Can the Milwaukee Bucks Win the East Next Year?

The Bucks’ uniforms got better (love the blue!), but will their record improve? Flannel, PBR and PER likes to think so…

The NBA season is still months away. In fact, we aren’t really done with free agency just yet this summer (some players are still yet to be signed). However, despite the distance from the start of the NBA season, it is never too early to talk about next season and what teams will be making an impact and dominate the headlines in 2015-2016.

A select number of teams have been dominating the headlines this July, in good ways (San Antonio Spurs), bad ways (Sacramento Kings) and good/bad/hilarious/emoji ways (Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks and DeAndre Jordan). However, one team that has gone under the radar has been the Milwaukee Bucks this off-season. Of course, it makes sense that they haven’t dominated the “big off-season” discussions in major media circles. They didn’t sign any “big” names, and haven’t really been involved in any July drama with players, though the team’s arena issues did put a fright in many Bucks fans who were afraid they would see their team leave to Seattle (the NBA’s eternal bargaining chip). Now that it is certain that the Bucks are going to be in Milwaukee next season and beyond, the focus can be what they did in improving their roster and how they set themselves up for next season.

And let me just say this: the Bucks are going to be good…and not just good like 5-8 seed in the East good, like last season. The Bucks next year may be a serious threat to the heavy East favorite Cavs, and that is saying something considering how the Cavs will most likely improve with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (and committed Love after re-signing to a 5-year extension this off-season) and the Hawks still return mostly everybody from their squad a season ago (minus DeMarre Carroll).

So why are the Bucks a dark horse in the East? How can they potentially dethrone King James and his merry men of Cavaliers? Let’s take a look at three reasons why the Bucks should be taken seriously next season and could greatly surpass their 41-41 record from a year ago.

Reason #1: Greg Monroe is a huge upgrade for the Bucks in the post.

Monroe’s stock wasn’t as high as many initially thought when he entered this summer as an unrestricted free agent, but that isn’t to say he isn’t one of the more productive post players in the league. Despite playing 13 fewer games from a year ago (69 last year), and struggling to find a role with the crowded Pistons front court in the beginning of the year (with Josh Smith and Andre Drummond garnering minutes; though Smith was waived early, which freed up playing time for Monroe), Monroe posted improvements in PER (18.8 to 21.2), win shares (5.9 to 6.8), points per 100 possessions (26.6 was a career high in that category) and true shooting percentage (53.1 to 54.9 percent). Though Monroe certainly wasn’t an indispensable part of the Pistons’ future (Drummond is the younger, more valued commodity, and coach Stan Van Gundy prefers stretch 4’s over traditional posts, so the writing was on the wall for Monroe in Detroit), Monroe was a big reason in the Pistons’ surge mid-way through the season that nearly result in a playoff berth for them despite a 3-15 start. With his strong ability to score and adept passing ability for a big man, it was not surprising that the 25-year-old from Georgetown garnered heavy interest from the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks this summer.

But, instead of being in the Big Apple or Tinseltown, Monroe finds himself in the Cheese Capital of the USA thanks to a three-year $50 million deal from the Bucks, an aggressive and unexpected move from a small-market franchise that ranked 29th in attendance in 2014-2015. The deal appears to be a considerable upgrade over what the Bucks trotted out there in the center position last season. Larry Sanders went AWOL a quarter of the season in, and while Zaza Pachulia was a fan favorite (and noted public speaker mind you) and John Henson has been an underrated young talent, they have not and will not match the production that Monroe will generate as Milwaukee’s go-to center next season. In fact, let’s compare the career advanced numbers for all four players:

Rk Player G PER TS% FTr ORB% DRB% AST% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS VORP
1 John Henson 200 18.0 .541 .317 11.6 20.5 9.0 6.1 14.1 20.1 3.6 5.1 8.7 2.3
2 Greg Monroe 378 19.7 .545 .376 11.3 22.8 12.6 1.5 13.8 21.9 19.3 12.8 32.2 12.3
3 Zaza Pachulia 815 14.2 .533 .534 12.2 19.4 9.0 1.3 17.2 17.3 17.5 18.8 36.3 5.2
4 Larry Sanders 233 15.5 .494 .235 11.0 21.4 6.0 7.1 12.6 17.0 1.8 8.5 10.3 3.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2015.

It is obvious Monroe has been the best and will be the best offensive player of the bunch going forward in Milwaukee. He bests all the other four in nearly every scoring category, and he also demonstrates excellent efficiency (career 19.4 PER) and ability to generate offense off his passing prowess (career 12.6 assist rate). Pachulia has been the better offensive rebounder, and Sanders appears to be the better defensive player (7.1 career block rate) and Henson is the young “upside” pick (second-highest PER of the four). But, Monroe is head and shoulders above the other 3, as evident by his 12.3 VORP (value over replacement player). Bucks fans should be excited about the options Monroe will give this Bucks team, especially with his passing ability in the post, which should open up the offense for athletic forwards such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (who is coming off injury though).

A lot has been made about whether or not Monroe will fit in with Milwaukee’s hyper-aggressive, switching defensive scheme (as chronicled in this Zach Lowe piece). In a changing league that is starting to utilize more “small” posts to promote nightmare matchups offensively and defensively, Monroe leaves a lot to be desired in the latter end. His athleticism is average to below for a big, and he has never been categorized as a shot blocker at any point in his career (in fact, his lack of athleticism and lackluster shot blocking ability was a big reason why he slid to the Pistons at No. 7; the Kings drafted Demarcus Cousins at 5, wisely; the Warriors drafted Ekpe Udoh at 6, not so wisely). It’ll be interesting to see how Kidd will utilize him within the defensive scheme that carried the Bucks to such radical success a year ago (remember, the Bucks were one of the worst teams in the league two seasons ago), and if Monroe will be a fit, or if he’ll be subbed in key moments with someone more athletic to mesh better with what Kidd and the Bucks do best defensively.

Defensive issues aside though, it is a clear that Monroe will help the Bucks improve upon their .500 record a season ago. Monroe is the most productive and talented center to arrive in Milwaukee in quite some time (Ervin Johnson he is not) and he gives the Kidd and the Bucks the kind of offensive flexibility they haven’t had since the Karl days. Furthermore, his presence will give the Bucks a major weapon to compete against the best bigs from the best teams in the East such as Chicago (Gasol, Noah and Mirotic), Cleveland (Mozgov and Thompson), Washington (Gortat and Nene), and Atlanta (Millsap and Horford).

Reason #2: Head Coach Jason Kidd could be even better in year two

It is hard to imagine now how much Kidd has progressed as a NBA head coach, especially considering two seasons ago, it looked like his hire was a colossal mistake in Brooklyn. The Nets, coming off the major acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, were 5-12 by the end of November, and Kidd was widely ridiculed in the media as “unprofessional” and a “hack” for this incident below:

Since then though Kidd has done few things wrong. He led the Nets to a 44-38 finish and a first round victory over the higher-seed Toronto Raptors (including a Game 7 win in Toronto). Last year, despite taking over a team that went 15-67 the year before, and with little established, veteran talent, he coached the Bucks to a 41-41 record and pushed the Bulls (who looked like the second-best team in the East in the playoffs) to six games (they won 2 emotional games after giving up the first 3 in the series). “Sodagate” aside, this is certain: Kidd can coach.

That being said, year two remains a bit of a mystery to Kidd and Bucks fans. Kidd has only coached for two seasons, and this is the first time he has had a full off-season with his current team. While there is expected to be some growing pains and some adjustments other teams will make to what Kidd likes to do offensively and defensively as a coach, it goes without saying that there will be a lot of improvement from Kidd as a coach with this roster in year two. Kidd has done an extraordinary job reaching his young talent, while also getting the most out of his under-the-radar veterans. Jerryd Bayless and OJ Mayo were big-time contributors for the young Bucks last season, even though they had been widely maligned throughout their careers for inconsistent play. Kidd excels as a player’s coach, while also doing a good job of communicating what he expects from his players on the court, which is more characteristic of a “coach’s coach” in the mold of a Tom Thibodeau, for example. That puts Kidd in a rare class, and it is enticing what he can do going forward with this organization.

The biggest challenge and judge of him as a coach though centers on how Michael Carter Williams develops, whom they acquired in a 3-way trade with Philadelphia and Phoenix that involved them shipping Brandon Knight, who was on the cusp of making the All- Star team a year ago. Carter Williams, though the Rookie of the Year a couple of seasons ago, has been categorized as an “efficiency-killer” who gains gaudy per game numbers while doing it inefficiently (his career offensive rating is 94, which means 9.4 points per 100 possession; average is 10) and on losing teams. Kidd has voiced his confidence and faith in Carter-Williams and his future with the Bucks in the past, making the improvement and revitalization of MCW’s career somewhat of a side project for the 3rd year coach. After all, no one is questioning MCW’s ability: at six-feet, six-inches, he remains a nightmare matchup for the league’s point guards, and there is hope that MCW will turn into what Shaun Livingston would have had Livingston not suffered that grotesque leg injury with the Clippers early in his career. But, it will be interesting to see if Kidd, who also struggled with his shooting early in his career much like MCW, has the coaching chops to turn around MCW’s struggles and develop him into a Kidd 2.0.

If that, or some progress on that side mission, can happen next year, not only will MCW revitalize his career, but Kidd will have proven that he is one of the top “coaches” in the game and the Bucks will be serious threats to Cleveland’s hold in the Eastern Conference. Pay attention next year to MCW’s development. With a full off-season under Kidd, I can’t help but think there will be improvement in MCW’s game and thus, the Bucks’ play in 2105-2016.

Reason #3: The Bucks will have underrated depth on their roster.

The signing of Monroe not only improved their starting five, but also their bench immensely. In terms of the front court depth, John Henson, as displayed in the table above, is an underrated big who is an efficient scorer and rebounder, and has outperformed expectations when he first came into the league. Miles Plumlee, with Ersan Ilyasova now a Piston, will give the Bucks valuable minutes in the post, and is the kind of “dirty work” player that will help the Bucks compete against some of the “tougher” squads in the East. Even Johnny O’Bryant, an end of the bench player who offers “stretch 4” skills, could greatly improve in his second year in the league and give the Bucks an added boost when needed.

Furthermore, the backcourt depth for the Bucks will be really impressive and should help make “Fear the Deer” a phrase worth repeating on multiple occasions next season. The Bucks added Greivis Vasquez this off-season, a tall point guard in the MCW mold who can push the tempo and generate instant offense off the bench. He excelled in that role in Memphis and Toronto, and though he is prone to inconsistency, he is the kind of dynamic player that will maintain the offense when MCW is off the floor. Also, the return of Bayless will also be a boost to the backcourt, as he is a similar kind of player to Vasquez. Though he doesn’t have the height of Vasquez, he can find ways to create offense, and isn’t afraid of the big moment, as evidenced in the video below:

The Bucks will also return Mayo, who has to prove he can have more seasons like last year in Milwaukee rather than the lackluster year before, as well as second-year guard Tyler Ennis, who came from Phoenix in the Knight-MCW trade and looks to be a project of sorts (He seems destined for more D-League time next year). However, one of the more overlooked options on the bench next season could be Jorge Gutierrez, who signed a multi-year deal at the end of the season with the Bucks after succeeding on multiple 10-day-contracts. Gutierrez has been a D-League stud, as he has a career per 36 average of 13.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.8 rebounds per game. Gutierrez also offers a lot of defensive upside, as he is a tough, gritty defender who can match up well with opposing wings as well as points. Should anything happen to Vasquez or Bayless, don’t be surprised to see Gutierrez breakout and become a star in the mold of Matthew Dellevadova in 2015-2016.

The Bucks will have a great starting lineup with MCW, Khris Middleton, Giannis, Jabari Parker (when healthy), and Monroe. But the Bucks’ options off the bench and the underrated talent that they have stacked up last year and this off-season will help them go from fringe to possibly a serious contender next year.

Final Analysis on the Bucks

The race for the Eastern Conference crown will be more of a dogfight than in years past. Cleveland will most likely improve in LeBron James Era 2.0 year 2, especially with Kevin Love back and committed for the long haul. Boston is another young team that will improve under their excellent coach, Brad Stevens, and Chicago could turn the corner now that they have a coach (Fred Hoiberg) who is more in touch with the modern game (i.e. better at offense) than his predecessor (Thibs). And Atlanta remains an interesting team as well, especially considering they returned everyone but Carroll, and declared coach Mike Budenholzer as in charge of basketball operations as well. They were still the no.1 team after the regular season, and they still will provide a challenge to the rest of the Eastern Conference, as well as the league in general.

But, the Bucks did so much this off-season with the signing of Monroe and the re-signing of Middleton. Add that with more depth on their bench, and the possibility of Kidd improving as a coach in year 2 with the Bucks organization, and Milwaukee’s hopes next year look scary good. There without a doubt will be improvement from the Bucks next year. They will not be just a .500 team next year. However, how much they improve is the real question. Will things come together and will Milwaukee take the next step to being the “team to beat LeBron” in the East? Or will they fall in that “contender, but not really” pack with Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto and Washington?

Whatever happens in 2015-2016 for the official basketball team of the Cheese State, this is for sure: the Bucks will be required League Pass viewing for NBA fans across the nation (myself and FPP included).

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