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Milwaukee Bucks 15-16 Season Preview: The training wheels are off for Jason Kidd and the young Bucks

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The Bucks' future is bright. But can they deliver another leap this season?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks

Last Year's Record: 41-41

Key Losses: Ersan Ilyasova (trade), Zaza Pachulia (trade), Jared Dudley (trade)

Key Additions: Greg Monroe (Free Agent), Greivis Vasquez (trade), Rashad Vaughn (Draft), Chris Copeland (Free Agent), Jabari Parker (returning from season-ending injury), Damien Inglis (didn't play at all due to injury)

What significant moves were made during the off-season?

The Bucks' Christmas arrived in early July when free agent big man Greg Monroe shocked many by choosing Milwaukee over the brighter lights of New York and Los Angeles. But big market surprise not withstanding, the basic logic made sense. While the Lakers and Knicks are attempting to rebuild around aging stars, the Bucks are younger, more talented and already playoff-worthy. Throw in the re-signing of Monroe's friend, former teammate and all-around very good basketball player Khris Middleton to a five-year, $70 million deal and it's no surprise Monroe is now a Buck. It won't translate into title contention this year (or next), but the big picture is decidedly promising -- and the addition of a scoring center fills a major hole.

Overall, Monroe's interior scoring and passing should provide a major upgrade offensively over Zaza Pachulia, who not coincidentally was dealt to Dallas for essentially nothing only a couple weeks after Monroe signed for three years and $51 million. That's not to say Pachulia's value will be easily replaced, however, especially on the defensive end. As much as he struggled around the rim -- on both ends -- Zaza's combination of brains and brawn largely made up for his lack of traditional rim protection skills. He ate up space, banged with opposing bigs and covered enough ground to let Milwaukee's athletic wing defenders do their thing, in the process providing a model for Monroe to follow as well.

More surprising was the Bucks' decision to ship glue guy extraordinaire Jared Dudley to Washington for essentially nothing, though it became a bit more understandable when it was revealed that a) Dudley would need surgery on his ailing back (good news: he could be ready for the start of the season) and b) the Bucks were trying to land him in a good situation. Milwaukee later signed former Knick and Pacer Chris Copeland to fill Dudley's role as bench floor-stretcher, though he'll be hard-pressed to duplicate the two-way (plus locker-room) impact Dudley had when healthy last season.

The Bucks were also active on draft night, selecting then-18-year-old UNLV shooting guard Rashad Vaughn 17th and dealing their 2014 second rounder and a 2017 lottery-protected first from the Clippers to Toronto for playmaking guard Greivis Vasquez. That's a rather steep price to pay for a bench combo guard with an expiring deal, though you can also understand why the Bucks had their eyes on him. Vasquez's combination of size, passing and spot-up shooting complements the Bucks' existing personnel quite nicely, giving Kidd another playmaker to either play with Michael Carter-Williams or, you know, replace him. MCW's starting gig appears safe for now, but that could change if he struggles early on. Stay tuned.

As for Vaughn, he's been the biggest surprise of the Bucks' preseason to date, averaging 17 points per game while hitting 51% of his shots overall and better than 43% from deep. No one's expecting those numbers to last, but he appears far more ready to contribute than anyone expected on draft night. It's a bit early to proclaim him John Hammond's latest draft steal -- especially given Bobby Portis' eye-popping numbers for the Bulls -- but early indications are promising.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

The Bucks' turnaround was predicated on their defense, as Kidd and assistant Sean Sweeney implemented an overloading scheme that trapped, smothered and baited opponents into turning it over on a league-high 16% of possessions. Not that they were perfect -- they also conceded a ton of second chances (24th in DREB%), fouled a bunch (25th in free throw rate), and were in the bottom third of the league in both opponent threes made and attempted. Still, their ability to turn opponents over, limit their chances in transition and at the rim, and contest shots all over the floor helped Milwaukee improve from dead last defensively under Larry Drew to an out-of-nowhere second overall under Kidd. That won't be easy to replicate, but a big regression would also be a surprise.

Otherwise, the Bucks' bench largely carried them in November and December of last year, and their depth once again figures to be a key strength this year. Though they're short on traditional power forward types, they have a ton of options up front as well as in the backcourt, running two to three deep at almost every position. That could lead to some interesting playing time battles over the course of the season, but it will also insulate Kidd's club against injuries -- much like last season, when they didn't miss a beat despite losing their staring power forward (Jabari Parker) and center (Larry Sanders) around Christmas time. With Parker unlikely to play major minutes early in the season that figures to mean expanded opportunities for Copeland as well as 2014 second round pick Damien Inglis, in addition to shifting more minutes to Giannis Antetokounmpo at power forward and Khris Middleton at small forward.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Spacing would be the obvious answer. While Kidd has some shooters on the bench, the departure of Ilyasova and return of Parker means that Milwaukee's projected starting five has only one guy with proven range from beyond the arc (Khris Middleton). Part of that traces back to Kidd -- he had Jabari and Giannis on short leashes in terms of threes last season, a restriction he appears ready to ease this fall. Still, opponents will presumably dare the Bucks' starters to hurt them from outside, putting major pressure on someone from the Bucks' young core to prove themselves more capable from behind the arc.

Considering Carter-Williams is three years older and has many more NBA bricks already to his name, I'm guessing Parker and Antetokounmpo will be the ones left to pick up the slack. Still, it bears noting that the Bucks were damn good with Carter-Williams on the floor last season (+6.4 pts/100), a fact that's often overlooked when attempting to diagnose the Bucks' 11-18 record after the trade deadline. As much as the Bucks struggled offensively after the departure of Brandon Knight, the data suggests the root cause was their injury-riddled bench rather than the starters.

The other big question will be how Monroe and Parker (when he's back) hold up defensively. Jabari's added strength should help him better cope with NBA fours in the post, though his shortcomings last year had more to do with general rookie cluelessness than anything else. The Bucks' defense was dramatically worse with him on the court a year ago (+5.8 pts/100 conceded), so hopefully he spent a good amount of time in the film room. As for Monroe, he wasn't terrible when he wasn't chasing quicker power forwards in Detroit, a scenario he should avoid as a (hopefully) full-time center in Milwaukee. Still, no one will confuse him for a defensive anchor.

What are the goals for this team?

In terms of the standings? Don't take a step back.

In terms of player development? Take a major step forward.

Having won 50 games and advanced past the first round just once (!) in the last 25 years, the Bucks are suddenly fashionable again and dealing with a rather new and unexpected phenomenon: expectations. After suffering through a franchise-worst 15-win season two years ago, the last 16 months saw the Bucks land new owners, a new head coach, new jerseys, funding for a new arena, and a brand new mindset that paid immediate dividends last season. Moreover, their 26-win improvement was made all the more remarkable given the loss of Parker to a knee injury and Larry Sanders to greener non-basketball-playing pastures in December. Even if you thought the Bucks would be dramatically better last season, you never thought it would happen the way it did.

The addition of Monroe and return of Parker thus has many fans dreaming of a leap into the East's top-four this season, and if everything hits right that might be feasible. Still, the league's annals are littered with teams young and old that struggled to make the leap from good to great, and fundamentally the Bucks are still a very young team that's relying on depth more than outright star power. So my guess is that the Bucks' real ascension is still a season away, with this season more about laying the groundwork for greatness than actually reaching it with any consistency.

And that's OK.

The history of ACL injuries suggests Parker is unlikely to help them significantly over the next few months, and beyond that it's difficult to project how all the moving parts will add up. It should still be enough to snag one of the East's lower playoff seeds, though every team chasing them in the standings figures to have improved over the summer. Losing three key veteran contributors in Pachulia, Ilyasova and Dudley will mean more opportunities for young players to prove their worth, but the flip side is the unknown of whether youngsters like Inglis and Vaughn can make a positive impact while they're learning on the job.

In that regard, the trajectory of Giannis and Jabari is absolutely essential, as both are being counted on to develop into star-caliber players in the not-too-distant future. If it happens, the Bucks will eventually win 50 games and contend for something beyond a low playoff seed. If it doesn't...well, then they'll likely need a new plan. With Parker working his way back slowly, the pressure figures to be on Antetokounmpo to drive the Bucks' hype train early in the season, and if last season was any indication he's ready for an expanded role -- hopefully something like 15-17 points (with good or better efficiency) and eight boards per night. That would allow Parker to take his time ramping up to major minutes, something we'll hopefully see by the New Year. And if they can both begin looking like future studs by the second half? Well, things will be looking very bright in Milwaukee no matter where they land in the standings.