On Monday, ESPN's summer forecast series gave us an excuse to ponder the Bucks' 14/15 future in terms of wins and losses, a task that proved as simple in concept as it was wildly speculative in reality (for the record: ESPN's poll guessed 23 wins, our poll delivered a weighted average of 26).
And as if the topic of wins weren't debatable enough for a slow day in August, today across the SB Nation hoops network we're pondering a more existentially-charged question: "Where will your team be in 12 months?"
It's a question easily splintered by interpretation and skewed by your own inclination toward optimism or pessimism. And while there are of course answers that are comfortably vague ("uh, better than last year?") or literally correct ("still in Milwaukee!"), what we're really trying to get at are a) the major themes that we'll be watching out for this coming season and b) how they may or may not resolve themselves by the summer of 2015. Of course, assuming we'll have real resolutions to all of our burning Bucks questions is likely a bit naive, but it won't stop us from speculating now. Some food for thought:
1. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker do enough to justify their untouchable status?
No one is expecting star-level production from Giannis and Jabari just yet, but let's be realistic: the current optimism surrounding Bucks' basketball is largely an extension of the Bucks' highly-touted 19-year-olds. And while both have a long way to go before reaching the heights we hope to see them achieve, that doesn't make their continued development any less important. In other words, the emotional well-being of Bucks fans will likely be tied much more closely to the young duo's box score exploits than the team's final scores, so it's only natural to ponder how much progress would be reasonable this coming season.
Parker faces the most pressure, as he'll enter the fall as the consensus favorite to claim rookie of the year honors and score something on the order of 15-18 points per game--no small feat for a 19-year-old. Summer league offered some reminders that he's not a proven commodity just yet, and let's also not confuse raw scoring numbers with being a complete basketball player. He stands a good chance to take over the title of Bucks leading scorer from Brandon Knight, claim rookie of the year honors, and stoke our hopes that the Bucks may finally have found a big-time point producer. Still, we'll presumably also find ourselves still worrying about his defensive holes and shot selection.
Despite already having a year under his belt, Antetokounmpo may be even harder to project than Parker. Though he wasn't that inefficient as a rookie (51.8% TS), Giannis struggled to create shots and generally was a peripheral figure in the Bucks' halfcourt offense, two facts that will eventually have to change if he wants to elevate his expected ceiling from quality starter to possible all-star. All indications are that we'll see the ball in his hands much more regularly this coming season, though it's also not necessarily a lock that he'll even start.
All told, I'd hope to see a bump from last year's 15% usage rate to something closer to 20% or more, and along with it I'd expect his scoring to crack double-digits in 28-30 minutes per game (for reference, he scored 10 pts/36min last year). That certainly won't be the only metric by which to gauge Giannis' progress--you'd expect that his already healthy rebound, assist and block rates will also increase at least marginally--but ultimately he'll need to score to reach his fullest potential.
2. Which if any of the other young guys will have made a compelling case for a place in the core?
The summer of 2015 will see Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton entering restricted free agency, while John Henson will technically be eligible for an extension. All three will be looking to make their case to get paid over the course of the coming season, though they'll have to answer key questions before anyone even thinks about mentioning them in the same breath as Jabari and Giannis. Can Knight find the right balance between scoring and distributing to earn a long-term spot in the backcourt (however you want to define him)? Can Middleton prove that last season's lights-out shooting wasn't a fluke? Can Henson show he's not satisfied with being just...OK?
I'm not expecting any of them to blow us away this season, but there's also no good reason to bet against at least marginal improvements from each. Assuming his shot doesn't disappear, Middleton will hopefully put himself in line for a sub-MLE deal (note: it'd be more if he was unrestricted) as a role-playing starter or 6th man, especially if Kidd can find ways to play him alongside Giannis and Parker. Meanwhile, I expect Knight may become more productive with less pressure to score, though that may not prevent some awkward moments once he hits restricted free agency next July. The preponderance of quality point guards around the league makes it unlikely any other team will offer him big money, so until further notice I still think he has a future in Milwaukee--as long as his ultimate price tag is comfortably south of eight figures.
Henson may be the toughest to figure because of his unclear positional fit with the rest of the roster, though the two years remaining on his rookie deal also makes resolving his situation less urgent. Still, the likelihood of Parker playing most of his minutes at power forward would presumably relegate Henson to splitting backup minutes at the two big spots, especially if a rejuvenated Larry Sanders reasserts himself at the center spot.
While both Sanders and Henson block shots, they've been polar opposites in terms of both raw and adjusted plus-minus metrics, suggestive of the huge gap between their overall impacts defensively. Even last year Sanders rated as a beast in terms of defensive impact, while Henson's lack of strength and poor positioning contributed to him ranking as one of the league's worst defenders by virtually any plus-minus metric. ESPN's RPM stat--an RAPM-related metric that controls for quality of teammates and opposition--rated Sanders second among all centers with a +6.29 pts/100 impact, while Henson was dead last among 77 centers at -2.35. No matter how much or little faith you have in advanced stats, that ain't good. A new, more serious coaching staff will hopefully whip Henson into shape on both ends, but ultimately I think there's a good chance that we'll be talking about him as potential trade bait throughout 2015.
3. Which veterans will survive the season?
Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo played starring roles in the demise of the 13/14 Bucks, and the smart money says one or two of them will be gone by next summer. I mean...one of them has to be, right?
Only Sanders would seem like a potential long-term starter, though his penchant for horrible life choices has left even ardent fans wondering if he'll ever figure it out in Milwaukee. I want to say he will, but then again I said the same thing when he broke his thumb fighting a mob of club-going bros last November, and I said it again when he was suspended five games for a third violation of the league's marijuana policy last spring. You'd like to think one of these would have served as a wake-up call, but we probably shouldn't underestimate Sanders' ability to hit the snooze button either. Still, at the risk of wishful thinking I'll guess Sanders bounces back this season, though he should remain tradeable even if he hasn't exorcised all of his demons.
I'd be less bullish on Ilyasova's long-term future in Milwaukee, but so what else is new? Bucks fans have been trade machining
Rasputin Ilyasova's name for years, though an injury-plagued, season-long slump has seemingly tanked his value enough for the Bucks to have little choice but to hang onto him...at least for now. Don't ask me how Kidd finds minutes for him with Parker, Henson, Middleton and Giannis jamming up the forward rotation, but for now I'm hoping we don't spend a second straight fall bickering about Ilyasova's struggles keeping more deserving youngsters on the bench.
but not and also least there's Mayo, whom no one has seemingly heard from since he was permanently exiled to the Bucks' dog house last spring. In truth he wasn't as terrible as his disappearance might suggest, though it's also worth pointing out that he's probably never been quite as good as his raw numbers in Dallas and (early years in) Memphis suggested, either. Could he bounce back this year? Sure. Could he also end up on the back of a milk carton again? Probably.
4. Was Jason Kidd the right man for the job...and which jobs are we talking about again?
Kidd's close ties with owner Marc Lasry figure to give him a lengthy leash in Milwaukee, where he'll also face decidedly less pressure to win than he would have with an aging, overpriced roster in Brooklyn. So it may be a couple years before Kidd can really be judged as a coach, though his ability to manage a young, developing roster will be on display starting with game one this fall. As far this season goes, it may take a while for the young Bucks to acclimate themselves to KIdd's Princeton-style offense and more aggressive defense, but I'd expect improvement as the season goes on, even if the team's record once again pegs them in the top half of the draft lottery.
Of course, the standings also won't matter nearly as much as the progress the team's youngsters show over the course of the season, an altogether different standard than what Kidd became accustomed to in Brooklyn (not to mention during his playing days). Kidd also figures to have far more say in personnel matters than he did with the Nets, which begs the question of how the Bucks' decision-making will evolve now that the team's coach has the most job security of anyone in the organization. GM John Hammond and company are saying all the right things about their relationship with Kidd so far, but if push comes to shove we know who gets the benefit of the doubt from ownership. Translation: if Kidd doesn't like what he sees, the shakeup that never came this summer could well end up on the docket for 2015.
5. Another lottery pick, some cap space, and hopefully continued patience heading into free agency.
While much can change between now and next summer, the Bucks could once again have a decent but not overwhelming amount of cap space with which to work, though unlike this year they figure to have free agents whose cap holds they'll actually have to figure into their calculations. The first order of business will be figuring out what to do with Knight and Middleton, though we also shouldn't forget about the lottery pick the Bucks figure to draft in June of 2015. I won't pretend to know how the incoming freshman class will stack up historically, but there's a strong chance the Bucks will add another potential impact player, with China-bound combo guard Emmanuel Mudiay and a slew of talented big men currently projected in the top half of the lottery. If Sanders and/or Henson don't win over Kidd and company, their long-term replacement could be found in the lottery.
As for free agency, the Bucks will presumably be one year closer to relevance by next summer, which would make free agency at least slightly more relevant. Still, no one in the 2015 free agent class really jumps off the page as an obvious target for a team like the Bucks, which means that trades and the draft will remain the obvious route for the Bucks' ongoing roster makeover.
6. A new arena site will be selected and plans will be drawn up...now how are we going to pay for it?
I'm discussing the arena issue last, but that's not meant to obscure the fact that it's the single most important topic facing the future of pro basketball in Milwaukee. So yeah, the summer of 2015 figures to be kind of a big deal on that front.
For now, owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens are working to have a new arena sited by later this year, with design and engineering plans following close behind. That leaves a very narrow window for lining up financing ahead of a targeted ground-breaking in the summer of 2015, though it's precisely that sort of timetable that would be needed for a new arena to be ready by the time the Bucks' current lease expires in the fall of 2017.
But while all of that represents an admirable goal, I'd stop short of predicting a shovel ceremony in the summer of 2015. Bucks minority investor Ted Kellner's recent prediction of up to $300 million in private financing is encouraging, but it still leaves a sizable gap to meet the $400-500 million price tag of most modern NBA arenas. Can public funding be signed, sealed and delivered in a matter of months? I think eventually a deal will be done, but a few months seems really fast for a deal of this magnitude.
Thankfully, a delay in ground-breaking past next summer wouldn't be an arena deal-breaker or death knell to the Bucks' time in Milwaukee, though at a minimum we should by that time have a good idea of what a specific solution will look like, where it will go, and how much it will cost. The hard part--ie figuring out how to pay for it all--may take a bit longer.
OK, now it's your turn: where do you expect the Bucks to be in 2015?