Although we've seen enough of the Milwaukee Bucks by now to have a fair handle on the team, we're still suffering from something like a lack of guidance in our analysis. We know some strengths and weaknesses, but there are times when we don't know what the Bucks are even trying to do, or who they're relying on to do it. Lineups have been fluid, the defense has been all over the place, and team's young talent has struggled to mesh with any consistency. That's a problem, for them at least as much as for us.
So let's step back a bit and refocus. The first step in problem solving is identification. That's what we're going to do. What follows will not be an attempt to illuminate some previously-unseen shard of knowledge about the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead, we're going to identify the questions that we feel are most important at this very moment, and tell you all why those questions are important. These are the things we're watching every game, tracking every week, considering every time we look to the future of the organization. A little reorientation every now and again is warranted in any case, and certainly so when things get...out of whack.
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo's "passivity" on offense a real thing, and can the Bucks do anything about it?
Giannis is the Bucks' most effective and versatile weapon on offense right now. He's also third on the team in usage rate (per ESPN.com), chewing up a chunk of his team's possessions just a touch larger than the Thunder's Enes Kanter. That's crazy. But what's the cause? Is it his teammates? Greg Monroe and Michael Carter-Williams are the only two ahead of him. Is it an offensive scheme reluctant to turn things over to Giannis as a primary creator? Or is it Giannis himself, who perhaps doesn't feel either capable or comfortable taking things into his own hands? Right now his abilities are not being maximized consistently, and that's not going to cut it given his importance to the team's current iteration and its future.
What happens if Michael Carter-Williams struggles after re-entering the starting lineup?
Jason Kidd said his benching of Michael Carter-Williams was due to him struggling mentally on the floor, and it's assumed MCW won't be playing with the reserves for much longer. But what happens if he doesn't really improve once he is eventually inserted with the starters? We haven't even reached the midway point of the season, and I still believe MCW can turn things around, but I have hard time believing Kidd will still remain patient with MCW's development if he hasn't improved a year after they traded for him. I don't think the Bucks will necessarily swing a major deal at the deadline -- particularly if MCW's value remains depressed -- but they have to consider whether or not they're going to continue grooming him as the answer at point guard if he hasn't shown them much of anything. Besides the their drop-off defensively, this is a team talented enough to make the playoffs and be better than what they are, and the urgency to have a point guard running their offense successfully is right at the top. While Carter-Williams won't hit restricted free agency until the summer of 2017, Milwaukee will likely have to make a decision sooner rather than later.
How will the Bucks be affected if Greg Monroe can't improve on defense?
This offseason, many people (Brew Hoopers and Bucks fans included) assumed that Greg Monroe might struggle with the Bucks' defensive scheme early in the season, but would ultimately get better in the Bucks scheme as the season went on. Thus far, the early results have been disheartening. The numbers are bad and the eye test might be even worse. Monroe doesn't seem to be grasping the Bucks' system and his defensive performance did not look noticeably better in Game 20 than it did in Game 1. Obviously, this is hugely problematic for the Bucks this season, but the problems could be much worse long-term.
If Monroe cannot perform better defensively, the Bucks will be unable to play high-quality defense for 25 to 30 minutes every single night because of the importance of the center in their defensive scheme. How will the Bucks' other young players react to that? Will Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo still be willing to bring it every night if Monroe cannot? Or will they get sick of it around midseason and stop playing quality defense? Will Jabari Parker ever develop at least mediocre defensive habits?
Will the defensive problems affect the other side of the basketball? Will the other players get upset if Monroe continues to get the ball on offense, but not play defense? Will tension grow between the players? Though it may seem like bad defense could only affect 50% of the game, the ramifications could be much larger as the Bucks try to move forward.
When will Jabari Parker (aka Major Cat) be allowed to audition for a lead role?
Things haven't worked out (so far) for the Bucks after last year's surprising .500 campaign. One thing that has worked out has been the return of Jabari Parker, looking more and more like himself as he rehabs a torn ACL. We've seen some impressive flashes, but has Jabari really been himself?
Minutes restriction aside (averaging 23.0 mpg with only six games >24 minutes played), the concern isn't his lack of production, but his lack of involvement, particularly for a guy who projects to be an elite-level scorer. In his 15 games this season, he has only six games with ≥10 shot attempts, and is averaging a whopping 2.0 FTA/game. Nearly 70% of his shots are coming within 10 feet, which is an encouraging sign...but it appears that he's on a similar leash offensively as early-2014-15 Giannis.
A large part of Jabari's potential lies in his offensive versatility and his ability to take midrange jumpers and the occasional three-pointer. As this season veers further and further away from a playoff berth, when will we see Kidd and Co. let Jabari loose?
Can the Bucks find a competitive formula that prominently features Jabari and Giannis?
Regardless of how good you thought the 15/16 edition of the Milwaukee Bucks would be, the one thing everyone should agree on is the central importance of developing the Bucks' two most prodigious talents. So it's no coincidence that two of the questions above revolve around getting Giannis and Jabari to figure more prominently in the Bucks' offensive attack.
But in the big picture it's not just a question of shots; it's about finding the right style and running mates on offense and defense to give them -- and the Bucks -- their best chance at success. There's no magic number of wins that makes this season a success, just as the Bucks don't have to be an elite defense or an above average offense right away. If they do, that's great. Ideally, the Bucks' defense returns to something approximating what we saw a year ago, Greg Monroe draws enough defensive attention to take pressure off everyone else, and MCW finds a way to be a low-usage, two-way playmaker who complements rather than detracts from the attack-minded tendencies of Giannis and Jabari.
But life is rarely ideal, or even black-and-white in that regard. Parker's successful return to the starting five on Saturday was a big-picture necessity; now we need to see if the Bucks' young core can compete consistently on both ends. MCW and even Monroe are important, but they can't be considered the indispensable pieces to a future Bucks contender. Do they in particular mesh with what the Bucks are trying to build, both now and in the future? If not them, who?
There's no guarantee Jabari and Giannis live up to the hype either, but for all of the Bucks' early struggles we're still seeing enough from both to imagine a consistent winner built around them in the not-so-distant future. Can they really be at their best without venturing beyond the three point line once in a blue moon? How can their skills be maximized and weaknesses mitigated in the context of the Bucks' schemes? Even if a return trip to the playoffs isn't in the cards, answers to those questions might prove just as valuable.