The Milwaukee Bucks' 2014-2015 season is in the books and now we're all gearing up for a surprise playoff run. A matchup with the Bulls deserves every bit of your attention, but before we leave the past behind entirely, we're going to count down the top five biggest stories of the regular season. For now we'll limit it to on-court stuff only -- new ownership, rebranding, and the developing arena project are all critical, but much harder to qualify and quantify. These are the stories that defined the team this season and will shape the organization for years to come. Some good, some bad, but every one important.
5. Defensive turnaround fuels hot first half
The Bucks wouldn't even be in this position if it wasn't for the dramatic improvement of their defense under new head coach Jason Kidd. Kidd took a team that was utterly listless under Larry Drew, lacking purpose or passion, and turned them into an athletic frenzy of arms that pressures the ball and creates opportunistic turnovers. The defensive metrics reflect something much more basic as well -- under Kidd, the Bucks just play hard. They may still be lacking in skill and overall talent level, but this is a team that's going to make it tough on every opponent by sheer force of will.
4. Khris Middleton's breakout season
Perhaps no single player has exceeded expectations -- or been more instrumental to the team's success -- than Khris Middleton. And no single number exemplifies that improvement more than Middleton's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Even if you don't completely buy plus-minus as a reliable quantitative metric, going from one of the worst in the league last year to eighth in the entire league in any metric is simply stunning. Oh, and he's eighth in overall RPM, too, nestled among perennial all-stars plus a few major up-and-comers like Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. It's not to say Middleton is as good as them, but there's something to be said for keeping good company.
In short, Middleton isn't just a nice guy to have on the team. He's critical to the Bucks' current success, particularly with Knight's departure and the floor-spacing void it left. Not surprisingly, Middleton features in nearly all of Milwaukee's top lineups and has been their most reliable offensive weapon this season. His breakout has been a welcome surprise and a boon to the team's performance, and now the Bucks have a major decision to make in the offseason. Can they afford to lose somebody who has become so invaluable? What's the right number for a new contract for a player with one season of big-time production? Sound familiar? Everybody knows the risks, but that doesn't make them any easier to manage.
3a. Jabari Parker's season-ending injury
Parker has been out so long, sometimes it's easy to forget he's even on the team. That's a pretty disappointing fact for the #2 overall pick, a guy who was supposed to personify the new era of Bucks basketball. Parker's injury robbed the team of an exciting and talented young player right as he was starting to get his legs under him. It was terribly bad luck for the team and an even greater letdown for Parker himself.
It's hard to say exactly how the season might have unwound had Parker played the full year, but the real concern isn't immediate. Losing Parker for the season was a huge bummer, but things will be alright as long as he comes back with no lasting ill-effects. Hopefully his injury hasn't altered his path to stardom for the Bucks but merely delayed it.
3b. Giannis takes a step toward stardom
Bonus story! For all the misery Parker's injury brought to Bucks fandom, the continued development of Giannis Antetokounmpo was there to pick us back up. Giannis took major steps in nearly every facet of the game this season, developing into one of the team's best rebounders, a strong defender, and sometimes a deadly scorer. There were more highlight plays, but a lot more controlled production to go with it.
Nothing was more encouraging than Giannis' growth as a scorer in the halfcourt. Where he once got buckets thanks to raw athleticism and size, Giannis was now leveraging those same qualities in consistent, targeted fashion. He worked smaller defenders in the post and blew by big men on the perimeter. He expanded his range and improved his ball handling. And he showed the ability to switch from something resembling playful exuberance to focused intensity. Giannis looked like a player who was eager to stop being a beginner and start being a killer, if I may adapt some extreme language. And it was a blast to watch.
He's still got a ways to go, but conventional wisdom says year three is when future stars show their true colors. If this one is any indication, it's gonna be a fun year.
2. Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams, and the point guard tango
We're still not quite sure what to make of Brandon Knight. This was undoubtedly his best season as a pro, putting up big numbers as the alpha dog for the Bucks' offense. He was popular, he was a good teammate, and was finally putting that DeAndre Jordan dunk behind him.
And then he got traded. At, like, the last possible moment. All sorts of questions were immediately raised. Were the Bucks still committed to a playoff run? How much did Knight's upcoming free agency have to do with the trade? Could the team hold things together without him?
These questions have been answered to varying degrees, replaced by "what if" hypotheticals and speculation. For every person happy to see Milwaukee sell high on a player who might not have been a great long-term fit, there was another person frustrated with the team seemingly kicking the can down the road, perhaps needlessly.
It's very possible Knight's long-term replacement still isn't on the roster. Michael Carter-Williams has played well lately, but his limitations are well established. The Bucks have some time to evaluate him, which is certainly helpful, but they don't want to be flipping point guards year after year while the rest of a young roster comes into its prime. One way or another, the Knight trade will be looked back on as a turning point in the Bucks' rebuilding plan, as clear a change in policy as we've seen in some time.
1. Larry Sanders leaves the NBA behind
In terms of sheer shock value, nothing topped this. Last year's nightmare season was thought to be nothing more than an aberration for Sanders, who at one time looked like the next great defensive big man in the NBA and a fixture in Milwaukee's future. That nightmare, as it turned out, was all too real for Sanders himself, as personal issues that were very real threatened to derail not just his career in professional basketball, but his entire life.
It was a stunning decision as viewed from the outside, to leave millions of dollars on the table and walk away from a sport everyone assumed Larry was passionate about. But as we came to understand his decision a bit more over the weeks, it became clear that stepping back from basketball was the only way he could effectively deal with the troubles we couldn't comprehend.
There were a lot of charged emotions in the aftermath. Frustration and anger that Sanders would just abandon his teammates, if such a charged word was fair to use. Sadness that he couldn't find the support he needed while continuing as a member of the organization that was so excited to have him. And ultimately we were all left wondering where things go from here.
In the end, the real on-court impact of Sander's departure was muted. Milwaukee's defense hasn't seemed to suffer any real drop-off without him, and CBA rules will minimize the burden on the cap sheet. These days, we don't spend much time thinking about Larry, and maybe that's too bad. It's unfortunate it took a bad situation to remind us that the players we watch are still people, with their own troubles and demons. Sanders was an electric player at his best, a fiery character with perhaps a bit more volatility to him than you'd prefer out of a Face of the Franchise. But he embraced Milwaukee when it seemed like nobody else would, and it'll always be tough thinking about what could have been.
(Note: Steve and Frank recorded a season-in-review podcast, if you're into that sort of thing)