In a strict accounting sense, the Bucks' last eight games have all been identical: each has added another tally in the loss column on Milwaukee's resume. But if you thought Milwaukee's disastrous 72-96 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday night felt different, you weren't the only one:
Let me just first say that I owe the fans a big, big apology for the performance of our team tonight. Very, very disappointing. I am very very disappointed in our team. A team that I really thought that tonight, after last night's loss, would come out and play with some energy, and that they'd play with a passion. They did not do that. I told the guys after the game that there will be changes in our starting lineup and if they're not on the same page with it, so be it. But there will be changes. But we definitely owe these fans a big apology. On behalf of this team, I want to extend that apology, because we totally, totally let this city down tonight.
That's Larry Drew, probably about as fired up as he can get, making it clear that his team's performance was simply unacceptable. There are two obvious takeaways which give rise to a whole bunch of less obvious questions. First, the coaching staff still views a "lack of energy" as a primary problem preventing the Bucks from competing with even the most inept teams on their schedule. Second, the coaching staff doesn't appear to be afraid to shake things up, lineup-wise, in order to get better results.
That's the obvious stuff. Drew's statement makes clear that on the surface, this team is a mess. There's been no consistent execution of anything resembling a cohesive game plan, admittedly a task made difficult by the constant shuffling of players in and out of the starting lineup--and in and out of the active roster. Whereas the Bucks' problems in years past so often boiled down to poor shot selection or disinterested defense, these Bucks have been out-hustled on a nightly basis--on top of poor shot selection and disinterested defense. Outside of a nasty stretch last week the Bucks haven't had a particularly hard schedule: 19th-toughest this season according to Basketball-Reference.com. They have been decimated by injuries, for sure, but right now they definitely look the part of the NBA's second-worst team.
The immediate question that comes to mind when Drew mentions "changes", has to be "what kind?" Milwaukee's starting lineup has been shuffled so many times that "changes" are pretty much par for the course. As Alex Boeder put it, maybe this will be really different this time, but it is always sort of different.
Swapping in Brandon Knight as the starting PG seems like the most obvious switch. Knight was certain to get plenty of opportunities to prove he could handle the job this season, but his bad hamstring has thrown a big old wrench in that plan all year. Luke Ridnour still has value as a backup guard to someone, but he's been brutal on offense so far (32.7% true shooting, 19.1 turnover rate), enough that Knight (a superior defender) figures to be an improvement by default. Besides, Drew and John Hammond spent the summer proclaiming Knight to be their guy, so it only makes sense to see whether the 21-year-old can provide a much-needed spark.
Caron Butler is a constant enigma stuck in a perpetual predicament. He's playing in front of the two players most would consider the brightest part of Milwaukee's roster thus far (Khris Middleton) and the brightest part of their future (Giannis Antetokounmpo), so it's only natural for there to be questions about the heavy minutes he's received thus far. He was playing like garbage before a 38-point explosion against Philadelphia, but he's an unquestioned "veteran leader" on the team whose word surely carries some weight in the locker room. If there's a guy who's going to get a long leash when it comes to starting, minutes, etc., it's him. Middleton has been a bit more efficient from the floor, but Butler has been the better rebounder. O.J. Mayo's three-point shooting has been critical to what little success the Bucks have had, but he's as guilty of energy lapses as anybody. From an outside perspective, it's hard to look at a potential benching of either of those guys as anything more than a thinly-veiled statement, since they're both likely to play big minutes regardless.
Beyond that, it all feels pretty random. Until Larry Sanders returns, the frontcourt rotation is going to be a mess. Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson have probably been the best big men on the team so far and present an interesting pairing as starters, offering inside-outside offense and reasonably strong rebounding (though we haven't seen it yet). But while Henson has shown improvement on defense this year, he's not the game-changing presence Larry Sanders is. Are we likely to see more Giannis Antetokounmpo? He hasn't lacked for energy this year, when he hasn't just been stuck on the wings waiting for the ball to swing his way. Are pull-up jumpers energetic? Gary Neal wants to know.
I also have to wonder when Larry Drew himself will start taking more heat for the team's poor performance. There's no question he has a very difficult job right now. The Bucks never seem to know who will be available for a given game, and there isn't a ton of talent or versatility to begin with. Still, we've seen the same failures in nearly every game: poor boxing out leading to tons of offensive rebounds, bad defensive rotations and ball movement, late perimeter close-outs after over-aggressive collapses into the paint. The team still doesn't shoot enough threes, considering their relative productivity from inside and outside the arc. It's on the players to execute the coach's game plan, which suggests that Milwaukee's players are sensationally inept, or Drew's coaching has failed to put them in a workable position. The smart money says both, as always.
funny sad thing is that many Bucks fans aren't bothered by the losing, or even a sluggish showing by some assortment of veterans--they just want to see their favorite players play, and if losses come with it then that's just fine. Drew is trying to put a high-functioning team out on the court because that's his job and his boss is presumably telling him to do it. Unfortunately, this is about a lot more than a lack of energy, and the fan frustration Drew apologized for is rooted in something much worse than a string of losses.