NBA

Fixing The Milwaukee Bucks

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When the Milwaukee Bucks ripped off their fifth win in seven games back on January 13, making the playoffs wasn’t the only thing on Jason Kidd’s mind.

Slotted as the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference with a 20-18 record at the time, this young team full of confidence was a thorn in anybody’s side. Led by first-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and a locked-in Jabari Parker, it seemed like the sky was the limit.

But things started to worsen pretty quickly thereafter. Following that victory in Miami, the Bucks went on to drop 12 of their next 14 games and descended all the way down to 11th place.

The defense was allowing nearly 112 points and over 12 threes per game. Their opponents were getting to the line at will, forcing a bunch of turnovers and out-rebounding Milwaukee by almost four boards per game during that stretch.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, the Bucks received some tragic news on February 9. Parker, who had left with a non-contact injury in a loss to the Heat the night beforehand, was diagnosed with a torn ACL in his left knee. It was the same knee and the same injury he suffered during his rookie year.

Parker was shut down for the season, and at that point, Milwaukee was just hoping to make the postseason in a race for the bottom two seeds in the East. Luckily for them, help was on the way immediately. One of the Bucks’ most essential pieces, Khris Middleton, ironically returned to the floor in the same game Parker got hurt.

Coming back from a torn hamstring suffered a week before training camp, it would likely take the 25-year-old a little time to get his legs back under him. Once he did, though, Milwaukee would have its best defender and one of its top scoring threats back in the picture.

Fast-forward 16 games and here we are: the Bucks are firmly back in the playoff picture. They’ve won 12 during this stretch and look to have their principles back in order. Although they’re still not quite hitting the glass, Milwaukee has tightened the screws on defense, giving up just 100.6 points and forcing 16.1 turnovers per game, good for top five in the league in both categories from that point.

On the other side of the floor, Milwaukee is capitalizing by scoring 20.8 points per game on their opponents’ miscues. They’re getting to the line 23 times a night and converting 81 percent of their free throws. It’s been an unselfish brand of basketball all season long and it’s starting to pay off.

The Greek Freak has been a constant for Kidd and his staff, but Middleton has made as enormous of an impact as many thought he would. In the 10 games he has started, the Bucks have won nine. Excluding his first two games back, Middleton is averaging 16.6 points per game on 50.7 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from the perimeter. He’s not only doing damage beyond the arc, either.

The more Middleton gets acclimated to being back into the game’s speed, the more he’s started to regain confidence to cut to the basket and drive the lane. His teammates are finding him for easy points in the paint and he’s taking advantage.

Middleton’s most natural abilities come defensively. So far in March, there are two players on Milwaukee’s team that have a defensive rating below 100: Jason Terry and Middleton. What’s telling, however, are the numbers when both are off the court.

When Terry is not on the floor, the Bucks are losing a measly 0.5 points per 100 possessions. According to NBA.com using the same statistic, when Middleton leaves the game, Milwaukee is 12.3 points worse.

Now, in seventh place with 14 games to go, they’re back to .500 at 34-34. As one of the hottest teams in the league right now, the Bucks could realistically make a run to as high as the fifth seed.

But say that Milwaukee has a falling out because of its inexperience—what can this team do to improve its promising core?

Two things: Add depth and bring in somebody to go and get those rebounds.

Approaching the 2017 offseason, the Bucks are expected to have up to $15.1 million in cap space. Before they go out and get some more pieces, though, they’ve got a few decisions to make on their current roster.

In late June, Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes will make a decision on whether or not to opt-in to their player option for the ’17-18 season. That is out of the front office’s control, but they do have the power to offer Tony Snell a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. The deadline to do so comes on June 29.

Aside from those players, Milwaukee will lose three more. Jason Terry, who’s been a crucial part of the team’s resurgence, will become an unrestricted free agent. He’ll have Michael Beasley and the recently signed Terrence Jones joining him as well.

Considering there aren’t many bigs out there in this upcoming free agent pool, the Bucks should use their first-round draft pick to address the situation. A center that stands out in this rookie class and could be available in their expected range is Edrice “Bam” Adebayo from Kentucky.

Dick Vitale is such a fan of this kid that he dubbed him the next Dwight Howard, and frankly, he might not be far off. At 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, Adebayo’s broad shoulders and bodily build may evoke memories of Superman when he first made waves throughout the league.

In his freshman season with the Wildcats, the 19-year-old is having a banner year. Through 35 games, Adebayo is averaging 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds on 61.4 percent from the field. He’s also blocking 1.5 shots per game. Those numbers come in just under 30 minutes of work, but the evidence of his success is even more impressive on a per-100-possession scale.

Using that measurement, Adebayo puts up 23.9 points and 14.5 rebounds, as well as 2.8 blocks. His offensive rating is 124.8, whereas on defense his rating is 95 per 100 possessions, per College Basketball Reference.

Adding this upstart, energetic player to a core of other upstart, energetic young players would make the Bucks future even brighter than it already is. It would add more size to an already freakishly long group and improve the NBA’s second-worst team in rebounding immensely.

As for options in the backcourt, there are plenty of guards to take a look at.

A veteran presence who could easily fit in is Anthony Morrow. Shooting a career-worst 30 percent from distance with the Thunder and Bulls, the man could use a change of scenery. As somebody that makes most of his living on catch shoot threes, he’d be an ideal addition because 92.8 percent of Milwaukee’s triples are assisted, which is the highest in the league.

Another potential fit could be Randy Foye, who’s turned into a true journeyman but can produce when called upon. This month with Brooklyn, the veteran sharpshooter is shooting 56.7 percent beyond the arc. Behind Victor Oladipo, that’s the second highest clip in the league with at least three attempts per game in March.

The Bucks are already on the right track, but this offseason could be a real launching pad that makes this team a real contender in the near future.

How soon will that be? Who knows, but rest assured, the NBA will learn to “Fear The Deer.”

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About Spencer Davies

Spencer Davies

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.