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NBA Saturday: Young Bucks on the Rise

With a ton of length and a defense-first mentality, the Milwaukee Bucks will be a team to keep an eye on next season.

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The list of contenders entering the 2015-16 NBA season remains roughly the same as last season. After this year’s Draft and the opening of free agency, the top contenders for next season, at this point, are the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. In addition, the Oklahoma City Thunder should also be back in the mix after they were derailed last season because of injuries (though that is largely based on whether Kevin Durant returns 100 percent healthy or not).

One team that doesn’t appear on this list, however, is the Milwaukee Bucks. There are plenty of reasons for their omission. The team went 41-41 last season in the Eastern Conference, was ranked 25th in offensive efficiency, and was knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Bulls. Nothing about that description of Milwaukee’s 2014-15 campaign suggests that this is a team to watch out for next season. However, that description ignores that this team went just 15-67 in the 2013-14 season and last season’s squad featured a slew of players under 25 years old and was in its first year under a new head coach.

That head coach is of course Jason Kidd, who arrived in Milwaukee last season under less than ideal circumstances. Despite the controversy that surrounded Kidd’s move from the Brooklyn Nets to Milwaukee, he quickly turned the story from himself to his new team of youngsters.

The Bucks entered last season with an exciting core of young players, headlined by the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jabari Parker. Parker impressed early in his rookie campaign, showing a polished offensive skill set and the ability to play effectively against bigger, but less nimble power forwards. Parker was a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds through 25 games, which earned him Eastern Conference Rookie of the month honors for October/November. Unfortunately, Parker suffered a torn ACL on December 15 in a game against the Phoenix Suns, which brought an end to his rookie season.

Losing Parker hurt, but the Bucks pushed on behind the efforts of other young players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brandon Knight, Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and John Henson. However, in February Knight was included in a three-team trade that sent him to the Phoenix Suns and landed Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee. In addition, Larry Sanders eventually left the team to enter into a rehab program for anxiety, depression and mood disorders and has stepped away from the NBA for the foreseeable future.

Despite the loss of Sanders, Parker and the mid-season trade of a key piece in Knight, the Bucks established themselves as one of the league’s best defensive teams last season. Kidd and Sean Sweeney, the team’s defensive coordinator, implemented an aggressive defensive system that requires overloading one side of the court to aggressively trap opposing ball-handlers. It leaves the Bucks vulnerable on the opposite side of the court, but Milwaukee has the collective length to recover when teams swing the ball across the court.

The results on defense were an unequivocal success. The Bucks ended the regular season surrendering just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Golden State Warriors. Like the Warriors, the Bucks have wing-defenders with size, length and the ability to switch onto smaller and bigger players seamlessly. That sort of defensive versatility is a major asset in today’s NBA and the likelihood is that the Bucks will be even better with a full season of experience and a playoff appearance under their belts.

After the season, the Bucks managed to use their success and promising future to convince then-free agent center Greg Monroe into signing with Milwaukee over big market suitors like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. The addition of Monroe is significant in multiple ways. First, it signals that Milwaukee is a place that players should give serious consideration to in free agency. It also gives the Bucks a big man with a diversified offensive skill-set that they lacked last season. Monroe is effective operating at the elbows, which is where Pachulia often received the ball. Monroe is a much better offensive player than Pachulia, especially from that part of the court, so it is likely that Kidd will feed Monroe in that area and let him initiate the offense at times. Monroe is also a deceptively good passer and as a scoring threat in the post, he should add a new wrinkle in Kidd’s offense.

However, the addition of Monroe presents some challenges as well. As good as Monroe can be on offense, he is just as likely to be ineffective on defense. Monroe has never averaged more than one block per game in a single season, he lacks quickness and seems to lose focus on defense from time to time. While Pachulia isn’t the same caliber player as Monroe, he knew his assignments on defense and seemed to more often than not make the right rotation and clog the lane when necessary. It’s not clear Monroe will be able to replicate Pachulia’s defensive effectiveness, but the upside is that he is playing on a team that has as good of a shot as any to cover for Monroe’s weaknesses. This is especially true considering that Monroe has the ability to play power forward and Kidd can place Henson, a strong shot blocker, next to Monroe to make up for his inability to protect the rim (sort of like the dynamic between Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter with the Thunder). Henson is reportedly considering extending his current contract with the Bucks, which would give them another long, solid young piece for the foreseeable future.

However, another issue for the Bucks is their lack of floor spacing. The Bucks shot 36.3 percent from beyond-the-arc last season, which is a pretty solid percentage, but shot the fifth fewest three-point attempts per game (18.3). Milwaukee’s top three-point shooters last season included Knight, Middleton, Kendall Marshall, Ersan Ilyasova, Dudley and Mayo. However, only Middleton and Mayo are still on the team, leaving the Bucks without four of their six best three-point shooters from last season. The Bucks did add Greivis Vasquez and Chris Copeland, who will help with the floor spacing issues. But until Antetokounmpo, Carter-Williams and Parker can all add some more range and consistency to their jumpers, spacing will be an ongoing issue.

The Bucks will also need to figure out whether Carter-Williams is their long-term answer at point guard. Carter-Williams has shot just 25.2 percent from beyond-the-arc in his two seasons in the NBA and his shooting mechanics are bad enough that it’s unclear whether he will ever become a league average shooter. He is also turnover prone, surrendering 3.7 turnovers per game over his career. But for all of the criticisms of Cater-William’s game (which are generally valid), there is a tendency to overlook the things the does well. He has career averages of 15.7 points, 6.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game and has great size for his position. Also, Carter-Williams is just 23 years old, which means he has plenty of time and room to keep developing.

Carter-Williams is at his best when he is using his size to  attack smaller point guards, as he did against Derrick Rose in Game 5 of the first round last season. He showed a lot of confidence late last season in the post, using solid footwork and his size to generate points and assists with his back to the basket. The concern moving forward, however, is that Carter-Williams won’t be able to fix his broken jump-shot, nor will he ever outgrow his high turnover rate. But what we do know is that he is already a really solid defensive player, and will likely keep getting better, especially under Kidd’s guidance.

To be clear, the Bucks are unlikely to be challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy next season. However, they will be a tough defensive team that will give opposing teams fits on a nightly basis. The return of Parker, along with the addition of Monroe, should give the Bucks a solid scoring duo in the frontcourt, while other guys like Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Carter-Williams should continue improving. There are some shortcomings on this roster that Kidd will have to work around, but he has proven himself to be adaptive and up for the task in his two seasons as an NBA head coach.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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