The Milwaukee Bucks shocked the basketball world last season, pressing their Central Division rival Chicago Bulls to six games in their first round playoff series. Entering 2015-2016, the Bucks understand the high expectations associated with winning.
“There will be high expectations just because of the playoff series, but for us, we have a long ways to go, we have to learn how to handle high expectations,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said, addressing the new sense of pressure. “We did quite well, internally, handling no expectations last year. Growing to be one of those elite teams, were going to have growing pains of how to handle high expectations because when you become a team that wins in this league consistently, expectations just get higher. So for us, it’s just a matter of being able to handle that and grow, but also were going to fall and when we get knocked down, how do we get back up?”
And falling is certainly something the Bucks might do, especially at the beginning of the season. Losing important veteran components in Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and Ersan Ilyasova, the team will be desperately seeking a way to fill the precarious leadership hole they left. The young players, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams will have to learn to find their voices on the job, while the team looks to it’s more seasoned veterans, Khris Middleton, Jared Bayless, OJ Mayo, and newcomers Greivis Vasquez and Greg Monroe to take charge in the locker room. The culture in Milwaukee has been elevated. The expectations are higher and everyone can feel that. Finding leadership is going to be a challenge, but Coach Kidd thinks his young Bucks are up to the task.
“With [Dudley, Ilyasova and Pachulia] gone, you look at Bayless and you look at OJ [Mayo] being able to fill that void,” Kidd said. “When you look at your younger players, they’re going to have to step up and the sooner we can get those guys in the position of understanding what it means to handle being down ten, or losing two games in a row, to be that voice in the locker room. We felt that this is no better time for those young voices to start learning to speak up”
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Management and the coaching staff seemed prepared for growing pains, but the confidence they have that their young players are ready to shoulder the leadership responsibilities is certainly an ode to their character, and a challenge for them to continue their maturation and development.
The additions and subtractions have more than just an effect on leadership. Fitting the new puzzle pieces together as a non-shooting team in a three-point-shooting league will be another interesting storyline for the Bucks this year. The projected starting lineup of Carter-Williams, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker and Monroe doesn’t feature much shooting. With only Middleton shooting better than 25 percent from beyond the arc (he shot 40.7 percent from deep last year).
Antetokounmpo, who didn’t have much of a green light to let it fly from deep, shooting only 15.9 percent on 44 total threes last season, acknowledged that he had some improving to do. “[I] had to improve the technique on my shot, shoot the ball a little bit higher. When I [shoot] the ball, try to take the ball high, and shoot faster.”
When asked about his role as a shooter this year, Antetokounmpo confidently accepted the chance to shoot more frequently, laughing as he said that Coach Kidd would give him the go-ahead to shoot more three’s this year, continuing the strong work and improvements he showed in Eurobasket this summer.
While the Bucks feel confident that their shooting will be better, they’re also exploring alternative ways to manufacture scoring.
“We’re working on trying to get the ball inside, playing our game and eventually, as we grow and get better, guys are going to be able to shoot the three,” Kidd said, seemingly unworried about the lack of shooting on the team. “We want to be good at something. You’ll see guys taking a little more threes as we move forward.”
After winning the Greg Monroe sweepstakes, the team finally has a post threat who can draw a double team and score at will in the paint.
“Greg gives us something we didn’t have, where you can throw it in and space and let him go to work,” Kidd said. “But not just looking at him as a guy that can give us points, he can also pass the ball, he understands how to play the game, he has a great basketball IQ.”
To combat their inability to consistently shoot the ball, unselfish playmaking will be an important theme for this Bucks squad. Losing a post playmaker in Pachulia produces a façade that ball movement will stagnate, but Greg Monroe happens to be an elite, big man passer, with an assist rating of 16.6 from last season, per NBA.com SportsVU data. Though it is lower than Pachulia’s 20.2, the added benefits of his scoring prowess make that tradeoff well worth the Bucks while. Role factors in here as well. Monroe’s career assist percentage is higher than Pachulia’s (12.6 to 9.0) and in a system where ball movement is emphasized, there is no reason to think Monroe will slow anything down. And at 25 years of age, Monroe is the oldest starter in the Bucks rotation, so the team will have the time and space to continue to grow and learn to play off of one another.
Monroe is confident he will fit right into this offense, particularly with his unselfishness and playmaking as the true and only man in the middle.
“I’m very comfortable playing in the post and the mid post area,” Monroe said. “Their bigs already work a lot in those areas with the offense they run, so I feel like I’m going to come in here and fit in pretty well.”
As for the forward spots, Parker and Antetokounmpo, with their length and ability to switch, should do just fine against opposing 3s and 4s. Both players looked noticeably stronger up top, which should aid them on defensive end. Parker, when asked about his muscular development and ability to defend power forwards, reminded reporters that it’s his natural position.
“I always played the four all my life. High school, college. College I played the five too. It’s the position for me,” Parker said. “That’s what I do. I can be anywhere on the floor. I gained a lot of confidence being able to study it and have a few games with it and I can build from there.”
When I asked Monroe about being a significantly better defensive center, and playing alongside less traditional big men, he said he didn’t study any advanced stats, but was excited to play alongside such lanky and athletic defenders.
“The ability to switch between those two [Jabari and Giannis] makes it easier for anyone, and they have the ability to do that,” Monroe said.
So not only will the Bucks defensive identity hide Monroe’s drawbacks, but putting him in his more natural position will make this defense a turnover machine with sneaky good rim protection (John Henson led the league in block percentage) and rebounding.
Sure, the gelling process will take some time. There will be moments of beautiful, winning basketball, but also moments of setback and frustration. With their length, athleticism and spritely young enthusiasm, the Bucks are going to continue to irritate offenses, while their team-first orientation allows them to build their offense in a variety of ways. Long-term, these Bucks are set up nicely to succeed and they are excited to put it together on the court.
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