Back in September, predicting the Milwaukee Bucks would have 30 wins at the All-Star break would have been absurd. Yet Jason Kidd's basketball team surprised in November, hung tough through a brutal December, and hit the all-star break playing some of the best basketball in the league. Despite season-ending injuries to Jabari Parker, Kendall Marshall and Damien Inglis, as well as the ongoing absence of Larry Sanders, the Bucks are seven games over .500 (30-23) and sit at No. 6 in the Eastern Conference.
With the midway point of the season here -- giving Bucks players a well-deserved nine-day vacation -- the Brew Hoop staff is handing out our midseason awards based on what we've seen in the first half of the year. Feel free to add your own input in the comments below. We promise our awards are better than whatever The Grammys gave out.
Aron Yohannes: I think Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves some recognition for this title, but Brandon Knight's still scoring the basketball well (17.8 per game) and efficiently while averaging a team-best 5.4 dimes per contest. He went into the break recording five or more assists in his last 14 straight games. It would be nice to have him cut down on those turnovers, but he's produced consistently for Milwaukee shooting and driving the basketball. They managed to win 30 games with a shortened roster, but they wouldn't be nearly the same team without him.
Dan Sinclair: It's the slightest bit tempting to put Khris Middleton here, because his defense has improved so much and he's been a legitimately terrifying catch-and-shoot weapon for the Bucks, but I just can't overlook Brandon Knight. He's carrying a huge load on offense while maintaining solid efficiency and contributes all over the court. I just wonder, what is the deal with those on-off splits?
Sam Smith DOWN WITH CONTINUITY.
Eric Buenning: While the easy selection would be Brandon Knight, I'm going to be that guy and give the most "valuable" player award to Jared Dudley. Thought to be just another veteran to get in the way of development of the youngsters, Dudley has actually emerged as a leader on and off the court. Have you heard him barking out defensive orders from the scorer's table or weakside corner? It's incredible. The guy--now healthy--just is a smart player, and I think it has done wonders for the team. Dudley wins.
Frank Madden: Knight is the obvious choice, and perhaps the correct one. Giannis is the fun choice, and increasingly a legitimate one. But, unexpected as it might seem, Khris Middleton might actually be the best choice despite raw numbers that don't necessarily jump off the page. After leading the Bucks in minutes a year ago, Middleton has quietly developed into one of the league's most efficient three-and-D specialists, adding an increasingly useful post game and using his length and active hands to become one of the best defenders on the league's second-ranked defense. He's the common thread in all of the Bucks' most successful lineups, he's sixth in the entire league in real plus-minus, and his size and versatility at the shooting guard spot gives the Bucks the ability to switch everything on defense while posting up smaller guards on the other end. I'm not sure how much better the 23-year-old Middleton can get -- his lack of top-flight ball-handling and explosiveness are limiting factors -- but I'm hoping we find out in Milwaukee.
Corey Gloor: I admire my colleagues trying to branch out in certain places, but it's Brandon Knight. Can it be frustrating to watch him? Absolutely, he's so much better shooting in off-the-ball situations than he is when he's in control. And he tends to pull up for jumpers a bit too much. But when he's got the offense in a flow, and especially in the fast break, Knight has been the key to this team playing as well as they have been.
Mitchell Maurer: I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that a coach is eligible for an MVP award if they were active as a player in the past 3 years. Wait...no? We can't give it to Jason Kidd? Ok, fine.
The clear winner is Brandon Knight. Giannis is the crowd favorite and Middleton is certainly a surprise, but Knight's progression from "Best Player on a Bad Team" to "Best Player on a Shockingly Good Team" and his efficiency make him the pick here.
JJ Bersch: If you want a rational answer here, you go with Brandon Knight. But the Bucks have doubled their win total before the All-Star Game, so, well, rationality’s been thrown out of the window into the middle of the Autobahn where it was hit by a screaming Daisy Buchanan only to bounce along a path of jagged rocks and used syringes into a pond filled with tiger sharks and actual tigers hungry for a taste of rationality’s blood. Rationality has no place in a conversation that’s changed from "Will the Bucks be any better this year?" to "How far in the playoffs can this team go (without Jabari Parker AND Larry Sanders)?"
So, the MVP at this point in the season is Giannis. Sometimes the MVP is the best player in the league (check the last few seasons), and sometimes the MVP is the player who best encapsulates the narrative of the season (check the MVP candidates this year). Giannis is not the best player on the Bucks (although this may not be true for long), but who better to serve as the figurehead for this goofy, improbably successful season than the Greek Who Keeps On Growing And Getting Better At Basketball? Answer: No one.
Aron Yohannes: The bench. The second unit has helped the starting group a ton (35.1 points per game from the bench, ranking seventh in the league), and they'd be ranked even higher if not for the fact that injuries forced a number of reserves into starting roles. Granted, anything could've been better than last year's group, but having a healthy Jared Dudley and re-juiced O.J. Mayo are two of the many things from the bench squad that have jumped out to me so far this season.
Dan Sinclair: The defense. New coach, new system, young roster, limited size, none of it has mattered. The Bucks have built and sustained an elite defense under Jason Kidd built around many of the same principles Kidd tried to implement in Brooklyn, but with much better results. With few exceptions, the players can be counted on to bring tremendous effort on defense, and that's perhaps the biggest reason they won 30 games before the All-Star break.
Eric Buenning: I'm going to combine Aron and Dan's answers into a larger one. My biggest surprise is how quickly Kidd has gotten just about everyone to buy in. I never expected to see this type of turnaround so soon, and I think that credit goes to Kidd and his guys for (seemingly) being just about unanimously on the same page since training camp. Did any of you expect this to click so soon? C'mon be honest. We'll know if you're lying.
Frank Madden: I never thought Kidd could coax this kind of defense out of his roster, especially with Larry Sanders mostly MIA and a heavy reliance on the undersized Dudley at power forward. Consider that last year's squad under Larry Drew was a defensive dumpster fire, most of the personnel was a carryover from a year ago, and Kidd didn't exactly have a record for defensive wizardry in Brooklyn (20th in 13/14). But Kidd's creativity in using the Bucks' length has paid huge and immediate dividends; they hustle and scramble as well as any team in the league, and Dudley, Middleton and Antetokounmpo starting at the 2-4 spots has allowed the Bucks to switch almost anything. It's not a conventional approach, but it's perfectly tailored to the Bucks' personnel.
Corey Gloor: While the bench production has been stellar, no one is really playing outside of a role that suits them or stretching the limits of what they have done in the past. Mayo and Dudley can hit outside jumpers. Pachulia and Ilyasova (when healthy) can stretch the floor offensively. But to see them play as stout of defense as they have, especially when none of those guys are particular defensive world beaters, has been nothing short of phenomenal. So, the biggest surprise is quite simply the coaching of Jason Kidd, to get this team to play so well as a team, without asking any of them to do too much out of the ordinary.
Mitchell Maurer: Can we say everything? The most optimistic of fans would have picked us to win 30 games on the season. We've done that with 29 games left to go. The team would have to finish the year 11-18 just to end up at .500...when we won 15 games all of last season. The guys above covered the litany of reasons for that (the bench, the defense, the return of previously-DOA veterans), so I guess the biggest surprise to me is how quickly Milwaukee fans have become aware of the team's success. I've gotten messages and calls from guys who have never paid attention to the Bucks before, asking me if they should get tickets to a game.
OF COURSE YOU SHOULD ARE YOU NUTS GO SEE GIANNIS DO THINGS IT'S GREAT.
JJ Bersch: The Bucks are good.
Do I really have to make it any more complicated than that? I mean, the Bucks are good! They were so bad last year and now they are good! Jabari Parker tore his ACL (and our hearts by proxy) and the Bucks are still good! The Bucks are going to the playoffs and it’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing!
Aron Yohannes: I really wanted to see Parker and Giannis grow through the season together. All of the injuries in general have been disappointing, but at least they haven't derailed them.
Dan Sinclair: The injuries. It's been brutal to see players, especially young guys, go down with serious injuries. We've been denied months of Jabari and Giannis running fast breaks, or Kendall Marshall dishing to John Henson on the pick and roll. Hopefully everyone makes full recoveries.
Eric Buenning: Knee ligaments and feet. Legs, really.
Frank Madden: The development of Jabari and Giannis should have been the franchise's top priority going into camp, all of which made the image of Parker being carried into the locker room on December 15 in Phoenix such a crushing disappointment. You knew it was bad almost immediately, so even when Khris Middleton's buzzer-beating three rattled, bounced, and fell through the net later that night I could barely muster any excitement. A couple days later our worst fears were confirmed, putting Jabari's NBA development on pause and giving him a long (but hardly insurmountable) road back to full health.
Corey Gloor: Injuries, injuries, injuries... obviously. But here's where I will branch out from my colleagues and go to Larry Sanders. With the news emerging that the organization and the much-maligned center are working on a buyout, it brings to end an insanely promising career for Sanders in Milwaukee. He was so good two seasons ago, and that ferocious defensive beast is still there. We all know it. But the Bucks just cannot keep crossing their fingers and hope that Sanders gets his problems sorted out. They need to progress forward. I certainly hope Larry Sanders can do the same.
Mitchell Maurer: In a season rife with surprising successes, there seems to be a similar number of disappointments, but the biggest one by far is Jabari Parker's knee injury. The 2nd overall pick tearing an ACL is a huge blow, no matter how positive the year has been overall. Seeing him develop alongside Giannis, Knight, Henson, and Middleton would have made me even more giddy than I already am.
JJ Bersch: All that being said, the Bucks are good, but, well, they could be better.
I really miss watching Jabari Parker play basketball. I’m joking to keep from crying.
Area of Improvement:
Aron Yohannes: The Bucks are still struggling to close out games in the final five to six minutes, with their fourth quarter scoring margin just 23rd in the league. It's been a frequent topic for Kidd at his post-game press conferences, and it hasn't been lost on the players in the locker room either. As Mayo said after the win at home against Boston, it's something they're still working on.
"We're getting better," Mayo said,"it's an area we'd like to get better in."
It's strange trying to find the root of the problem. Is it defensive? Is it offensive? How the Bucks close out games only becomes more important in the second half with seeding implications on the line along with possible playoff games.
Dan Sinclair: I'd like to see the Bucks shoot more threes. They're 23rd in three-point attempt rate despite having four active players shooting at least 35% from behind the arc. As a team, Milwaukee is third in the league in three-point percentage but just 20th in total makes. They've gotta take advantage of the shooters they've got if they want to get into the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Eric Buenning: Turnovers. The Bucks turnover issue has improved recently, but it's still a ways away from being cured. It doesn't just affect the offense. If they're coughing it up frequently, then the Bucks can't set up their potent defense the way they'd like, and then BOOM you have one of those stressful second half runs from the opponent that have us all super stressed out again. Like I said, they are improving, but if they want to cause damage in the playoffs and beyond, they'll need to see a sizable reduction in the turnover department.
But hey. Keep forcing them. I have no problem with that!
Frank Madden: I wish the Bucks weren't quite so terrible on the defensive boards, though to a large extent that comes with the territory when you play small lineups that trap and are often scrambling to challenge shots. So in terms of team improvement I'd probably focus on the Bucks' turnover issues; though they've been phenomenal at forcing turnovers, they also cough it up themselves at the 2nd highest rate in the league. They're already an impressive seventh in eFG%, so they know how to make shots. Now they just need to hold onto the ball long enough to get more of them.
The good news? Despite those ongoing issues they managed to be right about average in offensive efficiency in December and January, and they've jumped up to 11th in the league in six February games in part due to a major improvement in team turnover rate (11th). So keep doing that, OK guys?
Corey Gloor: The fourth quarter woes stand out to me, too, especially since they've won so much of late but never comfortably like they should have. With how much these guys have been forced to play due to injuries, could they just be getting burned out late in games? I opined that this team, despite being on a roll, needed this All Star Break badly. Maybe it's the lack of having a true "go-to" offensively, and the Bucks get mired in one-and-done possessions since they can't rebound. I don't know. To me, this is the biggest component to how deep a run they make this spring.
Mitchell Maurer: Defensive rebounding: with a team that embraces small-ball like the Bucks do, something's gotta give. That something is the offensive glass, where Milwaukee ranks 27th allowing nearly 12 per game. This is one of the main reasons the team struggles against players with multiple competent bigs (Detroit, Chicago, Washington all come to mind), and will really limit the team both this year and in the years to come.
Of course, where's the answer to this problem? Zaza does his best, Larry is all-but-gone, Henson weighs almost as much as an average house cat*, and JOB is JOB. Luckily the guards on this team rebound well for their position, but this is a lingering issue that I think takes center-stage in the front office during the offseason.
JJ Bersch: The line to get a $3 can of Coors Light is always far too long. What starts as a fiscally responsible but morally and physically questionable decision becomes a dark dance with the murky existential thoughts we constantly keep at bay to function as normal humans in a society that outcasts those who know too much. Cut the lines at the Bradley Center. Keep our citizens sane.
(Everyone above me makes valid points, too.)
One bold statement:
Aron Yohannes: Chicago will drop off in the second half, allowing the Bucks to move up past them in the East.
Eric Buenning: Giannis will become a decent three-point threat by the end of the season.
Frank Madden: Before the end of the season, Giannis will record his first career triple-double AND his first 30-point game.
Dan Sinclair: The Bucks will take their first-round playoff opponent to seven games...is that bold? [Editors note: kinda bold]
Corey Gloor: The Bucks win their first round playoff series. [Bolder!]
Mitchell Maurer: The Bucks will not only win their first round playoff series, but push their opponent to six games in the second round. [Even bolder?]
JJ Bersch: The Bucks are going to beat the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs and Drake will move to Milwaukee. [THE BOLDEST!]