After two decades of mediocrity, winning between 26 and 46 games — save for a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001 — the Bucks finally bottomed out again, submitting the worst ever record for a franchise that’s earned 17 top-10 picks and four No. 1 overall selections in its 47-year history.
If not for Cleveland’s good fortune — a phrase, by the way, that still seems strange — Milwaukee may have landed a fifth top choice, but came away with the guy GM John Hammond probably would’ve taken there anyway, delivering the Bucks arguably the best player in each of the past two drafts.
Now, they’re peddling a pair of teenagers as the faces of their franchise, a rebranding that encourages Milwaukeeans to remove their beer goggles and admire an attractive roster, even as they go home without a date to the postseason dance for the second straight season.
The Bucks should begin the year with four players aged 25 and under — Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker — surrounding 28-year-old Ersan Ilyasova in the starting lineup. Throw in a fresh pair of billionaire owners and plans for a new arena, and the basketball future hasn’t been this bright in Milwaukee since Richie Cunningham’s happy playing days.
But just as Cunningham’s glory was disrupted by the seduction of a pretty young thing, so too were the Bucks by Jason Kidd this summer. They gave up two second-round picks and unprofessionally ousted a respected coach to bring in the Hall of Fame-bound point guard whose practices in Brooklyn were, well, laughable. Kidd did manage to turn things around in the second half of his first and only season on the Nets bench, leading a Brook Lopez-less roster to a 34-17 record down the stretch and a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Whether his coaching style — whatever that may be — translates to a bunch of kids trying to battle their way out of the NBA basement remains to be seen.
Still, Kidd has more to work with than Larry Drew did during his tumultuous one-year tenure, as the trade for Jared Dudley and the free agent signing of Jerryd Bayless bolster Brew City’s depth behind Parker and Antetokounmpo on the wings. Media day, as it often does, promised a slimmed-down O.J. Mayo and a rehabilitated Larry Sanders, who’s “as hungry as I’ve ever been” (insert munchies joke here).
The Milwaukee Bucks might be mediocre again, but at least this time there’s nowhere to go but up.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Is it over yet?
Did the summer help at all?
Outside of the Kidd fiasco, Milwaukee’s new owners managed to avoid the usual big-splash panic moves that generally follow the sale of an NBA team, holding onto their pricier tradable contracts, avoiding another Mayo-like signing and adding a first-round pick from the Clippers, all while drafting Parker, watching the Greek Freak do Greek Freakish things on an international stage, getting Mayo and Knight to work out together in Miami and letting Sanders recover from thumb and orbital socket injuries. And even Kidd isn’t such a bad addition. Opponents won’t exactly fear the dear, but yeah, the Bucks are a little bit better, now and later, so long as they mind their assets and don’t settle for the middle.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Parker is the most likable member of the 2014 draft class, even if he’s a Duke guy, and not just because he delivered bake goods to camped out Cameron crazies. Intelligent, grounded and unselfish almost to a fault, he’s a glue guy of the highest order. Mercer’s upset of Parker’s Blue Devils didn’t reflect his influence on team chemistry, but four straight Illinois Class 4A state titles is something nobody else that’s ever laced up the sneakers on a Chicago prep basketball court can claim. The Windy City is a basketball breeding ground, and Parker survived it better than anybody else, playing in the public league that launched Anthony Davis for a program that produced Derrick Rose. Add a skill-set and the same athletic-but-doughy-looking build that made Paul Pierce an NBA Finals MVP, and that means something.
Along with pushing two 19-year-olds as the faces of your franchise comes a leadership void. Both Knight and Sanders professed their prowess in that regard at media day, but they boast the same combined number of career playoff victories as Laverne & Shirley. While the additions of Dudley and Bayless — a pair of stable locker room presences off the bench — should help the Bucks avoid a complete repeat implosion, this remains a young roster devoid of a commanding NBA voice, and that includes Kidd.
Contributor with something to prove:
Sandwiching an alleged bar fight and a sneakily served marijuana suspension around an injury-plagued dud of a first season after signing a four-year, $44 million extension, Sanders begins 2014-15 with a fresh slate. If the 6-foot-11 Sanders can return to the form that warranted enough votes to finish third on the NBA’s Most Improved Player ballot and seventh in the Defensive Player of the Year race in 2013, he’ll reestablish himself as either a building block for the Bucks or some awful big trade bait (cue Cavaliers chatter) — both of which would be welcome news for the future of both Milwaukee and Sanders.
Potential breakout stud:
As much as I’d like to argue Knight is primed for a breakout season, few players have warranted hysterical hype this summer quite like Antetokounmpo and his raw athleticism. Still growing at 6-foot-10, capable of covering three quarters of the court in two dribbles and floating buzzer-beating 3-pointers like it ain’t no thing — not to mention he’s plying his point guard skills under one Gary Payton — he’s indeed the freakiest of Greeks. Now, if he can just produce numbers better than his 51.8 true shooting and 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio as a rookie, then he could really be something.
It would require Greek Freak-like leaps from Knight, Parker and Antetokounmpo as well as a return to form from Sanders, Mayo and Ilyasova — and the health of all involved — but there's at least the possibility the Bucks can rise to the middle this year, particularly in a top-loaded Eastern Conference.
If everything falls apart:
If Sanders finds trouble at another Milwaukee brewpub, if Mayo puts down a few too many bratwursts, if Giannis remains as raw as his arms are long, if Knight still can't quite find his NBA way and if Parker doesn't fulfill his considerable promise as a rookie — all ifs that aren’t out of the realm of possibility, either — then the Bucks will find themselves right back where they started the season, at the bottom looking up, but with another high lottery pick waiting in the wings. And that's not such a bad thing.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
Milwaukee will finish at 20-62, last in the Central Division.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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