Wizards and Bucks – What’s the Deal?

We’re far enough along in the NBA season to start figuring out some trends and deciding who’s actually good and who isn’t. Stubbornly, I still want to hold out hope for two Eastern Conference playoff representatives from a year ago that I expected big things out of, but who have not delivered at all. Of course I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Actually, the Wizards and Bucks are the only two teams in the East that you can call disappointing through 20 or so games. I mean, were Philly and Brooklyn fans really expecting much? I hope not. As I covered yesterday, teams like the Magic, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons have made the Central and Southeast Divisions suddenly deep. The Celtics are about what we expected, and the New York Knickerbockers are riding the giant Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzignis to a surprisingly positive start. All three divisions in the East are more competitive and overall better than expected.

But there’s always a flip side to that coin. If most of the East is coming up Heads, then the Wiz and Bucks are left chasing their Tails. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong, and whether either situation is salvageable.


What’s up with the Wiz?

Washington, fresh off an inspiring postseason run and sporting a shiny backcourt, has stumbled to a 7-9 start. Fans actually booed franchise point guard John Wall the other night after he missed free throws in a terrible loss to the Lakers. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has continued to struggle with minor injuries, Nene is banged up and now Marcin Gortat is away from the team for a personal matter. The frustration last season from NBA viewers was that coach Randy Wittman seemed unaware of the fact that his dynamic backcourt plays best when they are attacking on the fast break and pushing the pace. Wall, in particular, is a unique weapon that runs circles around opponents and creates opportunities on defense with his quick hands. Wittman did a 180 in the playoffs, finally playing a smaller lineup and revving up the engines on offense – the result was a first round spanking of Toronto in four games. They then took the 60-win Hawks to six games, losing the final two by a combined four points. It seemed Wittman had finally figured out what he had in his roster. And they have mostly continued the pace and space strategy in 2015-16 (they’re currently 3rd in pace), but the wins haven’t followed. So what’s wrong?

For one, Wall hasn’t been good. The fanciest Tesla that Elon Musk can build won’t work without a charge, and Wall is the battery that Washington runs on. He’s more than two assists per game below is career-high 10 per game last season, and his field goal percentage is slightly down. He’s shooting more threes and making them at an OK rate (33%) but teams will concede a long range shot to Wall all day long over a drive to the rack. In Washington’s 3-1 start, Wall was great (21 and 8 per game). They’ve been 4-8 since and maddeningly inconsistent, following their star’s lead. Wall had 35 and 10 in a fantastic 97-85 win over Cleveland on Dec. 1. The next night they lost to the Lakers at home. To be fair, Wall had great numbers against L.A. but he did miss the key free throws that led to the booing.

Second issue has been Bradley Beal, who was expected to make another leap in a contract year. He leads the team in scoring but remains in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. In general his shooting numbers are good but I guess the leap hasn’t been as great as I expected, especially for  a guy who will be looking for a max contract after the season.

The third issue I see is a fundamental one that many teams are facing in the “We want to emulate the Warriors” era. I covered this before with the Bulls, and the Wizards are an even better example of this struggle. That being, if you’re going to play fast that equals more possessions, and more possessions equals more shots. YOU NEED TO HAVE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE SHOTS IN ORDER TO MAKE THIS A SUCCESSFUL PLAN. Sorry for yelling. But outside of Beal, who are the shotmakers on this team? Otto Porter has made 15 threes on 57 attempts. Jared Dudley is always solid and is shooting 50 percent from the field but he’s a bit player. Gary Neal can knock down shots but he’s not going to win you many games. In theory Kris Humphries stretches the floor and he’s done well this year at 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s basically a seventh man. They really need another guy or two on the wing that scares defenses – Porter was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t flourished in a bigger role.

Are the Wizards salvageable?

I really, really want to say yes, and I’m not going to count out Wall and Beal just yet, but let’s reexamine in a month. The Wizards are entering a murderous stretch in their schedule, as 15 of their next 20 opponents currently have winning records. They are dead last in the Southeast and every other team in their division has a winning record. The East is back from a 15 year hiatus (at least so far this season) and it won’t be easy to dig out of their current hole, God forbid they dig any deeper in the tough month ahead. It’s amazing to consider, but the Wizards could be a lottery team by mid-January, unless they quickly right the ship.


What’s up with the Bucks?

Milwaukee was a great story last year, riding a bunch of fresh faces with long wingspans and bouncy legs to a surprise playoff spot. They punched the heavily-favored Bulls in the mouth in the first round before bowing out in six games. This created hope, that ever-fragile and sometimes dangerous thing that gets fanbases fired up and GMs occasionally fired. Why not be hopeful? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are two legitimate stars in the making, with fingers crossed for good health (Parker) and proper development (Giannis). Jason Kidd seems a natural at this NBA coaching thing and he’s a former point guard that fixed his broken shot, creating more hope still that he can fix the Bucks’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams’ broken shot. So the Bucks decided they were ready to go for it, signing big-time free agent Greg Monroe and extending promising wing Khris Middleton. In the meantime they let veterans like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova walk. They unveiled shiny new uniforms (very nice actually) and a new court design and prepared to continue their ascendance up the Eastern Conference ladder.

So what’s happened? The shiny toys (Giannis!, Parker!, Middleton!, Monroe!, playoff excitement!, rebranding!) drove “hope” and “potential” but distracted them from some of the core reasons behind last year’s success. Less sexy things like veteran leadership and toughness were sacrificed to bring in Monroe. The former Pistons big man has not panned out thus far, to put it nicely. Not to say Monroe isn’t a good player, but it’s a square peg in a round hole situation. He doesn’t fit the rangy, bouncy, tenacious D profile that drove the Bucks last season. The team thought guys like Giannis and Jon Henson could make up for Monroe’s deficiencies on defense and the loss of Zaza, but the drop has been precipitous. Defense was key to this team’s identity last season, and they currently are the second-worst defense in the league. MCW is also not great on defense, and his shot is still broken. Methinks Milwaukee regrets jettisoning Brandon Knight to Phoenix last year. They just don’t have enough punch on offense to overcome bad defense. The Bucks should be grinding teams down and winning slugfests in the low 90s. Right now they allow 103 points per game.

That’s how a great deal of hope turns into a 7-12 start.

Are the Bucks salvageable?

In any other year, probably. But with the way the East is playing out this season, sadly the answer has to be no. That’s right, I’m writing off one of my NBA Risers from the preseason in December.

Long-term, yes, they are salvageable. But they currently sit last in the Central and 13th in the East. They are headed for the lottery. There will be some tough choices to make, but a core of Giannis, Parker and Middleton can still be special. I think MCW needs to go, more shooting will need to be acquired and somehow they need to fit Monroe into the mix or trade him if it really goes bad.

It’s sad because a season ago this team had a real identity – they thrived on creating chaos, forcing turnovers and brought attitude to the table, thanks mostly to Zaza. I’m always amazed when NBA teams add more talent and get worse on the court. Chemistry, identity, hope – it’s all very fragile in the NBA.

NBA Risers – Detroit Pistons

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 3 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the Detroit Pistons.

Who are they? After a miserable half-decade, the Pistons are Stan Van Gundy’s baby. SVG is rebuilding this team as both the coach and GM, quickly jettisoning Josh Smith, letting Greg Monroe walk in free agency and betting big on Andre Drummond. They play in a tough division and will probably finish 4th behind Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee this season. But after many seasons of cascading downhill as a result of terrible Joe Dumars moves the arrow is finally pointing back up. Last season’s questionable old school strategy of starting three bigs (Monroe, Smith and Drummond) that can’t space the floor resulted in a 32-50 record and a ranking of 26th in attendance. SVG is remaking them in the mold of his successful Magic teams – will this strategy work? It has to be better than the recent past.

How were they built? By trades and the Draft. The lottery has yielded Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson in the last four years. Brandon Jennings was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton (yikes), Reggie Jackson came over in a trade last season from OKC and Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova were acquired in trades this summer. The only real notable free agent signings are Jodie Meeks in 2014 and Aron Baynes in 2015. Players aren’t exactly itching to spend winters in the Motor City playing for a loser.

Core group – Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Ersan Ilyasova, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Drummond posted an impressive 14 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocks season and should have more room to maneuver in the paint with Monroe gone. Detroit is making a big bet on Drummond becoming a true cornerstone player. I’ve never been a huge Reggie Jackson guy, especially at the big money Detroit threw at him. He did average 18 and 9 in 27 games with the Pistons last season, which these days gets you $80 million I guess. Small sample size be damned. KCP scores a little bit and does little else, but has a chance to be a more impactful player this year. Ilyasova is a nice acquisition, fitting SVG’s vision for a more versatile roster – he’s the stretch four Monroe and Smith weren’t.

Role guys – Jodie Meeks, Spencer Dinwiddie, Marcus Morris, Anthony Tolliver, Aron Baynes. Baynes was an overpay, but is a serviceable backup to Drummond. Marcus Morris is scorned and will either play with a chip on his shoulder or assault somebody. The rest aren’t very exciting, though provide decent depth.

Boom or bust potential – Stanley Johnson, Brandon Jennings. Johnson can defend shooting guards and small forwards, which makes him attractive to Van Gundy. He will eventually overtake Morris in the starting SF position in a perfect world, but will have growing pains as a 19-year old rookie. Jennings can fill it up when healthy, the question is will he ever be 100% this season after a nasty Achilles tear?

Optimist view – Ideally the Pistons starting five that establishes itself going forward will be Jackson, KCP, Morris, Ilyasova and Drummond, a fairly versatile unit that can score and defend enough to hover around .500, with the rookie Johnson playing meaningful minutes off the bench. A 4th place finish in the Central is probably the ceiling this year, with a serious playoff run another year away. That may not seem like much of a rise, but for a team that was 5-23 at one point last season, it’s relative. And SVG is the real deal.

NBA Risers – New Orleans Pelicans

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the New Orleans Pelicans.

UPDATE – This just in from brother-in-law Jeff, an actual living, breathing Pelicans fan: “They’re definitely committed to defining Davis as a PF, not C, based on Asik and Ajinca signings. Since Davis pick, they’ve taken Austin Rivers and sold/traded every other pick for Holiday and Asik. Gave up Greivis and Robin Lopez for Tyreke. Basically just a parade of bad moves since drafting Davis. Oh and Davis is quite possibly the best any 22 year old has ever been at the game of basketball, which makes up for a lot.” Well said.

Who are they? Essentially the Cleveland Cavaliers circa 2003-09. It’s a testament to Anthony Davis that these guys are considered favorites for the 7th seed in the West. Their piss poor job of surrounding their superstar with talent is reminiscent of LeBron’s first go-round with Cleveland. You can’t blame them for being misled by Philly on Jrue Holiday’s health, and the laughably small $3 million restitution for that debacle won’t make it right. The other guards they’ve targeted have been less than stellar companions to the Brow at best (Tyreke Evans) and complete duds at worst (Eric Gordon). But at the end of the day the Pelicans have a generational cornerstone in Davis, whom they’ve locked up to a long term deal, and any building team would commit atrocities for that luxury. One key addition is new coach Alvin Gentry, fresh off an NBA title as a Warriors assistant. Gentry will be a step up from Monty Williams from a play-calling perspective, and here’s hoping his time with the Warriors will help him shape this team in their image.

How have they been built? Davis was the No. 1 overall pick after David Stern rigged the lottery to help the formerly league-owned team get in position for a once in a lifetime player (just kidding, kind of). The rest of the pieces have come in free agency and minor trades, but as mentioned above, this team hasn’t really been built per se, more like randomly pasted together like a 3rd grader’s art project.

Core group – Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik. Davis may be the second best player in the league right now, and projects to sit atop the throne for many years going forward. He’s a fantasy basketball player’s dream – compiling points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals at an elite level, and his dominance transcends the stat sheet. He’s a one-man floor spacer, drawing defensive attention whether he’s posting up, spotting up or running the break; not to mention he’s one of the best defensive big men in the game. Evans silenced some critics with solid numbers (17 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds per game) in a season where he was relied upon heavily. The downside with Evans is he doesn’t bring enough to the table defensively to make up for his easily criticized volume shooting and erratic playmaking efforts. Holiday unfortunately remains a question mark, though there have been some reports that he is back on his feet and rehabbing with his brother. Asik is solid and frees up Davis to roam on defense.

Role guys – Eric Gordon, Norris Cole, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy Pondexter, Ryan Anderson, Dante Cunningham, Alonzo Gee, Kendrick Perkins….yuck.

Boom or bust potential – Really nothing of note here. We know who these players are. Why their big moves this offseason were locking up Ajinca and signing Perkins is beyond me. Their deficiencies are mainly on the wing – shooting and perimeter defense. They did nothing to improve in those areas.

Optimist view – The sole reason I’m including the Pelicans in the group of NBA Risers is because of Anthony Davis; if he stays healthy they will win more than they lose, but to make the next leap into the West’s elite they’ll need to show more savvy in the front office. Last year’s 8-seed – where they were swept by the eventual champs Golden State – should have an inside track to the 7-seed, perhaps higher should one of the core six West teams suffer catastrophe. The true optimism should come next offseason, when an expanding cap gives them the flexibility to attract another star or two to join the Brow on Bourbon Street.

NBA Risers – Orlando Magic

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Our next team – the Orlando Magic.

Who are they? This seems like a loaded question. The Magic are difficult to define. The Post-Dwight rebuild has been productive, through the draft mostly, and on paper the Magic look ready to be true Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls. However, they are counting on a lot of guards and wings that can’t shoot, and will need a Rookie of the Year worthy campaign from Mario Hezonja if they are going to scare any defenders on the perimeter. That said, the athleticism is there, and defensively there’s no reason they can’t be in the top half of the league. For sure new coach Scott Skiles will demand excellence on that end of the court.

How have they been built? The Draft has been good to the Magic in recent years, which is the best blueprint to success for most teams, but especially those like the Magic that have trouble attracting marquee free agents. They drafted Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Mario Hezonja in the last few years, all players that will log heavy minutes this season. Nikola Vucevic came over in a trade with Philly and Evan Fournier in the Aaron Afflalo trade with Denver. Free agency has yielded role players Channing Frye and CJ Watson.

Core group – Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo. The gritty Skiles has a dream backcourt for his style of coaching, with guards Payton and Oladipo both bringing athleticism and active hands. Payton will continue to improve as a passer but his shot may be broken. Oladipo also struggles from outside but can get to the rim and is a model defender at the 2 spot. Vucevic and Harris have gotten big contracts in the last year, and will be counted on to make an impact. Vucevic led the team in points and rebounds last season and will need to step up his rim protection. Harris has some bad habits such as forcing bad shots and playing lazy defense. Those need to be corrected if he is to live up to his new deal.

Role guys – Channing Frye, Dewayne Dedmon, Evan Fournier, CJ Watson. Frye and Fournier will be counted on for outside shooting, while Dedmon could make a play for increased minutes thanks to his work on defense. Watson is a serviceable backup PG.

Boom or bust potential – Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, Shabazz Napier. Gordon has all the talent to succeed and can thrive in the right niche as an efficient two way player if he figures out the league a bit more. Hezonja lit it up in Summer League and showed a flair for the dramatic with a buzzer beater in his first game. How that translates to the Regular Season remains to be seen, but a dead eye shooter is desperately needed here.

Optimist view – The Magic are still a year away from serious playoff aspirations, however a 10 to 15 game leap in wins is achievable. The Skiles bump is real, the young talent will mature together and wild cards Hezonja and Gordon can bump them up a level with strong seasons. I fully expect the 2016-17 Magic to give a team all it can handle in the first round of the playoffs. This year will serve as some much needed seasoning.

NBA Risers – Utah Jazz

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the Utah Jazz.

Who are they? A somewhat anonymous defensive-minded group, but that’s about to change. The Jazz led the league last year in opponent’s points per game (94.9), which is pretty amazing for a team that missed the playoffs. Of course on the other side of that coin is their lackluster offense, 26th in the league at 95.1. In order to jump into the postseason in the Brutal Westthe offense needs to make drastic strides. The good news is I believe they are poised to do that, with young guards who should improve, forwards making the leap and a certain Frenchman on a path of destruction.

How have they been built? The Jazz have been savvy in the trade market, important for a team based in Salt Lake City – not exactly an NBA destination. Rudy Gobert was acquired in a draft day trade with Denver in 2013, in exchange for an obscure pick and cash. Derrick Favors came over in the Deron Williams trade with New Jersey and the Jazz’s patience in developing him has paid off and will continue to do so. Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum were Jazz draft picks, and Trevor Booker is their most noteworthy free agent acquisition (again, not an NBA destination, beautiful country though).

Core group – Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward. Gobert is a monster. A 7’1” 23 year old that protects the rim, runs the floor, dunks on everyone and has great vision as a passer. I look for him to score more this season, perhaps stepping out his range a bit. His stoicism even after vicious blocks and his fantastic nickname – The Stifle Tower – bodes well for his rising star factor. To compete in the West with the Marc Gasols, Dwight Howards, LaMarcus Aldridges, and others, a guy like Gobert is almost a prerequisite. Combine Gobert with his frontcourt mate Derrick Favors, and the Jazz have two key legs to stand on out West. Favors averaged 16 and 8 last year, his best season, and the arrow continues to point up. He’s becoming one of the top traditional power forwards in the league, providing physicality and an efficient post game. Hayward continues to quietly produce, steadily increasing his PPG each of his NBA seasons and enjoying a bounce back campaign from behind the arc last year. A healthy Burks can be a key cog in an improving offense.

Role guys – Rodney Hood, Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles. Booker provides toughness and can break out on the offensive end occasionally. Hood can score off the bench, much needed in Utah.

Boom or bust potential – Dante Exum, Trey Burke, Trey Lyles, Raul Neto. Utah has the frontcourt problem solved, now to it’s biggest remaining challenge – developing a star point ballhandler. The Jazz need Burke or Exum to be that guy in order to truly make noise in the West. Not only are teams expected to produce points at the PG position these days, but need backcourt defense to be strong to compete with the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, even Mike Conley. Exum would seem to be the best bet, given the hype and raw ability. Burke may be destined to be at best a Jamal Crawford/sixth man scorer. Exum has already shown flashes of brilliance on defense, showcasing his length and quickness. His offense was putrid in his rookie season, so all eyes will be on the youngster’s development on that end. He is in my view the most important piece when looking at the Jazz’s 2015-16 prospects.

Optimist view – The Jazz are poised to get back into the West playoffs just two years after completely bottoming out under Tyrone Corbin and a thin roster, which speaks to the success the front office has had in quickly rebuilding. Coach Quin Snyder seems to be the perfect man for the job of developing raw talent and drawing up schemes for that talent to be successful on the court (the Anti-Ty Corbin). With a boost in Exum’s understanding of an NBA offense, the Jazz stand to benefit from more of a scoring punch, with more easy buckets for Hayward, Gobert and Favors. If the Jazz can elevate their points per game closer to 100 while maintaining their stifling defense and a real home court advantage, 50 wins is very attainable. Look for the Jazz to push for the 7th seed and even threaten to jump into the top six with a couple breaks. A truly exciting team that makes the West even more fearsome.

NBA Risers – Milwaukee Bucks

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? The first team we’re tackling – the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee Bucks

Who are they? A feisty first round playoff team that nearly pushed the heavily favored Bulls to the brink. As a Bulls fan I admit this team had me seriously worried that my favorite team would be the first to blow a 3-0 series lead. The Buck are young, long, rangy and furious defenders. Their offense should get a shot in the arm with the addition of Greg Monroe and a healthy Jabari Parker. Jason Kidd has surprised with his early coaching success; he has this group believing.

How have they been built? Their most important pieces – Parker and Giannis – were Milwaukee first round picks. Acquired Middleton in the Brandon Jennings trade with Detroit and MCW in a trade with Philly. Free agency has yielded Greg Monroe this year, perhaps a sign that free agents now consider the Bucks a destination. Jason Kidd escaped from Brooklyn memorably to lead this team.

Core group – Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetekoumpo, Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams, Greg Monroe. A devastatingly versatile core that will only get better. Giannis has the chance to be a superstar, as does Jabari. Middleton provides much needed shooting and needed to be brought back, even if it was a slight overpay. MCW must improve one of the league’s worst jumpers but puts in work on the defensive end. It will be interesting to see how Monroe fits in. There won’t be a ton of spacing for him to operate in the post and his defense has been lackluster, which this coach won’t tolerate.

Role guys – Greivis Vazquez, OJ Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Miles Plumlee, Chris Copeland. Depth has improved, with a quality backup PG in Vazquez and Chris Copeland takes Jared Dudley’s slot. Could use a couple shooters off the bench.

Boom or bust potential – Jabari Parker. I’m praying that he stays healthy for his second season, as he can be provide just the scoring punch and wing/stretch four versatility this team needs to get to the next level.

Optimist view – The 2015-16 ceiling for this team is the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, if things really break right can finish top-4 and get home court in the first round. With continued success more free agents and a new arena could be in the cards. The dream scenario is Jabari developing into a stud this season and Giannis making the leap to All-Star, with a top-10 defense to boot.