SB Nation's mega-preview month focuses today on your beloved Milwaukee Bucks. Our contribution is below, and be sure to check out the rest of the great Bucks-related content over at SBNation.com.
12/13 Record: 38-44 (8th)
Key Additions: Giannis Antetokounmpo (draft), O.J. Mayo (3 yrs/$24m), Brandon Knight (trade), Caron Butler (trade), Luke Ridnour (trade), Gary Neal (2 yrs/$6.5m), Zaza Pachulia (3 yrs/$15.6m), Carlos Delfino (2 yrs/$6.5m), Miroslav Raduljica (2 yrs, $3m), Nate Wolters (draft)
Key Departures: Mike Dunleavy (Bulls), Monta Ellis (Mavericks), Brandon Jennings (Pistons), Luc Mbah a Moute (Kings), Marquis Daniels (free agent), Sam Dalembert (Mavericks)
1. What significant moves happened in the off-season?
Well, this could take a while.
Capping off a mediocrity-defining three-year stretch that saw them finish 9th, 9th and 8th in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks should have entered the summer of 2013 with change as the most obvious mandate.
As in, change everything.
Despite a return to the playoffs and encouraging progress from Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson, the Bucks entered the summer with little to show for their efforts in 12/13, as coaching upheaval and a dysfunctional locker room motivated GM John Hammond to take a flamethrower to his roster once again.
Not that any of this was terribly surprising. The trigger-happy backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings predictably proved incapable of lifting Milwaukee beyond the East's mid-tier, while the lame duck coaching staff of Scott Skiles and later Jim Boylan struggled to manage an ill-fitting roster full of expiring contracts. In that respect it's somewhat surprising that the Bucks didn't fall apart earlier than they did, though their ability to hang around .500 for most of the season proved a curse once the February trade deadline rolled around.
Loitering at the lower end of the East's playoff standings emboldened the Bucks to deal promising youngster Tobias Harris for free-agent-to-be J.J. Redick, a move that backfired spectacularly on the court while becoming a lightning rod for criticism of Bucks' management off it. The Harris debacle was the symbolic last straw for many fans who had begrudgingly gone along with Milwaukee's annual charge for a low playoff seed, though the mismatched pairing of Jennings and Ellis had run its course well before that.
Fast forward four long and sometimes confusing months after their blowout first round loss to Miami, and Hammond and company have a reinvented roster better suited to giving Milwaukee a chance at long-term competitiveness, though the Bucks' dissonant compete-while-rebuilding philosophy remains largely intact. The arrival of the no-nonsense Larry Drew from Atlanta likely had a fair bit to do with the Bucks' summer makeover, as the Bucks' unsuccessful pursuit of Drew's protégé Jeff Teague laid the groundwork for Jennings' eventual sign-and-trade to Detroit for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton.
All told, 11 of the 15 players Milwaukee fielded a year ago are gone, with only the young frontcourt of Sanders (24), Ilyasova (26), Henson (22) and Ekpe Udoh (26) returning. Ellis, Jennings, Redick and the perennially underrated Mike Dunleavy are among the departed, with a more budget-friendly mix of youngsters (Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Nate Wolters) and veterans (O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler Zaza Pachulia, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour, Carlos Delfino) brought in to replace them.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
How the new roster does (or doesn't) gel remains the most obvious question mark heading into the season, and because of that the team's overall identity isn't entirely clear. Still, we know enough about the individual players and the history of the coaching staff to piece together what figures to go right and wrong. Let's start with the good, shall we?
They have Larry Sanders defending the paint. Once they become familiar with Drew's new defensive system--which emphasizes a bit more trapping and show/recover than Skiles'--they should be a top-ten defense if only because of Sanders' intimidating presence in the middle. Remember: even with Jennings and Ellis gambling for a living last season, the Bucks were a top-ten defense for much of the season before Sanders missed a series of games with back injuries. Mbah a Moute and Daniels will be missed, but Knight in particular looks to be a major upgrade over Jennings on the defensive end.
Three-point shooters are everywhere. Though they lost high-volume, above-average three-point shooters in Dunleavy, Redick and Jennings, the Bucks made sure that every perimeter player they added is a threat from deep. Mayo once again connected on better than 40% of his triples last year, Delfino led the league in threes per minute last season, Butler has developed into a corner three specialist, Neal has always been one of the league's best off-the-dribble shooters, Knight has been above average in each of his first two seasons and Ridnour and Wolters are threats from deep as well. That's a far cry from a year ago, when Scott Skiles went a good stretch of the season starting four awful three-point shooters at the same time (Ellis, Daniels, Mbah a Moute and Sanders).
Running men. Though they were only slightly above-average in terms of pace, Drew's Hawks were among the league's best in both transition points scored (17.3 ppg) and allowed (11.6). He's hoping to bring that same sort of mindset with him to Milwaukee, using training camp to emphasize the importance of getting the ball into the frontcourt within four seconds of a make or miss.
This is the point where we should note that every coach talks about rebounding, running and getting easy baskets in training camp, but Drew at least has a track record of making it happen. Just as importantly, playing fast figures to be a necessity given the Bucks' lack of dynamic post, iso and P&R players.
2. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Learning curve. Eleven new players and an all-new coaching staff effectively make this a brand new team, which basic logic suggests is not a good thing in the grand scheme of being as competitive as possible as quickly as possible. That means Drew has his work cut out getting his new team to both grasp his system and understand how to play off one another, no easy task given he has less than three weeks until the season starts.
Deep, but star-less. It's no secret that star-power wins in the NBA, and unfortunately the Bucks don't have any to spare. Barring an unforeseen offensive renaissance from Sanders, Milwaukee is almost certain to see its streak of all-star-less seasons extended to nine, and their depth is being tested at the moment as well. Ilyasova may miss the start of the season following a nasty ankle sprain earlier this week, Carlos Delfino (foot surgery) could miss a significant chunk of the regular season, and Zaza Pachulia (Achilles) and Ekpe Udoh (knee) are also banged up and yet to play in the preseason.
Shot creation. The Bucks are seemingly doing everything by committee this season, and creating offense is no exception. In that respect this season should make for a fascinating experiment: is it better to have talented-yet-inefficient offensive shot-creators like Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings or a group of more unselfish, less obviously gifted guys? The Bucks' 22nd rank in offensive efficiency last year means the bar isn't particularly high for Drew and his new roster, but that doesn't mean it can't get any worse.
4. What are this team's goals?
Ah, the million dollar question.
While the Bucks hardly went for broke over the summer, Herb Kohl's preference for competitiveness is well-documented. You don't pay Zaza Pachulia $15 million because you're going all out for Andrew Wiggins, do you? In that sense the Bucks and Sixers make for an interesting case study: both teams used the draft to make long-term potential plays, but while the Bucks spent $25 million in cap space on a star-less roster full of "character" veterans, the Sixers signed...well, no one. So while Philly is mailing in its season and thus guaranteed to land a top five pick in the loaded 2014 draft, the Bucks are once again putting on a brave face and actually playing basketball this year.
All of which highlights the difficult balancing act that Hammond and Company engage in each year: put a competitive product on the floor at a reasonable salary level while still building for the future. It doesn't sound crazy, and the strategy has worked in Indiana and Houston of late, but the last two seasons have seen the Bucks unfortunately too impatient to see the big picture. They reportedly turned down an injured Steph Curry to get a healthy Monta Ellis two years ago in the Andrew Bogut trade, and they followed that with the ill-fated Harris/Redick deal last February. Neither deal will sink the franchise, but to be good you have to be on the opposite end of those deals at least some of the time.
The Bucks likely (hopefully?) won't make the same kind of mistake again this season, and in general the summer did seem to suggest a shift towards building around the team's young players (hint: that's a good thing). While the organization is no doubt still hopeful of competing for a playoff spot, Hammond has increasingly spoken of the bigger picture: acquiring a talented young core, developing one or more of them into all-stars, and building a championship-caliber team around them. It may seem like pie-in-the-sky type stuff at the moment, but that kind of long-term ambition was largely absent over the past two seasons. And with Sanders' emergence last season, the possibility of Henson taking big steps this season, and promising signs from Antetokounmpo over the past week, it may actually be justified.
As a result, what really matters in Milwaukee is how Drew's young core develops. Another strong season from Sanders, real strides from Knight and Henson, and regular flashes of promise from Antetokounmpo would be more than enough to make the 13/14 season a success regardless of where they finish in the standings. Though that begs our final question...
5. Could finishing .500 and landing the 8th seed (again!) actually be a good thing?
by Eric Buenning
As you may have noticed, the Bucks are no strangers to the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they've been around that area so long that they may even be paying property tax on it. For a team that has opted to stay competitive rather than deconstruct into a bottom-five team heading into a loaded upcoming draft, the middle ground would seem like the worst possible place for the Bucks to end up come April. But could it actually be an encouraging sign for the Bucks this time around?
Though finishing close to or at .500 may produce the same opinions and jokes that the Bucks are now all too familiar with, not all 41-41 seasons are created equal. If this year's collective can achieve that record, one could even say it was a good thing in the big picture. Here is how it would have to work out.
The veterans play like veterans
The Bucks brought in serviceable veteran players in Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino, and Luke Ridnour to help bring along some of the young guys both ahead and behind them on the depth chart. In a vacuum, those are respectable moves; teams trying to win need to have some veteran presence in their locker room. For the Bucks, however, this was seen as a problem. Contract particulars aside, these vets were and still are expected by most to contribute in an enhanced role, and probably would take minutes away from youngsters (or players you're more willing to take chances on).
However, the vets can have an impact while not influencing the win total too much by acting as placeholders for the young guys. A safeguard, if you will. With the Bucks not having the luxury of arena or franchise security beyond 2017, the organization doesn't seem comfortable trotting out inexperienced youngsters at every position. Yes, they could tank in the hope of getting an Andrew Wiggins, but as expected that wasn't in the cards for Herb Kohl and Co. Instead, they chose to go out and get reliable, experienced players who can hold down rotation spots with serviceable performances until the young assets that they do have develop, something the Bucks are really going to be banking on. Moreover, none of the vets have cap-killing contracts, with Butler ($8 million) and Ridnour ($4.3 million) expiring next summer.
The young "core" quickly gels and exceeds expectations
It would be ignorant to not acknowledge that this is what every team would want and need to happen to become successful in the long term. However, with the Bucks it's especially important for two reasons: 1) It would give them a group to market in an effort to stay in Milwaukee, and 2) it would save them from having to overhaul the majority of the roster yet again.
First, the backcourt would need to get a solid, consistent year out of their point guard. For this to happen, Brandon Knight would have to come a long way under the tutelage of Larry Drew and Nick Van Exel. Drew and Van Exel had success in this department in Atlanta, having helped Jeff Teague develop into one of the league's better young point guards over the past four seasns. Knight, who is known for at least his off-court intelligence, would have to better pick up the nuances of the pick-and-roll offense while limiting his turnovers to a tolerable number. Knight is only 21 and being on the right side of cerebral helps, so chances are he'll get better. But without real strides in his floor general role, easy shots are going to be hard to come by for the remaining guys.
Speaking of which, O.J. Mayo will likely carry much of the scoring burden and will thus have to emerge as a consistent scoring threat. Mayo's tenures in Memphis and Dallas had their ups and downs, but now he's finally in a place where he knows that he's both wanted and counted on to produce. Whether it's taking over as the primary ball-handler during certain times in the game or coming off screens and knocking down shots, Mayo will be asked to carry a load he hasn't been entrusted with previously. Re-creating the magic he had going on in the first half of last season and sustaining that effort throughout the year would do quite nicely.
Ersan Ilyasova will have to put together a complete season. In each of the past two seasons, Ilyasova has started slowly in the first few months of the year only to pick up the pieces and end up near the top of the league in three-point shooting. With Jennings and Ellis gone, some might expect him to increase his offensive role and approach the 18-20 point-per-game plateau, but that's not needed for Ilyasova to be effective. As a stretch four, he forces opposing big man to come outside and defend him, opening up the floor for (now stronger) guards to penetrate.
John Henson and Larry Sanders, the two undisputed faces of the Bucks going forward, need to find a way to work together offensively. Having them together on the defensive end could be beautiful; their length will cause all kinds of headaches for opposing offenses. But for them to stay on the court together, they need to find a way to make the offense work within their skill sets. Whether that's flashing one of them in the high post (they tried it with Sanders in the first preseason game with meh results) or one of them being able to pop out on the baseline for a mid-range jumper (Henson, I guess?), something is going to have to change in order for them to not repeat last year's Marquis Daniels-Luc Richard Mbah a Moute offensive black hole nightmare.
Though he's not expected to be an impact player, Giannis Antetokounmpo could show flashes of his highly regarded upside, contributing in unexpected ways--just as he already has in two preseason games. Though the 18-year-old may not do much in terms of filling up box scores, Antetokounmpo could still serve as an unselfish, defensively disruptive energy guy in his first season.
The positive in all of this requisite offensive revolution is that all of the players mentioned in this core are under the age of 26. Nobody in that group has hit their peak potential yet, so if medium-sized strides can be made over the course of the year, who's to say where that could take them?
The defense will have to be as good as they want it to be
Larry Drew has established plenty of goals for the team this season. Among them is holding opponents to 43% shooting, a mark that would have been third best in the league last season. That specific goal may end up being a stretch, but in general the defense will have to rank in the league's top ten for Milwaukee to have a shot at cracking 40 wins.
We all know of Larry Sanders' emergence as an elite shot blocker, but he can't do it all. At times last year he often had to, as the Bucks' backcourt generally had the defensive integrity of fallen autumn leaves on a crisp November afternoon. With John Henson around more often, paired with more physically and tactically talented defenders in Knight and Mayo, penetration won't be nearly as frequent, and therefore there should be fewer easy looks inside.
An elite defense would also boost the odds of a successful transition game. Larry Drew has made it known that he wants his team to get the ball pushed up the floor regardless of whether a shot is made or not. With bigs that can run, guards that can finish at a higher percentage, and a bevy of three-point shooters on the roster, getting stops on the defensive end will be critical to building an effective offensive.
Make no mistake, there is a lot of work still to be done in Milwaukee. But the climb doesn't seem as difficult as it has in years past, and the journey may actually be kind of fun this time around. In fact, the Bucks are somewhat surprisingly in a manageable position where expectations aren't set on the playoffs for a change. But with a few lucky breaks (read: good health) along the way and improvements in the right places, a playoff berth may actually be an encouraging experience for a change.