Pawns & Pieces: Roster-Building and Milwaukee's Championship Prospects

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA, every game is different. Inside those 4,700 square feet, there's ten players, three refs, and one ball, and nearly endless possibilities with how a possession can end up. Many non-sports fans (and maybe some of us) complain about basketball being so random it isn't worth following closely.

The good teams, though? The Contenders? They tilt the game in their favor by building a roster that's equipped to win more often than their opponents. Whether it's going top-heavy like the Miami Heat or ten-deep like the San Antonio Spurs, these teams know what they want to do, and more importantly, how to get there.

That's not to say there aren't limits. While players may gravitate towards the big markets, the salary cap and luxury tax keep New York and Los Angeles from buying all the talent (and when they do, it's hilarious), and the draft gives hope to the New Orleanses and Clevelands of the league. If you set everything up right, you might go from the cellar of the NBA to Contention for the Larry O'Brien trophy (see: Oklahoma City Thunder).

So with all that in play, how does Milwaukee move from one end of the bell curve to the other? Like Sway, I don't have the answers. But what I do have is an analogy.


Unfamiliar with the game? Let this clip from The Wire teach you the basics. But if you already know, let's dive into what parallels we can draw.

Pawns: One-dimensional, limited impact, and abundant. Anyone who's in the NBA (except maybe Chris Smith) has the talent to at least step on the floor and not embarrass himself. They might do something or a few things adequately well, but generally hope to achieve naught more than replacement-level performance. They always have the hope of growing into a bigger piece, especially when they're young, and can be traded back and forth over their careers. But more often than not, these players end up on the wayside when newer, cheaper pawns become available.

Current Bucks: Miroslav Raduljica, Nate Wolters, Ekpe Udoh, Giannis Antetokounmpo

Discussion: Miroslav is a big body who has the potential to be a rotation-level player someday. In the foreseeable future, though, he figures to be a throw-in for a trade with a partner who needs a little bit extra to get a deal done. Nate Wolters is the same thing for a guard. He'll be a good backup PG someday; whether that's in Milwaukee or elsewhere depends on his value relative to someone else that the team wants. Udoh is a little older than you'd want from a Pawn, and would be buried on the roster of a team with actual aspirations.

Giannis is the piece that everyone is talking about, and he has significant talent and exciting potential. However, at this stage of his career, he's at the bottom rung of the NBA Ladder. Of all the Pawns in Milwaukee, he's the one with the chance to make it past and become a bigger piece.

Knights: Somewhat multi-dimensional, below-average impact, and plentiful. These are your young players, probably still on a rookie deal, that have some potential and some time to develop. It can also include your experienced players that offer one strong skill in a specific area (Matt Bonner, Reggie Evans, Mo Williams, etc.) but little else. Lastly, it includes the dreaded washed-up veteran: players well past their prime but still manage to stick around for a little while longer.

Current Bucks: Brandon Knight (no pun intended), John Henson, Carlos Delfino, Caron Butler, Khris Middleton, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour

Discussion: Knight might become a top-15 PG. He might not. The raw talent is there, and it will be interesting to see if he ever becomes more than he is right now. Henson has shown several flashes of elite rebounding, solid rim protection, and low-post scoring. When he goes from showing flashes to showing consistency (and maybe fixing his free throws), he could be a bigger piece. Carlos Delfino and Caron Butler are old, brittle, and shouldn't be on the roster for long. Same for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour; their services are necessary for now but they won't be capable of providing what's needed in a few years.

Khris Middleton is an interesting one. Over the first 20+ games, he's shown a lot of things, from 3-point shooting to on-ball defense and a lot of things in-between. He'll probably never be a top-3 guy on a contender, but he looks a lot like what we'd all hoped Luc Richard Mbah a Moute could become (especially on offense). Worth keeping, unless there's a chance for a major upgrade.

Bishops: Multi-dimensional, average impact, and relatively easy to find. The Bishop encompasses a lot of player types, and is a major step-up. It includes your younger players that have significant NBA experience and a good chance to grow further, your veteran player who offers a low ceiling but well-rounded skill set, or a specialist who offers one near-elite skill in a crucial area.

Current Bucks: Ersan Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia, Larry Sanders

Discussion: Hobo Ersan is barely above Pawn-status, but Ilyasova generally goes through these slumps and comes out of them looking like the player he is: a reliable mid-range and long-distance shooter with a knack for rebounding and drawing charges. A good stretch-4 who is a luxury right now but could be a major contributor on a good team. Mayo has some offensive talent but seems destined to be a high-floor SG who can shoot but shouldn't be a top option. Zaza is an above-average backup center and nice to have around. If healthy, he could stick around for a while longer, but his impact will be minimal.

Larry Sanders, if he regains his 2012 form on defense and finds a way to make his offense more efficient (no jumpers, a few post moves and a reliable counter) is the only player in this group that might grow beyond this tier. His elite-level rim protection will afford him all the chances he can handle to prove that he's worth building around. Tyson Chandler would be an excellent end-game for Larry's development, and it'd be great to have him here if/when he gets there.

Rooks: Multi-dimensional, above-average impact, and hard to find. These are your All Stars and near All Stars, the players that can be built around. A veteran who reaches this tier will have experienced significant success and are able to perform at a high level consistently. Incoming rookies who figure to develop to this level quickly go in the top-5 picks of the draft.

Current Bucks: None

Discussion: Giannis could get here in a few years. Caron Butler used to be close to this level, but that was years ago. Larry Sanders might evolve here someday, but he's got a tough road to travel to get here. There's no one else on the team that will likely ever sniff this level of success. There's enough pieces to trade for one, but that's all about having the right timing, which Milwaukee has almost never had.

Queens: Multi-dimensional, maximum impact, and rare. It might be funny (albeit adolescent) to call LeBron James a queen, but there's no denying that he is the most powerful piece in the game. There are a few players that have a similar impact, but they can be counted on to carry a team to success. These are the players you tank for, because having them on your squad turns you into a contender.

Current Bucks: None

Discussion: The Bucks can get a player like this one of two ways: either draft the right guy in June or pray to all the deities ever that Giannis surpasses the already ridiculously high ceiling we've set for him. Realistically, these are the only two options, which is why everyone (including yours truly) is so firmly on the "Lose Now, Win Later" train.

What do you think? Did I mis-classify someone on the team? Is a player on the Bucks too high or too low? What are the chances that the Bucks draft the right player to fill that top role on the team in 2014 and beyond? Leave all that, and more, in the comments.

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