What are the 2014-15 Bucks going to do this season?
The sample on which to base any hypotheses is as small as it can possibly get: one single game. To make matters worse, that game was all over the map. In going from a 24-point lead to a loss, fan emotions ran somewhere from, “We’re going to have home court in the first round of the playoffs” to “Brandon Knight is the perfect point guard for The Tank, Version 2.0.” If you were watching the game at home and tend to be less flighty than me, maybe you didn’t have such an extreme swing of emotion. But I felt that way, and I saw things play out on Twitter. (Hi.) I can attest to the fact that at least some people felt that huge ebb.
I also think it’s unreasonable to compare this year’s Bucks team to last year’s. Last season was (hopefully) a jarring anomaly. Larry Sanders got hurt, Ersan Ilyasova got hurt, Caron Butler and Gary Neal tried to succeed in basketball strictly through jump shots and minimal body movement, and O.J. Mayo lost a loved one, got ill, fell out of shape and out of favor with the coaching staff. And even through all that, mathematical models still would have predicted to win 20 games and they won 15 instead.
So instead, I prefer to take you far back in time, to a moment when Brandon Jennings was running the point, Luc Mbah a Moute was still their lockdown defender, and the Bucks were a playoff team. Let’s go back to a season when the Bucks won 38 games and met up with LeBron James in the first round.
Bucks in 6.
My question is this, and I’ll probably get flak for it: Are the 2014-15 Bucks a better team than the 2012-13 Bucks? Of course, they’re better now in the sense that they have a long-term plan other than trying to snake out a bit of poisonous playoff ticket sale money in April. But on a wins-and-losses basis for “Right here, right now”, is it possible that these Bucks could win as many games as their most recent playoff predecessor.
So let’s take a position-by-position run through the lineup to see who has the edge between the two teams.
Point guard: Brandon Jennings or Brandon Knight?
The Bucks have been Brandoned for quite some time now. Milwaukee has gone five straight seasons being run by a Brandon who couldn’t land a spot in the top half of a ranking of the league’s starting point guards. To date, neither has been a player who enhanced the skills of the players around him, but Knight gets the edge here for working himself into incredible shape. He’s better put together than most NFL linebackers, and it shows when he’s driving to the hoop or battling for a rebound.
Shooting guard: Monta Ellis or Khris Middleton?
Monta Ellis helped Milwaukee get to the playoffs — there is no doubt about that. After the J.J. Redick trade (and with the floor well-spaced), Ellis transformed into a powerful offensive force capable of carrying the team on his back. Unfortunately, in the four months prior to the trade, Monta shot 41%, 40%, 39%, and 40% with a mostly broken jump shot. Middleton is a much better shooter, but he isn’t nearly the creator or ballhandler that Ellis was, and he doesn’t attract nearly as much attention from opposing defenses.
Small forward: Luc Mbah a Moute/Marquis Daniels or Jared Dudley/Giannis Antetokounmpo
Daniels and Mbah a Moute split the starts in 2012-13 and both contributed many bricks to the floor-spacing issues that hampered the offense. A healthy Jared Dudley won’t be as good a defender as either, but his 68.4% three-point shooting in the preseason is something that LRMAM and Daniels wouldn’t even be able to duplicate in an empty gym.
Oddly — and I’ll probably get a LOT of flak for saying these things — Marquis Daniels is a good example of what the worst possible for Giannis might be this season. Like Daniels, Giannis is a thin, rangy, strong guy with an excellent handle on the ball. Both are above-average defenders, and both could slide is an point forwards in a pinch. The difference is that Giannis has a slightly better jump shot with the potential to get MUCH better, blocks shots and, of course, he’s 19 years old.
And before you say it, please don’t tell me how good Luc was. Yes, Luc was very, very good at points in his career, but it wasn’t in the 2012-13 season. Other than three admirable games defending LeBron in the sweep, Mbah a Moute fought through injuries all year long and played and looked like a player who didn’t belong in the NBA. He still doesn’t, and his current role on the 76ers mentoring Joel Embiid on a tank-tastic team is most likely the optimal situation for him.
Power forward: Ersan Ilyasova or Jabari Parker
Ilyasova made 44.4% of his three-point attempts and posted a fat 20.3% defensive rebounding percentage. The Bucks’ offense scored its fair share of points with Ersan on the floor but they gave up a bunch too. Jabari won’t stretch the floor nearly as much, but he’ll be infinitely better at finishing at the rim and probably a lot better on defense too.
Plus, Ersan is still on the roster if you really need him.
Advantage: Jabari Parker
Center: Larry Sanders or Larry Sanders
It’s the same guy, of course, but the difference is that 2012-13 Larry Sanders managed to stick around for 71 games and we don’t really know if the same can be expected of 2014-15 Larry Sanders.
Advantage: 2012-13 Larry Sanders
Everything else: Then or now
Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan took turns at the reins then, and now the job is Jason Kidd’s. Those Bucks had Mike Dunleavy, Jr. as their dedicated shooter off the bench and now the task belongs to O.J. Mayo. John Henson spends a lot of time looking like the player he was two years ago. (And I don’t mean that in a good way).
Advantage: Too close to call
Is the Eastern Conference better than it was two years ago? I don’t know for sure, but with solid teams in Washington, Toronto, Charlotte and Cleveland, it seems fair to say — at a minimum starting point — that there is a deeper pool of playoff contenders now then there was back then.
Essentially, my point in making this comparison is this one: the Bucks aren’t a playoff team, even if they looked like one for most of the game against Charlotte. But when you drop the names down on paper, this team is probably a lot closer in wins and losses to the 38-win debacle of 2012-13 than the lovable losers who successfully tanked their way to 15 wins last year.
As weird as that seems.