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2011 Milwaukee Bucks Preview: Lockout Edition

Lockout be damned, Jeff Clark and the gang at Celtics Blog are once again organizing Blogger team previews this year -- and as much as we're frustrated by the lack of progress in getting NBA basketball back in our lives, we couldn't turn down the chance to talk about the game rather than the business. 

Last Year's Record: 35-47

Key Free Agents: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

Not-So-Key Free Agents: Earl Boykins, Michael Redd

Additions: Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston, Tobias Harris (19th overall pick), Jon Leuer (40th overall pick)

Departures: John Salmons, Corey Maggette, Chris Douglas-Roberts (signed in Italy)

Q: What are your team's biggest needs this offseason?

How about adding a superstar wing to complement Bogut and Jennings? That's possible for a small market club without significant cap space or an assortment of attractive trade chips, right?

Among the more realistic options, re-signing defensive jack-of-all-trades Luc Mbah a Moute will be the obvious priority, though with 11 players under contract and two draft picks likely to join the fold, the Bucks likely won't be too active in free agency. In that sense, the draft day blockbuster with Sacramento and Charlotte allowed the Bucks to do most of their summer house cleaning early.

Up front, Bogut has finished the last three seasons in street clothes, yet the Bucks once again find themselves without a true backup to their best player. Probably not a good idea. Still, that didn't stop them from trying to paper over Bogut's absences last season a series of smaller lineups that featured Drew Gooden, Jon Brockman, Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova (and no, I don't think Brian Skinner is the solution). 

The Bucks also made wholesale changes on the wing by adding Jackson and a pair of bigger point guards (Udrih and Livingston) while shipping the disappointing Salmons and Maggette out. Douglas-Roberts wasn't expected back even before he signed a full-season deal in Italy, and the swingman exodus is expected to continue with Michael Redd's departure. So what gives in the backcourt? Keyon Dooling looks like the most likely odd man out at the suddenly crowded PG spot, though the Bucks could stand to add a shooting swingman to their league-worst offense. If they don't, then expect to see Udrih and Livingston seeing plenty of time off the ball, which wouldn't surprise anyone given Skiles' frequent use of Dooling and Luke Ridnour in that role the past two seasons.

Q: What are the team's biggest strengths & weaknesses? (so far)

One thing we can be sure of: the Bucks are a great team until you give them a basketball. After ranking second in defensive efficiency in 09/10, Scott Skiles' bunch once again made a living on the defensive end, ranking fourth in overall efficiency and top ten in three of the four defensive factors (eFG% allowed, turnover rate and defensive rebound rate). It all starts with the presence of Bogut, who somehow managed to further step up his defense less than a year after suffering a gruesome arm injury that severely hampered him on the offensive end. Bogut was once again a beast on the boards, led the league in shot-blocking and allowed a meager 0.60 points per defensive play in isolation (via Synergy), which made his snubbing in the all-defensive team voting all the more baffling. He's complemented by Mbah a Moute's ability to defend the other four positions as necessary, though it'd also be inaccurate to characterize the Bucks' defense as something other than a team effort. 

Unfortunately, the Bucks' standout defensive efforts were more than offset by a 30th-ranked offense that finished dead last in finishing around the hoop and never found its rhythm from the perimeter either. Bogut never looked comfortable in the post and could barely straighten his arm on free throws, as his accuracy from the line sunk to an abysmal 44.2% while his true shooting percentage cratered to a Jennings-like 49.6%. Hint: that's awful, particularly for a big man who never shoots outside ten feet. Jennings also deserves his share of blame for the offense's struggles, though a misfiring Salmons and the ill-fitting Maggette were symptomatic of a team-wide inability to create or make shots. On a positive note, Jennings has only just turned 22 and Bogut has had a full summer to rest his elbow, so there's still reason to hope for significant improvement.  

Q: If there is no season in 2011-12, how is your team set up for 2012?

The Bucks' major pieces are all signed through the next two seasons, so hypothetically losing this season -- while massively aggravating -- wouldn't dramatically alter the makeup of the roster for 2012. Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and Keyon Dooling all expire after this year, but the reality is that Ilyasova and Dooling have already been agitating for a change of scenery, and the Bucks may accommodate them before they play another game in Milwaukee.

Counting June draft picks Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer, the Bucks currently have ten players and around $47 million on the books for 2012, including both Bogut and Jennings. Whether those pieces are enough to build a winner -- by which I mean a 45-50 win playoff team, not a 60-win title contender -- is an open question that the Bucks would be well served to figure out sooner rather than later. As has been the case for much of the last decade, the Bucks continue to tread in the dangerous no-man's land of the NBA: not good enough to contend for a championship, not bad enough to land a transcendent player in the draft. 

Q: If you could make one change to the NBA's new CBA, what would it be?

Herb Kohl has been among the league's more vocal proponents of more significant revenue sharing, and in a market like Milwaukee it's no secret why. Kohl has been willing to lose money in order to spend up to the luxury tax in recent years, but the Bucks are undoubtedly among the teams that would stand to benefit most from the expanded revenue sharing promised by David Stern and company. Ideally that would come via a true hard cap mechanism, but given the current tenor of negotiations a more punitive luxury tax (which might serve much the same purpose) seems more likely. In that sense the new CBA should help make basketball more sustainable in Milwaukee, though the reality is that it won't mean much unless the Bucks manage their assets wisely and start winning games.     

Q: Will Coach Scott Skiles make it through four full seasons coaching the same team for the first time?

In a word, no.

But only because no one will be playing a "full season." The truth is that Skiles, whose contract the Bucks extended through 2012-13 last October, is a good bet to be around this time next season.

While Skiles played five straight seasons with the Magic throughout the middle of his career, his only two previous coaching stints lasted just 2+ seasons in Phoenix and 3+ seasons in Chicago. The consensus is that his demanding, defense-focused style burned players and teams out.

True, the 2000-01 Suns were the second best defensive team in the NBA and a 51-win club one year, and by the next year they were under .500, middle-of-the-road defensively, and breaking up with Skiles. And the 2006-07 Bulls transitioned from having the best defense in the NBA and 49 wins to firing Skiles on Christmas Eve the next year. In both of those scenarios, expectations were perhaps too high coming off surprisingly successful seasons. If that sounds familiar, it is because that same scenario played out last season for Skiles and the Bucks. Only this time management, after bringing in ill-fitting players like Maggette and Douglas-Roberts, stuck with their coach. The personnel moves, along with the injuries, gave Skiles a mulligan in 2010-11. Management is still firmly in Skiles' corner for the time being.

Not that anyone is expecting the team to contend for a championship, but for all of the defensive team success, Skiles is not a defensive coordinator. So just as he rightly deserves a share of praise for the defense, he is equally accountable for any offensive ineptitude. And while he has a history of finding comfort in unproductive veterans (see Malik Allen and Chris Duhon), the former point guard also started the brash Brandon Jennings from Day One as a 19 year-old rookie. Skiles has had the opportunity to shape the offense in his mold, and it is time to see results. This is now Year 3 for Jennings and Year 4 for Skiles, and while they might go down (or leave town) together one day, we doubt that day will be in the next year.