The 2013-14 season may hasn’t gone how the Milwaukee Bucks had hoped, but the season full of losses might have been exactly what the team needed. Unlike the Philadelphia Sixers, the Bucks went into this year hoping to fight for one of the final playoff seeds in the weak Eastern Conference. They brought in veteran players such as O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and Luke Ridnour to help bring stability and leadership to an otherwise young group, with aspirations of a surprising season.
However, it didn’t take long to see that even with the team’s offseason additions, they weren’t going to win many games. The Bucks rolled into the All-Star break with a paltry record of 9-43. It was evident to even the most optimistic fan that despite being in the very down Eastern Conference, this season was not going to end with a playoff berth.
The team unloaded a few of the veteran players brought in just a few months prior, trading Ridnour and Neal to the Charlotte Bobcats for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, and also waiving Caron Butler, who would go on to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. These moves were a step in the right direction and will give the Bucks increased flexibility going into this offseason. There is still a lot of work to be done for the Bucks to return to playoff contention, but if they play their cards right that time could come sooner than later.
Build Around Giannis Antetokounmpo
When discussing the Bucks’ future, the conversation starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks hit a home run in last year’s draft, stealing the young Greek with the 15th overall pick. Bucks general manager John Hammond and his staff have to be commended for taking such a big risk on somewhat of an unknown player. Antetokounmpo has paid dividends for the Bucks much earlier than expected. It was anticipated that due to his age and lack of experience against high level competition that Antetokounmpo would not offer much in terms of production during his rookie campaign, but it quickly became apparent that he was much better than expected. Even with his surprising play, there remains plenty of room for growth – growth that will play a major factor in the Bucks’ success going forward.
Antetokounmpo was able to carve out a nice role for himself as a rookie, playing 24.3 minutes per game and even starting in 22 contests. He showed he is capable of contributing in a number of different ways, averaging 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and .8 blocks. While his numbers may not seem incredible, some of the highlight reel plays he has made this year certainly have been. On a number of occasions, he has swatted a shot off the backboard and followed the rejection with a dunk on the other end. It’s these glimpses of brilliance on both ends that have fans in Milwaukee so excited. Antetokounmpo seemingly has one of these moments every few games, making plays that leave your jaw on the floor. There is no doubt the talent is there.
With the his first NBA offseason approaching, the franchise must now focus on harnessing and developing Antetokounmpo into a player that will be a difference maker for years to come. His shooting has been spotty but encouraging for such a young player, shooting 31.8 percent from three and 41.7 percent overall from the field. He has shown he is more than capable from beyond the arc and has looked especially comfortable shooting from the wing.
If Antetokounmpo can work to develop a more consistent jump shot this offseason, it will really allow for him to become more efficient on the offensive end. At the same time, he must work hard to add some muscle to his slight frame, as added strength would help him in many aspects of his game, especially finishing around the rim, playing defense and rebounding the ball. Bucks fans should be very excited to see what the future holds for Antetokounmpo, and the Greek Freak should be viewed as a cornerstone piece for the franchise going forward.
Develop the “Other” Young Players
Even though the team brought in some veterans last offseason, the Bucks still have a nice crop of young players outside of Antetokounmpo to work with. Development of Antetokoumpo should be a major priority, but there are some other good prospects on this roster as well. John Henson, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters are all under the age of 24.
Henson, who had his third-year option picked up by the team in October, must focus on adding strength and continuing to develop his inconsistent mid-range jumper. He has proven that he can deter and block shots (1.8 per game) around the rim, but does sometimes get out muscled by bigger players. Right now, it is tough to play Henson and Larry Sanders together, as both players score primarily at the rim. This clogs up the lane, making it difficult for the guards to penetrate the paint and create. If Henson can get to the point where he is confidently knocking shots from the baseline and inside the arc on the wing, it would give the Bucks some increased flexibility with their frontcourt rotations and also add some needed versatility to his game.
In his first season in Milwaukee, Knight has become a focal point offensively and has been the team’s most consistent threat on that end of the court throughout the season. He leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) and has the highest Usage Percentage at 26.9 percent. The big question for Knight is should he be the one running the offense or is he best suited playing off the ball? Knight does lead the team in assists per game (4.9), but can have trouble when the play breaks down creating for teammates. If Knight wants to be the point guard of the future for the Bucks, he will have to become a better playmaker. He must also work to become more efficient from three-point range. He leads the team in attempts from deep at 294 but is only shooting a meager 33 percent.
Middleton, who came over to Milwaukee from Detroit as part of the Brandon Jennings trade, has been a very pleasant surprise. He has shown that he can be very dangerous threat from outside. Middleton has been the most consistent shooter on the team, leading in three pointers made (106) and three point percentage (42.2 percent). Though his sample size is somewhat limited, it appears Middleton will be a very capable shooter from deep. At times his game can be a little one dimensional. Middleton’s 2014-15 salary is non-guaranteed, but Milwaukee will almost certainly keep him and then extend a qualifying offer to him the following summer to make him a restricted free agent. While Middleton may never be star, he will be solid contributor as long as he can continue to shoot the ball efficiently, one the Bucks should look to keep around.
Wolters was selected in the second round of last year’s draft and, like Middleton, has been somewhat of a revelation. In 58 games, including 31 starts, before recently injuring his hand, he showed that he can be a steady option at point guard. He does a great job protecting the ball and rarely turns it over. He does need to work on his outside shot, but has a chance to be solid backup at point guard for years to come.
Make the Right Draft Pick
This June, thanks to their less than stellar season, the Bucks will have the chance bring in some young talent via the draft. Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce, the Bucks could pick as high as one and most likely no lower than fourth. Luckily for the Bucks, this draft has a number of very intriguing prospects including Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Dante Exum among others. Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com has stated that “sources indicate” that Hammond favors Joel Embiid with the Bucks’ first pick. Once the Bucks know exactly where they will be choosing on draft day, it should make it easier to pinpoint exactly who the team will target but for now it looks as if Embiid tops the team’s wish list.
The Bucks need to target the best player available regardless of their current roster make up. The team can’t afford to pass on a potential All-Star and possible superstar, even if it may unbalance roster. Embiid, Parker and Wiggins are all very highly regarded and could change the course of the franchise if they play up to expectations. Hammond has a very important decision to make, one that will have a major impact on the future of the team.
One area in which Hammond has really excelled is finding solid players in the second round. Some of his second-round picks include Nate Wolters (2013), Doron Lamb (2012), Jon Leuer (2011) and Jodie Meeks (2009), all players contributing for NBA teams this season. The Bucks will have three picks in the second round of this coming draft and it will be another great opportunity to add youth and depth to the roster. Following the draft, the team should have a very good core group of young players to build around.
Resurgence of O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders
In the short-term, the quickest way for the Bucks to get better is with increased production from their two highest paid players. Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo both had disappointing years and their missing production certainly played a part in the team’s poor season.
Mayo was signed to a three-year, $24 million contract last summer, with the expectation that he would be the starting two guard. He was given the job to begin the season, but never really settled in. Mayo has only ended up starting 25 games. Even when Mayo was playing starter’s minutes, he rarely seemed to assert himself on offense. He tended to be very stagnate and lethargic, often waiting for the ball to swing around to him for a three rather than aggressively working for a better look. He can be a prolific three-point shooter, but can be all too willing to float around the perimeter waiting for the ball to find him. This may be one of the last opportunities Mayo has to prove that he’s an NBA starter. If he can bounce back with a strong year, it would go a long way in helping the Bucks improve.
Sanders made a name for himself during the 2012-13 season for his intimidating play in the paint. He was a shot blocking machine, sending back just under three shots a game. The Bucks rewarded Sanders by signing him to a four-year, $44 million contract last summer. It’s safe to say things haven’t turned out exactly as the Bucks had planned since signing Sanders to an extension. Sanders missed 25 games to start the season after being involved in a nightclub altercation in which he injured his thumb. Sanders did return in late December, but struggled to replicate his production from a season ago. The rough stretch for Sanders continued as he fractured his orbital bone in early February and has since been declared out for the season.
Having Sanders anchor the defense is a must for the Bucks if the goal is to win as soon as possible. Sanders has proven that he can be an elite rim protector and if he can stay out of foul trouble, he can really influence a game. Sanders’ ability to return to 2012-13 form will be a major factor for the Bucks next season because when he’s on top of his game, there are few players who can singlehandedly elevate a defense the way he can.