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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Milwaukee Bucks

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Brandon Knight, Larry Drew and O.J. Mayo are looking for fresh starts in Milwaukee (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

Through all the denigration via Basketball Twitter about the Milwaukee Bucks’ unending commitment to mediocrity, we may have biffed on the fact that the Bucks should actually be a mediocre team this year, something that about a dozen NBA teams can’t claim to be. On top of that, in eschewing some of the team’s former go-to studs over the 2013 offseason, the Bucks have put together another capable team that will actually be entertaining to watch in 2013-14. All for a modest price.

Of course, they’re still the Bucks. For as much as Larry Sanders, Giannis “CTRL-C” Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova will entertain this year, this consistent reach for 40-some wins (the Bucks petered out at 38 last year) has to enervate the fan base. The Bucks are full of players that have proven to be far short of franchise-changing, and as it currently stands they’re banking on Sanders coming into his own with a new contract set to begin in 2014, and Antetokounmpo far outplaying his status as a 15th overall pick in a crummy draft.

Both seem likely, but that’s hardly enough for a Bucks front office that just continues to confuse. The team knew towards the end of the 2011-12 season that former coach Scott Skiles wanted nothing to do with coaching the team, but that he also didn’t want to walk away from the guaranteed money on his contract. Did the Bucks go out to sign a coach-in-waiting as an assistant should Skiles finally call it quits? No, they waited out Skiles’ eventual walk-away and hired a watered-down version of Skiles (Jim Boylan) to lead the team on an interim basis. Even though Boylan had done a poor job in a similar situation when Skiles was fired in Chicago some five years earlier.

Couple that oddity with a few other strange moves (Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings co-existing? Paying Zaza Pachulia an average salary in a loaded frontcourt until 2016? Underwhelming Larry Drew?), and you have one of the least-applauded front offices out there, at least amongst NBA analysts. Among owners, general manager John Hammond is a lauded figure, because he gives his small market owner a chance at the playoffs with a payroll that doesn’t even exceed the salary cap, but this is no way to build a prominent winner.

It’s true that other small market teams didn’t have to bottom out in order to make the leap toward greatness, the Indiana Pacers’ are relying almost exclusively on draft picks selected in the middle of the first round, and that some low points (the Bobcats Basketball Club of Charlotte) often don’t provide the assets need to turn it all around, but this repeated turn has to have Bucks fans bored by August. I mean, O.J. Mayo.

Again, the Bucks aren’t without compelling parts. In fact, the entire roster is made up of very watchable players, and the presence of a developing Antetokounmpo could not only be what takes the Bucks from a 40 to 50 win ceiling in a few years, but he may be the NBA’s top League Pass daring in the initial stages of his rookie year. This is a genuinely good roster, and even if we dig into the Mayo and Pachulia signings … these are good basketball players working on a reasonable salary.

There’s no star here, though, as even with our respect for Larry Sanders’ game-changing production in place. No star big enough to drag Milwaukee out of the middling much. Not when his blocked shots and rebounds end with Caron Butler slinging a 19-footer on the other end.

There’s a just a team. Milwaukee in the middle, as always.

Projected record: 38-44

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John Henson preps to utilize that wingspan (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Bucks for … John Henson, who should get a chance to stretch out some this year.

There’s no shame in being, at best, the third most-discussed member of a team’s frontcourt rotation when said rotation includes shot-blocking big-money folk hero Larry Sanders and 18-year-old international man of mystery and preseason favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are two pretty interesting dudes, and would rank at or near the top of many teams’ Most Interesting Players Power Rankings. (Which, come to think of it, is something we should probably do at some point.)

It would, however, be a shame if we didn’t talk about Henson at all, because while he didn’t get a ton of burn as a rookie under head coaches Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan, the 6-foot-11 North Carolina product was pretty impressive when he did get to stay on the floor for a while. In the 13 games in which he got at least 20 minutes of playing time, Henson averaged 13.5 points (on 51.4 percent shooting), 11.9 rebounds and a combined 2.8 blocks and steals in 28.8 minutes per contest. That included one late-season outing that saw him become the fourth player since 1985 to score 17 points, grab 25 rebounds and block seven shots in a game, and another in which he put up 28 and 16 in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder:

Extrapolating stardom from several strong performances is always a dangerous game, but those stats and outings fall neatly in line with the per-minute production turned in by the No. 14 pick in the 2012 NBA draft – 16.5 points, 12.9 boards, 2.6 combined blocks and steals, 48.2 percent shooting – and make sense given his peripheral per-possession stats.

Henson grabbed available rebounds at the same rate as Zach Randolph and blocked about the same percentage of opponents’ shots as Josh Smith and Amir Johnson. He showed a capacity to bust it up the floor on the fast break, and a developing understanding of how to move off the ball in the half court to find seams in the defense near the basket; just under half of the offensive plays he finished came off the offensive glass, as the result of an off-ball cut or in transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data.

He’s nowhere near a finished product, of course. He needs to add bulk to his reed-thin 220-pound frame to be able to anchor in the post on both ends, lest he continue getting pushed off the block on offense and under the basket on defense, and he needs to work on his range in a major way. As SI.com’s Rob Mahoney noted this summer, “His shooting from anywhere outside the paint was pretty dreadful last season,” to the tune of a woeful 28.7 percent mark beyond the restricted area. That’ll need to pick up considerably if he’s to provide a capable replacement for floor-stretching starting four Ersan Ilyasova alongside Sanders or reserve Zaza Pachulia in the Bucks’ lineup.

But he’s shown flashes with that jumper, with his defense – Milwaukee was giving up a staggering 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in January, and that dropped to 102.7-per-100 by season’s end – and with his ability to put things together, as he did for the Bucks’ Summer League team in Vegas. Henson’s all-too-brief cameos last season offered reason to believe that he could follow in Sanders’ footsteps to become Milwaukee’s latest post-lottery draft heist, and with new head coach Larry Drew looking to take advantage of all the long-limbed athleticism his young frontcourt has to offer, the ex-Tar Heel could prove himself as worthy of attention as Sanders and Antetokounmpo before long.

Honorable mentions: High-quality meme riffs; high-quality antlered mascot antics; Antetokounmpo rocking the Dirk-legged fadeaway.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

While every NBA team has at least a few players worthy of attention, some rosters lag behind in the entertainment department. This season, the Bucks figure to be one of those teams, what with a seeming lack of clear direction and a collection of scoring threats for whom “middling” would be a major compliment. This is a team likely to appeal to those who already have a vested interest in their success. The frontcourt combination of Larry Sanders and John Henson shows serious promise (as well as the potential for jokes about mid-90s TV cable comedy), but it’s hard to imagine many people watching the Bucks for a shot of adrenaline or to discover something new in the basketball world.

That could change if 18-year-old Greek rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo earns extended playing time. While Antetokounmpo is very raw, his enormous hands and startling athleticism have earned him the nickname “The Greek Freak.” If the Bucks look somewhat dull entering this season, then he could inject some much needed excitement into proceedings. He’s not advanced enough to earn major playing time just yet, but the Bucks also need someone who can convince the basketball world that a brighter future could exist.

Antetokounmpo isn’t going to win the Bucks many games. However, for a team seemingly stuck in neutral, a sense of forward progress could be just as meaningful.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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