What to watch for in the Milwaukee Bucks second half: A guide for the wounded spirit

Might want to keep an eye on this guy, for example. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
Might want to keep an eye on this guy, for example. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

1. ROTATIONS!

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 ButlerLuke RidnourGary 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:

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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

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Concede for Embiid. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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.

Mitch has been a fan of the Bucks since the days of…

19 Comments

  1. For anyone who ACCTUALY cares about Jennings,there is a Detroit PISTONS blog called Detroit’s bad boys…or something similar. Just search engine PISTONS blog sites. The outcry in Detroit is to sit Jennings in 4th quarter of games…very unhappy with his “chuck it up” style of play.
    Many fans there would be happy to part with Jennings already.
    I’m as unhappy about this season as anyone could be, at LEAST we don’t have to listen/watch Jennings again this year.

    Try to stay optimistic…maybe we get s WIN on Fri. @Orlando.

    GO BUCKS

  2. It is amazing to me that the staff at Bucksketball stubbornly clings to its opinion that the Bucks do not need another point guard… that combined with its fascination with Nate Wolters as some kind of significant solution — even as you snub Ish Smith, who is about the same age and much better.
    Bucksketball also thought Kendall Marshall beneath their attention, yet while the castoff from the Suns and salvage from the D-League continues to consistently dish a dozen dimes for the Lakers, you guys refuse to entertain any possiblities about other potential finds at the point. We could even trade one or two of our possibly-underachieving veterans, plus a first-round pick in 2015 or 2016, for a more distinguished point guard.

    Another problem: After Bucksketball blew it last year with its lukewarm appreciation of Tobias, now it continually dowplays the contributions of Khris Middleton, who is still only about 21 and is growing into a fine all-around player. Khris is routinely dismissed in the recaps as mainly a shooter — which is not only shortsighted given his inexperience, but also ignores how difficult it is for an unselfish player to get the ball on a team of hyper-shooters, and on a team without a good director and distributor at point.
    One of my sports nightmares is that we’ll trade Khris for someone like J.J. Redick, who after all really is almost only a shooter, even after several years in the league; who was pretty lousy for the Bucks last year; and who probably couldn’t get out of town fast enough after two months of mediocre service.

    I’m glad the Bucksketball staff has begun to bemoan the truly pathetic condition of the Bucks, but you guys are about half a year late. I’ve been raising concerns about the Bucks going back to the summer that continue to be relevant. Sometimes you respond, which I apprectiate; and I don’t expect you to respond always, or even most of the time; but generally you have been much more favorable to the status quo of the Bucks (pretty much in line with the front office) than to even seriously considering fresh ideas, at least from me — a position which would be much more understandable if this were the Spurs, or even the Pacers.
    It’s one thing to disagree, another to disregard other points of view, which have been presented both softly and sharply, while the staff at Bucksketball has been largely lacking in imagination and originality. I’ve given you guys a lot of sincere compliments over the past year, to go along with vigorous but respectful differences; I can understand you having other opinions, but you seem to be digging in with some kind of irrational resistance. You may not like the messenger, but don’t necessarily hate on the messages. I can go away if you want, but the Bucks will continue to decline into ruins, and the Bradley Center decay into a pile of rubble, without better solutions than the ones usually coming from Bucksketball.

    P.S. Why not give at least a little grudging recognition to Scott Suggs — who after all, was on our summer league team — even if you really and truly don’t think he is anywhere near as good as O.J. and Gary and Caron and Carlos and Luke and Nate…? Or please come up with some better alternatives to my endless promotion of the guy.

    • Ish Smith, career (per-36 numbers used where appropriate):

      36.5% FG, 9.1pts, 6.3ast, 1.7 steals, 2.6 turnovers

      Nate Wolters, career (per-36 numbers used where appropriate):

      40.1% FG, 11.4pts, 6.0ast, 1.3 steals, 1.7 turnovers

      None of that indicates to me that Ish Smith is “much better”, especially given that he’s had two more years of NBA experience and is, in fact, three years older than Nate (25 vs. 22). Nate already shoots a higher percentage and turns the ball over less while they are very close in assists, steals, and points.

      If anything, Wolters is the one with a reasonable expectation of growth while Smith has shown no improvement over his time in the league. Also, when Wolters has played – even been thrown into a starting role unexpectedly – he’s handled himself well. As a rookie. That’s why I (speaking for myself) have been optimistic about him.

      • Hey, Mitch, genuinely appreciate your response, as well as your correction about age, your stats, and your opinion. In admittedly little viewing of each player, Ish passes the eye test much better than Nate. I think each has the form to improve their wayward shooting; both seem like good guys; and I sincerely hope both do well over time.

        It would be interesting to know why the Suns would cut Kendall and keep Ish, even though Kendall is only in his second year, and at North Carolina had set an ACC record for assists in a season. This intrigued me as far as maybe looking at Kendall for the Bucks, especially as he had played with John Henson at UNC and the two might be mutually beneficial for each other and the team. Anyway, it’s fun to go back-and-forth with differing opinions of players; but one of my frustrations has been in not really having much discussion about Kendall, nor really anyone else at as possibilities at point, so as to get more of your perspectives, and also inviting comments from various fans who visit this site.

        To keep things in balance, I would like to say that you guys at Bucksketball do a really good job with your writing quality, your sense of humor, your observations, and your statistical analysis. I do really like your blog. What I wish for is that you’d be more creative in presenting alternative ideas about improving the Bucks, and more open to at least discussing ideas that aren’t yours, even if you disagree with them.

        My intent is not to instigate controversy in a negative way, but to initiate conversation in a positive way — a fine line, and one that I might not negotiate well at times. Even if I am tough on the staff at this site, I genuinely respect you and wish you the best. I’m truly sorry if I come off more as competing with you guys than as complementing you.

        • I enjoy and appreciate your frequent insights, Sfisch. Even if I don’t always comment, I definitely see and consider your opinions.

        • I don’t think using the one guy that was in the D-league and got a chance with a D’antoni system is a valid argument that the Buck’s answer at point is sitting on another teams D squad. I will agree that having a better system to scout and develop current NBA talent is needed by the bucks. That being said I am enjoying this season immensely. The bucks are doing exactly what I asked of them for a few years now. Cleared out over priced ball hogs that didn’t want to be in Mil anyways. Got a core of young guys with upside. AND ARE FINALLY TANKING. Enjoy the ride Bucks fans, this horrible year was needed.

    • I don’t know, but Nate Wolters certainly passes my eye test. When he plays significant minutes the Bucks actually look respectable. It seemed like the season only started to get really bad when he was delegated to the bench. I’m not saying he is great, but he is, right now, at least solid at running an offense, which is what the Bucks are absolutely horrific at this year. He is certainly deserving of more minutes. That is why I am hesitant of trying a new option at pg when we possibly have one on the team that hasn’t been fully utilized. I don’t think Wolters will ever be great, but he would help the Bucks this year and with improved shooting would be at least a solid pg in the NBA

      • I’m starting to be swayed on this site to give Nate a fair try at point guard. I could very well be missing something with him.
        I’ve been fairly positive about Nate all along, and have generally been open to giving him 15-20 minutes per game on a trial basis. Maybe it would be good to give him more.
        I’d still like to consider bringing in another point guard, though, especially if a good opportunity presents itself in trade or other means. Perhaps if we send Luke as part of a package to a contender, we could get someone more natural at the point who could share minutes with Nate and Brandon (with Brandon getting time at shooting guard as well).
        I’m kind of stuck on this. With such a horrid offense, the Bucks seem to be in desperate need of a point guard, and both Brandon and Nate are apprentices. Yet, with what seems to be a fairly widespread enthusiasm on this site for Nate, and with Brandon still a possibility at that position, maybe we should stick with those two guys for the rest of the season. Then again, I cringe at the prospect of both chaos and stagnation on offense for 37 more games if neither of our young points are ready to run the team…
        In any case, can we please keep Khris, and continue to play him 30 or so minutes?

        • The bucks Do not have the current assets to get a respectable point. We would have to give up a chunk of the young core to get some one like Lowery, (who they might not trade seeing as they are making a playoff run). I honestly don’t think its a lack of talent at point to run an offense, but rather a lack of coaching. I think Larry benefited greatly from taking over a team that he was so comfortable with in ATL. They new the system inside and out and he really didn’t have to do all that much.

  3. I have a feeling this years trade deadline is going to be just as much of a letdown as last years..there don’t seem to be many “buyers” this season which is too bad because I think the Bucks have some nice assets that could help facilitate a big trade

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  5. Sfisch, I think you are totally misinterpreting what people are saying. I don’t think anyone is saying Nate is the long term answer, they are just saying that with Knight at the 2 and Nate at the one is where we are currently strongest.

    I have to be honest, I think that upgrading the point is the least of our worries. Not because Nate is the answer but we have more pressing issues. Henson and Sanders for instance. Larry disappears for complete games at a time. Henson on the other hand puts up good stats, but his on/off numbers for both offense and defense are horrible. We have to figure out whether he can be the answer long term because we can’t afford to go backwards when he is on the floor. We are intrigued by there length but truthfully both of them get pushed around out there. They may be able to block the opposing PG when they drive, but they aren’t offering resistance to the bigs.

    We need a slasher at the wings. We are a team full of jump shooters which isn’t very hard to defend. The best drivers on our team right now are Wolters and Knight, the 2 PG’s. No one else puts it on the floor. Everyone clamors for a PG to “initiate” the offense, but it is a very fine line between initiating the offense and being Brandon Jennings. Think about how often you see the PG dribble for 15 seconds out top because we can’t even get open on the wing to start the offense. Now you are asking the PG to take it to the hole every time just because we stand stationary on the wings waiting for a jumpshot. Our PG’s aren’t blackholes, we have wing issues. Just my $.02.

    • Interesting perspective on the wings — I’m guessing you mean small forward and shooting guard — not getting open. I agree that we don’t have much in the way of guys who can create off the dribble, and that it’s important to have at least one or two of those guys as slashers in addition to the point guard. I like to think Khris can be one of those guys, but maybe not, or at least not yet.

      With the Bucks in such disarray, it’s hard for me to know what to make of our offense — which is why I’m glad to be having this discussion. My theory about Brandon is that he’s a good dribbler, but not so much as a distributor; he can break down defenses and get to the hoop, but isn’t that adept at passing, and so ends up shooting more often than not.

      Anyway, maybe I’m old school, but it seems to me that it is still really important to have a guy to take charge on the court, and who can see the floor well, and find all sorts of ways of getting the ball to the right guy in the right situation, whether on the fastbreak or in halfcourt. That kind of guy makes everyone better, and makes for truer evaluations of our players.

      It’s a real art form; and largely an innate set of skills; and one can be a great basketball player but not have the vision and versatility, the demeanor and decisiveness, to handle the point. I kind of think of it as the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. I really appreciate getting other points of view.

  6. Personally I think the Bucks need to draft the best available player in their mind at any position. I don’t think anyone on the Bucks this season has proved that they are a great player who isn’t worth replacing, other than Henson and Giannis, mostly because they haven’t gotten a huge opportunity to prove themselves or need time to progress.

    I think the Bucks taking the best available player gives them something to build around, anyone else is expendable at any cost. I think gaining more draft picks is where this team may excel and if Ersan has a 2nd half like he had last year I think the Bucks could DEFINITELY have a good draft night by getting rid of the guy. Now don’t get me wrong because I like Ersan, but he will NOT be part of the Bucks excelling into the future/playoffs.

    • Ersan is not worth a top 20 in this draft sadly the way he is playing might only get a 2nd for him.

      • I’d like to see if DET would bite for Charlie V and Tony Mitchell, rather have Tony than a 2nd.