1. Jabari Parker has struggled of late and hasn’t made a significant leap after coming back from knee surgery. Is it too early to panic?
Jeremy Schmidt: Still too early. He’s shown enough to me that he’s at least still intriguing. I’m writing my response to this question after Milwaukee’s win over the Timberwolves on Saturday night and once again he had several explosive moments in that game. He’s doing just enough offensively to keep me intrigued. He’s been bad on defense and it’s unclear where he’s really going to get better on that side of the ball, so there’s definitely reason to be concerned about him, but panicking is an overreaction. Let’s wait until February and assess where things are at with him again.
Nick Whalen: It’s too early to panic, but it’s not too early to be concerned. Parker has been a disaster defensively, but that was somewhat expected — he was far from a stopper at Duke. It’s Parker’s limitations offensively that have been the bigger surprise. Much of his impact has come as an ancillary player, scoring on cuts to the rim, catch-and-shoot mid-range jumpers, and offensive rebounding opportunities. Those certainly aren’t bad things, but Milwaukee didn’t bring Parker in to be their version of Terrence Jones. If this is the guy the franchise is expecting to develop into a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 option night in and night out, I think what Parker’s done thus far has to be perceived as a disappointment.
That said, it’s important to remember that Parker is essentially a little more than midway through his rookie season. His play certainly hasn’t screamed future superstar, but the Bucks also haven’t asked him to operate as a superstar. Parker’s usage rate of 19.7 ranks 137th among players who’ve played at least 200 minutes this season. By comparison, draft classmate Andrew Wiggins ranks 18th with 28.4% usage.
Mitch Vomhof: I would say so. Not only is Jabari less than a full season (games-wise) into his career, those games have come sandwiched around a major injury and rehab process. I’m usually a proponent of being patient with young players anyways, but especially given the circumstances I’m neither surprised to see him struggle somewhat nor impatient to write him off as a bust. Player development at its best takes time, and this certainly isn’t a best-case scenario, but now isn’t the time to hit the panic switch.
2. Bill Simmons, among others, has floated out hypothetical Jabari Parker trades recently. Is there any chance the Bucks would deal Parker?
Schmidt: If Parker is at a point where we have to ask whether or not it’s time to panic about him, then he’s certainly not at a point where he’s carrying as much trade value as possible. If Milwaukee was certain he wasn’t the right guy to be a part of a core going forward, then it’d be reasonable to start fielding trade requests about him. He still has enough potential to garner significant return and Milwaukee is the team that knows the most about him. If they questioned his work ethic and ability to raise and reach his ceiling, then I’d understand. But all indications are that he’s a great guy and a hard worker.
Whalen: I would be shocked. The Bucks are committed to Parker as a long-term franchise centerpiece — that’s been the message from Day 1, and I think it’s authentic. Clearly, things have not gone as smoothly as the organization hoped, but cutting bait with Parker this early would be flat admittance that they whiffed on the franchise’s most important draft pick in nearly a decade.
So I don’t think there’s a chance Milwaukee moves Parker, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they shouldn’t at least consider it. While Parker’s numbers haven’t been great, he’s still one of the top young assets in the league and would command a handsome return via trade. Right now, Parker’s being asked to play power forward in a small forward’s body, and there are certainly teams out there who would jump at the opportunity to develop him along their own path. The question is what those teams would be willing to give up for that opportunity. At the end of the day, Milwaukee is unlikely to return a player with Parker’s upside, even after this slow start to his NBA career.
Vomhof: So this is a thing we see often when a team and one of its promising young players struggle. Fans of other teams start putting together trade suggestions to get the young, promising player for 50 cents on the dollar — buying low. Given Parker’s short time on the court, it’s seriously doubtful that the Bucks put any real effort into moving him this early. While such a trade would certainly be damaging to the team’s perception, even rumors or confirmations about the team discussing it with others would be a bad look and I don’t think they want to risk their relationship with one of the players that it’s spent over a year pinning the team’s future on.
3. We’re 35 games in and the Bucks are 14-21 — are you ready to lock them in as a lottery team?
Schmidt: Yes. The Bucks aren’t good. Jerryd Bayless‘s return seems to have been a boost, but banking your season on Jerryd Bayless isn’t a recipe for a playoff run.
Whalen: I’m ready to lock them in and deadbolt the door to the ping pong ball machine. This is a team that’s far too inconsistent to string together the winning streak(s) necessary to climb back into the playoff race, despite entering Sunday only five games back of Boston for the eighth seed. The East is deeper and much less depressing than last season, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a team or two in that 3-to-9 range that looks markedly worse than Milwaukee.
Vomhof: On team skill alone, the Bucks should definitely not be a lottery team. But the further we get into this season without seeing any real cohesion or consistent play, I’m just not convinced that they’re going to be demonstrably better than the teams that they play from night to night. That’s probably a pretty good definition of a lottery team, right?
4. How much do you read into the narrative that annexing Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia has been a major reason for the Bucks’ defensive struggles?
Schmidt: It’s tough because we had evidence last season that they were important to Milwaukee’s defense and now we have evidence that without them Milwaukee’s defense has been horrible. It’s an easy line to draw. But there are a number of variables that change over a season. Teams are better prepared for dealing with the Bucks now. Even guys that made a positive impact defensively last season (Middleton, Henson, Giannis) haven’t made as much of a positive impact this season. But no question losing two guys who played hard and had a strong understanding of what they were supposed to do and replacing them with two guys who have no idea what they are supposed to do made an extreme impact. So I buy into the narrative.
Whalen: I buy into the notion that Pachulia and Dudley were key components of the Bucks’ success last season, but I also believe neither player is irreplaceable. Swapping Monroe for Pachulia would make Milwaukee a better defensive team, but that discounts what Monroe has added to the Bucks’ offense, providing a legitimate low-post threat to a team desperate for scoring diversity. Monroe’s defensive rating of 105 ties him with John Henson for the lowest on the team, suggesting the Bucks’ defensive issues run much deeper than a single player or position. I’m not arguing that Milwaukee doesn’t miss Pachulia and Dudley, but their departures alone are far from the only reasons the Bucks have plummeted from 4th (102.2) to 28th (109.0) in overall defensive rating.
Vomhof: I think that the loss of veterans has had a clear impact on this team in many facets. I also just watched O.J. Mayo try to rush an official get ejected in the first quarter of a game, so I’m not thinking that he’s in a good place to take on the mantle of leadership here. While they weren’t demonstrably more athletic or on-paper more impactful than the players that replace them, it’s obvious that those two specifically were more impactful than they maybe got credit for last year. I think there are other issues in play causing the defensive drop-off and it probably would have happened to some degree even had those two been retained, but it definitely is a cause.
5. After a rough start, Michael Carter-Williams has had some impressive all-around games over the last month. Where do you currently stand on him as a player and as the potential future starting point guard for this team?
Schmidt: He isn’t the guy. I’m never going to be in on his style of point guarding. He’s too chaotic and relies too heavily on difficult shots. He’s been hitting them for the last few weeks, but he still doesn’t show much command over the game. When the Bucks need successful half-court possessions and aren’t getting into transition he becomes a totally different player still. He’s less effective in a controlled environment and he still doesn’t seem like a guy that teammates can naturally play off.
Whalen: Like Parker, you have to consider what the expectations are when evaluating Carter-Williams. At times, he looks like a guy you might consider passing on, say, a high, albeit top-3 protected, first-round pick for. At other, more frequent times, he looks like a point guard trying to do too much, firing contested floaters over double teams and whipping careless cross-court passes.
I’m out on Michael Carter-Williams, Starting Point Guard of the Future. But I’m not necessarily out on Michael Carter-Williams, Pretty Good Sixth Man Who Can Win You A Game Every Now and Then. For that to become a reality, Carter-Williams needs to develop a competent outside shot to prevent defenders from continuing to play 4 feet off in the halfcourt.
Vomhof: MCW the player certainly can be useful. Even if he never quite figures out how to shoot a jumper, he can still score inside fairly efficiently, put pressure on opposing guards on defense, and be a willing (if sometimes bewildering) passer. That sounds like a solid player… off the bench. I’m not sold on him as a starter, and it’s going to take a significant and consistent jump in his decision-making to change my mind.
6. Given their defensive limitations, is it possible for a frontcourt pairing of Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker to succeed long-term?
Schmidt: They would have to make considerable improvements on the defensive end. That isn’t impossible, considering they are both still younger players. But I’d be shocked if they were Milwaukee’s front court past next season.
Whalen: When Monroe signed with the Bucks this summer, there were concerns over the length of his contract: Two years guaranteed with the option to re-enter free agency in the summer of 2017. Considering how the Bucks have started, the short-term deal now looks quite quite a bit more appealing as an “out” if Milwaukee can’t make things work, defensively, with Monroe in the mix. In theory, it also makes him easier to deal, should the Bucks go that route, with a potential trade partner likely only locked into one more season of Monroe beyond 2015-16.
The pairing of Monroe and Jabari Parker up front has been troublesome, but the sample size is still relatively small. Monroe’s limited range and lack of success (over a much larger sample) as a power forward in Detroit locks him into the center spot, but are we convinced Jabari Parker is a power forward, long-term? At 6-8, he profiles more ideally as a small forward, but he also lacks the one-on-one defensive abilities to stick with opposing threes, and his four three-point attempts on the season suggest he’s far from becoming a reliable catch-and-shoot floor-spacer. Even so, I’d like to see the Bucks give Parker more of a look at small forward — only 21% of his minutes have come at SF, per Basketball-Reference — where he’d theoretically play more of the attacking, perimeter-friendly style with which he’s been comfortable in the past.
Vomhof: I don’t think there’s any on-paper reason that Parker should be a below-average defender. His most notable struggle this season has been in indecision within the defensive scheme, and that’s something that he can correct over time. I’m less convinced that Monroe is going to suddenly turn into a competent defender, especially in a scheme that requires him to expend a significant amount of energy in help defense. If those two could master the scheme in a Dudley/Pachulia kind of way, then it could probably work. I just wouldn’t count on that.
We saw this team overachieve last season. We’ve seen them struggle this season. Are we sure this coaching staff is the right one to guide the franchise forward?
Schmidt: This is the most important question to me. It looks like the Bucks are trending towards a pick that’s going to fall in the low end of the top 10 this season. So they won’t be adding a potential superstar, but they’ll at least have the opportunity to add another potential rotation player who occasionally makes a difference. Between that guy, Giannis, Parker and Middleton, they’ll have three definite non-superstars who can still be better than average players and hopefully one superstar. At that point, they’ll need the sum of their parts to be better than the individuals. Can this staff get the team to that level? We’ll have a much better idea after next season. I’d say next season is one of the most important in franchise history. We’ll know whether or not ownership made the right decision handing things over to Kidd or if they’ll start the whole thing all over with a new staff if he and his team fail.
Whalen: I don’t see any reason why anyone could be sure this is the ideal coaching staff for the future. The Bucks’ mix of inexperienced defenders and poor three-point shooters would present a challenge for any staff, but it’s concerning that Milwaukee looks like a markedly worse team this season after losing only a few — on paper, at least — ancillary pieces.
The complete lack of development from Carter-Williams, Parker and Antetokounmpo as three-point shooters is especially troubling, considering how glaring a need it was entering the offseason. To date, the three have combined to make 19 threes in 35 games, with Antetokounmpo, a 27% three-point shooter who still looks extremely uncomfortable on the perimeter, accounting for more than half of those.
To me, that lack of development in an overwhelmingly key area falls, at least in part, on the coaching staff. The Bucks got away with being a terrible offense last season because of what they were able to accomplish on the defensive end, but with the defense now taking a major step back, the offense has failed to compensate.
Vomhof: The unique makeup of this team’s coaching staff makes this question really hard to judge. BecauseJason Kidd doesn’t handle the tactical aspects of coaching in the way that we typically associate with a head coach, it’s not easy to assess how much impact he’s really having. He’s been off the bench for a couple of weeks now, and I haven’t really noticed much of a difference. And if we assign Joe Prunty and Sean Sweeney responsibility for the offensive and defensive prowess of the team, the results are still murky. Do we look at last year’s stellar defense or this year’s porous one? Last year’s inefficient offense or this year’s… slightly less inefficient offense? A lot of these questions have also been obscured by youth and a need for growth. I think there’s at least one more year to be observed before we can make any clear judgement on this staff.