2017 NBA Summer Preview Series: Milwaukee Bucks
At some point, Lebron James is either going to head West, or retire. I think. Whenever one of those things happen, the East is going to be up for grabs. You may have a personal favorite in terms of which franchise will make a run for that top spot, but there is no denying that what the Bucks are building in the Cream City/Brew City/Beer City/Brew Town/Beertown/The Mil whatever nickname you prefer is more than worthy of being in that conversation.
2016-17 Season Highlights
Much like being a fan of the Sacramento Kings, things haven’t been too kind to the nice people of Wisconsin and their beloved Bucks. To put it simply, in the last 16 years they either missed the playoffs, or lost in the first round. If not for their run in 2000-01 to the ECF, the Bucks would not have made it out of the first round since 1988-89. That team’s highest win share player was Jack Sikma. Who the hell is Jack Sikma? This is Jack Sikma
Safe to say times have changed a little bit as we enter the 2017-18 season. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago this Bucks team went 15-67. That happened in Giannis’ rookie year in 2013. A mere four years later, things look drastically different. Since kicking Larry Drew to the curb and bringing in Jason Kidd, the Bucks are currently in the middle of their best stretch in recent years, and are loaded with young promising talent. But as is the case with almost every rebuilding team in the NBA, especially one in a “small” market, the Bucks need to walk before they can run. With the East getting weaker by the minute, there is certainly enough to make you believe that the weird 33 win season in 2015 was more fluke than anything else. As we stand today, this is how the Bucks roster is looking
It should be noted that there are reports that the Bucks are shopping Monroe/Henson so that could drastically change their cap situation if they are able to move one of those guys. As it stands now, these 16 players (and two cap holds) have the Bucks sitting at $121M, which happens to be the 6th highest total in the entire league. This is Year 1 of Giannis’ big $100M extension, and to me, this means the clock has officially started. With the way superstars have been moving around the league recently, the pressure is on. You could argue the Bucks are in a similar position to Portland, a team with a super high payroll who at the moment isn’t really close to competing for a title. But for me, the appeal of the Bucks isn’t really about the 2017-18 season, it’s about what they are building for the future.
It can’t be ignored that the Bucks front office has a lot of important franchise decisions to make over the next couple seasons. For starters, what are they going to do with Jabari Parker? He’s in the last guaranteed year of his rookie deal at $6.7M this season. Next year, the Bucks can extend an $8.8M qualifying offer which makes him a restricted FA, but is he a max guy? Is there a team out there that will attempt to break up the young MIL core by giving him that type of offer? Coming off two ACL surgeries, should the Bucks even commit to Parker long term? If it’s me, the answer to that question is yes. I fully understand he now has a certain level of injury risk, but I’m not giving up on a player who was a 20/6 guy with 49/36% splits in 51 games last year before getting hurt. Unfortunately, the Bucks probably won’t have his services until AFTER the All Star break this year, which gives them around 25ish games to make a decision of this magnitude. There were rumors the Bucks were shopping Parker right before he got hurt last year before the deadline, and now with a new GM that doesn’t have ties to Parker, there’s definitely a level of uncertainty there and here’s why.
If the goal is to surround your unicorn with players that make him and the team better, the case could be made that Parker may not be that player. On the surface you would think they would be a solid fit, but the numbers suggest otherwise. A Giannis/Parker pairing actually produced fewer points per 100 possessions than their average with Parker having a -2.5 net rating. It would be silly to make a decision solely on these numbers, but at the same time you can’t completely ignore it. Throw in the fact that Middleton is back, and you can see why things are getting complicated.
At the end of the day though, the Bucks ability to take a leap in the Eastern Conference is going to fall on the shoulders of their Greek Freak. Giannis’ 2017 season was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Winner of the MIP player award, Giannis made his first All Star team and the 2nd All NBA team. Guy is a bonafide STUD. He led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. He became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all those categories. That is utterly ridiculous for a 22 year old. The key will be, where can he take his game to this season? What more can he do? On the surface you look at his 52% shooting from the field and are impressed. For a guy taking 15.7 FGA a game, that’s pretty good. But the closer you look, you can see the areas which he needs to improve.
For starters, he needs to improve in the paint (40.7%) and in the mid-range area (33.5%). Right now a large part his game (8.3 FGA) consists of getting to the restricted area, where he is a legit monster. If he finds himself in a position like this, he is going to beat you
Plays like this are becoming more and more frequent in Kidd’s system. The way the Bucks move the ball (5th in assists at 24.2 per game), Giannis is going to find himself in these isolation post ups pretty frequently. At some point, teams are going to start to double him as soon as he catches it, which will hamper things a little bit.
That is why beefing up your offensive arsenal is so important. Up until now, teams haven’t really had to worry about Giannis as a midrange shooter. Now, he was able to raise his percentage nearly 10 points in the playoffs (43%) from this range, so that tells me the development is coming which should excite you as a Bucks fan. It shows that he is absolutely capable of turning this weakness into a weapon, making it even harder on defenses across the NBA. Imagine if this season he’s able to live in the same range as other elite talents like Kawhi (47.3%), Durant (47.3%), Melo (45.4%)? Absolutely terrifying. I look at someone like Otto Porter Jr, a guy who in his 21 year old season shot 38% from the midrange. Now, he’s among the best midrange shooters in the NBA (48.1%), and it just got him PAID. If Giannis can see similar progression this season, I really don’t know how you guard him. Why is this so important? Well for starters, the Bucks basically never run anyone off screens, especially Giannis. He comes off screens at a frequency of 1.4%. In the playoffs that was cut in half. As a team they run this play type at a frequency of 3.8%. Teams are now going to focus so much more attention on Giannis moving forward, the Bucks NEED to start to incorporating this more consistently within their offense to help get him open. Multiple down screens, pin downs, off the ball screens, it really doesn’t matter, just do it.
Along with his midrange game, for Giannis to truly take another leap, he needs to become more of a three point threat. After shooting 34% as a rookie, he hasn’t had a season over 27% since. That’s Marcus Smart territory. He doesn’t take a ton, just 2.3 a game last year, but if you had to pick one area that needs the most work, it’s this. Despite his futility, the Bucks finished 6th last year in 3P% (37.3%), but 26th in 3PA per game. It’s not really their style, but in today’s NBA you really can’t ignore it if you are trying to become one of the best players in the league.
When you think about what makes MIL unique, how can you not mention their length. Between Giannis (7′ wingspan), Thon Maker (7′ wingspan), Greg Monroe (7’2 wingspan), John Henson (7′ wingspan), Malcolm Brogdon (7′ wingspan), Khris Middleton (7′ wingspan), and Jabari Parker (7′ wingspan) this is utter insanity. As an entire team, they ranked 7th in length, but in terms of starters, it’d be hard to find a longer unit. Did this directly impact their defense? Sort of. The Bucks were 10th in the league in steals with is solid, but only Middleton (18th at 3.0) and Giannis (30th at 2.7) rank in the Top 50 in terms of deflections per game. That surprised me. When you look at this team, they really should be much better on the defensive end. They finished the 2016 season with a 106.4 defensive rating, which ranked 19th in the NBA. That put them in the same area code as POR/WSH/HOU/DAL/IND, none of which you would describe as good defensive teams. The potential is there, the Bucks are a Top 10 team in both steals and blocks and opponent points, but their problem is more about their on ball defense. Teams shoot 45.8% from the floor against MIL (17th) and have an eFG% of 51.9% which puts them 20th. The problem with MIL defensively is they struggle to actually contest shots outside of Giannis. With Parker hurt, they don’t have another player who finished in the Top 50 in this area. You look at the better defensive teams in the NBA (UTA/SAS/GS/TOR), they all have multiple guys in that 50. If the Bucks want to get into that next group in the East, the one with WSH/TOR/BOS, they need to be better on defense, simple as that.
But again, you can’t look at this roster and not be excited about the potential. First, getting Khris Middleton back is a HUGE deal. In 29 games last year, playing slightly fewer minutes than the year before since he was coming back from injury, Middleton looked every bit the player he was before he got. A line of 14.7/4.2/3.4/1.4 with 45/43% splits is exactly what this offense needs. A player that can create his own shot as an isolation player (.96ppp and 48.5% before he got hurt), the Giannis/Brogdon/Maker/Middleton/Snell lineup was actually one of the more effective groupings all year. Per 100 possessions this group scored 7.8 more points than their average, and when MIL swapped Delly in for Brogdon, that number jumped to 13.8. It’s safe to say Middleton does wonders for this team’s offense, especially with his ability to stretch defenses.
Then there’s the progression of Malcom Brodgon to factor in as well. The 2016 ROY, it’s hard not to love what Brogdon brings to the table. He has excellent size for a PG, is efficient, and does a little bit of everything. He can guard multiple positions, help on the glass, facilitate for others, or even score in the clutch
I know there was a time in which MIL was going to experiment with Giannis running the point, but this dude right here is their point guard of the future. Like most rookies, his defense certainly has room to improve (111 rating last year), but that’s to be expected. If he can get that down to like the 106ish range, it’ll make a huge impact. In wins, his rating was around 108, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think he can live in that range for an entire season now that he has a year of experience/film under his belt.
I’m also excited to see Thon Maker hopefully get more run. A player that is still so raw showed promise when he played between 20-29 minutes last season. In 5 games last year in which that happened, he put up 12.6/4.8/1.0 with 50/50% splits. A guy I fell in love with via YouTube before he got drafted, he certainly could benefit from an expanded role.
The Bucks are without a doubt going to be a very popular pick for an Eastern Conference team that is poised to make a jump this season. The same thing happened after the 2014-15 season and that didn’t work out so hot. My gut tells me with the development of Giannis and Brogdon, the addition of Middleton, and it now being the Year 4 of the Jason Kidd system these guys have all played under, we won’t see that same drop like we did in 2015. The Bucks are going to be good, and they are going to be good for a long time.
Official Greenie Prediction: 48 wins