tim Thomas routine (perform well, get paid, regress, repeat) that, combined with his 31 years of age, morphed his offense from smooth to impotent.  

And if it wasn't bad enough for those three to struggle, the guys who had success last year couldn't stay on the court.  Delfino lost months to a concussion, Ilyasova is losing time as we speak.  Jennings lost weeks to a broken foot.  Bogut never fully came back from his catastrophic elbow injury, and is continually plagued by migraines.  At least Michael Redd wasn't ever lonely in the trainer's room.

What Could Have Been

Of course, it's easy to rehash the last year's worth of moves and try to fix what's already irreparably broken.  But here's what I would have done if I had control:

  • Re-sign Luke Ridnour, allowing us to stay away from Dooling.  Here's what I wrote in a recap of a road win against Philadelphia last season:

    "
    Luke Ridnour needs to be re-signed after the season...Words cannot express how well Ridnour and Jennings work together.  The fact that they played a large portion of the fourth quarter together underlines not only how much they depend on each other when they're both on the court, but having the ability to replace your point guard but not lose that much in terms of making the offense click.  John Hammond, re-sign this guy ASAP so we don't have to worry about the PG spot."

    Not that Dooling is bad, but Ridnour found his groove and seemed to work extremely well with Jennings, both as his backup and his backcourt mate.  I don't see that with Dooling.
  • Still make the Maggette trade.  Even though he doesn't work with Skiles' preferred system, and he's way overpaid, and he can kill an offense as easily as he can drive to his right, the trade was the right thing to do.  Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric were bad contracts and worse players, and bringing in Maggette shows a commitment to improving the team.  Was there a better trade out there?  Maybe, but anything else would have been with a similar goal.
  • Let Salmons walk.  This is self-explanatory; we should have given him the Charlie V treatment and let someone else overpay for him.
  • Pass on Gooden, re-sign Hakim Warrick.  Warrick will never statistically match up to Gooden, but his uber-athletic style would have allowed the team to run-and-gun more.  Gooden would have made an excellent backup center for the right price, but at $5.7 million, I'd pass.
  • Give Eddie House a call and a serious sales pitch.  Yes, he's as inconsistent (if not moreso) as Jennings.  Yes, he's a bit of a headcase.  Yes, he takes some shots he shouldn't.  But a guy with championship experience who can space the floor and hit big shots is a guy that the team could have used this year.  As a 10th man, he'd be fine.
  • Sign a backup center for less than $5.7 million.  If Kurt Thomas couldn't come back (or if he wasn't wanted), find someone else to take his place.  The following players would have been less expensive than Gooden (who I would have signed for less than the MLE, but not what he got): Shelden Williams, Brad Miller, Mikki Moore, Brian Skinner (who the team actually did sign), Etan Thomas, Lou Amundson, and Fabricio Oberto.  Yes, Gooden is a better player than all of the above, but the way the team could have been built, all they needed was a passable backup center who could give Bogut a breather.
These moves would have given us a rotation like this:

Starters: Jennings, Delfino, Mbah a Moute, Warrick, Bogut
Bench: Ridnour, House, Maggette, Ilyasova, Big Man X

Jennings and Bogut would get their minutes first (30-35).  Mbah a Moute , Delfino, and Warrick (all 20-25) would rotate with Maggette (25 minutes, first off the bench, and able to iso more now that there's no Salmons to worry about), House (10-15), and Illyasova (15-20), Ridnour would get in about 20 minutes between backup 1 and 2 in the 2-PG sets, Big Man X would get 10-15 whenever Bogut needed a blow, and the reserve players would pick up whatever they could find.

This team might not be as good on paper, but it's built with the same framework that made the 2009-2010 team such a surprise: tight defense, solid rebounding, and working inside-out on offense.  There is one improvement that, in my opinion, is missing from this season's squad.

What The Bucks Need

The team I laid out is built to run.  Maybe not a 7 Seconds or Less squad, but with Bogut's ability to outlet pass, Jennings' speed and passing ability, there should always be one or two players on the court that can either spot up in the corner (Delfino, Ridnour, House) or fill the lane on a fast break (Warrick, Maggette, Sanders).

Maybe it's just a pipe dream, but Jennings is a cornerstone of the team, and I think a faster-paced offense would suit his strengths better.  I think the reason he took the Knicks passing over him so hard wasn't just that he thought he was a top-10 pick, but he saw the chance to play in Mike D'Antoni's offense and let his imagination run wild.  Giving him some running mates and shooters would make him both extremely happy and extremely productive.

On the roster right now, who's able to run with Jennings on the break?  Delfino as a shooter, maybe Maggette if he can get back with the program, and Sanders.  That's it.  Salmons certainly can't run the break, nor can Drew Gooden.  Ilyasova's never been fleet of foot or a decent finisher in transition, Dooling's never been a runner, and Michael Redd should never risk running a fast break ever again.

A faster pace would simply be the best way to both bring out the best in Jennings and jump-start the woeful offense.  The team's defensive style can (and should) stay the same, as long as it doesn't slow the Bucks down too much.  Finding that balance is obviously difficult, and I don't claim to have the answers.  But it's the best direction I can come up with for a team that's currently aimless.

Where To Go From Here?

After looking over the scheduled free agents for the summer, there's not many unrestricted players coming loose.  Combined with the relative paralysis the last offseason put on the salary cap, and the looming CBA battle that will make the NFL's situation look like a walk in the park, I'm having a hard time figuring out what moves the team can make that will make my vision come true.  Shoot, I can't figure out how they can get out of the mess that they're in right now.

It's a bad place to be; stuck in mediocrity.  How do we get out?
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