Technically, the Milwaukee Bucks have only played 40 games this season.
But mentally, we’re well past the half way point. Beyond the halfway point, it seems like most fans have passed the point of no return. The season is over. Night after night the teams expose Milwaukee’s flaws. Development is a slow process. With few exceptions (last night’s win over the Bulls being one) it feels like each game blends into the next. It’s been a smoothie of suck.
Expectations were very high for the Bucks this year, and they haven’t delivered on the promise flashed throughout last season and into the playoffs. That promise has proven to be another tease from a franchise with a penchant for deceptive stretches of success.
Of course, it hasn’t been all bad and there’s another half season to go, whether your hearts and minds can take it or not. So we look back on the half season that was and forward to the half season that will be.
First Half MVP:
Nick Whalen: Khris Middleton
So many choices. Middleton gets the nod here, mostly because of what he’s done over the past month. After a slow start – 13.3pts, 39.9% FG through the end of November – Middleton has rebounded and been the player Milwaukee expected him to be when it inked him to a lucrative extension over the summer. Since December 1, Middleton is averaging 19.2 points, 4.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.4% from the field and 43.1 percent from three. He has 11 20-point games over that span, including back-to-back 36 and 33-point outbursts against Oklahoma City and Indiana to conclude the calendar year. On top of that, Middleton boasts a team-best offensive rating of 112, per Basketball-Reference, nearly nine points higher than the Bucks’ team rating (103.5).
Middleton’s game hasn’t necessarily changed, but he’s been noticeably more aggressive, ranking 13th in the NBA in made threes after finishing 49th in that category last season. And considering he’s shooting the three at a 45% clip on the season, that higher volume is what the shooting-deprived Bucks need, even if it hasn’t necessarily translated to wins.
Mitch Vomhof: Greg Monroe
Monroe is more than fulfilling the expectations put on him with the signing of a max contract: averaging near a 15/10 double-double, carrying the team’s scoring load when the rest of the lineup goes quiet (far too often), and serving as the team’s most consistent player. Yes, he’s a defensive wreck, but so is everyone else at this stage. Jeremy’s commented on him having “another one of those nights” several times recently, but another Monroe night is often one of the best performances of the night. This is probably a sad outcome considering where we thought the team would be going this year, but this MVP choice is almost as much about the underdevelopment of the rest of the team as it is about Greg’s consistent performance.
Preston Schmitt: Khris Middleton
Perhaps I’m guilty of recency bias; Giannis Antetokounmpo was probably the first quarter MVP, but his recent rut overshadows some of his early season strides. Conversely, while Middleton struggled to start the season, he’s returned to form—and then some. Since the beginning of December, Middleton is averaging 19.2 points per game on 46.4 percent shooting from the field and 43.1 percent shooting beyond the arc. He’s been accumulating more assists without turning the ball over. His usage has slightly risen without any loss of efficiency. For the season, Middleton is quietly posting career highs in PER (15.8), points per game (16.9), true shooting percentage (.570), three-point percentage (.449), free throw attempt rate (.283) and assist rate (17.0 percent).
Middleton may not be exceeding expectations by a great measure, but he’s meeting them. And he may never be a star, but he doesn’t need to be. With the NBA’s salary cap ripe to skyrocket, Middleton’s salary will be in the ballpark of the third or fourth best player on a championship team. At the very least, he’s proven he can be that type of player.
Jeremy Schmidt: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Let’s not forget the goals of the season. Everyone expected the Bucks to return to the playoffs because they expected guys like Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton to improve. But a lot of Milwaukee’s growth was expected to come via the growth of Giannis. He’s Milwaukee’s hope for a superstar right now and early this season it looked like he was closer than anyone could have expected to blossom into that role. His last month or so has been less impressive.
His last month or so has been less impressive. There was that weird day where he came off the bench for a game. Reports had him not focused on his teammates enough when he was driving the ball. He’s been afraid to shoot at times. He isn’t a finished product, and he isn’t playing anywhere near as well in January as he did in November. But overall this season he’s improved as a player. As long as he’s developing, he’s the Bucks MVP.
First Half LVP:
Nick Whalen: O.J. Mayo
Mayo was an under-appreciated piece of Milwaukee’s success last season. But he’s off to the worst start of his career in 2015-16, averaging career lows in scoring (9.5 points), field goal percentage (37.9%) and three-point percentage (29.6%, on 4.3 attempts/game), while posting the lowest offensive rating (94) and PER (9.6) among regular rotation players not named Johnny O’Bryant.
The bar wasn’t set extremely high for Mayo entering the season, and he’s far from the only one to blame for the Bucks’ 15-24 mark, but if you buy into the adage that a team is only as strong as its weakest link, Mayo has been that for much of the season. From a leadership perspective, Mayo is the third-oldest player on the league’s youngest team, but he’s also been T’d up four times and suspended once while racking up more than $30,000 in fines. That’s not to imply he’s been a “bad” teammate – for the most part, Mayo’s outbursts target referees in defense of his teammates – but it’s also difficult to assert that he’s been a voice of reason and source of maturity for a team lacking veteran leadership.
Mitch Vomhof: Greivis Vasquez
LVP has to be about expectations, so I can’t just hand it to Chris Copeland despite his general ineptitude, including the ONE SINGLE THING that he’s supposed to be good at. Thinking about it, it also feels cheap to hand it to a player because of injury. But considering that the Bucks traded a (semi-)valuable first round pick as well as a second for 16 mediocre games and an expiring contract, Vasquez has to be the pick. He’s had the most negative value to the team this season, even if it isn’t his fault.
Preston Schmitt: Greg Monroe
Monroe’s statistical resume almost entirely mirrors that from his days in Detroit. Unfortunately for him, so does the Bucks’ win total.
This season’s malaise doesn’t entirely fall on Monroe’s shoulders. There are many factors: the loss of Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia; no power forward depth; injuries to Jared Bayless and Greivis Vasquez; opponents solving Milwaukee’s defensive scheme; and the lack of shooting development among Giannis, Parker and Michael Carter-Williams.
But whether it’s fair or not, Monroe is the easiest scapegoat. He was the high-profile addition this summer, billed as the missing piece of a struggling offense. Yet, Milwaukee’s offense has remained dreadful and lethargic, ranking 23rd in offensive rating and 24th in pace. While his ability to score one-on-one has been a welcome addition, Monroe functions best out of the low post—the only place where Giannis and Parker can operate efficiently. Meanwhile, a top-five defense last year has deteriorated into the second-worst defense in the league (109.9 defensive rating). Monroe has never been fleet of foot, and that’s been even more exposed in Milwaukee’s frantic defensive scheme. Monroe is far and away the team’s best rebounder, but it’s scarcely made a difference; Milwaukee ranks last in defensive rebounding percentage. And while his on-off numbers stack up favorably, it’s hard to watch the team from game to game and not be underwhelmed by his presence.
Jeremy Schmidt: Tyler Ennis
The opportunity is there. If Michael Carter-Williams isn’t the answer, and he hasn’t made it very clear that he is, Milwaukee needs a point guard of the future. Greivis Vasquez has missed significant time with an injury and Jerryd Bayless has been in and out of the lineup. Ennis was a first round draft pick only a season ago and theoretically should have a ton of untapped talent. But he hasn’t been able to act on the opportunity in front of him. Hell, OJ Mayo got more of a shot to be the Bucks point guard this season than Ennis has.
I don’t think the Bucks coaching staff has a working bias against Ennis, so something tells me the blame rests with him.
Player You Want To See More Of Next Half:
Nick Whalen: John Henson
The Bucks have never quite figured out how to maximize Henson’s abilities, and he’s been stuck in limbo (again) for much of the season, playing only 16.1 minutes per game behind Greg Monroe. The general belief was that Henson would see an expanded role after inking an extension over the summer, but he’s been nothing more than a backup center. It’s hard to say it’s his play that has his minutes down, as he has typically strong metrics (if you’re into those), including a career-best 20.2 PER, which places him second among all reserves who have played at least 200 minutes this season.
The issue, of course, is Milwaukee brought Monroe to play the center spot and the center spot only. There’s a reason Monroe and Henson have spent only 11 minutes together on the court. As limited as Monroe is offensively, Henson’s range is even more restricted, so pairing the two only adds to Milwaukee’s already-troubled spacing, while creating problems defensively in asking one of the two to chase around opposing stretch-fours.
Essentially it’s a one-or-the-other situation, so it might not be realistic to expect to see more of Henson in the season’s second half without seeing less of Monroe. That said, with as porous as Milwaukee’s interior defense has become, giving Henson more of an extended look seems worthwhile, even if it detracts from what’s been a quietly very good offensive campaign from Monroe.
Mitch Vomhof: Damien Inglis
This is as much about seeing him in game action as it is a wish for him to get healthy. The ankle and foot ailments that have limited him to 42 total NBA minutes through his season and a half have also limited our ability to see what the Bucks really have in someone whom we were told would be a lottery-type talent. If Inglis shows that talent and turns into a solid rotation contributor, it’ll make a lot of people feel a lot better about buying into this team’s “core” (if that’s still a thing?).
Preston Schmitt: Damien Inglis
In all likelihood, it’s a lost season (until the lottery). Unless the Bucks believe that playing veterans will help Giannis and Jabari develop, they should probably divert more and more minutes from the likes of Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo to the likes of Damien Inglis and Tyler Ennis. Inglis was effectively a late first-round pick (31st overall) two years ago; if he’s healthy, it’s time to see what he can do.
Jeremy Schmidt: Jabari Parker
His minutes seem fine, but what I’d like to see more of is him handling the ball and initiating the offense. If he’s going to play power forward, he needs to be able to score. I’d love to see him catching at the top of the key and attacking larger players off the dribble. I’d love to see him posting up smaller players when given the opportunity. He flashed some post moves at times last season, but we haven’t seen too much of that in 2015-16. A more dominant, assertive and confident Parker would be a godsend. His cutting and lane filling have been great, but he needs that to be what compliments his core strengths, not his entire game.
Trade? Yes or No:
Nick Whalen: Yes
Looking at this broadly, the Bucks have a few options as the deadline approaches:
Shake up its young, five-man core of MCW, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker or Monroe
Move an ancillary piece or two (Bayless, Mayo, Plumlee)
The first option is certainly the most drastic. With the probable exception of Carter-Williams it would have seemed insane to even entertain this discussion three months ago, but here we are. The Bucks aren’t trading Antetokounmpo or Middleton, and even though there’s been some discussion of late, I think Parker is off-limits as well.
That leaves Monroe and Carter-Williams. While the Bucks have struggled, Monroe is enjoying a productive individual season, but as a back-down center with defensive limitations, he’s only attractive in his current role to a handful of other teams. The Knicks and Lakers may have interest, but neither team is in position to compete this season, and both would likely be hesitant to part with a valuable young piece in return. Plus, outside of the uber-off-limits Kristaps Porzingis, New York is void of any assets that would interest Milwaukee. The Lakers, on the other hand, have some attractive young players but no one that necessarily leaps out as a great fit for Milwaukee going forward. So, sure, the Bucks could try to trade Monroe, but it’ll be tough to find a partner that makes sense.
In Carter-Williams’ case, the Bucks would be selling low on a player they gambled on at last season’s deadline. Over the last month, Carter-Williams has put together strong numbers, but his reputation around the league has been on a steady decline since taking home Rookie of the Year honors just two seasons ago. That said, he’s on a rookie deal, and he’s shown enough versatility to likely warrant some interest as a potential bench addition. But again, it’s hard to imagine his value is high enough to convince another organization to part with a valuable asset.
The most likely scenario is the Bucks make a minor move or two. Maybe they flip expiring Jerryd Bayless to a contender in need of backcourt depth or pawn off Miles Plumlee for a second-rounder. Neither player would command an impact player in return, but it could be a means by which the Bucks acquire an extra draft pick or two.
Mitch Vomhof: Yes
A blockbuster is unlikely. We spoke briefly last week about the potential of moving on from Jabari Parker (ain’t happening), and the only other moveable piece of significant value would be Monroe. I certainly don’t think the team would consider him untouchable or ask a king’s ransom, but the market for non-defending, non-shooting big men isn’t great this year. And while a smaller move of a few veteran players (Mayo, Bayless, Plumlee?) might be more plausible, none of those players are fetching any significant return at this point. We could see a move to free up a roster spot or two for maneuverability into the second half of the season, but the team has time on its side, and I don’t sense that there’s any panic move or fire sale on the horizon.
Preston Schmitt: Yes
It’s hard to imagine the Bucks not making a move. But it’s even harder to imagine the Bucks making a big move. If they can get anything of value for the expiring contracts of Bayless, Mayo or Vasquez, they should jump on it. They should listen to offers for Carter-Williams and Monroe, but there’s no reason to overreact. The Bucks would be wise to ride out the season with their young players and let the chips (or ping pong balls) fall where they may.
Jeremy Schmidt: No
Certainly it’s always intriguing when a bad team makes a trade. IT SHAKES THINGS UP. It also makes that one day in February very satisfying. An NBA season where your team is left out on the trade deadline fun is hardly an NBA season at all. That said, Milwaukee has long been a threat to screw things up on trade deadline day. Those days seem to be gone, but the Bucks don’t seem to have any player that can fetch much return if they go into fire sale mode this February.
Biggest 2nd Half Hope:
Nick Whalen: Jabari Parker becomes more consistent
In what’s turning into somewhat of a lost season, the focus in the second half needs to shift from chasing a playoff spot to developing young talent. As the NBA’s youngest team, the Bucks have ample room for improvement, and with a roster lacking impact veterans, it’s not difficult to find minutes to cultivate that young talent.
Playing time has not been the issue for Parker. He’s averaging nearly 27 minutes per game in what’s more or less his rookie season, but he’s failed to put together consistent stretches that foreshadow a career as an NBA star, and that’s what he was expected to be for this franchise. Of course, not all future stars are good NBA players as rookies. But a lot of them are — especially players drafted second overall. It’s far too early to confidently discern in what direction Parker’s career is headed, but the Bucks can use these final 40-odd games to attempt to raise a ceiling that seems to have dropped a few inches, in the public’s eye, since last June.
Offensively, Parker has often looked uncomfortable in the half-court, relying heavily on isolation pull-ups and hustle plays around the rim to make an impact. He’s rarely asked to be a playmaker and has all but abandoned the three-point shot that contributed to his lethal offensive package at Duke. It’s much easier said than done, of course, but if the Bucks hope to develop Parker into a star, he needs to be entrusted with more offensive responsibility, even if it comes at the detriment of the wins column, which at this point may be what’s best for the team.
Really, the same could be said about Antetokounmpo. And maybe that’s the caveat to developing multiple young assets at once. History dictates that for a player to become a star this league, they must be endowed with star responsibilities — maybe not right away, but at some point in their formative years. The Bucks are attempting to develop three players – Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker, all 24 or younger – as potential future stars (Middleton to a lesser degree, though he’s been the best of the three for the last month). And that excludes the 25-year-old Monroe, who may still be a couple of years away from his peak. With four young players essentially splitting those star responsibilities, no one player has truly developed to the point that a leap into the “star” stratosphere appears to be the lock it may have been a few months ago.
Mitch Vomhof: Parker starts to look better as he passes the one-year anniversary of his ACL surgery. Inglis gets healthy. Giannis starts taking more three-pointers. I’m a simple man with simple desires.
Preston Schmitt: Giannis, Parker, and Carter-Williams learn how to shoot.
Jeremy Schmidt: I hope Giannis spends a month averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. A month that produces those numbers would surely include multiple watchable games, and a few dozen highlight plays to tide us over and renew our hope in the franchise heading into next season.
Worst 2nd Half Fear:
Nick Whalen: Milwaukee plays itself out of an opportunity to improve through the draft
The Bucks are well beyond the point of “just give them some time to mesh”, but the worst-case scenario at this point in the season is if Milwaukee starts playing just well enough to back out of top portion of the lottery. As of Monday night, they’re right in the middle of the Kohl Zone, holding the league’s eighth-worst record — low enough to avoid being a local and national embarrassment, but high enough to avoid a chance at an instant-impact draft pick. Ahead of Milwaukee is Denver, Phoenix, Minnesota, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The Lakers, Nets, and 76ers are in a sadness-tier of their own, but the other four teams are firmly in the same, slightly less sad tier that should allow for some mobility. Staying out of the bottom five may be inevitable — I don’t expect the Bucks to make any moves that would drastically sap talent — but staying out of the late-lottery is certainly an attainable goal.
All of that said, I realize it contradicts what I wrote above. The Bucks have young pieces already, and coming into the season; they thought the pieces they have in place would be enough, along with some veteran/role player additions, to compete soon. And here we are talking about adding another high-potential young player to this developing group. If that’s what ultimately happens, Milwaukee will be forced to take a step back and reassess which assets make sense to build around.
Mitch Vomhof: Serious injury, or the kind of mild improvement that puts the team within shouting distance of an 8th seed and on the outside of a juicy lottery pick. I’m still traumatized by 2007-2013.
Preston Schmitt: The Bucks sniff the eighth seed and trade Tobias Harris for J.J. Redick.
Jeremy Schmidt: What is there to be afraid of? If they get hot and make a run at an eighth seed that should mean that the young players are playing well and have once again flourished in the current system. If they struggle, a high draft pick will be on the way. There’s almost no way the Bucks can screw up what’s already been screwed up.
So long as Giannis doesn’t get hurt.