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For once, the Milwaukee Bucks are fascinating. That, in and of itself, is a good start for what had been a forgotten franchise.
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Several teams went into 2013-14 looking to tank their way into a high draft pick. Some of those teams, like the Suns and Raptors, failed upward – winning twice as many games as projected while possibly delaying the inevitable rebuild they’ll still need to turn things around. Other teams, like the 76ers and Celtics, did as expected.
It was Milwaukee that ended the season with the NBA’s worst record, though, working with a roster that was designed to go after a .500 record and lower rung of the Eastern playoffs … again. Fans hated this, and somehow willed that depressing, Larry Drew-led team into the cellar where it perked up with a high pick and Jabari Parker in Wisconsin.
Things were supposed to improve with Jason Kidd running the show entering 2014-15, but not by this much. The Bucks were eight games over .500 after a post-All-Star break win over Denver. They kept nightly pressure on opponents with its lengthy defense, and weathered what should have been several major, major setbacks.
Parker tore his ACL just 25 games into the season, robbing the Bucks of a needed offensive threat in a season where points were hard to come by. The team’s leading scorer, combo guard Brandon Knight, was shipped away at the trade deadline for 2014 Rookie of the Year – tossing a young playmaker into a vital role without the benefit of a training camp, and cutting easy points out of the Bucks box score.
Most alarming was the team’s decision to waive Larry Sanders while using the stretch provision. Sanders had been battling anxiety issues, and he just didn’t see Basketball Life as something that interested him. While some Bucks fans were sympathetic toward Sanders’ issues, there are some that are still rather peeved that Sanders will be getting paid not to play basketball for Milwaukee for three seasons after this one.
Somehow Kidd managed to build a .500 team out of all of this, one that gave Chicago all it could handle before the Bulls dismantled the young Bucks in Game 6 of the team’s first round loss on Thursday evening. Milwaukee won’t be entering the lottery for the second straight year, but it’s still safe to say that this team has quite a ways to go.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is not a star yet, not by any measure, but he will be counted on to make just as significant a stride as he did in his second season next year. Every facet of his game needs work, but it’s also safe to point out that every single facet of Antetokounmpo’s game (from the defense to the ball-handling to the shooting) has an All-Star ceiling. He struggled to shoot in the Chicago series and was ejected from Game 6 for basically tackling Mike Dunleavy (keep that in mind when it comes time to buy tickets for MKE’s home opener next fall), but if he and Kidd learn to see eye to eye we could have a franchise player.
Parker will need a year. He’ll eventually be just fine as he recovers from that ACL tear, and likely in place on opening night, but because he has so much catching up to do mentally, physically and in terms of relationships with his teammates. There’s your second star. From there, you have the interesting ones.
Khris Middleton also struggled at times in the Bulls series, but his dodgy ballhandling yips seemed to go away in 2014-15. More than just a lengthy standalone shooter, it will be interesting to see what Kidd can do with Middleton moving forward – with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler as the obvious hoped-for success story. A restricted free agent this summer, he will be coveted, and Milwaukee will have to pay.
John Henson’s length and ability to provide a second quick leap helped the Bucks withstand the loss of Sanders. Henson blocked an astounding 9.3 percent of the shots taken with him on the court this season, and yet you never got the feeling he was out there just looking for rejections. Reserve big men don’t come much better than this guy.
Michael Carter-Williams, and not Giannis, is your X-factor. He was understandably inconsistent after coming over from Philadelphia, and though you have to admire his length and potential, he failed to hit a three-pointer in the Bulls series, and his shooting woes are what drove the 76ers to give up on the reigning Rookie of the Year just over a year and a half into their relationship. He can rebound, defend and pass well, but with shooting of paramount importance in today’s NBA, he might work as a mitigating factor in some lineups. The stroke looks workable, though.
With Middleton needing to get paid and Sanders $5 million still on the books next year, the Bucks won’t have a ton of cap room to work with, and they’ll have yet another middling first-round pick. They’ll receive cap relief in 2016 when the cap rises, but so will seemingly every other NBA team.
The improvement will have to come from within. As it already did, surprisingly, in 2014-15.
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