The Milwaukee Bucks went from the worst team in the NBA to its fastest-rising franchise so quickly that it almost seems impossible.
After nine losing seasons in 10 years, capped by a 15-67 campaign that stands as the worst in Milwaukee's 47-year NBA history, the Bucks set about changing, well, everything. New owners, new coach, new franchise cornerstone. Under Jason Kidd, there'd be a new "longball" identity; under defensive assistant Sean Sweeney, there'd be a new commitment to using Milwaukee's length to choke offenses out, holding opponents to 99.3 points per 100 possessions, the NBA's No. 2 defensive efficiency mark.
There was a new resolve, as Milwaukee kept pushing even after losing prized rookie Jabari Parker to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and expected defensive centerpiece Larry Sanders to personal problems, a drug suspension and, ultimately, an inability to do what was required of him to continue playing. There'd be a new approach, allowing the club to perhaps take a momentary step backward to set up a bigger step forward, opening the door to moves like the trade that shipped out top scorer Brandon Knight for the longer, more defense-oriented Michael Carter-Williams.
All this renewal led to a 26-game turnaround in the win column, a 41-41 finish that landed the upstart Bucks the East's No. 6 seed and a playoff date with the Chicago Bulls. They'd be drummed out of the postseason in six games, but that scarcely mattered. The Bucks didn't just arrive ahead of schedule; they arrived before anyone even knew they were on the schedule. For fans used to sometimes respectable, often underwhelming, rarely invigorating play, that in and of itself was new.
The commitment to renovation continued this summer. New logos, new uniforms, new (and first of its kind) alternate court. Soon enough — consternation over public funding proposals not withstanding — a new arena in which to view them all.
It all inspires the sense that we might be seeing something we haven't seen in 30-odd years: a Bucks team poised to become a real force, that could become a perennial contender. It's weird. It's exciting. It's Milwaukee. What a time to be alive.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
I'm with the baseball guy:
There should be a deer emoji !!!!
— Mike Trout (@MikeTrout) October 25, 2013
In its absence, let's go with:
... and let's turn to Reggie Evans to voice our thoughts about the young Bucks:
Did the summer help at all?
Yes, but not without some cause for concern.
Landing Greg Monroe matters. It matters from a big-picture, state-of-the-franchise perspective. It's a bold statement that Milwaukee — a brutal-winter slice of flyover country, forever drawing dead against major markets and warm-weather climates — can not only compete with the big boys for top talent, but can beat them. It should matter on the court, too; Monroe gives the Bucks the sort of low-post presence and half-court organizing principle they haven't had in ages. (Whether shifting the offense that way constitutes a capital idea in the contemporary NBA remains an open question.)
Keeping Khris Middleton matters. Sure, Milwaukee could, and did, offer more years and more money than anybody else, but that's not the point. The Bucks retained one of the most attractive restricted free agents on the market, a 24-year-old emerging 3-and-D threat who fits perfectly in Kidd's scheme and has blossomed beautifully in his two years as a Buck. Moreover, they secured him as a building block for the next half-decade on a deal that won't look especially onerous in the nine-figure salary-cap environment we're about to enter thanks to the influx of cash from the league's new $24 billion broadcast rights deal.
Ditto for retaining the go-go-Gadget-armed John Henson for $11 million per year to be a valuable two-way third big, and perhaps more. And I like that general manager John Hammond took another big swing in the draft, using the 17th overall pick on UNLV's Rashad Vaughn, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who can flat-out score (17.2 points per game for the Bucks' Summer League squad, 16.7 points per game through three preseason contests) and who, at age 19, has miles to go before scraping his ceiling.
But while adding and retaining high-upside young talent certainly matters, Milwaukee's roster reshaping could have negative consequences.
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On one hand, signing Monroe and getting Parker back means there will likely be far fewer minutes to go around at power forward and center. In that context, jettisoning Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and Jared Dudley in trades for promptly-waived players and unlikely-to-ever-be-conveyed future second-round picks, thus paring down this year's payroll and creating an estimated $9.5 million in trade exceptions, makes sense. On the other, though, sending away respected veterans whose defensive talents, shooting touch, commitment to sharing the ball and locker-room leadership played important roles in last year's worst-to-playoffs turnaround figures to create voids that the Bucks must fill.
Solid reserve point guard Greivis Vasquez should help there. (Well, the ball-sharing and leadership ones, anyway. The Greivyboat Lighthouse has long been defenseless.) But the price Milwaukee paid for him — a 2015 second-round pick, the Los Angeles Clippers' lottery-protected 2017 first-rounder — seems steep for a backup nine months away from unrestricted free agency, even if his ball-handling, smarts and long-range shooting ought to help a club that struggled to generate buckets last year.
At base, this looks like a more gifted and deeper roster than the one that stunned the league last season —just as much youth and length, and more firepower. The Bucks have bet that their talent, scheme and coaching staff will be able to make up for the lost contributions, both quantifiable and intangible, of the vets they've shipped out. If they're right, this could be one fearsome pack of deer.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
The Los Angeles Lakers wanted to install him as the interior star of their post-Kobe era. The New York Knicks wanted to make him the playmaking pivot point of Phil Jackson's triangle offense. But Monroe — who played for five coaches in five seasons during a highly tumultuous tenure with the Detroit Pistons — wanted stability on the sideline and in the front office, a defined role that wouldn't see him getting shuttled between positional responsibilities, and a roster talented enough to ensure he spends his prime in the playoffs.
For Monroe, that meant Milwaukee. (Even Phil thinks so.) For Milwaukee, that could mean a jump out of the lower reaches of the league's offensive efficiency and defensive rebounding rankings.
The 25-year-old Monroe is one of the league's best rebounders, especially on the defensive end. He can act as both an on-the-block brute and a high-post hub, making on-time and on-target passes to cutters from the elbows and the top of the key. He's averaged just under 16 points and 10 rebounds per game since becoming a full-time starter four years ago, putting him in the statistical company of Kevin Love, Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph and DeMarcus Cousins.
Monroe did all that in what can charitably be described as suboptimal conditions, shuffling between positions alongside a rotating cast of subpar characters and awkward-fit running buddies. He'll slot in as Milwaukee's starting center from Day 1, which is exciting, because when he played center last season in lineups without Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, Monroe beasted.
He averaged 21.6 points and 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time, according to NBAwowy.com, generating 7.1 free-throw attempts per-36 and posting a sterling .593 True Shooting percentage, both of which would've been the best marks on last season's Bucks. In those minutes, Detroit's offense averaged 106.1 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to a top-10 ranking — and the Pistons outscored their opposition by 1.8 points-per-100 in those minutes, a tick above the Bucks' full-season number.
The concern is that heavy minutes for Monroe will muck up Milwaukee's defense, especially when he plays with Parker, widely considered a poor defender coming out of Duke and an ostensible rookie coming off major knee surgery. Monroe's never been much of a shot-blocker, averaging less than one swat per 36 minutes for his career, and he's not a top-flight deterrent at the tin. Opponents shot 55.1 percent at the rim when he was defending last season, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data, 10th-worst among players who guarded at least five up-close attempts per game.
Monroe's defensive metrics, though, offer some cause for optimism. ESPN's Real Plus Minus, an estimate of how many points a player adds to or subtracts from his team's point total over the course of 100 possessions, suggests Moose's defensive work was about as helpful as that of Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan and Joakim Noah last season. He gave up points to screeners in the pick-and-roll at about the same clip as several defenders with better reputations (Timofey Mozgov, Robin Lopez) and less frequently than some with much better reputations (Hibbert, Jordan, Anthony Davis, Al Horford), according to Synergy Sports' game-charting.
He's got active hands and knows when to swipe for loose balls, snagging steals on 2 percent of opponents' offensive possessions during his career, a strong number for a big man that should play well in a defensive scheme that has prized passing-lane disruption and turnover creation. And there's this, from Brew Hoop's Frank Madden: "Also remember that the Bucks were a stellar defensive team with Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova starting together for the second half of the season."
The fit might not be perfect, but there's enough talent to make it work, and the Bucks will gladly trade a minor dip on D if Monroe can fuel a major offensive leap.
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Beyond the concerns about how the defense holds up, the big issue remains floor-spacing and shooting.
Milwaukee actually shot OK from 3-point land last season, hitting 36.3 percent of its triples as a team, seventh-best in the NBA. The Bucks' offense just didn't generate very many of them — only Flip Saunders' long-ball-averse Timberwolves, the dinosaur-ball Grizzlies, the Boogie-centric Kings and pre-small-ball Wizards shot fewer 3s per game — which is a big reason why the Bucks finished 25th in offensive efficiency.
The other problem: four of the Bucks' top five long-range shooters last season (Knight, Ilyasova, Dudley and Kendall Marshall) have moved on, leaving Middleton (40.7 percent last year, 41.4 percent in 2013-14) as Milwaukee's lone returning viable 3-point marksman.
Hammond tried to address that this summer. Vasquez shot just under 38 percent from deep in his two seasons in Toronto. Forward Chris Copeland — Kidd's former Knicks teammate, whom Milwaukee signed to a one-year veteran's minimum deal after he was stabbed outside a New York nightclub — is one season removed from consecutive 40-plus percent 3-point campaigns.
Rookie Vaughn shot 38.3 percent from the NCAA stripe as a college freshman, and has knocked down an eye-opening 43.8 percent from the NBA line this preseason. Monroe's an indoor cat, but he's improved his midrange game (a respectable 37.2 percent last season) to the point where he doesn't have to play in the shadow of the rim, which could help open things up.
Steps forward from holdover Bucks could help, too. O.J. Mayo can light it up from the perimeter, and he's in a contract year; the last time he had one of those, he canned 40.7 percent of his triples for the Dallas Mavericks. Jerryd Bayless' dismal '14-'15 season (30.8 percent) obscures closer-to-average results over the rest of his career (35.3 percent). Parker shot nearly 36 percent from deep at Duke; many expect him to develop into a capable floor-spacer, if not immediately. Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 38.5 percent from the FIBA arc at EuroBasket 2015.
As for Carter-Williams' accuracy ...
... well, he's trying.
The Bucks made the playoffs on the strength of their wildly successful defensive overhaul. The next step will require a matching offensive leap. That means finding somebody — or, ideally, like six somebodies — who can pull opponents away from the paint, creating driving lanes and room in the post.
Contributor with something to prove:
MCW, who has to prove he's one of those somebodies — he's shot 40.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range through two pro seasons, and a ghastly 14.3 percent from deep after joining the Bucks last season — and who must begin to prove he's Milwaukee's point guard of the future.
The No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft, Carter-Williams burst on the scene with 22 points with 12 assists, nine steals, seven rebounds and just one turnover in his pro debut. Gifted major minutes on a miserable Sixers club, he put up strong enough counting stats to win the Rookie of the Year award, but his lacking shooting touch created concern he couldn't consistently contribute to a good NBA offense.
That — and the draw of a lightly protected Los Angeles Lakers first-round draft pick — led the Sixers to ship MCW to Milwaukee at last season's trade deadline to replace the Phoenix-bound Knight. His shooting continued to lag, but Carter-Williams averaged nearly 17 points per 36 minutes after the deal. While Milwaukee's overall offensive efficiency fell off a cliff, the Bucks scored 104.3 points per 100 possessions, a near-top-10 rate, with him on the floor after the trade. His long-armed, sure-footed, active defense made him a strong addition to a unit that continued to clamp down.
MCW's maiden postseason voyage proved rocky — replaced by Bayless late in Game 4, a starring role in Game 5, a disastrous -35 in Chicago's Game 6 blowout. The issues remained the same: he didn't shoot well enough to shoot as often as he did. Carter-Williams must prove capable of at least approaching league-average shooting, and must transfer several low-likelihood-of-success jumpers per game into looks for Monroe, Parker and Antetokounmpo.
The hope is that, after spending a year and a half on the forever-churning Sixers and having to acclimate to a new team midstream with no training camp, a more stable situation kickstarts MCW's development. If he can pick it up offensively while continuing to play effective defense, and if the Bucks' strong post-All-Star team numbers with him on the floor carry over, it might go a long way toward convincing Bucks brass to lock him up with a rookie-contract extension next summer.
Potential breakout stud:
Quoth my man Eric Freeman:
With free agent Greg Monroe added to the roster and fellow high-potential wing Jabari Parker healthy once again, Antetokounmpo can avoid focusing only on scoring and seize an opportunity to become a versatile, do-everything star. He is the rare player who can do almost everything on the court, including things we have never seen before [...]
Giannis can be a game-changer in myriad ways, whether by making a succession of very different plays from possession to possession, guarding multiple positions, or taking over games when necessary. He is an ideal player for an era in which versatility reigns supreme.
The Bucks have brought Giannis along slowly but surely, taking a long-term view on his development and ensuring that he's not expected to be a No. 1 option. The import of Monroe, the elevation of Middleton and the return of Parker should allow that gradual growth to continue.
Antetokounmpo made significant strides last season. He went from reserve to starter, and from 10 points and 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes on 41.4 percent shooting to 14 and 7.7 per-36 on 49.1 percent shooting. He went from finishing 15 percent of Bucks possessions with a shot, foul drawn or turnover to using nearly 20 percent of Milwaukee's trips, and from isolated flashes of brilliance to more sustained spurts. If he can make the same kind of year-over-year leap, we could be looking at something truly special by year's end ... and he could be looking at one hell of a raise when he's eligible for an extension of his rookie contract.
Monroe, Parker, improved shooting from Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams, and a dash of unpredictability from Vaughn and Vasquez boost the offense from awful to above-average while the defense remains top-10 stout. Milwaukee wins 50 games and makes the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
If everything falls apart:
The Bucks miss the collective smarts of Pachulia and Dudley, and the floor-spacing of Good Ersan, more than they'd anticipated. Monroe's more solid than star, neither MCW nor Giannis learned how to shoot and nobody gets to the foul line, resulting in another season near the points-per-possession basement. Last year's monster spike in turnover creation levels out, resulting in a defense closer to league-average than league-best. Kidd's kids stay around .500, but in a stronger conference, that's only enough for the eighth seed and another first-round knockout.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
47-35, sixth in the East.
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