By many accounts, the Milwaukee Bucks 2015-16 campaign has been a resounding disappointment. Last year’s playoff appearance was supposed to be a solid foundation from which to build. Instead, the team regressed in several key areas and find themselves out of the postseason once again.
But progress isn’t linear, and success isn’t always measured in terms of wins and losses. Muscle has to tear to build, and sometimes when climbing, one has to backtrack to find a path with footholds to a higher peak.
Despite massive slippage on the defensive end (from fourth in Defensive Rating at 102.2, to 23rd at 108.6), and some struggles integrating marquee free agent acquisition Greg Monroe and the returning-from-injury Jabari Parker, when taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard to quantify the Bucks’ season as anything but a win.
When evaluating Milwaukee, one has to consider the timeline the organization has put in place. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton are 21, 20, and 24, respectively. The brightest parts of their future exist in a world without the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and possibly even Stephen Curry at their peaks. The present isn’t irrelevant, but the results are—and should be—an afterthought to the process.
This is a learning period for the front office, head coach Jason Kidd, and the players themselves. To that end, the most important priority this season was to get a handle on the futures of their franchise cornerstones; and for whatever mistakes the Bucks have made in the past two years, they’ve absolutely nailed the things that matter.
Antetokounmpo holds as much promise as anyone in the NBA, but his glaring flaws (shooting) and unconventional combination of size and skills create many pitfalls when building around him. There’s never been a player quite like him, which means there’s no existing blueprint for his developmental path. When a player can do a little bit of everything on the court, it’s not always easy to figure out what to emphasize and how to utilize him.
After moving him around everywhere on the floor, in almost every role imaginable, Kidd appears to have settled on Antetokounmpo as the point guard moving forward.
“We’re going to go forward with him handling the ball, and you can call him point guard, point forward, point center, however you want to look at it,” Kidd said [via Bucks.com]. “But with him having the ball and the pressure he puts on the defense and has ability to find guys has been a plus for us.”
Since the All-Star break, which is roughly when Kidd handed Antetokounmpo the keys to the offense, the Greek Freak has averaged 18.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7.2 assists (up from 15.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists). They’re not just empty calories either. Over that time the Bucks’ Offensive Rating has improved from 101.6 to 104.8, a mark that would tie the Houston Rockets for ninth over the course of the season.
Reconfiguring the offense with Antetokounmpo at the point of attack slots the Bucks’ young trio into their natural strengths. One way to help mitigate the lack of an outside shot is to directly involve such a player in the primary action, whether as a ball handler or screener.
Putting the ball in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands means one less off-ball defender sagging into driving lanes, clogging up the offense. Antetokounmpo covers ground frighteningly fast with his long strides, getting from the three-point line to the rim without a dribble, which makes ceding ground to him by going under screen a risky venture. And since his failed early season stint as the primary ball-handler, Antetokounmpo’s gotten a better feel for defenses—manipulating them to open passing lanes in tight spaces for dump off passes at the rim.
On of the primary beneficiaries of Antetokounmpo’s playmaking has been Jabari Parker, who’s averaging 18.7 points on 50 percent shooting since the All-Star break. During that time, 40.8 percent of Parker’s assisted baskets have come from Antetokounmpo, many coming off duck-ins from the baseline, as noted by our own Will Gottlieb recently:
“But with the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands, and an extra shooter on the floor, Parker doesn’t need to act as a floor spacer. Instead, he can be a cutter on isolations or pick and rolls, which are much easier to do with one less body in the paint. Better yet, Parker is a Jedi Master baseline cutter. So even when his man leaves him to help the penetration, he can scurry from the corner or dunker spot, completely unnoticed.”
As Parker’s confidence in his surgically repaired knee has returned, his athleticism has been on full display, cutting off the ball for dunks and easy layups, and even venturing out to the three-point line on occasion, where he’s 7-for-18 since the All-Star break. He’s still more of a finisher than the scorer he was billed as, with 72 percent of his buckets coming via assists, but the synergy with Giannis and production before realization of his skill set bodes well for the future.
Alongside them, Khris Middleton (18.2 points, 4.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals) continues to fill in the gaps admirably, operating as a defensive stopper, floor spacer (40.5 percent from three), and secondary creator who’s able to soak up heavy minutes (36.4 per game). He’s shown incremental improvement throughout his career, and has shown new playmaking chops, improving his assists from 2.8 to 4.1 per 36 minutes, and relying less on others to create shots for him (the number of shots he was assisted on dropping from 70 percent last year to 55.7 percent this year).
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From this season, the Bucks have a better understanding of a framework for how to build around their core and direction moving forward. That’s not to say there haven’t been mistakes along the way, but none so egregious that they’ve punched a hole below the waterline—erring in a way that could sink the franchise.
Hindsight wasn’t necessary to realize the downside of the Milwaukee Bucks taking Michael Carter-Williams over the Los Angeles Lakers’ first round draft pick.
The former Rookie of the Year has shown little progression thus far in his career, and with the ball now firmly in Antetokounmpo’s hands, Carter-Williams lack of shooting and off-ball abilities appear to limit his value with Milwaukee. For brief stretches, he did appear to find a niche coming off the bench, so there’s an opportunity for him to develop on a Shaun Livingston-type path, defending multiple positions off the bench and working from the post against smaller guards. But his season-ending hip injury presents another lost year in what appears to be a sunk cost.
Greg Monroe appears to be another mistake, though one with a clear plan behind it. The 25-year-old big man has been individually productive, averaging 15.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists; but a poor fit on a Bucks roster lacking spacing and a defensive power forward.
All the apprehensions that came with Monroe’s signings have taken hold. He’s neither a good rim protector or position defender, which is almost unacceptable in today’s game. He can produce, but rarely in a way that can anchor an offense. His inability to space the floor with shooting, or vertically with lobs, cramps the spacing for everyone else, so he needs the ball to be effective. And yet, it wasn’t a bad signing when taken in context.
Milwaukee, never a prime free agent destination, had money to spend and few worthwhile options to spend it on. Sure, retaining Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley may have kept the defense intact for another playoff run, but neither are on the Bucks’ timetable.
Monroe was a big name in free agency, and if you squint your eyes, you can almost see how it might work—with him facilitating from the elbows as a scoring hub, learning defensive rotations to where he can just use his size to get in the way long enough for the Bucks’ rangy athletes to swarm and recover. In the NBA, sometimes it’s hard to project what might coalesce into a quality team. After all, last year’s Bucks were supposed to be among the league’s worst, and the Eastern Conference’s second best team, the Toronto Raptors, were nearly disassembled before their current run could start.
Kidd has failed to work Monroe into a passable defense, and it might be something that’s not possible with him in the lineup. Based on the information at hand, keeping him would be a mistake. But Milwaukee has a few years to experiment with different talents before they have to solidify their roster around the core. Monroe is a talented and productive player on a good contract whose presence had no real opportunity cost, and they have another year to try and make it work before they have to make a decision on him. In a worst case scenario, he could work as a sixth man, or as a trade asset.
If the Bucks appear to have massively disappointed, perhaps it’s because people’s expectations were too high. This was a team that took the training wheels off, casting out their veteran leadership, while trying to incorporate two significant new pieces. Some sort of regression should’ve been expected.
And that’s okay. The Brandon Knight trade was proof this team is operating with a bigger picture in mind, and with so many examples of front offices going all-in too soon, the thought process is sound—even if you want to quibble with some of the smaller decisions along the way.
This season was about growing pains for their young core, and with Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have solved their most pressing question moving forward. The future is now, but it’s also a ways away.