All of that happened before Milwaukee went out in free agency and landed Greg Monroe — a player coveted by teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. In other words, the kinds of teams that aren’t used to be losing out on players in free agency to the Bucks.
But then this season started, and things never got going for the Bucks. Having only two players — Jerryd Bayless and Khris Middleton — who could be considered reliable outside shooters kept the Bucks mired in the league’s bottom 10 offenses this season. More importantly, the defense, which was the backbone of the team’s success a year ago, plummeted from second in 2015 to 21st this season.
That combination left the Bucks far outside the playoff picture for virtually the entire season, as the organization took an unexpected step back. It also leaves them asking a lot of questions as they face an offseason full of uncertainty.
2016 draft picks
First round: Their own
Second round: Their own, plus the better pick between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings.
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$24.5 million ($59.7 million committed to eight players; stretch provision payments of $1.87 million to Larry Sanders; three draft picks for approximately $3.4 million; one roster charge for $543,471). Does not include non-guaranteed contracts for Johnny O’Bryant and Damian Inglis.
2016 free agents
PG Jerryd Bayless, PG Greivis Vasquez, SG O.J. Mayo, SF Steve Novak, C Miles Plumlee (restricted)
Five questions to answer
1. Will Giannis Antetokounmpo get a max contract extension this summer?
Since entering the NBA, the “Greek Freak” has been the subject of plenty of fascination — as you’d expect for a player approaching 7-feet tall that can handle the ball like a lot of point guards. In fact, Jason Kidd told reporters at Bucks practice Tuesday that Antetokounmpo will be the team’s starting point guard next season (more on that in a bit).
But while Antetokounmpo still can’t shoot — he’s now shooting under 20 percent from three-point range for the season, including going just 1-for-19 since the All-Star Break — there are plenty of things he can do. Just look at these numbers he’s put up in the 20 games since the All-Star Break: 18.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks per game, all while shooting over 50 percent from the field and getting to the foul line six times per game.
Those are ridiculous numbers, especially when combined with Antetokounmpo’s excellent defensive ability. By already saying Antetokounmpo is going to have the ball in his hands at all times, Kidd is essentially handing the keys to Antetokounmpo. Will that also come with a max contract extension this summer to cement him as the face of the franchise?
2. What is Jabari Parker’s ceiling?
After playing a year at Duke and being drafted second overall by the Bucks in 2014, Parker was expected to pair with Antetokounmpo to give the Bucks the foundation for their rebuilding plan under Jason Kidd. Then Parker tore his ACL 25 games into his rookie year, an injury that kept him out for the early parts of this season, as well.
Parker hasn’t had any complications since returning, and looks much like the player he was before he got hurt: one who is still a scorer, but one that can’t really shoot (he’s under 30 percent from three-point range, having only gone 11-for-40 in 93 career games), isn’t a great defender and doesn’t have a clear position. Moving Antetokounmpo to point guard allows Parker to become the team’s long-term option at power forward — the position he’ll have to play to make the most of his skills, as he seems to have outgrown playing small forward.
When he came into the league, Parker was compared to Carmelo Anthony, another 6-foot-8 scorer who played one year in college. For Parker to become that level of player, though, he has to develop his offensive game to have more of an outside game. If he remains both a bad and reluctant outside shooter, it lowers his potential ceiling considerably. A big who can’t stretch the floor and doesn’t offer much of anything defensively is a much less valuable commodity than Parker was expected to be coming into the NBA.
3. How do all of these pieces fit together?
The Bucks are the definition of a team that looks enticing on paper, but trying to make it work in practice has been far more difficult than they would’ve liked. The combination of Parker and Monroe provides no shooting and almost no defense — not exactly a great combination. Swapping Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams last season hasn’t worked on multiple levels (more on that in a bit), which is partly why Antetokounmpo has shifted over to point guard.
Milwaukee has collected a lot of long athletes. But, in doing so, they’ve basically ignored shooting, something that’s become vital for just about every NBA team these days. And, by adding a poor defender in Monroe, Milwaukee has hurt the thing — its defense — that allowed the Bucks to become a playoff team a season ago.
It’s a complicated picture with few sure answers. One obvious fix is to add shooting, but addressing the defense is going to be a bigger problem. It could have to come down to parting ways with either Parker or Monroe, which is why it appears there are only two players — Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton — that seem a certainty to be with this team long-term.
4. Is Michael Carter-Williams a lost cause?
There wasn’t much that made sense about the trade that brought Carter-Williams to Milwaukee last season. The Bucks had been playing very well with Brandon Knight, who gave them the shooting and spacing they really needed in the backcourt. By trading him for Carter-Williams, Milwaukee lost out on that (Carter-Williams has never shot better than 26 percent from three-point range), but also didn’t have to pay Knight as a restricted free agent last summer — something the franchise had no interest in doing.
Carter-Williams has some skills; he’s a long, athletic player who can make an impact defensively and is a good passer, as exhibited by his strong assist rate. But in today’s NBA, like with Orlando’s Elfrid Payton in Tuesday’s Postmortem on the Magic, having a point guard that can’t shoot at all can be crippling to a team’s chances of putting together even a league average offense. That’s doubly true when that point guard is on a team like the Bucks or Magic, both of which have little shooting at other positions to try and make up for it.
After struggling through the first two-thirds of this season, Carter-Williams underwent hip surgery in early March and is out for the rest of the season. That, coupled with Kidd’s announcement Tuesday about Antetokounmpo becoming the team’s starting point guard next season, would seem to spell trouble for Carter-Williams’s future with the Bucks — perhaps paving the way for a trade somewhere else this summer or, at the very worst, a demotion if he’s still in Milwaukee next year.
5. Can they land another big fish in free agency?
Milwaukee stunned the NBA by landing Monroe last summer. Even though the move hasn’t translated into the success for which the Bucks had hoped, for Kidd, general manager John Hammond and owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, getting Monroe was a signal to the rest of the NBA: the Bucks are open for business, and are comfortable shopping at the high end of the market.
This summer, the Bucks will have an opportunity to do so again. Although plenty of teams will have cap space this summer, Milwaukee will have over $20 million to spend (presuming they don’t bring back Jerryd Bayless, Greivis Vasquez and O.J. Mayo) to go after another difference maker at the top of the market. Will they be able to get one?
Between their draft pick, which will likely be somewhere from No. 7 to 10, and free agency, the Bucks will have ample opportunity to address the two weaknesses extolled repeatedly throughout this piece: defense and shooting. Last summer showed Milwaukee won’t hesitate to try and attack the big names that are out there to try and improve. Here’s one to consider: Dwight Howard, who the Bucks thought about trading for at the trade deadline, and is the kind of defensive center that Greg Monroe isn’t.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: