The Milwaukee Bucks have played hard in 2012, and they have not been mathematically eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff race, but
things are looking bleak they are now eyeing a head-to-head matchup against the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers (April 25th) as a way of clawing into the bracket.
However, the truth of the matter is that the Bucks
do not control their own destiny as much as the Sixers control theirs. Things have to break just right for them to have any chance at a postseason berth. If you've developed a nagging feeling that Milwaukee is bound for the Draft Lottery, I'm here to present a few things you can cheer for in the final six-pack of games. As a proud proponent of tanking, I'm of the mind that NBA teams are always in control of their long-term destiny as a franchise. Even if things look grim on a day-to-day and week to week basis, the opportunity always exists to seize control of the situation and focus on a brighter future.
In this case, I believe the Bucks should take the opportunity to put young players like Tobias Harris, Larry Sanders, John Leuer and even Monta Ellis into new and different roles for the final six games to get something on tape and help the front office determine whether they can each handle expanded roles next season. They should do it even at the expense of winning games. It simply matters more.
The franchise has plenty of big decisions to make in the off-season. They need to: (1) figure out how much money they are willing to offer Ersan Ilyasova, (2) whether Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are the best backcourt they can put on the court, (3) see if Larry Sanders can absorb more minutes at PF and C next season, (4) how much Ekpe Udoh will mean to their starting frontcourt, (5) find where Tobias Harris will get minutes in 2012-13 and (6) ask if Jon Leuer is going to be anything more than an end-of-the-rotation guy for Scott Skiles.
All of these issues matter, and none of them are any closer to being resolved as we head into free agency and the 2012 NBA Draft. Here is exactly what I would love to see the Bucks prioritize (even above wins) for the final sextet of games:
(1) Deliberately Put Ersan Ilyasova In Lineups Where He Is The No. 1 Or No. 2 Scoring Option. Ilyasova has made no secret that he's willing to go to the highest bidder when he reaches free agency this summer, so the only thing the Bucks should be concerned about is whether the Turkish big man can justify a salary level anywhere above the mid-level exception. Yes, he's 24 and he's having a great season...blah, blah, blah, blah. The fact of the matter is that the Bucks have seen him play in more than 260 NBA games as a third and fourth option, but now they need to know for sure that he could do more.
Anyone who gets $6-8 million annually had better be able to act as a No. 1 or No. 2 option on offense. Milwaukee hasn't put Ersan in that situation very often, and likely because they don't think it would maximize his value, but the whole basis of his value is about to change forever. Ersan has thrived as a spot up shooter and a cleanup man on offense, but if the defense keys on him is he still a threat? With no semblance of a post game and very little skill off-the-dribble, it's hard to think he would succeed in an expanded role, but why not get some game tape to evaluate. Put him on the court with Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston, Tobias Harris and Ekpe Udoh. See what happens when his number is called on isolation plays or on a catch-and-shoot look coming off screens. To waste an opportunity to test out the $8M version of Ilyasova would be a waste. There is time for a free look. Take it.
(2) Try Monta Ellis As The Lone PG On The Floor. In his first 17 games of the Milwaukee Bucks, Monta Ellis has posted a 49.6% true shooting percentage and a 45.4% effective field-goal percentage, both of which are the lowest marks since his rookie season. If the idea was that Brandon Jennings would turn Ellis into a more efficient scorer, the results are dubious at best so far. However, Monta has shown off an ability to distribute the ball and posted a healthy 5.9 assists per game and a 27.8% assist rate in those same contests. He needs an opportunity to take the floor as the primary ball-handler tasked with the specific goal of getting his teammates involved.
For years Ellis has been called upon to produce points, the results haven't been encouraging when you take things like efficiency and adjusted plus-minus into consideration. Maybe he needs to try a new role. Some of his problems stem from an adopted scorer's mentality and a willingness to take difficult shots when the ball is put in his hands for extended periods of time, but who's to say he couldn't succeed as a designated distributor on the floor. It could be a great experiment that provides some direction for John Hammond in the offseason, or it could be an inconclusive jumble of false positives and worthless game tape. Either way, the Bucks should give it a shot.
(3) Put Larry Sanders In The Starting Lineup And Play Him Regardless Of The Foul Situation. It's time to put young big man Larry Sanders on the floor against starting caliber players and find out what the wiry shot blocker can offer on a consistent basis. He has had trouble in the past with picking up fouls against physical opponents, but the world won't end if he fouls out of a game or three. Play Sanders big minutes, don't even bother to coach to the foul situation, and let Sanders show if he is smart enough and good enough to avoid fouling out while still making an impact on the defensive end.
Honestly, they might as well toss him a few post isolations on offense and pair him with Jennings and Ellis constantly to see if he becomes a better offensive player in the open floor.
(4) Put Ekpe Udoh In The Starting Lineup And Play Him Regardless Of The Foul Situation. See point No. 3.
(5) Run Offensive Sets Centered On Tobias Harris. The team's 2011 first-round pick looks more like a PF than a SF to me, at least based on his prowess in the post, but he could just be one of those tweeners that makes the most sense in very specific matchups. Try him out against SFs and PFs on defense, and let him get looks on offense that are associated with both roles. Some spot-up corner threes would be nice, but I'm talking more about putting him in post isolations -- both traditional back-to-the-basket catches and face ups -- to find out what he can do. Call some of the old Andrew Bogut plays still on the books to get a look at his scoring ability and passing awareness. The Bucks desperately need a post presence in 2012-13, so why not get a look and see if Harris can absorb some of the load before overpaying in the FA market.
(6) Get Jon Leuer On The Floor. Drew Gooden has been a pick-and-pop machine for the Bucks this season, but is there anyone who doesn't think Leuer could come close to approximating that role on offense? Give the young man a chance, and if he shows some of the ability he flashed early on in the season, maybe Hammond can get creative in trading Gooden or bold in amnestying him. Just a thought.