Fixing the Milwaukee Bucks

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While there were a million and a half people who a year ago thought that the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks would win 50 games and make the postseason, some voices of reason suggested we all pump the brakes a little bit on the Milwaukee love-fest. This was still a young team, after all, and whatever highly-touted free agent signing Greg Monroe brought in offense, the team was sure to lose in defense thanks to the departures of players like Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders.

As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, as the Bucks had a hard time playing any sort of defense, dropping from fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating last year to 23rd this past season. And while Monroe has been every bit as efficient offensively as he was expected to be, the fact that he’s slowed down the offense and detoured the defense absolutely played a part in Milwaukee’s step backward this season. The Bucks finished the season with a paltry 33 wins.

There were other factors at play—ill-timed injuries, coaching issues—but more than anything this was a team that looked long and nasty on defense a year ago, only to come back with a significantly worse effort a year later. It’s hard to see improvement in the NBA when your defense regresses, and the defensive gambles these young Bucks once turned into big plays no longer paid off.

There’s a chance that that John Hammond could move on from the front office or that something could happen with head coach Jason Kidd, but assuming all of those pieces remain intact, here’s a look at a few things Milwaukee could do this offseason to improve themselves significantly for the 2016-17 campaign:

Rebuild the Offense so Antetokounmpo Can Create

If there’s one thing we learned in this lost Bucks season, it’s that Giannis Antetokounmpo is far and away the most interesting point guard the NBA has ever seen. About three-quarters of the way through the year, Kidd decided to play around with his seven-foot wunderkind and immediately found that the Greek Freak was a revelation at the one. He already was a monster in transition, but handling the rock gave him access to passing lanes smaller players never could have seen, and attempts to double- and triple-team him in this fast-paced experiment did not typically result in good things for opposing defenses. Antetokounmpo racked up a ton of triple-doubles down the stretch as a result, so now we know exactly how good he can be as a creator on offense.

It may not be the best thing, though, for him to be the full-time point guard. Milwaukee still was going to have to look into more depth at that position considering the lack of production and health issues attached to Michael Carter-Williams, Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo (the latter two are unrestricted free agents, anyway). But Antetokounmpo’s emergence as ball-handler changes what kind of point guards they may chase, and it certainly changes how their offense will run next year. The kid probably shouldn’t be responsible for knowing a full, complicated playbook or for bringing the ball up the floor each and every possession, but he should be given plenty of opportunities to create on offense. Rest assured, next year’s offense will feature him in that role prominently, even if he’s not the full-time guy at that position.

Make Changes at Point Guard

While there certainly is a chance that Tyler Ennis could improve to the point that he’s a viable, playable NBA point guard by next season, it looks a whole lot likelier that Carter-Williams will be the team’s best player at that position heading into the year (not including the aforementioned Greek Freak).

Milwaukee has tried shopping Carter-Williams, at least casually if not aggressively; however, interest in the former Rookie of the Year has been tepid at best because today’s point guards are usually only as valuable as their three-point shot, of which Carter-Williams has none. If that didn’t matter as much as it does, we’d be talking about Kris Dunn in this upcoming NBA Draft a whole heck of a lot more than we’re talking about Jamal Murray right now.

Neither guy, for what it’s worth, is going to fall to Milwaukee at pick No. 10, assuming that’s where they stay, so they may have to reach out into free agency for a more gifted all-around point guard. They could draft Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson, but Antetokounmpo’s emergence means not having to necessarily use their best pick at that position. It also means they don’t have to splurge on guys like Mike Conley or Rajon Rondo, but Jeremy Lin or Matthew Dellavedova could make for interesting additions and so would Jordan Clarkson, though he would do very little for improving the team’s all-around defensive efficiency.

One way or another, though, they have to add some point guard depth this year, not only due to potential lost free agents, but out of necessity for improvement.

Trade Greg Monroe

Now we get to the heart of what would completely revamp the Bucks this summer, and it involves trading the player who at one point was believed to be the guy that tipped the scales in Milwaukee’s favor moving forward.

In Monroe’s defense, he’s been everything he was supposed to be, but the fit just hasn’t been good with the Bucks as they’ve seen Antetokounmpo flourish in his new role, Jabari Parker come alive as a young star in his own right and Khris Middleton prove he’s worth every dollar of that big contract he earned last summer. The team has its good, young core and as those young players evolve and NBA teams in general move away from the traditional big man, Monroe just doesn’t look like a good fit anymore.

From the All-Star break on, he averaged only 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds, which is considerably below where he had been before February. His usage rate sunk like a stone too, showing that the future of this offense doesn’t come anywhere close to running through him. Since he’s currently employed there strictly for offense purposes, it’s worth considering whether he’s got a future as a Buck.

With so many teams flaunting massive cap space this summer and so few players actually worthy of that cap space, Milwaukee shouldn’t struggle too mightily to find a taker. It just depends what they hope to get back in return for a player who’s going to fit quite well somewhere else. If the asking price is reasonable, they could move on from an experiment that just has not worked.

Find a Defensive-Minded Center

And moving on would mean finding some guys to replace him in the frontcourt. Miles Plumlee and John Henson both have proven to be valuable guys at times, but the Bucks absolutely could use some help in diversifying the center position.

Marquette star Henry Ellenson falling to them in the draft would be a boon not only for ticket sales but for adding a big guy to the rotation who can do a lot of really nice things. He’s a bruiser in the traditional sense, but has more range than is typical for a guy his size and despite all of his talent on that end of the floor, he’s not necessarily known for his defensive acumen.

Still, the Bucks could draft him to play at the four off the bench and then invest some decent money in a real starting center. That money will be there whether or not the team trades Monroe, and there are plenty of defensive-minded centers available in free agency at various price points. Timofey Mozgov would be a great fit at a fairly reasonable price, for example, as would Bismack Biyombo. Roy Hibbert has been largely disappointing the last two or three seasons but is huge, skilled and probably inexpensive.  There’s also Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard if the team wants to spend big money at that position.

Whoever they end up chasing, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of their free agency cash goes to that frontcourt. They’ll also need to add a point guard and some three-point shooting, but that should get them most of the way to being on the right track.

Antetokounmpo, Parker and Middleton are the future for this franchise. Keep them healthy and developing, and everything else will come together. Making the right moves this offseason, though, will just get it to come together a little more quickly.