How Good Can the Milwaukee Bucks Be in 2015-16?
Not since the days of George Karl and Ray Allen have the Milwaukee Bucks been in the forefront of the NBA consciousness. For the past decade and a half, they have been a collective yawn. Not even a blip on the casual NBA fan's radar.
But entering 2015-16 there is a substantial buzz surrounding the franchise. A 26-win improvement will do that. But there is so much more: a new arena deal, stockpiles of young talent, and even a big-time free agent signing.
The Jason Kidd-led Bucks have given basketball-loving cheeseheads something to look forward to this winter from somewhere other than Madison. But how excited should Bucks fans be?
After their historic jump last season, from worst record to the 6 seed in the East, can the Bucks continue to trend upward and creep into the upper echelon of the East this season?
Expectations were low heading into the 2014-15 season, as the Bucks were coming off a miserable 15-win season. Trying to inject life into their franchise, the Bucks made a controversial move, trading for coach Jason Kidd after one disappointing season in Brooklyn. Kidd appeared to be the perfect spark for the Bucks.
He guided them to a promising .500 start. He even rallied the team following the season-ending injury to second-overall draft pick Jabari Parker and the drama and subsequent release of starting center Larry Sanders. Despite all the misfortune, they walked into the All-Star Break with a 30-23 record.
Even with all the success and hype building, the Bucks decided to double down with Kidd's system. Surprising everyone in the NBA community, they inexplicably traded 23-year-old budding All-Star and leading scorer, Brandon Knight.
In return, they acquired reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams in an apparent deal to mold the club to Kidd's vision. Shifting from a 17-plus point per game scorer in Knight to a sub-40 percent field goal shooter in MCW, understandably the Bucks struggled for points. After the trade, they crawled into the playoffs with an 11-18 record down the stretch and a first-round playoff exit.
Even with the late-season struggles, the Bucks entered the offseason with great optimism. Apparently they weren't the only ones to notice. In one of the bigger surprises this offseason, the small-market Bucks were able to catch the eye of one the top free agents on the market, Greg Monroe. To the casual observer, it may not seem like a franchise-changing move. But it is not every day that Milwaukee convinces someone to spurn the bright lights of Los Angeles and New York and come to America's Dairyland.
As previously broken down on numberFire, Monroe is an excellent fit for the Bucks' frontcourt. Not only would his 10.2 rebounds last season crush last year's top rebounder from the Bucks (Zaza Pachulia with 6.8), but also his 15.9 points per game would have made him their leading scorer as well. If that was not enough, his 4.9 nERD rating, which indicates how many games above or below .500 a player would make a league-average team over 82 games, represents a 3.6-point upgrade over Pachulia, last year's primary center.
As great as the Monroe signing was for Milwaukee, they were not finished there. One of the few bright spots on offense in 2015 was the development of former D-Leaguer Khris Middleton into a reliable option on offense. The Bucks naturally made it a priority to retain the soon to be 24-year-old by giving him a $70 million contract. Keeping with the theme of getting younger, the Bucks dealt away the three oldest players on their roster, Ersan Ilyasova (27), Jared Dudley (29), and Pachulia (30).
With the addition of backup point guard Greivis Vasquez and drafting of Rashad Vaughn, the Bucks solidified their offseason as one of the tops in the NBA. The real question now becomes how will it translate in 2015-16?
At first glance of the Bucks roster, two things jump out that set them apart from virtually every other team in the NBA: age and length.
Milwaukee enters the upcoming season with the third-youngest roster in the NBA at an average of 24.9 years old, according to RealGM.com, trailing only Philadelphia (no shock there) and Utah. Also, unheard of from a projected playoff team, they anticipate having two 20-year olds (Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo) in their starting lineup. To emphasize the inexperience of their starters further, 25-year-old Monroe is the wily veteran with 47 percent of the total career starts of their starting five (334 out of 708).
All of this inexperience puts more pressure on MCW to develop into a leader on the court. He will be expected to facilitate the explosiveness of Antetokounmpo, take advantage of the low post scoring of Monroe and outside shooting of Middleton, all while trying to figure out his jump shot. It's good for the 23-year-old point guard that he has a future Hall-of-Fame point guard in Kidd showing him the ropes because the Bucks desperately need him to improve his overall efficiency. MCW carried a -8.2 nERD rating, good for third-worst in the NBA last season.
Not all of the offensive burden will fall on Carter-Williams' shoulders, however. After his 22-point, 8-rebound performance in the NBA exhibition game in Africa, Antetokounmpo caught the eye of NBA fans for something other than his name. Although only an exhibition, the "Greek Freak" showed explosiveness and the outside shooting potential desperately needed by the Bucks. Antetokounmpo appears poised to become the first All-Star in Milwaukee since Michael Redd in 2004. It is not a matter of if, but when, it will happen. That's how high his talent level appears to be.
The projected starting lineup of Carter-Williams, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker, and Monroe is also one of, if not, the tallest in the league at an average height of 6'9". This length coupled with bench options John Henson, O.J. Mayo, and Vasquez gives coach Kidd a crazy number of combinations he can roll out at any time creating unheard of matchup nightmares for opposing coaches.
Kidd already toyed with the idea of playing Antetokounmpo at the point (who wouldn't want to see that?), and now general manager John Hammond has talked about playing Giannis at the five spot. This lineup flexibility may be more important early in the season as the Bucks bring Parker back slowly from his December ACL tear.
Hammond has already said the organization will be very cautious with the 20-year-old's minutes, as they do not want to derail the sophomore's career with another injury. If Milwaukee is to climb higher in the standings this season, they cannot afford Parker to miss any substantial time.
Depth at power forward represents one of the biggest weaknesses for the Bucks. While Antetokounmpo has the length to fill in at the four spot, he is not an ideal replacement. Neither is Middleton, even though he did play nearly 70 percent of his minutes last season in the frontcourt. If Parker is limited early on in the year, Henson could jump in at center while shifting Monroe to power forward.
One thing we can count on from the Bucks this year is defense. Their youthful energy coupled with their ridiculously long arms clogged passing lanes and naturally led them to be one of the better defensive teams last year. They finished tops in the East in Defensive Rating and eighth in points allowed last year. The addition of Monroe should help boost their weak rebounding numbers, too. They were 25th out of 30 teams in defensive rebounds per game.
The Bucks fully expect to return to the playoffs next season, and why shouldn't they? They have one of the youngest, most exciting rosters in the league. They brought in a big-time free agent to address their weaknesses. They also play in the weaker conference, albeit Milwaukee does reside in what will likely be the NBA's second toughest division (behind the insane Southwest) with Eastern Conference favorites Cleveland and Chicago.
All told, their inexperience will likely be what holds them back from joining the upper tier of Eastern Conference teams this year.
Last year, the team finished with a nERD score of 50.1, which indicates the percentage of games they should have expected to win. That was about as league-average as could be (though it ranked sixth-best in the East). Considering that they actually had a negative nERD offseason in addition to the youth and inexperience, it would be hasty to chalk them up as one of the East's absolute best squads. Still, compared to the conference's non-elite teams, the Bucks should be in great shape getting back to the postseason.
While a mid-to-low playoff seed may seem like a disappointment, the fact remains: as one of the youngest teams in the NBA, the Bucks are primed for a prosperous future.
It may take another year or two to develop into one of the powerhouses in the East. But if all goes well, that is exactly where Milwaukee is headed.