Bucks enter season with cautious optimism

The Milwaukee Bucks open up the 2015-16 season at home against the New York Knicks Wednesday night at 7:00 PM.

The Past 

At this time last year, the Bucks were merely a blip on the NBA radar. Coming off a franchise-worst 15-67 campaign, the Bucks drafted Jabari Parker, a promising young forward, traded for veteran Jared Dudley, and, in the biggest move of all, were sold to a new ownership group; but, questions remained about their youth and their talent.

“In terms of number of games won, look for Milwaukee to be around 23 to 25 wins when it’s all said and done.”- Bleacher Report, 10/23/2014

“Best Case Scenario: 35-47. Worst Case Scenario: 22-60.”- Basketball Insiders, 9/6/2014

“Milwaukee will finish at 20-62, last in the Central Division.”- Ball Don’t Lie, 10/1/2014

The Bucks bested those predictions and then some. They finished the 2014-2015 season with a 41-41 record, good for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  And while they lost in the first round to the Chicago Bulls, they were able to force the series to a sixth game after losing the first three.

The Expectations 

After making the playoffs and exceeding even the wildest of expectations last season, the Bucks entered the offseason with a significant amount of buzz. The noise got louder when the Bucks beat out big-market teams like New York and Los Angeles for the services of free agent Greg Monroe. Monroe becomes the low-post threat the Bucks were missing last season, and forecasts for a 50-win season were in order.

The Expectations, Tempered

Now that the initial hum of excitement has fizzled a little, expectations have tempered. ESPN’s Marc Stein rates the Bucks as 14th in his latest NBA Power Rankings and 7th in the Eastern Conference. Grantland’s Zach Lowe, as one of his “35 Crazy Predictions for the 2015-2016 NBA Season,” has “Milwaukee Misses the Playoffs.” And CARMELO (not the player, but FiveThirtyEight’s new NBA projection algorithm) predicts the Bucks will finish this season with a 36-46 record, 5 wins less than last season.

Now, if last season proved anything, these preseason predictions mean nothing. What really matters is the attitude of the organization itself, and for the Bucks, the attitude reflects cautious optimism. And that isn’t to say that they don’t believe they can win—it’s that they understand that it won’t be easy.

The Coach 

It starts with head coach Jason Kidd. In July, Kidd said his goal for the team was to go “from good to good,” a statement that John Hammond echoed throughout the summer.  Kidd played 19 seasons in the NBA, won an NBA championship in 2011, and certainly knows how hard it is to maintain a high-level of production over an extended period of time.  On Media Day, Kidd had similar sentiments: “We’re going to go through our growing pains, because when you become a team [that wins] consistently in this league, expectations get higher.”

Kidd plays a huge role in the Bucks’ success. Because the roster is so young (average age of 24.8 years, second youngest in the NBA), Kidd’s ability to use his recent NBA career and his exceptional knowledge of the minutiae of the game allows the team to both understand and respect him.  He’s made the playoffs twice in his first two years as a head coach, with two completely different teams. In his only season with Brooklyn, he led a veteran team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson to the playoffs and a first-round series victory. Now, in Milwaukee, he’s tasked with sustaining the young Bucks’ competitiveness and building on their previous successes.

The Young Guns 

On Monday, the Bucks exercised team options on Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Tyler Ennis, of which the first three project to be starters. The young core of the Bucks has scary length, finished in the top five in the NBA in defense last year, and with addition Greg Monroe should improve offensively. Giannis worked over the summer on his three-point shooting, a facet of his game that could spread the floor and open up space in the post, and Jabari Parker’s return from an ACL injury he suffered last December gives the Bucks another option of offense.

The Wins Over the Summer

In addition to Monroe, the Bucks also signed Khris Middleton to a $70 million contract extension over the summer, locking up a player that finished last season in the top ten in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus.

Rashad Vaughn comes to Milwaukee as the 17th pick in the NBA draft out of UNLV, and impressed many this preseason with his scoring ability. He’s looked confident in his shot and his ability to attack the rim, averaging 10.0 PPG in 6 preseason games.

Also on draft day, the Bucks acquired Greivis Vasquez, a veteran point guard playing for his fifth team in six years. Vasquez is a savvy player who can provide solid minutes off of the bench, and at 6’6” can also play alongside Carter-Williams in smaller sets.

The Losses 

Three veteran players from last season are gone: Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia, and Ersan Ilyasova. While not statistically flashy, each of these players held their own role on the team. Dudley provided vocal leadership on defense and his three-point shooting drew defenders outside. Pachulia was a physical presence in the post that averaged 8.3 PPG and 6.8 RPG in just under 24 minutes, and Ilyasova both rebounded and hit the three as a stretch-four.

The Setbacks 

The main setback for the Bucks is Jabari Parker’s continued absence from the court. Kidd told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Parker will not be ready until some point in November, which could be the Bucks’ third game or their eighteenth. Tyler Ennis also remains out after undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason.

The Prediction 

The Bucks will certainly not surprise anyone this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t win as many games. They’re a young, talented team with a smart head coach that added depth offensively to a team that struggled at times last year. They come in with a cautious optimism, not with assumptions of the Larry O’Brien trophy, but rather that they still have a lot to prove. The key will be maintaining their defensive prowess while improving offensively by keeping opposing defenses spread out.

Prediction: 44-38, 5th seed in Eastern Conference 

Image: Kidd; Giannis + MCW; Parker; Featured image from Getty Images.

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