Hang on, folks, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.
With less than a month before the NBA season begins, there's a lot to get done before Christmas Day. None are more pertinent than the frenzied free agency period set to begin on December 9th. Remember how exciting the NFL's compressed free-agency was? The NBA's could be just as fun, except times a billion.
The Bucks aren't expected to be major players in the free-agent market. With little in the way of cap room and a fairly crowded roster, options and resources are limited. But this isn't your ordinary free-agency period. The trading block is likely to be active as teams try to adjust to the new CBA, particularly the new luxury tax rules, and half the league tries to get in on a deal for a star like Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. Finally, there could be an influx of talent thanks to the amnesty provision, and the Bucks might decide to put in a bid for the services of a waived player. There are certainly a few key issues with this team that John Hammond should be looking to address, and he'll have to recapture some of that Executive of the Year swagger if he wants to get the right players for the right price.
Take a deep breath and let's dive in.
Top Need #1: Backup Center
The Bucks have a lot of tall players who are good at a variety of tall-basketball-player things, but only Andrew Bogut could be reasonably called a center. Unless Scott Skiles intends to play him 40 minutes a game (oh, don't think it hasn't crossed his mind), the Bucks need more than a patchwork backup plan--they need a real-life backup center. When Bogut hit the bench last season, the Bucks' defensive rebound rate fell by about three percent and gave up more than 3.5 additional points per 100 possessions. Opponents shot three percent better with Bogut riding the pine and the Bucks' shot-blocking percentage predictably fell.
There's obviously going to be some drop off going from Andrew Bogut to any prototypical backup center, but the Bucks shored up the backup position by cobbling together minutes from a few different players who weren't exactly at home in the pivot. Not only did this exacerbate the drop-off from Bogut, but it limited the flexibility of the rest of the frontcourt. According to 82games.com, Drew Gooden had a 19.2 PER when playing PF, but that number dropped to 13.6 when he shifted to center. Larry Sanders was enlisted at times, but he hasn't quite figured out how to rebound effectively in the pros, and it showed. Jon Brockman is 6'7".
Ideally the Bucks' backup would have some measure of inside game, simply to avoid letting the position morph into a powerless void every time Bogut checked out. In reality, there aren't many such players out there. I did a search on Basketball-Reference for centers who averaged 10+ minutes per game while starting fewer than 10; the resulting list offers a rough idea of the typical backup center skillset (ignore the face that Yao Ming snuck in there, he's trying to ruin my experiment).
Realistically, though, rebounding and defense are probably the two top priorities for whoever backs up Bogut. If Scott Skiles wants to tailor his team around defense, with Bogut the anchor of that unit, it makes sense to grab a backup with the same emphasized skills. Any offensive ability above the occasional tip-in, lob alley-oop, etc. is just a bonus.
Top Need #2: Scoring Wing
Nowhere did the Bucks struggle as badly last season as at the shooting guard position, where they compiled a net 11.4 PER. John Salmons was the steadying presence at the position, by which I mean he was there and kinda just stood around a lot. Yet he still played more minutes than any other player in Milwaukee. Scott Skiles never seemed to hesitate putting Salmons on the court, and in his defense, his defense remained quite good. In fact, for all the struggles on offense, the SG position only allowed a net 13.5 PER to opposing 2s. Now Salmons has been replaced with Stephen Jackson, and it would hardly be surprising to see the same workhorse mentality applied to Captain Jack. Assuming he really is the tenacious defender we've all heard about, earning minutes with Skiles shouldn't be difficult.
Still, Jackson can play only one position at a time, and the exorcism of Corey Maggette as part of the Bucks' draft-day deal hurt Milwaukee's depth in the wings, even if he was mostly being ignored by the later parts of the season. Carlos Delfino will be back, but he's primarily been used as a spot-up shooter. Chris Douglas-Roberts had the occasional stretch of inspired play, but he won't be back in a Bucks uniform after an uneven season.
The Bucks could definitely use another wing player capable of creating a bit of offense by himself or at the very least punishing teams that collapse on Andrew Bogut. For as consistently maligned as Maggette was, he never really lost the ability to barrel toward the basket and draw fouls (or turn the ball over; it was admittedly an all-or-nothing affair). With the resources at Milwaukee's disposal, it will likely be difficult to find much more than a one-dimensional scorer. After watching this team last season, though, a guy whose sole purpose is to simply get buckets could hardly hurt.
Secondary Need: PF Depth?
This seems a bit ridiculous considering the Bucks' roster currently looks like a fantasy basketball team, stuffed full of point guards and power forwards. But there are questions swirling around many of the PFs in Milwaukee. Is Ersan Ilyasova going to be back in Milwaukee? Can Drew Gooden stay healthy and be an effective starter? Is Larry Sanders ready to step into a more significant role? Is Jon Leuer even going to be on the team this year?
Beyond Gooden, Milwaukee doesn't really have a prototypical PF. Ilyasova and Leuer would both function best as stretch-4s. Sanders isn't a strong rebounder yet. Luc Mbah a Moute is a defensive stud whose offensive profile leaves him largely position-less. And Jon Brockman is, once again, 6'7".
Barring another major trade, any free-agent acquistions are unlikely to drastically affect what Milwaukee is capable of doing on the court. The Bucks are still going to be one of the top defensive teams in the NBA, and their future is inexorably tied to the progression of Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut. Still, a few subtle changes combined with the right personnel could be all it takes to make a return to the playoffs.