The more things change, the more things seem to stay the same for this year's iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite dropping a Houston-New Orleans back-to-back to close their most recent road trip, the Bucks of the past month do have the look of an improved basketball team. While Milwaukee's defense has shown few signs of life, their Khris Middleton-led offense has improved (and gone against the modern NBA grain) by ranking 12th in the NBA since Joe Prunty began his 17-game stint as interim head coach in late December.
Even with injuries to O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless depleting their already-thin perimeter shooting ability, the Bucks have ranked third in overall field goal percentage and eighth in three point percentage (huh?) over the past month, cobbling together a an above-average offense overall by playing to their strengths (first in point paints per game) and almost completely abandoning the three pointer (dead last in attempts). It doesn't seem like a viable recipe for building an elite offense in the long run -- of note: they're just 28th in offensive efficiency in fourth quarters -- but they are providing a weird and often effective counterpoint to the three-point craze shared by most of the league's great offenses. Much of that improvement seemed validated in a string of impressive wins over the Bulls, Hawks, Hornets and Heat, providing oxygen for the team's improbably playoff hopes.
Yet for all the encouraging signs on the court, the standings continue to provide a sobering reality check against the team's near-term ambitions. Milwaukee has been lodged in 13th place in the Eastern Conference since seemingly the Carter administration, with a 5.5 gap to eighth place less frightening than the sheer volume of teams that they'll have to outplay in the process. The good news is that the Bucks have an easier home-heavy schedule the rest of the season, and a number of teams ahead of them -- namely Miami, Charlotte, Orlando and Washington -- look particularly vulnerable of late. Three of those teams are now projected by 538 to tie for the 8th seed at 40-42, a markedly worse figure than the 42-43 win projections we've seen over the past month or two. In theory, that means the Bucks would still need a 22-14 finish to nab a playoff spot, a big ask no matter how weak the schedule might be.
With all that in mind, Steve von Horn, Eric Nehm and I got together last Thursday night to discuss the current state of the Bucks. How much can be learned from their recent signs of life? Should they be looking to make moves ahead of next month's trade deadline? And what does the season to date suggest about the Bucks' (un)willingness to move Greg Monroe in particular? Note that we recorded this before the weekend losses in Houston and New Orleans, so the Bucks' playoff odds are now slightly lower than I cited -- 11% via 538 and 3.2% via numberFire. Listen below or subscribe on iTunes here.