Through a storm of free agent signings and an exciting, youthful draft class, the NBA of the 2016-17 season is almost unrecognizable. Kevin Durant in blue and gold, the Knicks assembling the “dream team” of 2011, and Dwyane Wade’s homecoming to Chicago are just a few of the roster-morphing moves that accompanied this offseason. With the dust settled, the Western Conference looks less formidable, with playoff perennials of Oklahoma City and Houston looking like less of a sure thing. Utah and Minnesota are young, talented, and hungry. Golden State and San Antonio look like the one and two seeds already, both bubbling over with talent. The Eastern Conference is just as shaken up. The New York Knicks have a lot of talented players, but many are wondering if their clock has since expired. Chicago is an entirely new team with the likes of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol packing their bags and Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade donning the red and black for the first time. Cleveland and Toronto still rule the conference, but Boston and Atlanta could give them a run for their money.
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the Bucks are scrambling to find out their identity before their season tips off Wednesday. Two months ago, the Bucks were confident in their roster of young stars. Names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jabari Parker were on the lips of analysts across the nation as young talents poised for potential breakout years.
Unfortunately, the Bucks will be without Middleton, their premiere scoring and three point threat, for up to six months with a torn hamstring. Carter-Williams, an assist heavy floor general, was shipped to Chicago for 3rd-year guard Tony Snell.
With two main pieces out, the Bucks are left wondering who they are as a team and where they’ll stack up against the premiere teams in the East. With a number of strengths come an equal amount of weaknesses followed by a few wild cards, all of which need addressing if this team wants to compete for a playoff spot.
Above all, the Bucks are young. Parker and Antetokounmpo, perhaps the teams two most promising and explosive pieces, are both 21. Miles Plumlee, Greg Monroe, and John Henson are all under 28. While youthfulness can sometimes mean immaturity, it can also lead to future greatness. Having just tied down Antetokounmpo to a four-year, $100 million deal, and Parker locked into a three-year deal where he’ll become a restricted free agent in 2018, the young talent is here to stay, and hopefully develop and improve together into a fearsome twosome.
Not shockingly, the roster was not supposed to look like this way before the season’s start. Carter-Williams was supposed to be the starting PG with Middleton at his side lurking in the perimeter. When Middleton went out, the only options at SG were second year unproven guard Rashad Vaughn, or worn out Jason Terry. Clearly a change had to made. Unfortunately it cost them Carter-Williams. Instead, Kidd projects that Antetokounmpo will start at point guard with Snell and Parker rounding out the rest of the backcourt; Henson and Plumlee will man the frontcourt.
This unconventional lineup seems risky, with a 6’11” Antetokounmpo boasting a 7’3″ wingspan at point guard. On the contrary, this incredibly lengthy lineup could prove to confuse opposing defenses. It’s safe to say no PG in the league will match up physically with Antetokounmpo, and Snell at shooting guard measuring at 6’7″ is no easier.
Playing off their tremendous length, the team has hinted towards playing a full court press defensive scheme. With a roster full of freak specimens blessed with 7+ foot wingspans, their potential to create turnovers is apparent, and worth experimenting with. Head Coach Jason Kidd shares his thoughts courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“We’re working on it in the preseason, but we’re looking to see if that’s something we can use, especially when we’re talking about our length,” Kidd said.
Rookie and top ten pick Thon Maker also shared his experience with the press in high school, pointing out its effectiveness.
“I’ve been in that position many times in high school and it was usually me and my brother, me at the front of the press and him right behind me. We’d run up on teams and it was like turnover after turnover,” Maker recalls.
If the Bucks can establish an effective press system that drains shot clock and potentially forces turnovers, their defense could be their defining characteristic.
Under absolute ideal circumstances, Antetokounmpo and Parker could both have their respective breakout seasons, boosting their production across the board and emerging as forces that demand respect in a talent-laden league. Of course, this is all speculation, but the potential and talent are there and if the two were to take the next step simultaneously, the results could be explosive and needed, especially after the loss of Middleton.
Finally, chemistry is a highly underrated aspect of successful teams and is often overlooked when assembling a squad. According to starting center Miles Plumlee, the chemistry on this Bucks roster is apparent per the Milwaukee Bucks’ official Twitter account.
“I gotta say John [Henson] and Moose [Monroe] are some of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Plumlee said.
He went on to explain the atmosphere coming out of practices here on the UW Madison campus.
“I think our chemistry is building right away. You can see with all the lobs and pocket passes. It’s an exciting way to play!” he concluded.
Chemistry extends past basketball, and a team that thrives as a unit on and off the court can create a bond that makes playing more fluid, resulting in wins.
Obviously, the team had planned on playing with their leading scorer in Middleton. With him, their leading three-point threat, their three point numbers were still abysmal for the 2015-16 season. They lead the league in two point attempts and were dead last in three point attempts. They ranked last in three point attempt percentage at a laughable 18.9% rate, and 21st in three point shooting percentage with a rate of 34.5%. Keep in mind, this was all with their specialist Middleton healthy. Without him, logically, the numbers should decline even further, which spells trouble for a league where threes are king.
In an attempt to make up for Middleton’s absence, the Bucks acquired shooters Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry. Teletovic has proven to be an effective shooter, holding a career percentage of 37.5%. Terry, historically, is known for his shooting ability, boasting an impressive 44.4% three point shooting percentage over his career. But The Jet is 39 and past his prime. His shooting ability is evident, but in terms of dramatic impact on the team? Minimal. Additionally, Middleton was able to create his own shot off the dribble while Terry and Teletovic are known more as spot up three point shooters, therefore less versatile.
Since the Bucks rely so heavily on points inside the three-point arc, the offense tends to become one-dimensional. Bigs bang around in the paint for the majority of possessions, in fact they lead the league in percent of field goals attempted that were two-pointers last year at a rate of 81.1%.
To make matters worse, their frontcourt is too overcrowded. Henson, Monroe, and Plumlee are quality starting forwards, and rotating them effectively could prove difficult and unbalanced. With the addition of seven-footer Thon Maker, another cook was added to an already small kitchen.
The Matthew Dellavedova issue also needs addressing. Dellavedova has done less than little in this league to justify a $38 million contract. He came out of a winning franchise where he could thrive because of the incredible talent around him. He won’t be any kind of x-factor for the Bucks or any future team for that matter.
Finally, Tony Snell has done very little in this league to justify a starting job immediately. With far from dazzling career numbers (5.3 PPG, 0.9 APG, 2.3 RPG), Snell’s qualifications for starter are hard to see.
Thon Maker is a physical freak, plain and simple. 7’1″ height, 7’3″ wingspan. His attributes are evident and gawking, and the potential for a star career exists, in theory.
With perhaps the only other physical comparison to Maker in Antetokounmpo, and a bevy of big-men, Maker doesn’t have to look far for mentorship. Given the proper guidance, Maker could become a truly dominant force in Milwaukee.
Wherever Giannis ends up on the court, he’s sure to produce. Finding that sweet-spot will be crucial however, but if it’s found, and the proper pieces surround him, look out, this man is no joke.
The Bucks’ success this year is hard to support conclusively. They have a lot of talent that could blossom. They have a coach who’s creative and could guide them in the right, winning, direction. They have a frontcourt that could be forceful. But all of this could happen, but there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that its odds are good. Talent is never something a team scoffs at, but talent does not mean instant wins and does take time to mature, which is precisely the era of limbo the Bucks are in this season.
Final Prediction: 30-52
Playoff Berth: No
All stats courtesy of nba.com, espn.com, and draftexpress.com
Photo courtesy of otgbasketball.com