The 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks are not making the NBA playoffs.
Depending on your disposition and familiarity with the new and improved Eastern Conference, that sentence probably strikes you as either painfully obvious, overly pessimistic or somewhere in between. But at the moment that's what all the data at our disposal would suggest is the case; hell, that's what just watching the Bucks for most of this season would suggest.
Despite fits and starts of competitiveness, including home wins over the Warriors and Cavaliers and an encouraging back-to-back road wins over the Pacers and Timberwolves, the Bucks remain one of the league's worst teams by most advanced metrics, with 538 pegging their playoff odds at just 3% and numberFire at around 1%. Being 5.5 games back of the eighth spot isn't on its own the scariest thing in the world, especially with 45 games remaining in the season. But being 5.5 games back of the eighth spot and ranking 13th in your conference with an offensive and defensive ranking among the league's very worst is an entirely different story. Another way to think about it: the 14-23 Bucks would need to go 29-16 over their remaining schedule to match the current projected win total for the 8th best record in the East. Stranger things have happened, but not many.
While they've underachieved relative to their overall talent, it's also naive to think the league's youngest roster has demonstrably more talent than any of the dozen teams they're currently chasing in the jam-packed middle of the Eastern Conference. Newsflash: the East is pretty good, with many of those teams loaded with young talent that's already figuring out how to turn potential into wins. For the Bucks, it's thus not just a matter of flipping a switch; it's making sense of the jumble of wiring and circuity behind it. While the roster is still stocked with potential -- a fact that shouldn't be lost -- much of it remains unrealized or unclear in terms of fit.
That might seem like reason for gloom and doom, but it shouldn't be. This season was always supposed to be about developing the Bucks' young core and figuring out where they need to go next. Most didn't expect that it would include a spot in the mid-lottery in June, but that on its own isn't a sign of big picture failure. Unintentional as it might be, the glass half full would suggest that one more trip to the lottery might be the best thing that could happen to them anyway. Besides, even if the Bucks' summer tinkering backfired on the court, last year's team was hardly on a fast-track to contention either.
That should also serve as a reminder of how little certainty the Bucks have moving forward, and the importance of using the remainder of this season as a means of evaluating where this team is as well as where it's not. That was among the topics discussed by Steve von Horn, Eric Nehm and I in a podcast we recorded a little over a week ago, and it's also an important lens through which to view what happens over the seasons remaining months.
Download this episode (right click and save)
1. Giannis and Jabari. Giannis and Jabari? Giannis and Jabari.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker remain the two most important players on the Bucks' roster, though you wouldn't necessarily know it by the roles they've played this season. While Giannis has made strides since last season, offensive consistency and foul trouble remain lingering issues that have curbed early season indications that he might make the leap this season. Hopefully he improves as the season goes on, but even maintaining his current numbers would keep him on a trajectory to become a potentially excellent player. We should of course still hope for more, but the first two months of the season suggest it's not simply a matter of the coaching staff ordaining him with more touches -- he has to remain aggressive and take open shots, too. At the tender age of 21 there's still lots of time to improve, but he'll also need it to get to where the Bucks hope he can be.
Coming off ACL reconstruction and still just 50-ish games into his NBA career, Parker's season has predictably been something of a mixed bag, though it's difficult to know how much of his struggles are simply a product of rust, inexperience and a marginal role vs. more worrying signs of long-term limitations. The obviously excellent news: the explosiveness Parker flashed as a rookie is back, and (knock on wood) he hasn't suffered any major setbacks. That's by far the most important thing that could have happened after seeing his rookie season cut short by a major knee injury.
But like most rookies he's not actually helping the Bucks win games, and it won't be easy for him to do so until he grows into a more prominent offensive role and becomes less of a liability on the defensive end. Considering his pedigree, the former figures to be only a matter of time; the latter...well, that could be more problematic. He's been a non-factor on the boards and has a penchant for reading plays poorly, all of which overshadows the fact that he has the strength and quickness to hang with a variety of guys in basic iso situations. To that end, the Bucks have increasingly used Parker against small forwards in order to limit his exposure to 1/4 pick-and-rolls, but there doesn't appear to be an easy fix, especially given Greg Monroe's limitations as a mistake-eraser on the back line. The obvious solution is simply experience, but in the meantime things could remain trying.
So stepping back to the big picture: it's true that neither Giannis nor Jabari have offered irrefutable evidence that they're locks to be the stars the Bucks need them to be, but yes, it's still very early. Antetokounmpo's two-way versatility and continued improvement would seem to give him a higher floor and arguably a higher ceiling as well. In that respect Parker has both more excuses and a longer road to go before he validates the hype that accompanied his arrival in Milwaukee just 18 months ago. There's no point in rushing anything, especially for guys who started the season as 20-year-olds, but it's only natural to expect tangible strides over the course of the season. After all, great players typically don't look like rookies for long. How do the Bucks make the most of their natural talents? And are the guys around them likely to accelerate or impede that process?
2. Khris Middleton looks like a clear keeper. But where do Greg Monroe, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson (among others) fit in the grand scheme of the Bucks' rebuild?
The Bucks' self-described core of six has been a mixed bag so far this season; overall it's difficult to imagine the roster as currently constructed will simply mature its way into a contender, but that should have been expected. Continuity is nice, but it's also a rarity in the NBA and offers no guarantees.
So let's start with the good news: after some early season struggles inside the arc, Khris Middleton has become the Bucks' most consistent wing scorer and figures to be worth every penny of his $70 million extension. He's unlikely to ever be an all-star, but he also appears to much more than "just" a three-and-D guy, a role that in itself has become extremely valuable in the modern NBA. Just look at his numbers over the past nine games: 23.2 points and 5.3 assists (!) on .543/.509/.909 shooting splits.
Considering he's still just 24 and the only viable shooter in the Bucks "core" group, Middleton would appear rather indispensable unless a superstar trade opportunity happened to present itself. As a Giannis/Jabari apologist I wish the offense wasn't so Khris-and-Greg-centric, but I can also appreciate why it's happened. They're simply better offensive players right now, and you can only spoon-feed the young guys so much -- especially when they don't always look for their shots. In an ideal world Giannis and Jabari would seize bigger roles on their own merits, but until that happens it also shouldn't make us appreciate Middleton's development any less. There's only one ball on offense, but developing a young core shouldn't be a zero sum game.
Unfortunately, the rest of the roster presents as many questions as answers. Greg Monroe has been the Bucks' most productive player by any efficiency metric, and they've been an abject disaster with him on the bench. Still, his fit on a defensively-challenged roster -- especially next to Parker -- remains an open question. Do the Bucks simply need different personnel -- preferably shooters and an athletic, rim-protecting PF -- to take full advantage of him? Considering they have none of those things, the Bucks might not like the answer, especially given the understandable fanfare that came with his decision to sign in Milwaukee. Moving your biggest ever free agent signing doesn't exactly send a good message to the rest of the league, but Monroe could certainly be open to a move to a playoff team.
Further complicating matters is Monroe's 2017 opt-out, which should accelerate the Bucks' willingness to move him if the right deal comes along. Taking a chance on a major talent like Monroe always made sense, and there's good logic in trying to make it work for at least one full season. But his ability to leave for greener pastures makes patience less of a virtue than it might otherwise be. To date there's been no indication that the Bucks are entertaining trading Monroe or any of their other young starters, but you wouldn't fault them if they thought long and hard about whether Monroe works in the grand scheme of where they're going -- or if he'll even bother to stick around 18 months from now. In other words, a Monroe deal may make sense in the grand scheme of things, but don't expect it to magically fix the Bucks' short-term problems. He leads the team in RPM (+3.03) by a longshot, only Middleton has a better net differential (+7.6 pts/100 better with him on court vs. off), and there's plenty of room for the offense to get worse without his go-to presence in the post.
Things aren't quite so urgent with MCW and Henson, with MCW on a rookie deal until 2017 and Henson a sometimes good, often frustrating rotation guy already signed to a handsome extension. Neither figures to have the value of Monroe, so it seems likely that the Bucks stand pat for the time being. The good news is that MCW has been significantly better over the past few weeks, cutting his usage rate while posting 14.2 ppg, 8.2 apg, 6.8 rpg, 2.0 spg, 1.4 bpg and just 1.8 turnovers on 52% shooting (including 3/3 from three) over the last five. That's probably not what he provides over the next three months, but his role and long-term fit will probably need to be revisited this summer. The challenging piece is figuring out if a sub-par shooter and high-turnover guy like MCW can ever excel as a starter alongside a group of guys who are similarly disinclined from the perimeter, but the irony is that for now the Bucks starters aren't actually having any problems scoring points. But what about the defense?
3. Is there anything that can salvage the Bucks' defensive dumpster fire? And what does it say about the players and coaching staff?
Bucks fans should at this point know that NBA defense is a fickle beast. After finishing last in the NBA in defensive efficiency under Larry Drew, the Bucks rocketed to elite status in Jason Kidd and Sean Sweeney's first season, only to crash and burn (and burn and burn) this season. And ultimately I think this really gets to the heart of many fans' frustration: what's so problematic with this Bucks team isn't that they're losing, but how they're losing.
Ranking near the bottom of the league defensively while getting blown out regularly, this year's squad has seemingly betrayed everything that went right for last year's 41-win team. And that gets at a funny but also rather rational aspect of the basketball fandom -- we tolerate bad offense in ways we simply don't tolerate sub-par defense. Because it's usually associated with a lack of talent rather than effort, bad offenses are weirdly relatable. People bitch about coaching and play-calling and systems and who should get more shots, but it's almost never a question of effort or character or morals. In contrast, bad defense takes on a far more pejorative tone; players must be lazy, undisciplined, lacking intensity, etc. And when that bad defense comes from a team you expect to be good defensively? Well, then it's even worse.
Unfortunately, there's no single culprit in the demise of the Bucks' defense, which makes fixing it all the more vexing. Monroe and Parker's limitations as help defenders certainly seem like poor fits -- especially compared to Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley -- but the Bucks have also defended poorly when they're on the bench. Moreover, Monroe just so happens to sport the best defensive RPM on the team (+2.52). So clearly there's a broader problem here.
Opponents are also exploiting the Bucks' overloading defense and shooting much better from deep this year, but remember that the Bucks also got smoked from three point range after the all-star break last season and still finished with the league's 2nd best defense after the break. They've tried tweaking how they rotate some of their help on ball swings, but none of that has made an appreciable difference for a team that allows the third most opponent shots in the restricted area and has fallen from 2nd to 21st in transition points allowed.
Anyway, you get the drift. Many things are going poorly on the defensive end right now, and the Bucks' play over the past few weeks suggests any hopes of a major turnaround are probably out the window. Consciously or not, the young Bucks have the look of a team intent on trying to outscore opponents at the moment, which is both entertaining (points, huzzah!) and absolutely not a recipe for winning consistently (oh...). You need only look at the current starters, who in 236 minutes together have scored over 107 points/100 possessions (that's really good!) but conceded an ugly 116 (worst among any lineup with 100+ minutes). Again, there may well be lottery silver lining to be found in that, but I'm worried it will probably take years off Sean Sweeney's life in the process.
Speaking of which, neither Sweeney nor the rest of the Bucks' coaches suddenly became bad at their jobs over the summers, but whatever adjustments they've tried to make haven't worked. Was the whole scheme gimmicky and due to drop off anyway? Probably. But the fact that they've plummeted to the bottom of the league makes it only natural to wonder whether the personnel at their disposal is simply incompatible with playing good defense. There's certainly a world where this group plays better defense, but it's also not as if the goal is be the 20th-best defense a couple years from now. If this group playing with this system can't eventually become a good defense, then what's the point?
4. What does the future hold for Jason Kidd and the rest of the Bucks' power structure?
Spoiler alert: I haven't the faintest idea.
While Kidd was back at practice on Thursday following his December hip replacement, speculation over his future plans has only increased since he's been away from the team in recent weeks. In case you missed the particulars over Christmas, here's what we posted about it two weeks ago:
In his latest podcast, Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski didn't pull any punches in suggesting Kidd's absence could be the next phase in a long-running plan to exit his coaching responsibilities and transition officially into a management role, a can of worms that Bucks management has been desperate to keep a lid on since even before Kidd officially became head coach. Not surprisingly, Woj didn't paint a pretty picture of Kidd's involvement in the Bucks' personnel decision-making over the past year, a period that has seen the Bucks get the business end of their last four trades and raise eyebrows with their selection of Rashad Vaughn on draft night. It's not to say the Bucks' roster has been irreparably harmed, but this feels like the last year where they can afford to take a step back without major consequences.
Both Kidd and GM John Hammond are signed through the summer of 2017, though we all know that doesn't preclude something happening sooner. So it figures to make for a fascinating subplot over the coming months and (maybe?) years, especially given the circumstances of Kidd's arrival in Milwaukee, the team's personnel moves since then, and the curiously quiet departure of assistant GM David Morway over the summer. Would Kidd really step down as coach in order to formally lead basketball operations? Given everything we've seen from him so far, is there any expectation he'd be good at it? And what does that mean for Hammond, whose decision-making authority has been perpetually muddied by external forces?
Ultimately, the Bucks don't have to do anything at this point, though a step backward in the standings will certainly provide a good litmus test for the Bucks' patience and belief in the team they've assembled. The organization finally has the luxury of arena and ownership certainty -- which is more important than anything that happens this season -- and young teams do demand patience. But there are also reasonable limits to that as well; if you figure out a formula can't work, you change it.
Looking ahead, a projected mid-lottery pick will serve as consolation for their lost season, a result that would have been perfectly tolerable if not for the "inconvenience" of their success a year ago. But expectations make everything more difficult, and the sense of manifest destiny that developed over the previous year has understandably been blunted. The Bucks will thankfully stay in Milwaukee a very long time, but contending for a title remains an aspiration, not an inevitability. Building a winner in the NBA takes both luck and skill, and the Bucks will continue to need plenty of both.