Much was made of the summer of 2017, and how it would serve as a crossroads for the Milwaukee Bucks for years to come. As we all know, the team chose “continuity” as their path, and followed that map quite closely; nearly all of the Bucks’ contributors were retained from the 2016-17 season. The idea was that, with more time and more reps and more familiarity, things would come together and the Bucks would begin establishing themselves as a winning team, rather than a team that might win.
That hasn’t happened; Bucks fans are apoplectic about the team’s struggles, and I can’t say that I blame them.
With just one-tenth of the season gone, it’s still officially “too early to say” about what this NBA season will bring. But with the Bucks, we’ve seen some of the same things cropping up from seasons past, and it hasn’t gotten better. It’s often said that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result. With the Bucks sitting closer to the bottom than the top of the Eastern Conference at 4-5, while boasting a lackluster offense, an unimaginative defense, and a once-in-a-lifetime player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the fanbase’s unrest is reaching critical mass.
How to solve these problems? What are the answers? I found a few possible root causes that were worth exploring, but I didn’t know which one would move the needle the furthest in the right direction. So of course, my solution was to go to Twitter and pose my question there.
Bucks fans, here's a quandary for the 2017-18 season.— Mitchell Maurer (@WhalesLarry) November 4, 2017
And now, I pose the question to everyone reading here. If your goal is to “save” the 2017-18 season for the Milwaukee Bucks, what do you pick between improving the talent, the scheme, or the coaching?
The Milwaukee Bucks are a team sorely lacking in talent. This isn’t the same as claiming that the Bucks don’t have good players, or that they lack depth. The issue here is that, while the starters are generally good, they’re here because their strengths make them excellent fits around Giannis...while their weaknesses expose existing flaws in the defense. Many of the Bucks’ players are also outmatched, playing in roles above where their NBA ceiling is considered to be. Furthermore, once fatigue sets in and the bench players start replacing the starters, the Bucks lose their glove-like fit around Giannis and have to adjust, which creates opportunities that opponents are currently exploiting.
One overall weakness on the team is playmaking and shot creation. Giannis and Khris Middleton are able (and willing) passers, and neither of Milwaukee’s point guards (Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon) dominate the ball more than necessary. However, when a possession gets bogged down and the ball isn’t in a position to get to Giannis, nobody else on the team appears capable of creating space for themselves or a teammate.
Another major issue, one that feeds into the issue described above, is overall quickness. The Bucks are a slow team, full stop. The level of quickness exhibited by this Bucks squad is astoundingly low, when compared to NBA expectations. Giannis is quick enough, and Thon Maker certainly has the ability (even if he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing with his quickness), but everybody else plods behind their positional counterparts in the league.
Beyond these deficiencies, adding more talented players will also keep an appropriate level of pressure on Giannis to do Giannis-things without expecting too much from him. Currently, so many of Milwaukee’s players have learned to rely on Giannis to contribute everywhere, and because of his instinctual approach to basketball, teammates are stuck watching him instead of anticipating what he’s going to do next. Somehow, Giannis’ uniqueness can work against the team.
To put a cherry on top, “fixing” the talent issue means either paying a significant price for a talented player via trade (hi, Eric Bledsoe!), or waiting for Jabari Parker to return from injury and hope that his return to form is quick and seamless. There is no clear answer for how to fix the talent, but answers are out there. Jon Horst just needs to find one.
The Bucks’ über-aggressive defense is designed to introduce confusion and delay to NBA offenses, and for the team’s unparalleled length to increase blocks, turnovers, and transition opportunities. However, the team’s hyper aggression has led to a 110.5 DRtg, ranking 23rd in the NBA. Why?
There are a few things keeping the scheme from working. One of them relates to the section above: talent. The Bucks have good defenders, but anytime a strategy that includes a razor-thin margin of error is employed, anytime a non-good defender enters the game (Greg Monroe and Mirza Teletovic are the most notable examples), it makes the system that much harder to run.
Another hurdle for the scheme to get over his how it positions defenders on the floor. When the Bucks overload the strong side of the floor, opponents will swing the ball or attempt a skip pass to flip the court and create an opportunity. Because everybody is so far out of their conventional position, Milwaukee perimeter defenders need to careen out of control from the lane to the three point line to catch up. These out of control closeouts result all too often in “fly-bys,” and once a single link in the Bucks defensive chain is broken, the entire thing falls apart.
And if that wasn’t bad enough? This positioning difficulty (which Jason Kidd and architect Sean Sweeney concede by allowing it) creates a sense of desperation in Milwaukee defenders, which forces them to put themselves in position to get called for more fouls than they might otherwise. The Bucks have, on this most recent road trip, been severely outclassed at the free throw line, and it isn’t just because the refs “have it in for them.” Milwaukee is not forcing contact nearly enough on offense, and they get so wild on defense that referees have no choice but to blow the whistle.
The defense isn’t an outright failure. There are principles within it that can work, and it has worked in the past. But the reality is this: for every three possessions that the Bucks defend adequately, there are four more where a single mistake results in an opponent’s bucket. That sort of paradigm is simply unsustainable when the team is trying to scratch and claw its way up the Eastern Conference power rankings.
Coaching a professional sports team is, for all intents and purposes, an extremely hard job. Not only do you have to manage the game, but you’re also responsible for player development, practice plans, film study, and other stuff, all while adhering to any limitations of your ownership, general manager, medical staff, or anybody else with a say in things.
Jason Kidd might be a good coach, but it’s becoming more likely that he’s simply not the right coach for the Bucks. We hypothesized as much back in May, and the question about Kidd’s value to the Bucks (and to Giannis) is being discussed far beyond just Milwaukee. Now, his seat has gone from room temperature to scalding hot in a matter of weeks.
Of course, if you fire Jason Kidd now, the likely outcome is that one of his assistants (probably Joe Prunty) takes over, and very little actually changes. Or, you clean house entirely in November, and put any incoming staff in an untenable position: either install your system on the fly during the season (and probably lose), or work with the current team on something bland and easy until the summer (and probably lose).
If you needed to know my opinion, on whether I would decline addressing talent, the scheme, or coaching (in favor of improving the other two now), my choices would be to focus on talent and the scheme. The former because we need more players that are capable of imposing their will on the game rather than the other way around, and the latter because I value Jason Kidd’s player development talents (and would rather any wholesale changes happen in the summer, when they’re more likely to be successfully implemented).
But that’s enough from me. What do you think? Where are the Bucks’ largest opportunities to improve? What do they need to do now to save the season, or is the season even in jeopardy? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter, and hopefully this running conversation can give way to the Bucks returning to their winning ways.