Kevin Kraczkowski (Hot Hot Hoops): The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 26 games in a row, and still the Bucks can’t pass them to finish in….not last. How frustrating has it been - and what are your expectations for next season?
Alex Boeder (Brew Hoop): It's weird to say this, but on some level this season has been kind of...liberating.
After years of being stuck in the middle, it was time for the Bucks to start over and rebuild around a young core rather than simply chase the eighth seed yet again, and in that sense fans have more or less gotten what they wanted. That process started in the summer with the drafting of Giannis and took another key step when Jennings was recycled into the younger Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton, and all three have been outperformed expectations even with the losses piling up.
Still, the Bucks couldn't bring themselves to go whole hog on the rebuild, and thus we saw the Mayo, Pachulia and Neal signings, all of which have backfired to varying extents. Their struggles combined with injuries to Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova helped derail the start of the season, and Larry Drew was never able to right the ship even when the team got healthy (see their 1-14 record in January). But as my Brew Hoop compatriot Steve von Horn likes to say: sometimes good medicine tastes bad.
As for next season, I don't have any specific expectations in terms of wins and losses. I said before this season that success would be gauged by the development of the Bucks' youngsters, and the same will be true for the foreseeable future. John Hammond has cautioned that rebuilding won't be a quick-fix proposition, and past history suggests that even winning 30 games would put them on the higher side of single-season improvements. Job one is developing Giannis, Knight, Henson (if he's around) and whomever they end up with out of the upcoming draft, while avoiding the sort of short-sightedness that plagued them following the Fear the Deer run.
KK: Perusing the stat page at www.basketball-reference.com revealed several weaknesses, chief amongst them defending the long ball. Why haven’t the Bucks been able to slow down opposing offenses?
AB: The Bucks started the season putting up a decent defensive effort while looking completely clueless offensively, but in the last couple months that has reversed and then some. They've only won five of 20 games since the all-star break mostly because their defense has been non-existent, obscuring the fact that they (secretly) have the league's 8th most efficient offense in that span.
The defensive issues start with the front line--it's not just that the Bucks are missing Larry Sanders, it's that they're starting Zaza Pachulia and until last week had been pairing him with another slow-footed non-leaper in Ersan Ilyasova. That's not a good starting point, and the fact that the season has been lost for a couple months isn't a great defensive motivator either.
More generally, the Bucks just don't play with much defensive discipline; they switch a ton, allow themselves to get caught in mismatches too regularly and tend to be overzealous doubling in the post at the expense of open threes. They've also played more zone than any other team in the league despite being mostly terrible at it--they concede threes at ridiculous rates in their zone, but for some reason they still do it with surprising regularity.
KK: John Henson is averaging just over a half per game, but leads the team with a 17.6 PER (out of players who have made 20 or more appearances). Why doesn’t Milwaukee play him more?
AB: Henson was impressive in putting up 15/10 in December while Sanders and Pachulia were injured, but some nagging ankle and wrist injuries seem to have derailed things in January. So what's the problem? Well, he's never had the highest-revving motor to begin with, and of late he's looked more like a guy counting down the days to the offseason rather than a young player with something to prove. I'd guess that's a big reason why he's not playing bigger minutes, though that doesn't make it any less frustrating from a fan perspective.
KK: The Bucks are guaranteed a pretty good draft pick. Who do you have your eye on? Is there a dark horse?
AB: I was leaning toward Joel Embiid before his back injury cropped up, so until further notice I'd say it's probably something of a toss-up between Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. I don't think any of them are can't miss all-stars, but they each have a shot at being special players and that happens to be one thing that the Bucks desperately need.
Ultimately a lot of it comes down to taste--which is my code for saying drafting is really hard. Embiid seems to have the biggest upside as a potential two-way center; Wiggins is the best athlete and does a bit of everything; Jabari might be the most polished 19-year-old scorer since Durant. So as long as all three enter the draft I won't be particularly worried about winning the lotto--at this point, anywhere in the top three is more or less the same to me.
As far as dark horses go, Dante Exum has intrigued me ever since he lit up the Nike Hoops Summit last spring, and I'm tempted to throw him into the same category as Embiid, Wiggins and Parker in terms of long-term upside. That's probably a bit silly given I've barely seen him play, but on paper his combination of length, quickness and playmaking makes him as intriguing as anyone in the draft. I'd be afraid to take him ahead of the "big three," but if the Bucks end up with him I'll be pretty excited anyway. Everyone else...not so much.
KK: The Heat have been less than imposing the last few weeks. How can the Bucks come out of this game on top?
AB: By losing? Sorry, couldn't resist.
As bad as they've been overall, the Bucks have been oddly competitive against the league's better teams of late--they hung with the Clippers, Warriors and Blazers deep into the fourth quarter on their last road trip, and similarly gave the Pacers problems both home and away. At this point they're a weird combination of terrible and competitive all at once.
HHH would like to thank Frank for his insight into the Bucks. For more on Milwaukee, go to Brew Hoop.