The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 campaign with high hopes. The team had played well in the previous postseason and made headlines last summer by signing big man Greg Monroe away from the Detroit Pistons. However, the Bucks failed to live up to last year’s high expectations, finishing the season with a 33-49 record (12th-best in the Eastern Conference).
Now, Milwaukee is hoping to return to form and look more like the successful team from two seasons ago. Their young core has another year of experience under their belt and they’ve added players like Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Milwaukee Bucks.
FIVE GUYS THINK
With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and these Milwaukee Bucks, the Central seems poised to be one of the toughest divisions in the NBA this year. Over the last two seasons, all five of these teams made the playoffs at least once and each squad enters the 2016-17 campaign with postseason expectations. I love Milwaukee’s young core and I was shocked by last year’s regression. I expected them to take a step forward with Jabari Parker back in the lineup and Greg Monroe added to the roster. Instead, we saw that while their length and athleticism and mismatch potential make them scary on paper, this team does have a number of issues such as their defensive consistency and shooting. Two years ago, the Bucks had the second-best defense in the NBA; last year, they were ranked 22nd. This team’s turnaround starts with their defense improving again. I have them finishing fourth in the division ahead of the Bulls.
4th Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
Talk about crashing and burning. The Bucks had plenty of momentum entering last season, but managed to win just 33 games and struggled to find any sort of consistency. The team added guards Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry to help steady some of their backcourt struggles, while also drafting forward Thon Maker in a dare-to-be-great move. Maker is a prospect who most scouts were all over the board evaluating, o we’ll see how that works out. A return to the playoffs is a possibility, but the Central Division figures to be one of the league’s toughest to navigate so don’t bet the farm on postseason activities for Milwaukee.
5th Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
The Bucks, also known as the Wingspan-Clan, simply couldn’t resist adding more length this offseason and selected Thon Maker with the 10th overall pick in the draft. Standing at nearly 7’1 with a 7’3 wingspan, Maker is one of the most intriguing prospects from this year’s rookie class, but he may need some time to develop physically before he can be a consistent contributor.
While it may not be clear what Maker can bring to the Bucks this season, they did bring in some sharp-shooting veterans like Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova. Each of these players has limitations, but they bring more shooting, which is what the Bucks are in sore need of. If head coach Jason Kidd can utilize the added shooting and recapture the defensive efficiency the Bucks established two seasons ago, they could bounce back next season and make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The biggest factor in that equation will be the development of budding star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who came on strong toward the end of last season and started putting up monster numbers consistently. Antetokounmpo trying to be a primary playmaker for the Bucks will be one of the things I will be watching closely this upcoming season.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Jabari Parker a bit and there is no doubt that he is a great kid whose personality makes you want to root for him. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t a tad critical of him. Last season, Parker seemed to be carrying a little too much weight around and I think he would be served well by trimming down. The Bucks need good on-court leadership from one of their young guns in order to go to the next level, and Parker, in my opinion, absolutely has the qualities of an effective leader. I look directly at him when I think of what it will take for the Bucks to get to take the next step. Aside from him, the Bucks have a ton of young talent and a smart head coach. They have everything they need to make noise and I’d be willing to bet that they find themselves competing for a playoff spot in the East this season.
Of course, that isn’t necessarily saying much; there will likely be 12 teams “competing” for eight playoff spots. The Central Division could be the most difficult to predict in all of basketball, in fact. I think last season was a bit of an aberration for Jason Kidd’s team and I think they have every shot of competing, neck and neck, with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. At this point, though, I have to put them fifth since they’re still collectively inexperienced.
5th Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
Pretty much everybody of note on this team has the wingspan of a Learjet, which is impressive, but so far hasn’t translated to the kind of success that fans and the front office would like to have seen by now. After falling short of 50-win expectations a year ago, the Bucks head into this season tasked with trying to get Jabari Parker to meet his potential, helping Greg Monroe find his way in this offense and ushering Giannis Antetokounmpo toward legitimate superstardom. Matthew Dellavedova should add something interesting to the point guard rotation, which has been pretty bad in recent years, and rookie Thon Maker has a lot to live up to if he hopes to prove himself worthy of his surprising draft position. Despite all the questions, this is a team that should be really fun to watch as they grow and develop. But in a tough Central Division, it may still prove too challenging to see a big improvement in wins this season.
5th Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Khris Middleton
While the star of this show in Milwaukee at this point is pretty well established as the “Greek Freak,” Middleton has been the picture of consistency the last few years and in fact did lead Milwaukee in scoring last season with just over 18 points per game. While Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker could potentially leapfrog Middleton this year, it seems just as likely that Middleton once again leads the team offensively – perhaps this year even topping 20 per contest. He’s a great secondary ball handler for this team no matter who Jason Kidd drops in at point guard, and his jump shot is as reliable and gorgeous as anybody’s on the roster. For now, he’s the steadiest guy this team has on the offensive end.
Top Defensive Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It only takes a couple minutes on YouTube to see the massive defensive potential of Antetokounmpo, as there are several videos of him creeping up on fast-breakers like a predator stalking its prey and then swatting away their sad little layup attempts with the sort of unforgiving punishment only known previously by the enemies of Spartan soldiers. He’s nasty on defense, having averaged 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season thanks in large part to his California Condor wingspan. But nobody seems to think he’s anywhere close to his prime yet, so expect him to wreak even more havoc with those long arms this season.
Top Playmaker: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It took a Michael Carter-Williams injury last season for Jason Kidd to give “Point Giannis” a shot, but almost immediately the entire NBA world fell in love with the gimmick. At 6’11, he’s tall enough to see over pretty much anybody who would try to guard him at the top of the key in a half-court set, and that plus his natural feel for the game means initiating offense is no problem. If the defense throws a smaller, quicker guard at him, he’ll just post up and create that way; if they stick a stronger, slower player on him, he’ll use his length and athleticism to blow right by him. On defense, he can pull down a rebound and then blast down the court for a fastbreak, taking about five long steps to get from baseline to baseline. He’s almost unfair from a gene perspective. While we won’t necessarily see him play point guard exclusively this year, he’s going to initiate a ton of the offense. That, obviously, is a good thing for the Bucks.
Top Clutch Player: Khris Middleton
This isn’t even a hypothetical at this point, as it would be for some other teams. “Who do you want shooting the ball when you need a big-time last-second shot?” is a question that could lead to all sorts of different answers on different teams, but in Milwaukee it’s been Middleton taking (and making) those shots the last couple of seasons. Two seasons ago, he had a couple of dirty last-second thrillers against Miami and Phoenix. Coach Kidd likely will keep putting the ball in his hands when it matters.
The Unheralded Player: Jason Terry
It feels like Jason Terry is about a million years old, and the chances are pretty good that he won’t be a massive on-court contributor for the Bucks in his age-39 season. But anybody who’s seen Terry work with younger players in a locker room knows what kind of asset he can be for a team behind the scenes. Terry almost certainly will get into coaching once his playing career is over, but in the meantime he’ll do great things not only for Antetokounmpo and Parker, but also the more inexperienced players on the roster like Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon. He’s not going to score a ton of points, but his presence on this team matters immensely.
Top New Addition: Matthew Dellavedova
We’ll have to see how Dellavedova transitions to a team that doesn’t feature LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but despite his somewhat limited skill set, he does bring some things to this team that they were sorely missing a year ago. First and foremost, he shores up a weird and sort of sad point guard rotation as someone who can both initiate the offense and knock down an open three-pointer. Beyond that, he adds a measure of scrappy toughness to a team that lost track of itself defensively last year. They need a little more actual grit in their locker room, and no, Antetokounmpo stink-faces don’t necessarily count as “grit.” He should help with their dismal three-point shooting and shore up that point guard rotation, and we’re all looking forward to the blind alley-oops he’s sure to throw to Antetokounmpo and John Henson.
– Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
There isn’t an NBA fan alive who isn’t absolutely enthralled by this young man – regardless of what position he plays. Physically he’s just on a different level than just about anybody else in the game, with arms that stretch out like a praying mantis and legs that look like they’re on stilts. His athleticism, competitive nature and versatility all suggest we’re in for a fun year with the “Greek Freak.” No matter what happens with Milwaukee this season, he’ll be a treat to watch.
2. Jabari Parker
It’s sort of shocking how little buzz Parker is generating ahead of this season considering how well he finished the 2015-2016 campaign. In his last 29 games of the year, Parker averaged 18.8 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor. And since last season was essentially his true rookie year, that projects well for where the former No. 2 overall pick may be headed in upcoming campaign. Based on reputation, Middleton has been the team’s top offensive player, but Parker has 20 points-per-game potential and could even be in line for some All-Star votes this year. Year three looks like Parker’s time to shine.
3. Khris Middleton
Criminally underrated, Middleton is now officially on one of the league’s most cap-friendly contracts, and he’s a key part of this team’s young core. He’s a career 40 percent three-point shooter, but for the Bucks to improve their team three-point shooting (they were 21st in the league a year ago), he’ll need to increase his volume without a drop-off in efficiency. Middleton’s percentages sunk a little a year ago as he shot more, but if he can correct that in 2016-17, he’ll prove even more invaluable to his team than he already is.
4. John Henson
For the second year in a row, Henson’s minutes dropped in Milwaukee, leaving him off the floor for over 30 minutes a night. But what’s truly impressive is that despite playing only 16.8 minutes a game, Henson still managed to average 1.9 blocks – enough to place him among the league’s elite and certainly enough to put him in elite company in terms of per-36 minutes stats. In fact, Henson would average 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes, which is what makes it so easy to wonder what he could do with a little more playing time.
5. Miles Plumlee
As it stands, Henson is behind Miles Plumlee on the depth chart, but that’s fine considering how well Plumlee has played since coming over to the team in the Brandon Knight trade a year and a half ago. After the All-Star break last season, Plumlee saw his minutes jump to over 20 per game and he even started 11 of 28 games. He also received a huge $50 million deal from the Bucks this offseason, which suggests the team believes he’s ready to start full-time this year. He doesn’t score a lot (averaging just 6.6 points per game last season), but he’s efficient when he does. More importantly, he’s a much more natural defensive fit along the team’s talented young stars than Greg Monroe. That, added to his rebounding ability, make him an underrated player in this lineup who could be even better with a boost in minutes this year.
– Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bucks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, using most of it to bring in Mirza Teletovic and Matthew Dellavedova. Milwaukee now has $99.6 million in committed salaries with 15 guaranteed players, which doesn’t bode well for camp invites Orlando Johnson and J.J. O’Brien. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception, but no roster space (barring a trade or cutting a guaranteed player). Milwaukee has a hard cap at $117.3 million, by virtue of the Dellavedova sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they’re nowhere near that mark.
Next summer, the Bucks could get to roughly $24 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn and Tyler Ennis before November. Milwaukee also has to decide on extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams by the end of October, otherwise they’ll become restricted free agents when the Bucks extend a qualifying offer next July.
– Eric Pincus
There’s no question that this team is insanely long and athletic, and when you combine all of that with the enthusiasm of youth, there’s a very good chance that Milwaukee will be one of the league’s most entertaining teams to watch this year. They were efficient scoring a year ago, finishing fifth in the NBA in team field goal percentage (46.7 percent). They also moved the ball around well, finishing ninth in team assists. There is potential galore on this team and they may have an All-Star in Antetokounmpo, but youth and potential still remain their largest asset.
– Joel Brigham
A lot of things broke bad for the Bucks last year, as they finished 27th in rebounding, 21st in three-point shooting and 23rd in points allowed per game. Adding Dellavedova and Teletovic should help with the three-point shooting, but there’s a lot of work to be done with the other problems. They still don’t have a point guard who can create his own shot (not counting Giannis), and their wing rotation is incredibly young and unproven. It’s hard to see the team improving tremendously on their 33-win season, but the playoffs are not completely out of the realm of possibility.
– Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
Does Greg Monroe make this team better or worse?
Initially, the belief was that Monroe would bring some much-needed offense to what was, at the time, one of the scrappiest defensive teams in the NBA. What actually happened was that Monroe was utterly discordant on this roster in just about every conceivable way, and the team’s defense suffered drastically as a result. The second-ranked defense in the NBA in 2014-15 (according to points allowed per 100 possessions) dropped to 22nd a year ago.
With Plumlee looking like a much better fit defensively alongside Antetokounmpo and Parker, the answer probably is going to be bringing Monroe off the bench. Monroe’s post scoring against second units could prove a tremendous boon to that Milwaukee second unit, especially with Dellavedova running pick-and-rolls and Monroe helping to create that offense. It’s very likely Milwaukee will continue to shop Monroe, but for as long as they have him, it’s probably best to use him in a reserve role. Giving him minutes alongside Parker and Antetokounmpo just doesn’t make enough sense for the team, particularly defensively, and as a demolisher of second-unit defenders, Monroe could actually still be a helpful part of this team.
– Joel Brigham
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