After 20 games, the Milwaukee Bucks (11-9) have come a long way since our initial preseason predictions post was published. In many ways, the team and most of the players have blown our initial expectations out of the water, and the Bucks simply look more competent than most of us expected.
Since we’re at the quarter-mark of the season, it’s time to revisit what we’ve seen so far, and what we want to see going forward. Onward, to the roundtable!
What have you seen that looks like a “success?”
(Editor’s note: the writers were asked to avoid heaping further praise upon Giannis Antetokounmpo, as it is already widely-accepted that he is the best and we don’t deserve him.)
Eric B: Some praise is deserved for a few bench guys that have exceeded expectations so far. Greg Monroe, Malcolm Brogdon, and Michael Beasley have been nice surprises on both ends of the court. We wanted some bench players to step up in their roles and these three have been the most consistent, so kudos to them.
Honorable mention goes to Jabari launching threes, but I’ll let someone else pick that to elaborate on if they wish.
Mitchell: I’ll take that bait. I wrote about the different parts of Jabari’s game that would have to grow for him to get on the track to stardom, and three-point shooting was one of the top items. Not only has it made his scoring more efficient, but his newfound 18+% 3PAr opens up so much more of the floor for him and his teammates, which are all very good things. Here’s a quote from December 2015:
"Jabari will be a really good stretch four in three years," Kidd says. "Right now, he's not that. And that's OK. He's basically a rookie."
Considering Jabari is hitting on nearly 34% of his threes on decent volume, he’s getting close to “stretch four” status right now, much less two years from today. That’s ahead of schedule, and a major success in my book.
Adam: The defensive performance thus far. They’re sporting the league’s seventh best defensive rating at 101.5 and have the fourth best opponent effective field goal percentage. Frank and Eric touched on this a bit in Tuesday’s Locked on Bucks, and it’s difficult to parse out the Bucks relative success versus their opponents potentially under-performing, but the Bucks length and athleticism feels like it’s thriving within a slightly tighter snow globe. They’re contesting the sixth-most shots in the league, and while their league best 3-point percentage continues to be a worrisome ingrown hair just begging to sprout, the players this year look far more comfortable within the defensive strategy.
There are far less streaks of continual wide open looks, and their close-outs feel more contained than the troubling wild stomps towards the arc only to get blown by on a pump-fake, which leads to a kick out and easy look, yada yada yada. I’m not sure if it will continue, but I think the fact they’re playing semi-decently, even with below-average defensive centers, makes me more confident in the scheme than I was coming into the season.
Corey: Piggybacking off Eric, I’ve been impressed with Michael Beasley’s contributions this season. His shots are coming in more of an offensive flow, and it’s been rare for him to resort to the “chucker” label he has rightly deserved most of his career. His 107.1 offensive rating is second on the club (behind Monroe of all people), and he’s third in EFG% (54.4). Now, it appears he wants to be more aggressive, if the post-Blazer game comments are any indication. I’m fine with that.
What have you seen that could be described as a “failure?”
Eric B: It’s taken more shape of late, but the center situation is still the sore thumb of this roster. It’s just been an odd storyline to follow in the early segment of the season. I don’t know. I’ll go with that. I also think it’s surprising that Teletovic’s minutes have fluctuated as much as they have. I don’t think that’s necessarily a failure, but it’s not something I thought we’d be talking about.
Mitchell: More than anything, the inability for all three main centers to actively coexist continues to bother me. Maybe it’s not a failure per se, but more of an indictment on how untenable the current roster situation is, at least in the short-term. If we want to talk actual “failure,” we should talk about how Miles Plumlee has completely failed to separate himself from Henson and Monroe in the center rotation. The longer his tenure in Milwaukee goes, the more his 2013-14 season looks like an aberration, or his P&R chemistry with Giannis seems illusory.
And the only reason this comes up is because his salary figure is about 30% higher than it maybe should be, which raises the question about who shoulders the “blame” for this particular problem. Who knows, Monroe might opt out of his third season, which completely changes the calculus of the center position.
Adam: *Breaks neck nodding in agreement about center rotation*
Corey: Miles Plumlee is getting paid what now to do what now?
Mitchell: But again, here’s the thing! Few of us thought that resigning Plumlee in the summer was a bad decision; our consternation stems from his salary progression compared to his on-court regression. Had he regressed on a different deal, the overall impact would still be the same. If this is the Bucks’ biggest problem...things aren’t really all that bad.
How much from this season has exceeded expectations? How much has fallen short?
Mitchell: I expected more from Rashad Vaughn and Miles Plumlee, but expected far less from just about everybody else; Giannis, Jabari, Monroe, Delly, Brogdon, Henson, Beasley, and Snell are all solid positives (relative to expectations) for me.
Eric B: If I had to divide it up, I’d say 60% has exceeded expectations (I thought they’d be baaaad), 30% has met expectations (mostly Giannis taking another step, Jabari developing, and Jason Terry getting minutes), and 10% has come up short (see above).
Adam: Almost everything for me outside of Miles Plumlee has exceeded my admittedly rather low expectations. On the flipside, I was hoping to find out whether Vaughn might be an actual NBA player, but that may have to wait until next year. If I may nitpick a little with Giannis so far, his frenetic fouling is worrisome. After averaging only 2.9 personal fouls after the All-Star Break last year, a mark that would rank in the mid-30s this year, he’s currently tied for second in the league with 3.8 fouls per game.
I held out hope those fouling issues might remain under wraps after last year’s surprising turn, but that’s not the case so far. I don’t even think it’s a matter of ratcheting down his intensity significantly, it’s just picking his spots better and avoiding his glut of lousy perimeter fouls. Far too many of his fouls are coming around the arc, a prime location for refs to see when Giannis is shoving his mitts into someone’s ribs. Plenty of players (read: Draymond Green), get away with dirty defense, but they’re often using those tricks on the block or with cutters as they flee into the crowded paint. Using the general density of the lane might be a good way for Giannis to cloak his aggression and prevent those irksome ticky-tack fouls on the perimeter.
Corey: I believed I said it would take 15-20 games for this team to figure itself out after the sudden loss of Middleton. I thought it would be an uglier ‘feeling out period’ than it has been. Giannis has become THAT GUY, Jabari is becoming THAT OTHER GUY, and the bench contributions have been terrific.
They haven’t been nearly as bad as I thought they would be. That said, they still manage to play up or down to their competition, which they are not a good enough club to get away with. For every win over Cleveland, there’s been a loss to New Orleans, and so forth.
What new expectations do you have for the rest of the season?
Eric B: Nothing too crazy. I’m interested in if the Bucks can keep up a certain standard of play more than anything. We know that they can play up to their competition, but I think a great sign of growth for this team will be how they manage games when they aren’t punching up or don’t have their best stuff. To answer the question, my new expectations are centered on whether they can improve on their consistency and keep that competitive floor up.
Mitchell: I have some specific expectations for specific people, rather than the team as a whole. I expect Giannis to continue his all-around contributions, but I also expect for him to plateau at some point. I expect Jabari to further improve as a shooter and a defender. I expect Monroe to regress to his less-impressive defensive habits, even though I hope he doesn’t. I expect Teletovic to continue to be an awkward fit with Giannis (unless he can improve his comfort level from the corners). I expect Dellavedova, Terry, Plumlee, Snell, Maker, and Vaughn to continue offering what they’re offering now (for better and for worse), and I expect Henson to come back to earth relatively soon. I expect Malcolm Brogdon to continue to turn heads, but also hit a rookie wall somewhere around Game 50. Lastly, I expect Jason Kidd to continue to frustrate fans with his constant lineup and rotation tinkering, even though that’s exactly what he ought to be doing this season.
Eric B: I have one more. I expect Tony Snell to hit at least one more critical three in the 4th quarter. Call me crazy, but I think it’s on the horizon.
Adam: I don’t really have any team expectations, I’m pretty meh on whatever their record ends up being. I have simply one expectation: for Giannis to continue putting up his current numbers. Perhaps the block and steal figures decrease, but he’s doing this with almost no semblance of a jump shot and a dearth of teammates that opponents have to respect. No defender, besides foul trouble, has seemed capable of stopping him. Sure it’s November and December, but he also just looked stellar against Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard. In the past, opponents would switch their best defender on Giannis in the fourth quarter and he would start to shut down. That’s not happening anymore, and I’m very intrigued to see how he fares against a foe who commonly locked him down in Jimmy Butler next weekend.
Corey: I don’t know if I have any new ones. Keeping this up for Giannis would be fantastic. Jabari continuing to gain confidence in his perimeter jumpers would be ideal. I would love to see Malcolm Brogdon continue this stellar play, but Mitchell is right, a wall is likely coming. But as far as team expectations? This is still very much a “let the chips fall where they may” scenario. Hell, we’re gushing about the first twenty games of the year and they’re only 11-9.
Let’s just say it: playoffs, Bucks in the hunt or just wishful thinking?
Eric B: I think they can be in the hunt, but I’m not ready to dive in yet. They’ve benefited from a favorable start to the schedule (and are currently 11-9) and what happens over the next month will show us a lot about this team. That may be a cop out answer, but whatever. Fight me.
Mitchell: I won’t fight you, Eric, but I will fight the idea that these Bucks are a lock for the playoffs. There is simply too much going their way right now, and a sharp reversion to the mean still feels right around the corner. Giannis has carried the team on his back, surprising even some of his most devoted fans, but he just turned 22! That’s a heavy burden for such a young player to bear, and without Middleton there isn’t a proven teammate to help pick up the slack if Giannis regresses. Jabari is the closest and has made a leap of his own, but I think next season is when Parker makes his case to be considered a top-flight player. We’ve already seen tremendous growth this season, but I think we’ll find that a playoff berth isn’t in the cards...yet.
Adam: I still think the playoffs are unlikely, but I’m a much bigger believer in an Anthony Davis, 2015 style 8-seed performance than I ever was before the season. While Giannis isn’t approaching those types of numbers, Davis willed a team with at least as many spare parts as this Bucks team to a playoff appearance in a crowded Western conference. The middle morass of the East already has a few purported competitors - Washington, Orlando, maybe Miami - that sunk like stones and not many other teams have someone playing as well as Giannis. There may be some team regression coming though as the schedule heats up, and Milwaukee still hasn’t faced their usual deluge of injuries. I’ll say they still miss out on the dance.
Corey: *rains on parade* Still find it unlikely. It feels like the Bucks are wringing out almost everything from most of the roster already. Where can this team take a step up? Or, with a roster this young, is the wall coming? I think that’s likely. And with the middle of the East not doing a ton to differentiate itself, it won’t take too far of a tumble to slide out of view.
Mitchell: As to fairly present the situation for our members who have faith in the Bucks’ playoff odds, here’s the current seeding (as of December 8th):
Seeded fifth in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are currently ahead of other middle-tier teams like New York, Chicago, Indiana, and Detroit, and have already dropped bad losses to Atlanta and Miami. They’re an inconsistent team that is still growing (both the players on the roster and the coaches on the bench), so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bucks start dropping in these standings over the next month. But...that’s what I said about this current stretch of games through most of December, where the Bucks are already 4-1...
And just for fun, we check in on some of our preseason predictions:
WINS — At their current pace, the Bucks are on-track for 45 wins! So far, Mitchell was the closest in the preseason, predicting 37 wins, but everybody was firmly predicting a below-.500 finish.
DEFENSIVE RATING — The over/under was set at 15th; the Bucks currently rank 9th(?!)
THREES FOR GIANNIS & JABARI — The over/under was set at 100 combined makes from deep for Giannis and Jabari; they’ve currently made 31 (Giannis: 11; Jabari: 20), and are on pace for 127 makes!
USAGE FOR BEASLEY — The over/under was set at 25.0% for usage for Michael Beasley; currently he clocks in at 24.4%.
CENTER MINUTES DISTRIBUTION — We asked who would log more minutes at the 5 between John Henson and Miles Plumlee; we all guessed that it would be Plumlee, but Basketball-Reference shows that Henson has played 331 center minutes to 198 for Plumlee...who seems to be on the outside looking in
BACKUP FORWARD SCORING — We asked who would average more points/game between Michael Beasley and Mirza Teletovic; the scoreboard shows Beasley (8.6 ppg) leading Telly (7.2 ppg).
SHOOTERS — We asked which player would make the most threes on the season between Tony Snell (31), Rashad Vaughn (12), Jason Terry (9), and Steve Novak (0). Interestingly, Vaughn led the quartet last month...with 12 makes, which speaks to his virtual absence from the team lately.