So, now what?
Make no mistake, the Bucks expected to be in the playoffs when this season started. There was no real reason to believe that this team got worse over the summer. While the contracts doled out might not have been attractive, the players who signed them fit the bill of Milwaukee's needs quite well. It wasn't unreasonable to expect improvement from the likes of Brandon Jennings, Carlos Delfino, and Luc Mbah a Moute. If one was willing to give Scott Skiles some credit for Milwaukee's excellent defense (and most were), this was still going to be a difficult team to score against.
Combine all that with an Eastern Conference that, while better at the top, still lagged behind the West in terms of competitiveness throughout, and Milwaukee finally had expectations to be proud of. Back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons would do wonders for a small-market team on the rise.
O, how the semi-mighty have fallen. For the last two weeks the discussion hasn't been one of excitement, but desperation. To be fair, we've seen a number of fine performances lately, but mostly of the individual variety. But expectations have now been left behind. The remaining games no longer constitute a playoff push. They closer resemble a deep-sea salvage mission.
We still want something to talk about, though. So here's one thing I'm looking for from each player on Milwaukee's roster the rest of the year. Share yours in the comments!
Brandon Jennings: Get to the free-throw line!
We're all too familiar with Brandon's shooting struggles. Despite his undeniable quickness, he struggles with just about every shot that isn't a lefty leaning layup, and even those aren't failsafe. But there is an event that involves Jennings hurtling a basketball at the rim that doesn't make everyone cringe: his foul-shooting. Jennings is a career .804 foul shooter and has the speed to get to the rim with reasonable ease. I expect his ability to draw fouls to improve with experience and (hopefully) as he gets a little stronger. The dividends this would pay are clear--consider that since Jennings has been in Milwaukee, the Bucks are 14-6 in games where Brandon attempts eight or more free throws (1-0 in the playoffs!).
Andrew Bogut: Get healthy!
Last season: .520 FG%, .629 FT%, 17.7 PTS/36
This season: .499 FG%, .445 FT%, 13.3 PTS/36
Bogut's arm has been bothering him all year, and while his defense has been stellar as usual, his offensive game took a significant step back from where it was before last year's injury. Bogut has complained that his elbow still lacks a full range of motion, something that significantly hampers his shooting, be it on running hooks or free-throws. Late last season, Bogut really started to come into his own on the offensive end. Regaining that form might be the single most important factor in Milwaukee's future success.
John Salmons: Attack the basket!
The Bucks' feel-good debt to John Salmons runs out after this season, if it hasn't run out already. I don't intend to be harsh, but I'd consider Salmons the single biggest disappointment of the season. Compared to his 30 games with Milwaukee last year, John is shooting worse from every single zone on the floor except behind the arc. With more offensive options in Milwaukee this year, Salmons is shooting about two fewer shots per game. The problem is that those two shots used to come at the rim. Last year with Milwaukee, Salmons attempted 4.2 shots at the rim per game. This season, he's taking only 2.4 shots at the rim per game, while his shots from other locations have stayed pretty consistent. Here's hoping he can recapture the aggression that made him so valuable last season.
Carlos Delfino: Let those 3's fly!
In his last ten games, Delfino is shooting 46.4% from deep on about seven attempts per game. He's been Milwaukee's most reliable three-point shooter this season and remains third in the NBA in three's attempted per game. It's one thing to overdo the three-point shot when there are better options in the flow of your offense. Milwaukee's offense has no flow. Might as well see if Carlos is really a good enough shooter to keep around.
Luc Mbah a Moute: Crash the boards!
Anyone who follows me on Twitter (shameless plug) knows about my growing infatuation with Luc Mbah a Moute. More than just an exceptional defender, Luc is a serious hustle guy who rebounds with his body and gets good position on the offensive boards. I'd love to see him improve his midrange jumper (only shoots 35% between 10-15 feet), but he's extremely active in the flow of the offense (oh wait, didn't I just say there was no flow?) and spots seams in the defense really well, always seeming to cut toward the basket at the perfect time. I really hope Milwaukee keeps him.
Drew Gooden: Hit that long jumper (or stop taking them)!
First, I'll admit that the long two is the worst shot in basketball. That being said, Drew Gooden is hitting his long twos at a better rate (45%) than just about any other Buck is hitting any other jumper. Gooden has shown himself to still be a strong presence on the boards and a capable inside scorer, which is why Milwaukee got him. His contract isn't great, but he's still a serviceable player. Unless he's going to stop taking those shots altogether, might as well hit them.
Larry Sanders: Run the floor!
When Milwaukee drafted Larry Sanders, fans were excited about more than just his raw defensive ability. Milwaukee seemed to have found a player who could really excel in the open floor, especially paired with the quick Jennings. While Sanders has looked lost a fair share of his time on the floor, he seems right at home streaking down the middle of the court. According to Synergy Sports, Sanders averages 1.33 PPP in transition. The Bucks have the pieces to push the ball more effectively than they often have, so now seems like a good time to get Larry up and running. With any luck, we'll see a few more of these.
Corey Maggette: Get fouled!
Maggette has had a pretty crazy season, and it's anyone's guess how long he'll last in Milwaukee. He's done some things well (leads team in FTM & FTA) and others not-so-well (second only to Jon Brockman in TOR), but all will be forgiven if he can get back to basics: attack the basket and sink free-throws. Now we just have to wonder if he'll play enough to work out the kinks.
Keyon Dooling: Keep the turnovers down!
Not a serious concern, as the Bucks are still an above-average team when it comes to taking care of the ball, but Keyon's 13.4 TOR is the highest of Milwaukee's primary ball-handlers. It's also slightly above Luke Ridnour's 12.4 mark from last season. Dooling's career TOR is 13.9.
Jon Brockman: Cut down on the fouls!
It's tempting to point out the huge drop in ORB% from Brockman's first season to this one, but I'm inclined to believe that Brockman's true rebounding ability is closer to what we're seeing now than what Sacramento fans watched last year. Instead, let me point out that Brockman is averaging 6.4 fouls per 36 minutes, more than the seemingly foul-happy Larry Sanders. Brockman is seriously undersized for the role he typically plays on the court, and that disadvantage likely lends itself to foul trouble. By the way, it's also worth noting that Jon still leads the Bucks in Win Shares per 48 minutes, proving that yes, Advanced Stats do not tell the entire story.
Earl Boykins: Post somebody up!
I just think this would be funny.
Michael Redd: Don't hurt yourself!
That would just be too too too much. The last thing Redd needs is another serious injury. Unfortunately, his knee troubles and repeated surgeries don't bode well for future health issues, so nobody can blame him for taking it easy with what's left of his career. I'm just not sure I want to see Redd in a Buck's uniform ever again after this season unless he's making the veteran's minimum.
Chris Douglas-Roberts: Keep your head up!
Maybe the only player with a more unbalanced season than Corey Maggette, CDR showed flashes of brilliance and long stretches of invisibility. Milwaukee fans, myself included, were pretty excited about his acquisition and were looking forward to watching him develop. Now it's unclear if Chris will even be around much longer. CDR is stuck behind a number of other veterans with much more expensive contracts, and I wouldn't blame him for being discouraged. The kid's got promise, let's hope it doesn't go wasted.
Ersan Ilyasova: Find your 3-point shot!
Ersan's ability to knock down the deep ball was a huge boost for Milwaukee last year, but he really struggled this season. He's only a career .336 shooter from behind the arc, but he's also 6'9". That's a good combo that could help with Milwaukee's floor-spacing issues. Honorable mention goes to "get healthy!" considering he hasn't played since suffering a concussion in late February.