Milwaukee Bucks 2012/13 Preview: A season on the brink?

Grant Halverson - Getty Images

Milwaukee enters the new season at a crossroads: while Scott Skiles' bunch is deep and versatile enough to win 45 games, will their disparate parts align well enough? Or are the Bucks headed for another half-baked season in NBA purgatory?

Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks
Last Year's Record: 31-35
Key Losses: Carlos Delfino (free agency), Jon Leuer (trade), Shaun Livingston (trade), Jon Brockman (trade)
Key Additions: Samuel Dalembert (trade), John Henson (draft), Doron Lamb (draft), Marquis Daniels (free agent), Joel Przybilla (free agent).

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The major theme of the Bucks' most recent offseason makeover? Size.

As usual, John Hammond saved his busiest days of the year for the lead-up to the draft, swinging a deal that brought new starting center Sam Dalembert to Milwaukee and sent local favorites Jon Leuer and Shaun Livingston to Houston along with Jon brockman and a swap of the Bucks' 12th overall pick for the Rockets' #14,.

Trading down meant the Bucks missed out on the gaggle of swingmen available in the mid-to-late lottery, but they still ended up snagging the guy that they seemed fixated on from the outset: North Carolina big man John Henson. The Bucks then rounded out a very productive week by snapping up Kentucky sharpshooter Doron Lamb in the mid-second round, adding arguably the draft's best shooter to a roster in need of a deep threat.

The Bucks remained fairly quiet thereafter, with their biggest move coming in the form of re-signing Ersan Ilyasova to a new four year deal worth approximately $32 million. Depending on your frame of mind, Ilyasova's deal represents either a relative bargain (a 25-year-old shooter/rebounder who was your most productive player last year? Score!) or another pricey gamble on a player who has neither star upside nor a long history of high-level production (weren't we all willing to dump him for peanuts a year ago?). Meanwhile, the end of the rotation was filled out with the additions of veterans Joel Przybilla and Marquis Daniels, with former Buck Przybilla beefing up a front line that was often overwhelmed on the boards a year ago and Daniels providing size and defense to a backcourt that possessed neither a year ago.

2. What are the team's greatest strengths?

Steve von Horn writes:

NBA teams will happily recycle a tired cliché and offer blanket statements about their superior "depth" if you let them, so it's up to fans and writers to demand greater precision and complexity in the articulation of team strengths. To say the current iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks will rely on their depth to conquer the opposition creates an unnecessary dead end in the conversation. After all, isn't depth just something you talk about if the starters aren't good enough to get the job done on their own?

In reality, the greatest strength of the Bucks in 2012-13 will be versatility. Brandon Jennings and Monta Elliswill eat up a lot of possessions on offense, but they will split time as primary ball handlers and off-ball cutters thanks to their diverse skill sets. The point guard and shooting guard designations won't mean much to Skiles and company. As we explained during the off-season, Beno Udrih might be the best facilitator on the team, so essentially every backcourt permutation of the Jennings-Ellis-Udrih trio is a viable top option on offense for the upcoming season. That's an exciting thought for Bucks fans.

The real fun comes in the frontcourt, however. There's something for everyone, and more importantly, there's someone for every situation. Ersan Ilyasova is the sweet-shooting, glass-crashing big man coming off a spectacularly productive season, Ekpe Udoh is the man behind the curtain of the defense that outperforms his box score stats by leaps and bounds, Larry Sanders is the freakishly long defensive weapon Skiles can employ to protect the paint and John Henson might just be a hybrid of the best qualities from all three of the aforementioned bigs.

If you just look at a depth chart, it's easy to think this quartet presents problematic redundancies for Skiles, and that the math won't quite work out on the minutes for all four guys. It's fair to say that the versatility of the frontcourt will be determined by how well each man can manage his best traits, but the most comforting thought is that any combination of Ilyasova, Udoh, Sanders and Henson is the perfect complement to an otherwise defensively-challenged backcourt. Did I mention none of those four big men are over the age of 25?

If everyone does their job, individual roles will develop organically for this team, and any perceived weaknesses will disappear without a trace. The big men will cover up defensive gambling on the perimeter, and the backcourt talent will make everyone forget about the complete lack of post play for most of the guys on the interior. That's the plan the Bucks have put in place for the upcoming season, and now it comes down to proper implementation and execution.

3. What are the team's greatest weaknesses?

Dan Sinclair writes:

After two years of elite play on defense, the Milwaukee Bucks took a step back last season, struggling to rebound or keep opponents away from the basket. Meanwhile, the offense--coming off one of the worst offensive seasons in recent NBA history--saw major improvement. In their last 27 games (after acquiring Monta Ellis), the Bucks’ offensive rating rose to top-5 territory. So it would seem obvious the team’s weaknesses have shifted to the defensive end.

But the Bucks also got pretty unlucky in terms of injuries last season, losing their best defensive player for most of the season and getting a year of hampered production out of another top defender. It’s probably a safe bet to expect some level of bounce-back. Conversely, there’s real concern the major contributing factors to Milwaukee’s offensive spike (like Ersan Ilyasova’s 50.8% shooting from three post-All-Star break!) aren’t sustainable.

In fact, long-range shooting might well be an issue for Milwaukee, particularly if Ilyasova undergoes significant regression. Brandon Jennings is Milwaukee’s most prolific three-point shooter, but he hasn’t been particularly accurate from downtown since his rookie season. Mike Dunleavy was great last year, but he figures to come off the bench again and might get hit with regression himself. Unless Tobias Harris captures the starting small forward spot and develops a reliable corner-three stroke, the Bucks might have only one above-average three-point shooter in the starting lineup—their power forward.

Milwaukee’s offense was also somewhat reliant on transition opportunities last year. It thrived when pushing the pace, but struggled at times when things slowed down. Jennings and Ellis can be lethal on the run, but they’re hardly exceptional in the pick-and-roll or as half-court playmakers. If Milwaukee isn’t able to turn games into track meets, their potential lack of interior scoring might force an uncomfortable number of long jumpers or wild drives from their backcourt.

And while the Bucks are ludicrously deep in the frontcourt, the guard rotation looks pretty thin. Any significant injury to Jennings, Ellis, or Beno Udrih would be devastating considering the limited abilities of Milwaukee’s backups. Look no further than the opening preseason game; with Doron Lamb already out with torn ligaments in his elbow, Beno Udrih's departure with a head injury forced recent signing Marquis Daniels into extended minutes. Such roster imbalance--and a host of expiring contracts--has many expecting a trade at some point.

4. What are the goals for this season?

It's debatable whether sneaking into the playoffs for a first round drubbing represents real progress, but it's no secret that a postseason berth will be owner Herb Kohl's first measuring stick for the season. Moreover, the East has improved to the point that a team backing into the playoffs is fairly unlikely; it stands to reason that the eighth seed will have to win at least half their games in order to play past mid-April. And as cynical as many Bucks fans have become after years of mediocrity, that would probably be enough to get many people excited about NBA basketball in Milwaukee. For all the talk about wanting to build a "real" contender, the formula for winning over most fans isn't that complicated: play an entertaining brand of basketball, have a good group of guys, and win a decent chunk of your games. With new arena talk beginning to percolate, it's more important than ever that the Bucks move beyond the false starts of the past two seasons.

Team success aside, the more important goals would seem to be related to potential progress by the team's youngsters--an obvious sentiment for a franchise desperate for a franchise talent. With Jennings unlikely to sign an extension by the end of this month (and thus headed for restricted free agency next summmer), the pressure will be on him to take another step forward, preferably with some combination of better playmaking, more accurate shooting from deep and more attentive defending.

The bar has also been raised for Harris, whose promising rookie year and strong summer have left many Bucks fans clamoring for Skiles to hand the 20-year-old major minutes. Bucks fans will also be keeping a close eye on the young big man trio of Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and Henson; while depth up front is a lovely thing, it's no substitute for knowing you have one guy who will play 35 minutes. In an ideal world all would play well while one or two would clearly separate from the others and allow for less of a scattershot rotation.

5. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis: discuss.

It's the question most casual observers seem fixated on when contemplating the 2012-13 Bucks: Can Ellis and Jennings coexist?

It's an understandable starting point given the duo's status as the Bucks' most recognizable players, although it also seems unlikely that both players will be on the roster a year from now. (Ellis is the most likely departure as a potential unrestricted free agent.) Even so, Jennings and Ellis should at the very minimum provide plenty of cheap (and entertaining) thrills. They will push the tempo, gamble in the passing lanes, jack up their share of inadvisable shots, make a non-trivial number of said inadvisable shots, create easy buckets for others and - of course - provide explosive scoring at regular intervals. And if last season is any indication, they won't prevent the Bucks from playing an attractive, ball-moving brand of basketball, either.

Even with Ellis falling short of his best, the Bucks were among the league's fastest teams down the stretch, and their offensive efficiency skyrocketed along with it, helping coach Scott Skiles earn the first top-20 offensive ranking of his career (13th). It couldn't have been how Skiles envisioned the season going - it was also the worst defensive team he's coached (16th) - but it was nearly enough to propel Milwaukee into the postseason after a difficult start.
The Bucks are hoping that a full training camp together will help Ellis and Jennings hit their mutual stride out of the gate, but the truth is that the Bucks don't need the pair to be dropping 50 points each night to be competitive. But it would be pretty fun, wouldn't it?

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