The Milwaukee Bucks? Gone till November

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Milwaukee Bucks.

Judging the Milwaukee Bucks by their first round sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat is unfair. The Heat, even sometimes while gliding through games and sitting star guard Dwyane Wade for Game 4, are in a different NBA stratosphere right now. What we can judge is Milwaukee’s 82-game run that preceded that four game sweep, while anticipating what could be a franchise-changing offseason.

From the outset of 2012-13, it was apparent that the Bucks were shooting for the lower rung of the playoffs, all in for the seventh or eighth seed. The March 2012 deal for Monta Ellis provided the Bucks with a player that they could trust to stay healthy for the remainder of the season, sadly not the case for the last few years with the departing Andrew Bogut, while hoping that a smallish backcourt featuring Ellis and incumbent point guard Brandon Jennings could do some damage in an NBA that is becoming more and more perimeter-orientated.

Looming over the team was the status of then-coach Scott Skiles, who was rumored to want out of the Bucks organization late in 2011-12, but didn’t want to outright quit so as to recoup the remainder of his contract through 2012-13. Skiles didn’t tank in his last few months as Bucks coach this season, but it was obvious to all that this guy could not stand the roster he’d been given, and just through the TV it was just as obvious that the Bucks players felt the same – Skiles had made that final jump from “prickly and demanding” to “kind of a petty jerk.”

The solution was for both sides to part ways after 32 games, which the Bucks split under Skiles. In a surprise move, though, Milwaukee moved on with Skiles’ top assistant Jim Boylan as their interim head coach.

It was a head-scratcher, as Boylan did not perform well in his last job acting in the same capacity – working as an interim coach replacing Skiles on the 2007-08 Chicago Bulls. As was the case in Chicago, the Bucks’ record dipped under Boylan, with Milwaukee posting a 22-28 record with the interim coach running many of the same sets, with at times the same rotation, with not nearly the same level of influence that Skiles can come through even at his worst.

The Bucks had nearly a year to consider replacement candidates for Skiles, they’d known since the previous season and all throughout the offseason that Scott was not keen on the Bucks’ lineup, and yet the front office went for an uncreative choice (“number two is the new number one!”) that replicated a failed experiment in Chicago just five years before.

The real problem was the team’s middling lineup. Neither Skiles nor Boylan could rein in Ellis’ instincts from the outside, as the ultra-confident Bucks guard took four three-pointers a game while shooting well under the league’s average mark, making fewer than 29 percent of his bombs. Jennings shot exactly the league average from three-point land during the season, but he also shot just under 40 percent overall, as the Bucks point guard just still hasn’t mastered the mid-range floater he keeps attempting.

As a result, the two combined for over 37 points per game, but they needed over 33 shots a night to get there. And the Bucks – created as an offense-first team that would rely on Ellis and Jennings to dash around opposing defenses – topped out at 22nd in offense during 2012-13.

Due to the emergence of Larry Sanders as not only a top shot blocker but also an impactful overall defender, the Bucks worked their way into an above-average defensive team on the year. And though the team’s per game offensive stats will look promising due to the fact that the team played the third-fastest pace in the NBA this season, it’s clear that Jennings and Ellis aren’t a winning formula. It isn’t that they can’t play well together. It’s just that they’re not as productive offensively as many around the league would like to believe.

The possible leak out from that is their status as potential free agents this summer. Jennings is a restricted free agent, which means he could either re-sign with the Bucks, sign with another team for an offer sheet only to have the Bucks match it and retain his services, sign a $4.3 million qualifying offer to stay with Milwaukee if he can’t find a free agent partner to his liking (making Jennings an unrestricted free agent in 2014), or simply walk away from the Bucks if Milwaukee decides he’s not worth keeping around at prices the market determines.

Whew. So, yeah, lots of options.

Ellis could be an unrestricted free agent if he decides to decline his $11 million option for next season. Because I see Monta as an unreliable shooter that makes iffy decisions on both ends of the court, Ellis turning down a guaranteed $11 million seems ridiculous to me – but my opinions aren’t shared by some NBA GMs won over by his star power, and with lots of cash to throw around. This offseason will feature a seller’s market, and if Ellis gets word that he could improve that offer (and it’s looking more and more likely that this is the case), he could either leave Milwaukee, or the Bucks could be forced into giving him a massive contract extension.

Or, they could start over.

Dumping Ellis and Jennings could leave the Bucks with around $26 on their books for next season, with no other players or rookies to extend and free agent veterans J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy heading elsewhere. This means the Bucks could be a major player in the trade market, either helping facilitate deals to garner assets and draft picks, or outright trading for a star or two without giving much up in return. After years of shooting for the lowest seed in a crummy Eastern Conference, the Bucks could actually shoot for something much higher.

History isn’t on this line of thinking’s side, though. The Bucks’ modus operandi for years has been to stick to the mediocre lane. And general managers have long shied away from basically admitting mistakes when it comes to personnel and letting players walk like that. More than likely, the team will seek out a new coach, attempt to move forward with the same backcourt, and attempt to bring back both Redick and Dunleavy while using exceptions to round out the roster once it goes over the salary cap.

They’ll talk up a new coach, internal development, and the age of both Ellis (27) and Jennings (23) – as if they don’t have 12 combined years between them and little growth past that initial, early-career spark.

I wish Milwaukee wouldn’t go down this path, and take a chance on something new. You get the feeling, though, that they feel like the team has enough excuses (a new coach, youth) to explain away moving forward with the same crew.

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