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Milwaukee Bucks 16-17 Season Preview

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The loss of Khris Middleton hurts, but there’s still room for big picture optimism in Milwaukee.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks

Last Year's Record: 33-49

Key Losses: Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, Johnny O’Bryant, Greivis Vasquez, Damien Inglis, Tyler Ennis

Key Additions: Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic, Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon, Jason Terry, Michael Beasley

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

First and foremost, nobody expected that September would be such an eventful month in Milwaukee. Fans experienced one of the highest highs in recent memory by celebrating Giannis’ $100m extension, followed almost immediately by plummeting to the depths of despair following Khris Middleton’s hamstring injury, which was then followed by the befuddlement that comes with any team that acquires the services of Michael Beasley. These weren’t all “moves,” per se, but Giannis’ widely-anticipated extension was as exciting as Khris’ injury was depressing.

On the whole though, the Bucks’ most significant offseason move was simply not making any ground-shaking moves, instead bringing in players that better complement the core trio of Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both this year (minus Khris) and beyond (come back soon, Khris!). Adding proficient three-point shooters in Delly, Telly, and JET shows the team’s commitment to the Point Giannis Experience, and 2016 draft picks like Maker and Brogdon should get a chance to develop into roles that best fit the team’s vision. Plus, Michael Beasley will make the Bucks’ Third-String Great Again.

Despite all the controversy, the Thon Maker selection is an intriguing one for Milwaukee. If you were to go into a lab and build a modern big man who can a) protect the rim on defense, b) stretch the floor on offense, and c) fit in with Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton, you might end up with a guy who looks a lot like Thon. Maker’s fluidity at 7’1” gives him the rare ability to switch between multiple positions on defense from the big positions, something that Coach Kidd loves. His frame lets him set credible screens on offense, and his surprisingly-competent shooting stroke makes him an interesting pick-and-pop prospect, while also pulling his defender away from the rim...and out of Giannis’ path. He may be a year or two away from playing consistent minutes at the five, but to fully realize his potential he’ll eventually need enough bulk to hold his own down low.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Youth, flexibility, and a coach who’s willing to get weird. For the past two seasons, the average age of the Bucks’ roster was 24.2 years (in 2014-15) and 24.5 years (in 2015-16). No longer the league’s youngest team at 26.0 years — thank Terry and Steve Novak for that — Milwaukee has given their young players a chance to grow together and develop some continuity. In addition, the team has very few players who are limited to a single position: Giannis could probably play all 5 positions in the same possession, honestly. And despite losing Middleton in late-September, the fact remains that all of Parker/Delly/Maker/MCW/Terry/ Brogdon/Henson/Vaughn/Beasley have the ability to credibly flex across two positions. Most of those players are young, reasonably skilled, and energetic, and should be focused on creating transition opportunities off of turnovers and rebounds while still not being dreadful in the half-court.

This joining of athletic youth and positional versatility could combine to unlock the Bucks’ defensive potential, similarly to how the team blitzed and switched everything during Kidd’s inaugural season in Milwaukee, when the team boasted a legitimately-elite defense. Unfortunately, the 2014-15 Bucks’ defense were led by Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, a pair of high-IQ defenders who weren’t adequately replaced (sorry Jabari, sorry Monroe) after being given away last summer. And if you have somehow forgotten, Khris Middleton probably isn’t playing this year, which is easily the biggest blow to the Bucks’ defensive prospects in the near-term.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

The Bucks seem to have upgraded their talent, but creating an effective rotation that unclogs the middle of the floor is an entirely different question that Jason Kidd needs to answer. For a team that features two high-level finishers in Parker and Antetokounmpo, there figures to be an awful lot of minutes allocated to players that will hinder that effort. Greg Monroe is a monster in the low post but realistically can’t (won’t?) vacate the block on offense, and Michael Carter-Williams has historically spent a lot of time in the middle of the floor with the ball in his hands. Driving and cutting lanes are hard to come by with a big point guard and a bigger center in the way, particularly when neither can space the floor. This problem is further exacerbated by the relative lack of shooting on the active roster; outside of Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova, and Jason Terry, nobody else has demonstrated the ability to hit from range.

Defensively, the Bucks struggled to contain opponents off the bounce and surrendered an ugly combination of opportunities both at the rim and from behind the arc. Bringing Monroe off the bench would help, but Parker has yet to prove he can even be a passable defender, and the team as a whole has struggled mightily on the defensive boards for the past few seasons.

And oh yeah, Khris Middleton (aka “The Key To Everything That Has Made Milwaukee Work”) is out for six months. Losing Middleton is bad enough, but the Bucks’ failure to add a proven wing shooter to back him up this summer is now looming particularly large.

4. What are the goals for this team?

With the moves that have been made, the team seems fully invested in Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton as the future of the Bucks. They showed the ability to work together last season, and now Giannis and Jabari need to show the ability to win games without Khris, and establish themselves as top offensive options for when he returns. With better complementary talent to work with, Kidd and company need to maintain the system that accentuates the abilities of the Bucks’ featured players, and turn Milwaukee from just-another-game into a matchup circled on other teams’ schedules. Before Middleton’s injury, the overall goal was to fight for a playoff seed on the backs of the team’s young talent. Now, the focus necessarily takes a far more developmental tone.

5. C’mon, be honest: is Point Giannis real?

While the debate between labelling Giannis as a point guard or a point forward (with a vocal “point center” minority), the team appears to have gone all-in on featuring Giannis as the lead player on offense. Call him what you want, Giannis is running the point. The team still doesn’t have quite enough shooting to flank him with, but shooters have been added to the Greek Freak’s arsenal.

It’s been brought up before, but it’s worth bringing up again: after being given full-time point-whatever duties in February, Giannis’ production skyrocketed:

PPG RPG APG TS% USG%

18.8 8.6 7.2 0.561 24.2

If it can be sustained for a longer timeframe, those numbers are indicative not just of an All-Star berth, but a player who could be top-5 in the whole league. So even if Point Giannis ends up not being a thing, Giannis Antetokounmpo is absolutely the real deal.

6. How can the Bucks solve the Greg Monroe Conundrum?

This question has no easy answer. Monroe is a very good player who does a number of good basketball things: he’s an excellent scorer in the lane, an able rebounder, and a better passer than he gets credit for. Sports Illustrated put him at No. 63 on their list of the NBA Top 100, and I can’t argue with that ranking. Monroe is really good!

So then why did things get worse in Milwaukee? In a word: fit. Monroe was an awkward fit in Detroit next to Andre Drummond, and he turned out to be equally awkward (for different reasons) in Milwaukee. The things Moose does well interfere with the things Giannis does well and significantly slowed the team down, especially in the half-court, and his defensive struggles, overblown as they may be, failed to cover up for holes elsewhere on the team when he played. It’s not just you, Moose.

Of course, the uncomfortable truth is that Greg Monroe’s game is an awkward fit on any NBA team nowadays. Then the money comes into play: Monroe is making $17.1 million this season, and has a player option worth $17.9 million next year. Not knowing whether or not Moose is inclined to exercise that option makes things incredibly complicated for the team.

7. When is the year that the Milwaukee Bucks make The Leap?

Even before Middleton’s hamstring tear, the Bucks were unlikely to make a leap into the upper echelon of the East in 2016-17. After all, the Eastern Conference is still relatively deep; after Cleveland, Toronto, and presumably Boston, every other spot from 4 to 12 is seemingly up-for-grabs. The Bucks were poised to be in the conversation for a late playoff seed, and it now appears that they’ll be on the outside looking in once more.

But all along, the window for the Bucks to become an actual Contender has been a couple years out. With a full year to prove whether or not Point Giannis works and whether or not Jabari Parker is a major player instead of a prospect, the rest of the roster can essentially be poked and prodded to see how well they can support a winning effort led by Giannis, Jabari, and eventually Khris. Missing Middleton and a chance to gain playoff experience likely lowers the odds of the Bucks being really good in 17/18, but in the grand scheme of things time is still on their side. Antetokounmpo and Parker are both just 21 years old and likely a couple years from the start of their prime, and given the purported depth of the 2017 draft, a trip to the lottery this season could be a blessing disguise long term.