For all the advancements in statistics and scouting, player evaluation and roster building, coaching and management and marketing and everything, each NBA team remains completely at the mercy of the players on its roster. Be they bound by fate, chance, the whims of gods or men, or butterflies in distant countries, foolproof projections are yet out of reach. There's no ridding a team of uncertainty; the Milwaukee Bucks are a testament to that. Not only do the Bucks face an uncertain (and perhaps unsettling) future, but the progression of this season has been a striking example of how drastically a team can change when nobody's looking. We've had our gaze fixed on the team for six months, dissecting every game, every move, every word, and we're still left scrambling trying to make sense of it all. And now, with another regular season wrapping up, where do we stand? On the brink of an exceedingly unsatisfying playoff berth, behind a roster full of players who are nothing like who we thought they were.
No player exemplifies this unforeseen transformation better than the curious case of Larry Sanders. While he showed off definite improvement toward the end of last season, Sanders still couldn't even get thing under control enough to usurp a starting spot from the likes of Drew Gooden. He stumbled, bumbled, and fouled his way into Summer League infamy in 2012, leading many to write him off as another physically-gifted-yet-fatally-flawed big man with limited value in the league. At best, we sighed, Sanders would top out as a defensive havoc-wreaker to be deployed in short bursts. Nothing contained or focused, just long-armed, shot-swatting, self-limiting mayhem.
These days? Larry Sanders is widely regarded as the most important piece of the Bucks' roster and arguably Milwaukee's best player. What positive developments the Bucks made this season, Larry Sanders was standing behind many of them, covering up others' shortcomings while cleaning up his own. A player thought to have little offensive upside whatsoever turned into a solid pick-and-roll big who effectively attacked the rim with his length rather than brute size. His penchant for low-percentage jump shots dropped off considerably, and his rebounding, once a liability that kept him from extended court time, became a fantastic strength. At one time he looked like a throwaway player, a guy destined for obscurity after his rookie contract ran out. Now Sanders is primed for an extension that could touch eight figures, and there's legitimate concern as to whether the Bucks can afford not to be the team giving it to him.
The man Sanders effectively replaced hasn't had such a positive season. Samuel Dalembert looked like a solid acquisition as part of the Bucks draft-centric deal with the Houston Rockets: a big-bodied center with a good defensive reputation, great rebounding numbers, and a reliable offensive game. Installed as the starting center from day one, Dalembert was quickly and surprisingly exposed as something approaching a defensive liability. His size may have been helpful against other behemoths, but his slow feet and reluctant help made him a bad match for the gamblers in Milwaukee's backcourt. For the first time since the 2007-2008 season, Dalembert's team was better on defense when he was on the bench. He still flashed some useful jump-shooting but he never passed (his season high for assists is 2), and eventually found himself in the ol' Scott Skiles doghouse before earning probation under Jim Boylan in time to "blow up" just before the trade deadline. But an ill-timed injury from Larry Sanders conceivably scared the Bucks into keeping Dalembert past the trade deadline rather than selling high. Since then his minutes have been inconsistent, and he'll likely pass from Milwaukee's history remembered as little more than a big expiring contract.
Some of the Bucks' riskier moves from recent years were tested this season as well. Ersan Ilyasova was retained after a breakout season on a relatively generous (though not outlandish) contract and questions of whether he would live up to his salary immediately sprang up. Those questions have, to a large extent, been answered in the affirmative, as Ilyasova was once again one of the league's top three-point shooters while boosting his attempts from 2.4 to 3.8 attempts per 36 minutes. But while he's been one of Milwaukee's most consistent offensive producers, his defense remains suspect. He was routinely torched by athletic forwards and occasionally embarrassed by opponents familiar with his penchant for taking charges, but the Bucks were still 2.9 points better with him on the court than off. If nothing else, Ilyasova's season has made it clear he can be a highly effective stretch-4 for Milwaukee or a valuable trade chip in the right deal.
Conversely, Luc Mbah a Moute's uneven campaign intensified questions about whether he really fits in Milwaukee. His defense was excellent again but his offensive game collapsed. His true shooting percentage and offensive rebounding percentage both cratered to career-lows. He's had trouble with injuries, true, but for large stretches of time he felt overlooked or irrelevant. It now seems clear that Luc's ideal situation would be as a "designated defender" on a more complete team, but are the Bucks prepared to ship him out two years into his 4-year contract? His salary is hardly egregious (he'll make roughly $9 million over the next two years), but the Bucks may be better off capitalizing on whatever value he has elsewhere rather than misappropriating it at home.
Then you've got enigmas like Ekpe Udoh and J.J. Redick. Udoh has always been the advanced stats hero who never seems to be doing much on the court but always grades out well. That is, until this season, when Ekpe Udoh's on/off differential--his calling card since he's been a pro--was precisely zero. Slight negative on offense, slight positive on defense. There might be a positive side to that: he should provide good value on a second contract, especially considering his lofty draft spot. That's if the Bucks decide he's worth keeping, of course.
Redick is hard to peg. His acquisition remains a point of debate, but part of the problem is that he's performed below expectations with Milwaukee so far. He's probably due for some positive regression in his next deal relative to his tenure with the Bucks, but what's it going to cost to keep him in Milwaukee? The prospect of making him a long-term fixture with the Bucks likely had plenty to due with their decision to trade for him, but that future is now in question. Either way, it's striking to see people sour on the ability of a player who has been one of the NBA's most efficient scorers in the past few years.
Incidentally, perhaps no player who started the season has emerged so brightly from this season than Tobias Harris, who has flourished with the Orlando Magic. His production masks a few persistent shortcomings in his game, but opinions of the young forward have grown substantially since earning his freedom from the shackles of Wisconsin.
And then we come to the guards.
Brandon Jennings' career has been tumultuous above all else, and entering this season we still didn't really know what the Bucks had in their starting point guard. Generally woeful scoring ability punctuated by blinding excellence? Few players can and do swing the outcome of basketball games more completely than Jennings, who can single-handedly shoot the Bucks to victory or defeat on any given night. He alternated sensational stretches of play with dumbfounding awfulness, draining threes and dishing assists one night, outright refusing to shoot or play defense the next. But the inconsistency lingered, and by the time the trade deadline rolled around Jennings found his name in headlines nearly as frequently as in the early days of his career. Some days it felt like he was sure to be dealt, only to have the organization reaffirm its commitment to him hours later.
Things went nuclear in the second half, when rumors surrounding his contract demands were revealed as unreasonable and unrealistic. Jennings had always played things pretty safe in that department before, insisting that his agent handled all that stuff and that he focused only on the court. But when reports surfaced that Jennings was set on leaving Milwaukee if he played under their qualifying offer next season, frustration boiled over and most of his remaining goodwill vanished. Now the player many viewed as the face of the franchise and Milwaukee's best hope for a star is widely disliked and speculation about trades and free agency is rampant. Through it all, nobody really knows where Jennings' free-agent valuation is likely to land. So I suppose in that sense, he's just as much a mystery as ever.
For my money, no transformation of perception has been more fascinating than that of Monta Ellis. A player frequently placed atop "overrated" lists, exposed by the statistical revolution as something of a drain on his team; many among us had low expectations for Ellis' first full season in Milwaukee. Indeed, the trade deadline was ripe with activity surrounding Ellis But after the Bucks snagged Redick from the Magic, Ellis started to turn heads. He started shooting fewer jumpers and got back to the slashing style that made him most effective in Golden State. More impressively, he distinguished himself as arguably the best point guard on the team, showing particularly good interior passing. His scoring had fallen off recently (drastically so, in fact) until he blew up against Denver, but his second half has converted many to the Cult of Monta/Monte/Monya. Predictably, his big numbers have attracted lots of attention and he seems to know it--reports suggest he's currently leaning toward opting out of his final year with the Bucks in search of a larger deal. Meanwhile there's a lot of chatter among fans about potentially making Ellis the starting point guard next season, provided he's paired with a bigger guard who can stretch the floor for him with three-point shooting.
What's interesting is that Ellis' numbers for the season are mostly in line with what he did last year, and still considerably below his career norms. But as support for Jennings faded, there was Monta! I speculated a while back that support for Jennings and Ellis seemed like a zero-sum game, capped at an overall level and simply redistributed from time to time. Ellis' case has been bolstered by late-game heroics and a quiet, stoic demeanor while Jennings flounders in word and work.
The 2012-2013 campaign has been a disappointing one--as disappointing a season ending with a playoff berth can be, in fact. The Bucks' utter collapse late in the year threw away many opportunities to climb out of the 8th seed and avoid a first-round date with the Miami Heat. But while the team was stuck in the mud, the roster was undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis. The Bucks of today bear little resemblance to the Bucks of last October, even if the actual roster remains largely intact. Some good some bad, as with everything else. But certainly unexpected.