For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the combustible Milwaukee Bucks.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
At first or even fifth glance the Milwaukee Bucks seem an unremarkable cast of characters, destined for .500 at best and a crushing bit of anonymity along the way.
A re-tread coach. A small market setup. A series of middling low lottery picks. Samuel Dalembert, on his 49th team. An, um, "experienced" GM. The answer to several "Who He Play For?" questions, should Charles Barkley remember that there is still a team in Milwaukee. Just one nationally televised game all season that isn't on NBA TV or WGN.
Beyond all that lies a ticking time bomb, though. One that very well could prove a positively-toned breakthrough for several of the more prominent cast of characters, but one that could also make for a Hindenburg-sized disaster that only the League Pass know-alls would notice. Rub your hands together, NBA sickies, because you can't lose.
Leading the Bucks, ostensibly, is coach Scott Skiles; a truly intelligent basketball man who truly did try to get himself bought out last season so that he didn't have to return to this noise. Skiles had unpleasant endings in each of his last three head coaching spots — Greece, Phoenix, Chicago — and his expert (as in, "probably should have won the Coach of the Year award") turn riding the 2009-10 Bucks to an unending series of 89-81 wins seems like ages ago. In the last year of his deal and his fifth (!) season in Milwaukee, Skiles could lead the league in passive/aggressiveness in 2012-13.
The actual leader of the team is Brandon Jennings, because either Skiles cannot tame him or doesn't care to. Jennings does play hard and wants to win, but even after 7171 career NBA minutes it's not readily apparent if he knows the quickest way between an in and out dribble maneuver and an actual win. Jennings comes off as the sort of waterbug you can't stay in front of, but he averages fewer than four free throw attempts per 36 minutes of play, and seems quite content by wasting his youth on fading low-percentage jumpers.
Above him in pay but behind him in seniority is Monta Ellis, owner of an expiring contract and capable of the sort of 14-point quarters that keep you coming back time after time. The shakeup the brought Ellis to Milwaukee last March breathed new life into the franchise — the last thing Bucks fans could handle in the autumn of 2012 is the sort of day to day injury updates that Golden State Warrior fans are pouring over as they keep up with Andrew Bogut's "progress" — but Ellis and Jennings did not work especially well overall in a small'ish, training camp-less sample size last season.
Best, for the sickies anyway, is the fact that Ellis could potentially opt out of his contract this summer (something we're not sure Bucks brass wouldn't especially mind), and Jennings' restricted free agency. Also prepare for a series of "Is Brandon Jennings Worth It?"-columns from websites with an eye for advanced metrics.
All while the Bucks shoot for the lower rungs of the playoffs, again, hoping to take in some playoff revenue and a trip to Miami. Or, erm, Indianapolis.
Prospects could genuinely improve, if all are engaged. Dalembert is by no means a panacea, but his presence allows Drew Gooden (who, with dozens outside of Wisconsin watching last season, enjoyed a career year in 2011-12) to move down to the power forward slot. Mike Dunleavy Jr. also enjoyed a career renaissance of sorts, and if his painful knee condition allows for it he should be able to provide the sort of all-around offensive play that teams crave once a play breaks down. Larry Sanders is a sound helper, provided he reins in his pick and pop instincts, and I simply cannot dismiss the chance that Ellis and Jennings could create some sort of chemistry together under Skiles' tutelage.
Skiles is the guy that went from high school/college scorer to NBA assist record-breaker to defensive-minded head man. He's changed, before. It hasn't happened much since Bill Clinton took office, probably no co-incidence there, but he's been proven capable of learning on the fly before. If he comes up with something in some way that shows that he wants to make Milwaukee home for the next few years, the Bucks could be onto something.
Or, they could fall short while falling out. Ellis and Jennings might be encouraged to find safe haven elsewhere, Hammond and Skiles could be let go, and the team could head into 2013-14 with Ersan Ilyasova as its highest-paid player and yet another 11th overall pick to attempt to trump up. We genuinely would hate every bit of this, considering the potential on both the sideline and starting lineup.
Whatever the turnout, the sickies will be on board.
Projected record: 38-44
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: The chance that the production that followed the trade for Monta Ellis will hold up for a full season. The idea behind sending injured defensive centerpiece Andrew Bogut and never-made-for-Milwaukee shooter Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for shooting guard Monta Ellis and young big man Ekpe Udoh was, primarily, to try to inject some offensive life into a unit that seemed in need of a jolt to make a postseason push. The Bucks ranked 17th in the NBA in points scored per 100 possessions through last season's first 43 games -- an improvement over the dead-last finish they managed in 2010-11, sure, but still in the bottom half of the league and not looking in much danger of improving in time to catch the New York Knicks or Philadelphia 76ers for one of the East's final two playoff berths.
So general manager John Hammond swung for the fences with a deal that looked like a score at the time, and while the Bucks wound up finishing in the lottery, four games out of the No. 8 seed, the numbers show that the deal bore fruit -- Milwaukee did get better offensively over the final 23 games of the season, improving by more than three points-per-100 to an offensive rating of 104.5, making them the league's 11th-most efficiency offense during that stretch. And as Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings made a point of noting during the offseason, a big part of that was the supercharged offense the Bucks featured when he and Ellis shared the backcourt. As I wrote at the time:
[…] during the 601 minutes that he and Ellis played together, [the Bucks scored] 106.2 points per 48 minutes of playing time compared with 98.9-per-48 on the season as a whole, according to NBA.com's statistical analysis tool.
Part of that's due to Milwaukee playing at a significantly faster pace with the Jennings-Ellis unit sharing the floor — when the duo played at the same time, the Bucks averaged 100.6 possessions per 48 minutes, more than four-per-48 faster than their season average — but they also scored more effectively in that uptempo game, doing much more damage on fast breaks and in the paint and producing an average of 105.3 points per 100 possessions. That's a big improvement over the Bucks' 102.4-per-100 season mark — over the course of a full season, it's the difference between having a top-five offense on par with the Chris Paul-led Los Angeles Clippers and having a middle-of-the-league group like the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks.
It's weird to think about a Scott Skiles-led Bucks team heading into a season trying to make its bones on offense. But with two guards who thrive in an uptempo, open-court, transition-keyed style, plus stretch bigs Ersan Ilyasova (whose season 3-point mark was inflated by an unsustainable 50.8 percent from deep after the All-Star Game, but the Bucks would probably be fine with the 38.8 percent he hit before the break, too) and Drew Gooden (44.5 percent from between 16 and 24 feet away last year) back to space the floor in the frontcourt and (Bucks fans hope) a potential breakout season from trimmed-down 2011 lottery pick Tobias Harris, who reportedly has the inside track on starting at small forward after a strong summer, just letting it rip might be the team's most effective, and efficient, shot at fielding the kind of top-flight offense that could propel the Bucks back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. If nothing else, it should make the Bucks a lot of fun to watch, which is something they haven't consistently been since ... oh, 2000-01.
What Should Make You Scared: The prospect of Jennings-Ellis lineups getting roasted on D. Ah, the yin and the yang. From the stat dive I did during the summer:
Opponents made more field goals per 48 minutes, posted a higher effective field-goal percentage, and grabbed a higher share of available offensive and defensive rebounds to key second-chance opportunities and transition offense.
In sum, teams playing the Bucks feasted when Jennings and Ellis shared the court, scoring an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions of floor time, more than five points-per-100 below Milwaukee's season defensive mark, according to NBA.com's metrics. To put things in perspective, only one team put up defensive numbers that inept over the course of the full 2011-12 season — when Jennings and Ellis shared the backcourt, the Bucks ceased being a slightly-worse-than-average defensive team and became the Charlotte Bobcats (107.8-per-100 allowed).
Now, to be fair, as Milwaukee-focused blog Behind the Buck Pass noted after I wrote that, the presence of a legitimately capable defensive center/rim protector behind the guards -- most notably offseason trade acquisition Samuel Dalembert, but perhaps also Udoh, ace shot-blocker/iffy team defender Larry Sanders, free-agent signing Joel Przybilla (if he can stay healthy) or 2012 lottery pick John Henson -- could change matters drastically, as could the steadying presence of multipositional lockdown man Luc Richard Mbah a Moute once he returns from rehab following offseason surgery to repair the patella tendon in his right knee. After shipping out former defensive linchpin Bogut, Hammond may have provided Skiles with enough frontcourt and wing pieces to cover over his explosive guards' perimeter mistakes. If he hasn't, though, a third straight lottery trip could be in the cards.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Any team coached by Scott Skiles will focus itself around the defensive end of the floor, and for years that approach made total sense for the Bucks. With Andrew Bogut serving as defensive linchpin, they could organize themselves accordingly. Several major Bogut injuries led to some disappointing seasons, but his abilities nevertheless gave the Bucks a coherent strategy. After trading him last season for Monta Ellis, everything changed.
Put simply, the Bucks now make very little sense. Both Skiles and general manager John Hammond are in the final years of their contracts, suggesting that massive change is imminent barring a surprising playoff run. On top of that, the team's two key players, Ellis and Brandon Jennings, are both small scoring-oriented guards who match each other's strengths and cannot possibly serve as a solid long-term combo at the defensive end. The frontcourt is more jumbled: rookie John Henson has promise and Ersan Ilyasova has improved much over his career, but Drew Gooden has aged considerably.
This is now a team without a clear identity, and it seems unlikely that they'll have one until Skiles and Hammond leave town. Unless that happens midway through the season — possible for Skiles, unlikely for Hammond — the Bucks may be looking at a lost season. Despite having some tradable assets and looming cap space, they arguably have few reasons to maneuver right this minute. Why plan for the future when some other brain trust will be controlling it?
It should be clear that this puts everyone involved in the franchise — the coaches, the players, the executives, etc. — in an odd situation. And that, my friends, is why most coaches on middling-to-bad teams rarely make it to the end of their contracts. Because, when an entire season is run-up to coming change, it's a little hard for any of it to matter.