Quick: name every star the Bucks have had over the past 20 years.
Have you finished naming Ray Allen yet? Because he makes up the entire list. And that’s a fairly significant problem. Because, in a related matter, Milwaukee has had roughly one memorable season in the past 20 years. Not so coincidentally, Allen was on that team, the 2000-01 Bucks that fell in the Eastern Conference finals.
This was supposed to be the season Milwaukee overcame its superstar-free existence. Behind a balanced group led by their stifling defense, Milwaukee would share the ball between countless talented, but far from superstar players. Enough good players, maybe one great player, and all that defense sounded like a recipe for success before the season. But here we are again. The Bucks are a major disappointment and within four games, could fall 10 games below .500.
Injuries are to blame to an extent, at least five players who were to figure heavily into the rotation have all missed significant time, but injuries are the red herring. The inconsistency that comes with players who are good but not stars is the real culprit.
Exhibit A is Andrew Bogut. Last season he appeared o take a giant leap forward in his progression as an upper level NBA big man. Defensively he blossomed into the anchor of one of the league’s best defenses, the last and most imposing line of defense for the Bucks. Offensively, he shot 50% or better in 37 of 69 games, while scoring in double figures in all but 13 games. Bogut had always struggled to reel off more than a few good games in a row, but last year he’d seemed to finally learn how to prepare himself adequately to show up and impact the game in a major way on both sides every night. He was close to making a big time leap.
Then his elbow landed under his entire body. This year? Bogut’s still a defensive force, leading the league in blocks while grabbing 11.6 rebounds per game. But the lows have been much lower for Bogut offensively. He’s actually produced a higher percentage of 50% or better performances offensively (54% this season, 53% of his games last season), but it’s been all or nothing so far this season. He’s already shot 40% or worse seven times this season in 24 games, after doing it just 16 times all of last season.
Instead of making another leap forward, Bogut’s stagnated. It’s impossible to know how much better Bogut could have been this season had he not had to spend the entire summer rehabbing and resting his battered elbow, but the reality is what has been handed to us. He suffered and injury and now the Bucks are dealing with the consequences of a player who is an absolute star on defense and slightly above average on offense.
But Bogut isn’t alone. Last season it became clear that Milwaukee’s success would ride on the shoulders of both he and Brandon Jennings. They were young enough to still improve and talented enough to entice and leave one wondering where they would end up. If both Bogut and Jennings made a few improvements this season, things could have been special. Bogut’s injury changed that a bit before the season, but hopes were still high for Jennings. Probably too high.
He’s made improvements, but Jennings, before his injury, was still largely a crap shoot. He’d have games like the win over Orlando where he shot 50%, grabbed seven rebounds and dished six assists. Then he’d have games like his second to last game this season in San Antonio, where he made just four of 18 shots. While he’s scoring with more consistency this season, only three times has he failed to reach double digits, it still isn’t as easy for him to get there as it is for most team’s leading scorers. It’s great that he’s been able to bump his shooting percentage up 2%, but it’s a problem that he’s still only at 39.1% shooting.
It’s too early to write off Jennings hopes in the future, he’s only 21, but not too early to write him off as a star this season. It was unlikely he’d get there anyhow, but this injury certainly won’t do much for his in season development.
So, if these are Milwaukee’s stars, is it really a wonder that the Bucks are 12-18 with no hope to achieve much past a sixth seed this year?
In a way, Milwaukee appears to be entering a reverse Michael Redd-era. The middle of this decade featured one below team after the next led by Redd. He couldn’t help stop anyone, but he could keep the Bucks in it with his scoring prowess. Now, Bogut isn’t putting the offense on his back, but he’s making things difficult for the opposition on a reliable basis. Year after year fans would cry that the Bucks were too one dimensional, all offense without a prayer defensively. As they say the reverse now and furrow their brows on why this isn’t working one can’t help but wonder where the Bucks are headed.
With a defensive first mindset, the years of below average teams appear in the past. Teams that defend as well as the Bucks always find a way to sneak into the playoffs. But a yearly seven or eight seed isn’t so appealing right now, not after the thrills of last season and 20 years of (nearly) uninterrupted failure.
Unfortunately though, the Bucks appear to be nowhere very promising, at least not without a star.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).