Injuries have clearly decimated the Bucks this season. Only three players on the roster have played in every game this season. The recent injury to Zaza Pachulia and Gary Neal's troublesome foot are even more disconcerting. Would a healthy roster do anything to alleviate Milwaukee's struggles?
With a new coaching staff and only four players returning from last year, the Bucks were always likely to have some teething issues at the start of the season. However, the early loss of Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova's injuries/ineffectiveness have been big blows considering Sanders' abilities on the defensive end and Ilyasova's floor-stretching abilities on the offensive end. I'm not sure the other injuries necessarily have a huge impact, as the youngsters playing in place of Butler, Pachulia and Neal have been as good or better than any of them. At some point, obviously, the depth issues become a factor if for no other reason than continuity--especially on the defensive end--but I don't think anyone other than Sanders or Ilyasova is capable of making a big difference at this point.
Without those guys performing close to their prior season performance this team is more or less toast, though in this case we should acknowledge that toast can be delicious. Piling up losses may not be what owner Herb Kohl wants, but most Bucks fans have come to grips with the fact that a high lottery pick in next year's draft is the best thing that can happen to the franchise at this point, with one group of fans going so far as to buy a billboard to promote the idea.
Considering where they stand through 22 games, it's difficult to see how even Kohl could view this season as salvageable, though that hasn't allayed Bucks' fans fears that management will try to swing a futile trade to save the season. The most rational approach would be to sit tight and continue playing the youngsters while looking to deal Ilyasova for future assets while he still has some value, but that would mark a serious departure from the team's stated MO.
Injuries have especially affected the point. Nate Wolters played decently to start the season. Luke Ridnour has played some since his return from injury. Brandon Knight is healthy again and starting. Yet, the point is still a mess in Milwaukee. None of these players shoot the ball particularly well. Wolters and Ridnour have good assist/turnover ratios but Knight's is atrocious. What is the best possible solution or outcome at point if there is one?
Though he only recently turned 22, this would appear to be something of a make-or-break year for Knight. He was largely ineffective as a major minute guy in Detroit and had a ragged start to this season as well, though injuries to both hamstrings were also part of the story. Still, he has the tools to be a quality starting point guard: he has three point range, can defend either guard spot and has the quickness to push the tempo. The problem is how it all fits together, which so far has been not particularly well. He's had some great patches of play (20/9/8 against the Celtics in Milwaukee or in the second half and OT vs. John Wall in Washington), but too many 1/9 and 2/8 shooting starts have kept his scoring efficiency depressed, and he continues to pile up turnovers while trying to be overly aggressive driving the ball and fitting passes into tight windows. The organization committed to him being the starter over the summer and I think they should stick with it--even if he disappoints. They need to figure out how good he can really be. Maybe he eventually turns the corner like Jeff Teague (a protege of Drew and assistant Nick Van Exel in Atlanta) and Mike Conley, but there's a good chance he doesn't as well. In that case, he's a decent third guard and maybe you find a long-term solution in next year's draft.
As for Wolters, he's been a capable floor general with a sneaky first step and a better defender than most expected. His big issue has been a complete lack of confidence shooting the ball. He has a bit of a low release but was a big-time scorer and quality shooter in college, so hopefully that aspect of his game comes around. Whatever the case, he looks like he can be a quality backup right now. You might be able to say the same thing about Ridnour, but he's been battling a bad back all season and there's no compelling reason to play him ahead of Wolters; he's a veteran expiring contract on a team that should be focusing on its youth, so if he sees time it may be more as a backup shooting guard while Neal is dinged up.
The Bucks spread the ball around fairly well on offense. They have a diverse array of shot locations and shot types. In fact, according to NBA.com/Stats, the only shots that the Bucks haven't attempted (as of December 12) are a putback dunk shot and a reverse dunk shot. Unfortunately, other than decent shooting from around the arc, the shots simply aren't falling regularly. They shoot 41.4 percent on field goals and have the worst points scored per game mark in the league. What gives?
We knew that their lack of shot-creators was going to be an issue coming into the season and so far that's borne itself out...and then some. It didn't help that Wolters was their only healthy point guard for the first two weeks of the season, nor has Ilyasova's slow start--an annual tradition--made things any easier. But part of the issue is that the Bucks can't even find a way to play the way they want to play offensively.
Without any bona fide isolation or post threats, this is a team that is always going to struggle in the halfcourt, but thus far they've also been unable to run with much effectiveness. Their defensive struggles include an abysmal defensive rebound rate, which has been a big issue in their inability to create easy scoring chances. And while they should shoot a ton of threes, that hasn't been the case so far (22nd in attempts). There's no easy fix for that--lack of killer pick-and-pop ball-handlers, injuries to shooters, too much halfcourt stuff, and nobody with the ability to draw double-teams are the obvious issues. O.J. Mayo has been great at times but invisible in too many games, and along with Knight he makes the Bucks' backcourt streaky, turnover-prone and generally underwhelming as pick-and-roll creators.
Defensively, well, the Bucks are bad. They are a poor defensive rebounding team and allow their opponents to score 98.7 points per game, 9.1 points more than they score on average. What are the major areas of concern on defense?
They've been consistently beaten up on the defensive boards (last in DReb%) and have generally struggled with physical opponents inside, which was an issue even before Sanders went down with his thumb injury. Drew doesn't have a rep as a defensive mastermind either, though in fairness it's also difficult to build up a cohesive defense with a new roster that's been dinged up all year.
Still, having a healthy and focused Sanders back would go a long way to helping the Bucks claw back to respectability. While losing Luc Mbah a Moute won't help any defense, the Bucks' personnel is overall better defensively than it was last year when they finished 12th. Knight is a monstrous upgrade over Brandon Jennings, Khris Middleton has been very solid on the wing and John Henson has made major strides both as a shot-blocker and overall defender. Once Sanders gets back they should begin to settle down defensively, but it's also difficult to say if the team's bad start will have an impact on energy and effort.
While we all had hopes of Antetokounmpo eventually developing into a potential star, no one really thought he'd play this much or this well so early in his career. Remember, this is a guy who a year ago was playing second division basketball in Greece and hadn't even watched more than a handful of NBA games on TV. Heck, due to passport issues he had never even been outside Greece until this past spring. He literally has no idea who he's playing against most nights, yet he's been thrown into regular minutes due to injuries and shown he deserves to be playing rotation minutes now.
It's probably not surprising then that he's become Bucks' fans Next Great Hope, which is a tall order for a kid who just turned 19 and is still growing into his body and learning a new culture, not to mention having to compete against the best basketball players in the world every night. He's been up for the challenge so far, though he's still so raw that it's difficult to project exactly what kind of player he'll become. He looks like a long small forward now, but will he eventually become more useful as an athletic, floor-stretching power forward? We know he played the point growing up, but will he have the ball-handling and vision to be a legit point forward at the NBA level? Does he have the shot-creating (and making) ability to be a premium scorer, or will he be more of complementary guy?
For now he's mostly an energy guy: his offense comes almost exclusively in transition and cutting along the baseline in half-court sets, while most of his impact defensively comes from deflecting passes and blocking shots. He's obviously not the most polished guy as a man-to-man defender, but he's an asset when the Bucks go zone due to his length and activity.
As for Miroslav, he's enormous, awesomely named and has shown above-average skill as a shooter and passer for a 7-footer, but his lack of foot speed makes him a liability in most lineups. I'd put his ceiling as a 15 mpg back-up big man, though he's going to get some chances to show what he can do in the short term with both Sanders and Pachulia out.
Thanks, Frank! For more on the Milwaukee Bucks, head over to Brew Hoop.