Toiling in Mediocrity .. But Of What Kind? (Season Preview)

In sports nothing is worse than mediocrity.  Obviously everyone strives to win as many games as possible and their sports respective championship at the end of every year, but only one team is going to pull that off.  There will then be a number of teams that fall just short, and more that are a move or two away.  At the very bottom there are teams that are a reasonable kind of hopeless.  No, they know they aren’t winning the title that year, but they see something in their core players that can be built on.

The upside to being a bad team is typically that said team is playing younger players and hoping they’ll get better.  Ideally, one of those players has an especially bright future and could potentially be a franchise cornerstone if everything goes right over the next two or three years.  That is the blueprint on a successful rebuilding job.  After two or three years of bad then mediocre then finally near playoff level play, the team hopes to add a veteran role player or if they’re lucky enough, a star to complete the puzzle.  THIS is how winning teams get built.

The problem with the Bucks of most recent past have been excruciatingly mediocre.  They haven’t been a player or two away.  They haven’t just missed out on the finals.  Even worse, they haven’t had the young core they can sell to fans to give them hope.  After selecting Andrew Bogut in 2005 with the number one overall pick the Bucks had he at the age of 22 roughly a month into the season, the recently extended 26-year-old Michael Redd and the older than he looked 23-year-old T.J. Ford.  At this point it was evident to everyone not named Larry Harris that Michael Redd was a terrific scorer, better person and possible second banana on the court — at best.  Bogut was a wild card and Ford had real upside as a possible ten assist guy, but real downside as a possible skeleton.

The pieces around them ranged from a possible steal (Mo Williams) to someone possible stealing (Bobby Simmons).  Names and faces around Redd and Bogut continued to change for the next few years, but those two seemed to be a year older with each passing season and the players around them rarely seemed like the potential building blocks Redd and Bogut may once have been.  Brian Skinner? Ruben PattersonRoyal IveyYi?  The Bucks never sold this as rebuilding, in fact the goal always seemed to be to make the playoffs and lose in the first round every year.

So where does that leave the current Bucks?  Are they rebuilding with young players?  Or still attempting in vain to make a run at the first round of the playoffs?  Arguments could be made that support both sides of the argument.

Building Blocks

Brandon Jennings is the most significant young piece the Bucks have added since Bogut and really more like since Ray Allen.  When Bogut was drafted there was buzz don’t get me wrong.  I specifically remember the Bucks winning the lottery I hadn’t even paid attention to because I assumed they had no chance at winning.  A friend called me at work and suggested we go out and buy Bogut jerseys.  So there was a little excitement, but more of the “it’s cool that we got the number one pick again” variety than of the “oh my god, we’re getting Andrew Bogut and we’re back in the hunt” variety.

Jennings comes with his share of baggage.  He didn’t play particularly well in Europe, he shoots a little much and not especially well, he’s on the small side, he may or may not have stolen his nickname from Lil’ Wayne and got rid of a cool flattop for a “trendy” mohawk.  So he’s by no means perfect.  But at the same time he’s a former Naismith Prep Player of the Year (the list has some surprises but is largely made up of really good to great pro players), he plays basketball like it’s all he’s ever wanted to do, he’s lightening quick, everyone appears to enjoy playing with him, he distributes the ball very well and he likes Bayshore Mall.  Overall, I feel at least semi-comfortable with the idea of centering a rebuilding plan around a point guard who may have the necessary skills and attitude to take over games on a nightly basis.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a different kind of building block.  It’s hard to project The Prince as a future NBA star.  He doesn’t have specific offensive talents, at least unless you consider finding loose balls underneath and finishing fairly well after catching passes virtually everyone else in the league could catch to be specific talents.  LRMAM will undoubtedly work very hard each summer on his outside shooting and mid range jumper every off season for the next ten years until he’s at least adequate and at most expert level in these fields though.  That’s a good feeling.  Scott Skiles once said about LRMAM, “When he’s done playing you’re going to say he’s gotten the most out of his ability.”  Given that quote from a coach like Skiles and LRMAM’s natural athleticism, how can he not immediately qualify as a building block?

LRMAM is so good defensively that any offense he eventually develops will be merely a bonus.  It’s just that LRMAM doesn’t merely cover the best wing player on the court, he’ll guard ANYONE.  Last season he defended Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and when things got crazy on “To Catch a Predator” he stepped in to defend Chris Hanson.  He’ll keep himself on the court with his defense, even if he never amasses an offensive game that surpasses Mike Kelley (I realize he likely already has, but you get the point).

And for possibly the most surprising detail on the Bucks roster: Andrew Bogut is 24.  He’ll be 25 roughly a month from the date I publish this, but that’s still not too shabby.  We (and by we I mean I and maybe others) sometimes talk about Bogut like he’s a finished project, a guy who “is what he is.”  But that is unlikely.  Bogut has had time to learn the nuances of the pro game, but with off season international commitments and an injury here and there, he’s hardly had time to take his game to the level he’d like it to eventually end up at.  Already a good passer from the high post, it’s possible Bogut will perfect a jumper from there.  It’s possible he’ll become more assertive and a more reliable finisher as time goes on.  And if he doesn’t?  He’s still a 15/10 guy when healthy going forward.

When healthy is a significant qualifier I admit.  And a 24-year-old with back issues is much scarier than a back pain free any age-year-old.  But so far this year Bogut has looked healthy and spry.  If he can get his scoring and shot blocking levels to where they were two years ago and continue to develop as a rebounder alone and keep his team defensive skills where they were last year he’s a potential low level all-star.  That’s not a bad piece.

Veterans and Question Marks

After Jennings (still a question mark in his own right, as much as I think he’ll succeed) LRMAM and Bogut, the Bucks have a few young guys who at best have bright but cloudy futures and a number of veterans.

  • It’s impossible to know what will become of Ersan Ilyasova, but he’ll be around for three years at a good price.  At worst he’s a crappy Vladamir Radmonovich (What’s that?  Vlad Rad is the crappy Vlad Rad?  Okay, a quicker Steve Novak.)  And at best he’s a better defending, fewer possession killing Chuck Villanueva. The Bucks loaded up at power forward so they won’t have to find out to which extreme he falls closer to right away.  Just getting up to the NBA speed should be a good development for him this year though.  He’s a ?.
  • Jodie Meeks is a guy I’ve probably been too high on already.  He was a second round pick for a reason and won’t be taking Charlie Bell’s minutes right out of the gate.  That’s no tragedy either, Meeks could probably stand to get his feet wet slowly and if he proves to be a valuable player, he’ll prove it over time.  Anytime guys have the shooting skill Meeks does they find a way to stick eventually … unless their last name is Stoudamire and their first name is Salim.  Something tells me his actual ability has little to do with all that though.  He’s a ?.
  • Joe Alexander continues to struggle to even maintain question mark status.  I don’t think he warrants complete giving up on, which is what not picking up his option next year (the Bucks have until the 31st of this month to do just that) obviously would be doing.  Everyone and their mother knew Alexander was going to take some time before he was a viable NBA player.  So why was everyone so shocked that he spent his rookie year struggling?  It’s hard when players taken after him succeed with immediacy like Brock Lopez and Anthony Randolph, but Alexander struggled last year and already this year with injuries.  Everyone wants immediate production, but the value of the roster spot Alexander is taking is low.  There aren’t a ton of players the Bucks could fill the spot with at this point in the next year that are more valuable than he could be.  Alexander showed flashes last year and more consistent flashes near the end of summer league.  It’s possible, albeit looking less likely, that he can be salvaged and have a very productive career for the Bucks.
  • Speaking of Bell.  He, Dan Gadzuric, Francisco Elson, Kurt Thomas, Luke Ridnour, Carlos Delfino, and Roko Ukic are essentially puzzle pieces.  They’ll all get some minutes this year, but ultimately represent contracts that could be moved without problem and without consequence.  Some have higher upside and some will help in the present, but none are players that really matter in the long run.
  • Hakim Warrick is an especially interesting case.  He’s been playing like gangbusters this pre-season.  He’s taking it to the hole with authority and generally acting surly on the court.  When a player as athletic as Warrick gets nasty, it’s a good thing.  Warrick is threatening sixth man of the year numbers in pre-season.  I know, it doesn’t matter and they’re glorified scrimmages, but still, impressive.  He’ll never win that award here, but it’s fun to think about and nice to know there is a productive scoring option on unit two.   Warrick is 27 and if he’s actually going to start playing at this high a level can probably continue it for a few years with good health.  He’s on a one-year-deal and would probably command roughly six million were he to break out this year.  Whether or not the Bucks kept him would have to do solely with the next player I’m going to be bringing up.  So keep reading.
  • Michael Redd.  As I referred to before, Redd makes a lot of money.  Too much for one guy on a team like the Bucks to be making, unless that guy is Lebron James. So whether or not the Bucks keep Redd throughout this season will ultimately decide whether or not they’ve taken on a full fledged rebuilding commitment.  By giving up Redd the Bucks are saying (at least assuming they get young players for him), “We can’t commit this much payroll to anyone.  We need cap space and we need young talented players.  We’re confident that with our draft pick, Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut and LRMAM we have a nucleus to build off.  Michael Redd was great to have around and could have helped us win a few more games, but ultimately this isn’t going to lead us to a title  We want to win a title and they represent our best opportunity for doing that.”

What happens with Redd dictates where the team heads, but ultimately this season is one with limited upside.  If the Bucks get it all together and play to the peak of their collective talents, 40 wins would likely be the most games they could win.  More realistically is a season of ups and downs and inconsistencies leading to 30-35 wins.  I’m an eternal optimist though, so I think 37.

Regardless, I’ll be watching what happens with Redd as much as I’ll be watching that win column.

I watch the Milwaukee Bucks often and write about what I see…

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