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Looking Ahead to the Bucks’ December

The Milwaukee Bucks might be better than expected right now, but things are about to get pretty rough.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Orlando Magic Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Sandwiched between the Indiana Pacers (9-9) and Detroit Pistons (8-10), the Milwaukee Bucks (7-8) currently sit in the 9th position in the Eastern Conference. If you were interested in how long that’s going to last, well...

To reiterate, that’s three games against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, back-to-backs against the Chicago Bulls and the frisky Brooklyn Nets, and then one game each against Toronto, San Antonio, Atlanta, Portland, and Washington. Exactly how many of those games do you think the Bucks are good enough that they should win? Three, maybe four?

Long story short, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the Bucks, particularly if you have playoff hopes for this team. All you Giannis-lovers out there are probably going to deal with some disappointment. If you’re a frequent Kidd-critic, you can expect to have a lot of negative outcomes to talk about. And for the rest of us that fall somewhere in the middle, prepare yourselves for some extreme takes to come from other Bucks fans.

If we’re being honest, the rest of the season probably will feel like this, and it’s fair to argue that it was predetermined once Khris Middleton slipped during that pickup game. And while we may not be able to go back in time and undo that injury, we can at least control what we focus on going forward, and decide on what specifics we should be focused on, especially as the Bucks prepare to go through this December gauntlet.

Here are the main questions that I am going to be looking at, both for the next month and beyond:

Can Giannis Antetokounmpo maintain his all-around impact?

In 15 games, Giannis has established himself as a bona-fide NBA star capable of playing all five positions, on both offense and defense. In continuing to demonstrate his ability to literally do it all, Giannis’ 2014-15 post-ASB numbers are no longer merely a sign of his potential, but proof of his new reality.

But how can we be sure that it is the new reality? Well, one way would be for Giannis to avoid dropping off as the schedule gets more difficult. As of November 28th, Giannis’ per-36 stat line is an impressive 22.8 points/8.6 boards/6.2 assists/1.9 steals/2.1 blocks. By December 28th, will any of those categories will decrease, and if so, by how much? If the answer is “none,” then we should start saving up for Giannis NBA All Star merchandise and keep reminding ourselves that he’ll only be 22 years old.

Will Jabari Parker continue to shoot well from deep?

Unlike Giannis, the next step in Jabari’s development as an offensive player has been extending his range behind the arc. So far, early returns on this development is promising! So far this season, Jabari is shooting 37.0% from three (up from 25.7% a year ago), but more importantly has raised his 3PAr from 3.9% to 19.5%!

Jabari’s shooting is crucial to the Bucks’ offensive future. If he can continue to build up his shot equity (copyright: Brett Koremenos), not only is his efficiency going to improve, but it will also open up lanes for him to drive past overcommitting defenders, as well as cutting lanes for his teammates.

Can Jabari continue improving his defensive effort?

While shooting might be crucial for the Bucks, defense may well be crucial for Jabari’s individual success. Every now and then, we see Parker battling for rebounds or forcing a turnover, but more often we are able to trace a broken rotation or a backdoor cut to a mistake on his end.

To be clear, Jabari doesn’t have to be a “good” defender in order for the Bucks to be successful. He does, however, need to be “not bad.” He has more than enough NBA reps (116 total NBA games) to understand the speed of the game, and it’s hard to reconcile how a guy who exhibits high basketball IQ on offense so rarely shows the same aptitude on defense. He has never given the impression that playing defense is “beneath him” and is fairly reliable with his effort on that end of the court.

So what’s the solution? Frank and Eric have mentioned how Parker can be “hidden” on the other team’s best wing in order to prevent any breakdowns at the team level, with the added benefit of freeing up Giannis to play a “free safety” role covering more of the court. Other than that, we can only hope that Parker continues to devote his energy on defense effectively, and that his teammates and coaches are willing to give him the feedback he needs to correct his mistakes.

Will Malcolm Brogdon avoid hitting an early “rookie wall?”

After a slow start, Malcom Brogdon is looking like one of the better rookies from the 2016 draft class, if not a legitimate NBA rotation player. He protects the ball, he defends well, his shot is starting to come around (33.3% from deep), and is firmly entrenched in the guard rotation (20+ minutes/game). He appears to have the trust of his coaches and his teammates, and he looks like a second-round steal.

But so far, we’ve only seen 15 games of Brogdon as a pro. Once another 35 are under his belt, he may hit the dreaded rookie wall that affects so many players who simply aren’t accustomed to an 82-game season. If anybody could avoid hitting that wall, Brogdon would be the type of guy to do it, but there’s no way to tell until it happens.

Is Michael Beasley’s reliability for real?

Don’t look now, but Super Cool Beas is actually pretty good. Per-36, he’s scoring 20.5 points on good efficiency (.495/.364) and while his free throw stroke is missing (only 65.2% from the line), he’s at least getting to the line (FTr of 21.5%). More importantly, he seems to be willing to pass the ball and isn’t an abject disaster on defense, both of which are surprising revelations for the former 2nd-overall pick from Kansas State.

Coming off the bench for Giannis and/or Jabari allows Beasley to dominate the ball for short stretches, which is exactly who he should be at this point in his career. However, the past few seasons have not seen Beasley contribute at this level for very long (since 2013-14, he’s only played in 55, 24, and 20 games), so we’re nearing the point where Beasley loses his NBA mojo. Stay tuned!

Will Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova come out off their shooting slumps?

To date, the Delly/Snelly backcourt has played better than their numbers may suggest. Snell has been a pleasant surprise on defense and Dellavedova puts teammates in good position on a regular basis (6.3 assists/game), but he (34.0%, 5.3% below his career average) and Snell (29.5%, 4.9% below his career average) are currently underperforming from behind the arc.

Part of Snell’s struggles might come from the increase in attempts: his 3PAr (67.2%) is the highest of his career by far, and while Delly is still okay from deep, he has historically been around (or above) the 40% mark. Both of these players need to hit shots in order to be effective for Milwaukee, and their improvement is something worth paying attention to.

Will anybody (read: Rashad Vaughn) ever replace Jason Terry in the rotation?

Jason Terry, 39 years old, is a major part of the Bucks’ guard rotation, and so far it isn’t clear why. He’s appeared in 10/15 games, and averages over 18 mpg in those games. He takes a healthy volume of threes (3PAr of 61.3%) while hitting on a lower percentage (only 31.6% 3pt%, 7 percent lower than his career average), but is using up very few possessions (usage rate of 8.8%).

But other than shooting threes, JET isn’t producing anything on the court. His veteran leadership and willingness to communicate with Milwaukee’s younger players is valuable, but one could argue that the impact of that leadership could be felt in practice, rather than live-game scenarios.

As to why Vaughn isn’t the answer after taking a few trips to the D-League? Even with greatly improved accuracy (36.4% vs. 29.3% last year), he isn’t moving the needle in any other capacity for the Bucks. In what is very much a developmental year for Vaughn, I can still understand why some fans would assume the worst of Vaughn when it might seem obvious that a talented young player ought to get minutes ahead of the veteran Terry.

Is there any chance the timeshare between Greg Monroe, John Henson, and Miles Plumlee reaches an equilibrium?

Barring a trade, nobody can be sure what the center rotation is going to look like from one day to the next, much less for the next month (or more). After a short stint in Jason Kidd’s doghouse, Greg Monroe is back to his (new) normal spot in the rotation, while Miles Plumlee and John Henson vaccinate between leading the tip-off and riding the pine from game to game.

In some ways, this might be the best strategy to manage a sub-par situation. Moose is obviously the most talented of the 3 centers, and has the capacity to wreck opposing second-stringers on the block. Henson and Plumlee have a very different style of play from Moose (and to a certain extent, each other), and their effectiveness can rely on matchups as much as it can on each player’s ability to decide to bring their A-game that night. And of course, some of the team’s best minutes recently have been when none of these three have been on the floor.

If we zoom out past this season, things become even more cloudy. Nobody knows what Greg Monroe is going to do this summer, and nobody (yet) seems to be able to make sense of why John Henson makes the team look awful (-13.2 net +/- per 100 possessions), or why Miles Plumlee (-1.1 net +/- per 100 possessions) makes the team look better despite looking awful.

In summation, I have no idea what is going on with the center position in Milwaukee, and I would sure love to see some answers within the next few months.

Can Mirza Teletovic continue to provide spacing in small-ball lineups?

As of Monday, Mirza’s 3PAr is a preposterous 80.2%. It’s safe to say that he’s doing exactly what he was signed to do, but the real question is how well he can make shots when he, Giannis, and Jabari are the biggest Bucks on the floor. He’s hitting 39.1% of his threes overall, but his accuracy while playing small ball is what I think matters most. Maybe not for this season, but when Teletovic returns to a Bucks team that includes Khris Middleton, I want to see how well he can continue to contribute to Milwaukee’s interpretation of the GSW Death Lineup (theoretically: Giannis-Middleton-Snell or Delly-Parker-Telly).

Who gets into a December game first: Thon Maker or Steve Novak?

Brace yourselves, Bucks fans, because there are going to be a couple of blowouts this month, and it might not be the kind of blowout you’re looking for. Hometown hero Steve Novak might get a few late-game minutes if these routs happen in Milwaukee, whereas the perpetually-weird Thon Maker could get the call while on the road.

These are my questions. What questions do you have? What will you be looking at this December from the Milwaukee Bucks?