NBA Graveyard 2016: Bucks Take a Step Back

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith. 

For the second straight year, the Milwaukee Bucks are figuring things out in the final stretch of the season. Unfortunately for them, the East is no longer a cakewalk. You must win more than you lose to stay alive in 2016…

bucksgrave

Postmortem: I’ve written about the disappointing 2015-16 Bucks extensively back in December, when it was already clear this was a lost season. I won’t rehash too much here. It will suffice to say that it’s nearly April and the Bucks haven’t had one winning month. Here are their monthly splits:

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 9.38.57 AM
Source:BasketballReference

Playing in one of the league’s tougher divisions – with four potential playoff teams – left little room for error. The Bucks made a mess of that room. So how did this happen? One simple answer is defense. Last season the Bucks made a strong push into the 8-seed with a 41-41 record and showed some spunkiness in a Round 1 loss to the Bulls. They rode their defense to that limited success, ranking 4th in Defensive Rating and 8th in opponent’s points allowed. This season that defense cratered to ranks of 23rd and 17th, respectively. How does a team fall 19 spots in defensive rating? Sign Greg Monroe. The big free agent acquisition does a poor job of switching and doesn’t protect the rim like a center needs to. He’s too slow afoot to complement the trapping style that made the Bucks defense a pain in the ass last year. The Bucks let Zaza Pachulia go in the wake of signing Monroe, and opponents shot three percentage points higher within six feet of the hoop (59.9% up from 57%) this season, per NBA.com. For what it’s worth, teams are shooting better from three against the Bucks this year as well.

The Bucks’ point guard problem came to a head, as well, with Michael Carter-Williams failing to develop a consistent jumper. His numbers actually improved, but they were so far in the cellar last year that the jump in efficiency doesn’t move the needle. He shoots 27% from three on just one attempt per game, so defenders never have to guard him behind the line. This killed Milwaukee’s offensive spacing, especially since there aren’t many quality outside shooters sharing the floor with MCW either. He was replaced at the point by Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the season, and coach Jason Kidd has already named the Greek Freak the starting point for next season.

Jabari Parker improved as the season moved along, in his de facto rookie year after tearing his ACL last season. His play alongside Giannis bodes well for the Bucks’ future, but he wasn’t enough of a difference-maker for much of this season. He also is a sieve on defense and adding him to the lineup further torpedoed the team’s overall D.

Low Moments: The Bucks re-branded and sold a ton of hope to their fans leading up to opening night. The bloom was off the rose before the calendar moved to 2016, with the Bucks starting the season 13-21 (the 4th-worst record in the East at the time). This made the 2016 schedule a futile exercise as there were far too many teams to jump to get into the playoff mix.

Phoenix had an even worse season than Milwaukee, but the Bucks had to watch their former point guard Brandon Knight post much better numbers than the guy they traded him for, MCW. The Bucks traded Knight last year when they were 30-23, and have gone 42-62 since.

The injury bug hit Milwaukee pretty hard, costing them 198 player games. Center John Henson has missed 25 games, further costing their interior defense.

Bright Spots: Giannis has been a revelation at point guard, drawing some comparisons to Magic Johnson both in stature and statistical output. He’s averaged 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists since the All-Star break, notching four triple-doubles. His magnum opus occurred on March 6 when he posted a 26-12-10 with 3 steals and 4 blocks against OKC; one week later he thrashed Brooklyn to the tune of 28-11-14-4-2. Those eye-popping numbers for a 21-year old, 6’11” point should make all NBA fans drool.

Parker, also 21, looks like a potent second banana for Giannis for years to come. In that same OKC game where Giannis went HAM on a triple-double, Parker added 18 points and 11 rebounds. He’s posting 19 points and 6 rebounds since the All-Star break. His defense is another story – hopefully he can be coached up.

Assets: The Bucks have youth on their side and what should be a cut-your-losses trade chip in Monroe. Here’s an asset ranking:

  1. Giannis – For all the reasons mentioned above. His ceiling can’t yet be measured.
  2. Parker – The Robin to Giannis’ Batman.
  3. Khris Middleton – After signing a fat contract in the offseason, he’s mostly shown he’s worth it, with 18 points per game and 41% shooting from three. He should grow prominently alongside Giannis and Jabari.
  4. 2016 1st Round pick – The Bucks get a chance to add another blue-chipper in the Lottery. Odds are they will pick around No. 11.
  5. Monroe – He makes $17M next year with a player option two years down the line. He simply doesn’t fit in the Bucks’ scheme defensively and clogs the lane on offense. He can help another team with his post scoring abilities, so the Bucks would be wise to look for a trade.
  6. Henson – 25 years old, his salary jumps to $9.5M next season. He can be your starting center in a scheme built around their talented wings and stretch-4 (Jabari).
  7. 2017 1st Round pick – Fair chance this will be a Lottery pick.
  8. – 11. Tyler Ennis, Johnny O’Bryant, Damien Inglis, Rashad Vaughn – Each of these guys are between the ages of 19-22. They’re all unknown commodities at this point and unlikely to all factor into the rotation. But if Kidd can develop two of these four into real assets, that’s a win.

Free Agency prospects: The Bucks signed their first big free agent in years last offseason, luring Monroe to Milwaukee. That one hasn’t exactly worked out. I don’t expect them to snag any big names this time around with so many teams having ample cap space. There’s more competition than usual. They may do better to re-sign their own free agents, namely Jerryd Bayless (useful backup point), Miles Plumlee (frontcourt depth) and OJ Mayo (wing depth). None of those guys should command outrageous sums, and the Bucks will have around $30M to work with.

Resurrection Scale: 65% (Can’t Keep Youth Down Forever) – This season was a major step back when we all expected a leap into mid-playoff seed territory. But between Giannis, Parker and Middleton their offense is on the rise. If they can fix the defense the Bucks will get back on track sooner rather than later.

 

 

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