What to watch for in the Milwaukee Bucks second half: A guide for the wounded spirit
At the time of writing, there are 37 games left in the Bucks’ 2013-14 season, which means that we have officially begun the descending journey to the offseason in what is proving to be an even more trying season than many of us could have possibly imagined. Before the season began we reveled in John Henson‘s Summer League dominance, turned the Bucks into the BuX-Men, and marveled at the youth on the team. Then the actual season began. Now, the Bucks are comfortably in last place in the entire NBA, seemingly well on their way to setting a franchise record for futility.
Because watching games with the intent to watch the Bucks win is quickly becoming a losing strategy, we’ve assembled a list of things to watch for in the second half of the season. Some are blatantly obvious (coughTRADEDEADLINEcough), some are more subtle, and some exist simply to help you make it through the cold nights counting down to the draft lottery.
The Bucks’ lineups have been in flux for literally the entire year, starting only two minutes into the first game of the season when Brandon Knight went down with a hamstring injury. Since then, several key members of either the starting five or the team’s early rotation have been constantly out. Now, however,with the impending return of Zaza Pachulia (who practiced for the first time on Tuesday since sustaining a stress fracture in his foot) it appears that the team is returning to something resembling full health.
While fair criticism has been leveled at Larry Drew for some of his lineup decisions, it’s also evident how difficult his job has been with the patchwork nature of his roster and the uncertainty of who will be available from night to night. Now, with the return of most of his rotational players, he may have the chance to establish set roles and let them settle in. While we’ll likely see some changes-particularly to the starting lineup-if things continue to fly off the rails, I suspect that Drew will take the opportunity afforded him by the rest of a no-expectations season to try and build a base for future improvement.
2. February 20: The trade deadline
As the second-most popular Bucks discussion topic (trailing only DRAFT STUFF) as of late, the week(s) leading up to the trade deadline will likely be the crescendo of this season before it winds down in the spring. Expect the rumors to heat up right around the time the calendar flips over to February and contenders start looking to shore up their benches and fill in weaknesses. That being said, don’t hold your breath for some major splash on the part of the Bucks like adding another good draft pick or snatching another team’s promising young players away from them. The circumstances surrounding this year’s team simply aren’t favorable for that kind of move.
GM John Hammond‘s recent commitment to rebuilding and maintaining the team’s young core of talent indicate that they won’t be willing to move the players other teams would covet most (Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and likely Knight). Meanwhile, the remaining players on the roster with the potential to return any significant value in a trade have been bad enough to severely diminish their value.
Larry Sanders‘ off-the-court issues, inconsistent play since returning, and looming 4 year/$44 million extension combine to make him rather undesirable unless other teams can be convinced that a change of scenery will help him bounce back.
When Ersan Ilyasova hasn’t been hurt, he’s played some of the poorest basketball of his career and shot a dismal 37% (25% from three), which has impacted him as a stretch-4 whose value is derived from shooting ability.
The speculation that O.J. Mayo is out of shape might be enough to discourage potential trade partners without even mentioning his inability to hold a starting job on the worst team in the league.
After all that, we’re left with Caron Butler, Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, Ekpe Udoh, Pachulia, Khris Middleton, Miroslav Raduljica, and Nate Wolters. That crew might be enough to shuffle around and pick up some other minor assets – say, second round picks or other middling players – and MAYBE (but not likely) a late-late-late first round pick. The reality is that now, more than ever, teams are holding on to cheap, young assets and draft picks while expiring salaries and “salary dump”-type trades are becoming less valuable.
Especially taking into account the hype surrounding this year’s draft class, it’s highly unlikely that teams with any shot at the lottery will be willing to part with their picks without receiving a significant asset in return. However, it would be very reasonable to see the Bucks move several of their veteran players if the opportunity presents itself.
3. Giannis’ Offensive Behavior
I’m not talking about his actual, personal behavior because let’s face it, he’s the best:
Rather, I’m talking about his progression on offense. Don’t get me wrong – Giannis really has made leaps and bounds beyond anyone’s expectations this year. I doubt any of us expected him to see significant minutes, much less start and hold his own against NBA competition. Now that he’s had the opportunity to settle into a starter’s role, the next step in his development is to establish himself in the Bucks’ half court offense.
Currently, he’s a weapon in transition – where he can use his combination of length and ball handling skill to overwhelm opponents – but remains inconsistent in the team’s offensive sets. Thus far he’s been most effective on cuts or drives to the hoop and it’s fairly apparent that he relies on his physical talent to get past opponents. He doesn’t really have any offensive moves, and his jumper (apart from three-pointers) is non-existent. If he can start making shots from a variety of spots and develop the skills to shake defenders, Giannis can become a truly dangerous NBA weapon.
Again – it’s only the beginning of his career. None of this is even a bad thing. But in order to become the great player that he (and we) want him to be, he’ll have to add some nuance to his offensive game. Consider the second half of this season his 101 course in NBA Scoring.
4. College Basketball
I mentioned the hyped 2014 draft class a few points ago; as the lottery and draft draw closer, scoping out those top prospects may prove to be a welcome alternative to the February and March NBA drudgery. Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart are all projected top-6 picks that can be seen playing in the NCAA this season, especially as March Madness approaches.
The sixth potential high pick, Dante Exum, is more difficult to watch as he’s only now coming over from Australia, where he spent 2013 playing for the National Institute of Sport, to prepare for the draft. There’s still a lot of college ball to be played and the prospect “leaderboard” has plenty of time to shift as the season progresses, but watching those players now will provide a good look at potential future Bucks.
5. Brandon Jennings in February
Do you remember Jennings’ strange tendencies to fall apart when February rolls around? Well, now we don’t have to live in fear! He plays for the Pistons now! If you have the opportunity, flip over to a Detroit game during the shortest month for a sampling of the reasons to be glad the Bucks moved on from the mercurial guard.
6. The Inevitable Nate Wolters Playing Time Increase
It’s going to happen, especially as the team slides farther down into the cellar of the East. Wolters actually got first quarter minutes against the Suns on Wednesday night. There are only so many point guards Larry Drew can run out there, after all.