A lot has changed for the Milwaukee Bucks in the past few months. From ownership to the coaching staff to a big chunk of the roster, there are new faces everywhere. But for many Bucks fans, the biggest change they're still hoping to see is a revitalized commitment to building a team that can compete at the highest level. Expectations may be low this season, but there will plenty to watch as the Bucks hopefully take the first steps toward a bright future.
Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks
Last Year's Record: 15-67 (30th)
Key Losses: Ramon Sessions, Jeff Adrien, Ekpe Udoh, Larry Drew
Key Additions: Jabari Parker, Kendall Marshall, Jared Dudley, Damien Inglis, Jason Kidd
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Milwaukee's biggest move arguably had nothing to do with the roster. After almost 30 years as owner of the Bucks, Herb Kohl sold the franchise to Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry for $550 million and a promise that the new stewards would not move the team out of the city. The change in ownership provided an immediate infusion of fresh energy (plus a boatload of cash), plus a revitalized hope for future success rather than continued mediocrity.
More big changes followed. One of Lasry and Edens' first big basketball-related decisions was to pursue then-Nets head coach Jason Kidd, eventually nabbing him in return for a pair of second-round draft picks. That meant saying goodbye to Larry Drew and most of his staff, a group that led the Bucks to their worst season in franchise history. The coaching swap didn't exactly proceed smoothly, and Lasry would later admit to botching the transition and reportedly apologized to Larry Drew directly.
As far as team-building goes, the biggest move came early, when the Bucks drafted Duke forward Jabari Parker with the second-overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Parker and second-year smoothie fanatic Giannis Antetokounmpo give the Bucks a pair of young forwards with true star potential, offering hope that a talented core can finally be developed. Building for the future was a consistent offseason theme for the Bucks, who also claimed the intriguing Kendall Marshall off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers and grabbed a future first-round pick from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for taking on Jared Dudley's contract.
- Dan Sinclair
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
It's hard to look at a team that just lost 67 games and identify any real "strengths." Last year's squad finished 26th and 30th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. But there were a few areas where the Bucks were at least above-average, and they could see further improvement this year.
For starters, the return of Larry Sanders should solidify the Bucks as one of the NBA top shot-blocking teams and give a big boost to Milwaukee's interior defense and rim protection. Sanders' limited on-court time last season didn't exactly inspire confidence, but if he can regain the form that earned him a $44 million extension, the Bucks will once again have one of the NBA's top young defenders at their disposal. Combine Sanders with fellow Tubemen Antetokounmpo and John Henson, and the Bucks can run out an impressive trio of lengthy, athletic defenders to clog up the paint.
The Bucks also ranked in the top third in offensive rebounding percentage last season, another area where they could find continued success. Offensive rebounding machine Jeff Adrien is now in Houston, but Henson, Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Sanders are all strong on the offensive glass.
And while it's probably a stretch to call it a strength, Milwaukee's ability to create shots from multiple positions should be much improved this season with the addition of Parker and the continued development of Antetokounmpo. A dearth of talent and unimaginative coaching left Brandon Knight to do an excessive amount of aimless dribbling a year ago, so shifting some of the offensive initiation to the wings and frontcourt will allow the Bucks keeps thing a little more varied, if nothing else.
- Dan Sinclair
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
While there's plenty of reason for long-term optimism in Milwaukee, there's also no shortage of holes and question marks right now. Yes, Sanders is back, Ilyasova is healthy, Parker is the future, and Kidd will likely inspire far more than Larry Drew did a year ago. But we're still talking about a roster that finished four games behind the Sixers last season, in the process ranking dead last in defensive efficiency and near the bottom in offensive efficiency as well. So if you answered the question of the Bucks' weaknesses by smugly suggesting everything, well...you wouldn't be that far off.
Putting our cynicism aside for a moment, it's instructive to consider that the Bucks' biggest weaknesses are mostly driven by the uncertainty of a young, unproven roster and new staff. For starters, there's the question of identity: While we know the young guys are the future, we don't really know too much about how the Bucks will actually try to win games in the present. Not that it's all doom and gloom--Kidd's best trait in Brooklyn was his ability to adapt, and it's that trait which will hopefully allow him to make the most of a young roster that's a long way from reaching its peak potential. Stylistically, Kidd hopes to make defense the team's early point of emphasis, and he not surprisingly talked up the idea of using the team's young legs to push the tempo.
But Kidd's team in Brooklyn did neither particularly well, and neither did the Bucks roster he's inheriting. Kidd isn't adefensive specialist in the mold of Tom Thibodeau or Steve Clifford, so assuming he'll figure something out is largely a matter of faith. Sanders remains the Bucks' only proven commodity on the defensive end, and a Parker/Ilyasova tandem at power forward likely won't do much to turn around what's been a terrible defensive rebounding team in recent years. The Bucks' length and quickness does seem well-suited to adopt Kidd's blitzing coverage schemes, but at this point it's all in theory.
The same can be said offensively, where the Bucks have depth and youth, but only a moderate sense of who will play where--and who will lead the way. Can Brandon Knight develop into a more mature quarterback, or will Kidd give Marshall, Bayless and Wolters shoulder a greater role in running the offense? Are Parker and Antetokounmpo ready to carry a reasonable share of the offensive load, or will on-the-job training prove overwhelming? At this stage the questions far outnumber the answers, but hopefully we'll feel differently six months from now.
- Frank Madden
4. What are the goals for the team?
The Bucks are (finally) in a position where their goals can be about process and not results. After years and years of doing just enough patchwork to remain "competitive," the Bucks finally seem intent on taking a more organic approach to building the roster, even if the end result won't manifest itself until 3-5 years down the road. That's not to say that there still won't be goals, though. If this rebuild is going to work, there are some significant steps that have to be taken in year one.
Play the young guys
If the Bucks are going to be anywhere significant in 3-5 years, it's going to be because their young players got them there. There is plenty of potential to go around, from Parker and Giannis down to Khris Middleton and Kendall Marshall, but the only way to find out if those guys are core pieces going forward is to give them some serious burn.
Chances are that only two or three of those guys really stand out, but it's important to get big enough sample sizes on everyone so that a full assessment of their value can be made. That's not to say some of the others wouldn't stick around as ancillary parts, but in order to rebuild properly you have to find out what you're going to build around. Those answers are somewhere in that crop of youngsters, and the Bucks won't be helping themselves much if they don't find ways to play them. Thankfully there aren't many veterans who figure to get in the way, but that won't mean it's going to be easy for Kidd to find significant time for everyone.
Show some progress
If these youngsters do get a lot of minutes, it'll be important that several of them start showing signs of serious development. For Giannis and Jabari, people would like to see consistent flashes of the star potential they appear to have. For Henson, Knight, and Middleton, let's see if they are able to that they are at worst high-value bench players or quality starters--and hopefully more. Additionally, it would be a welcome sight to see Kidd showing signs that he's more than capable of teaching players and putting them in positions to succeed. For both the players and coach, there doesn't necessarily have to be a benchmark for them to reach yet. As long as there are clear steps being taken in year one, that could be considered a success.
Start establishing some type of identity
It's hard to expect a team that isn't expected to do well this season to play a certain type of way consistently. But what Kidd can do is take some time to examine his players and create some type of system that will help said players perform at a high level. The Bucks looked completely rudderless for most of Larry Drew's brief tenure in Milwaukee, and it made for a very frustrating experience for everyone. If Kidd can at least implement the skeleton of an effective system in year one, that should do wonders in trying to build something going forward.
- Eric Buenning
5. Is Brandon Knight part of the Bucks' future?
Giannis and Jabari will get the majority of the attention and headlines, and deservedly so, but this season represents a major crossroads for Brandon Knight as the Bucks de facto point guard. Knight was one of the few pleasant surprises of Milwaukee's 2013-2014 season, turning in something of a breakout campaign after a pair of uninspiring seasons in Detroit. Knight set career highs in a number of categories, including True Shooting Percentage, PER, and WS/48. Unfortunately, career-highs for Knight were mostly just average in an overall league context, and its still fair to wonder whether Knight will ever develop the requisite lead guard skills to make that coveted "leap" as a player. There was progress in his third year--Knight cut his turnover rate by almost 25% with a corresponding boost in assist rate--but was it enough?
For their part, the Bucks are taking the predictable stance, insisting that Knight is a player they'd like to keep around, but that negotiating a new contract isn't a top priority just yet. There's no rush for John Hammond and Company, who would be well served giving Knight one more year to prove himself, and in a much better situation (hopefully) than he dealt with last year. There's virtually no downside for the team: either Knight continues to improve and the Bucks can negotiate with more confidence in what they'd be getting, or he stagnates and the team moves on.
Improving his decision making will be key for Knight, and he knows it. But it's not as simple as waiting for the game to slow down, which doesn't just magically happen when a player hits 7500 minutes or some other arbitrary milestone. Knight has tremendous quickness and athleticism, but he didn't leverage those abilities into production often enough. He'll need to improve his shooting at the rim to put more pressure on defenses and open up good shots for teammates, and his pick-and-roll game needs work. Getting Sanders back on track as well as solid shooting from Ersan Ilyasova and Jabari Parker from the 4-spot would give Knight more options as a passer, something he desperately needed last year. Significant progress in his fourth year could earn Knight a big new deal and a major role moving forward. A step back could see him relegated to permanent "bench combo guard" territory.
- Dan Sinclair