The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t supposed to be here.
This was supposed to be another quintessentially Bucks season: 35-45 wins, maybe an eight seed, and not a whole lot else. That’s why OJ Mayo got 3 years and $24 million last summer. It’s why Zaza Pachulia got 3 years and $15.6 million and Carlos Delfino — who hasn’t yet played a game this year due to a foot injury — got 3 years and $7.5 million. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out.
The Bucks have, to this point, successfully out-tanked all comers, including the Philadelphia 76ers, who rang up 26 consecutive losses and still find themselves looking down (up?) at the Bucks. OJ Mayo has been terrible from the moment he signed that contract, Ersan Ilyasova has struggled — though he’s been playing better over the past couple months — Larry Sanders has battled off-court issues en route to a disappointing season, and the injury bug has been hard at work, forcing Larry Drew to scramble for solutions.
The good news: barring a major hot streak to end the season, Milwaukee will get no worse than a top-four pick in a very deep draft. Giannis Antetokounmpo has gone through some growing pains, but looks very promising. Brandon Knight and John Henson have looked promising as well, as has Khris Middleton. Jeff Adrien has been a monster since coming over from the Charlotte Bobcats at the trade deadline. Nate Wolters has looked pretty good for a second-round pick.
It’s also important to note that the Bucks have scored 105.9 points per 100 possessions since February 1st, which would be the 9th-best offense in the NBA over the full season. Ilyasova playing better changes the whole feel of the offense. A power forward who can shoot — and make* — threes is a major advantage in today’s NBA and it allows the Bucks to make do with what they have. The fact remains that they absolutely cannot stop anyone — sticking with the stretch since February 1st, they’ve allowed 112.3 points per 100 possessions, a number so incomprehensibly bad that I’m struggling to put it into any kind of context — but still.
*Looking at you, Byron Mullens.
So what happens next? Good question. The biggest question that needs to be answered is whether Larry Sanders will ever be LARRY SANDERS! again or if his off-the-court issues will make that impossible. If LARRY SANDERS! isn’t coming back, then they’ll probably want to take Joel Embiid in the draft. If they think Sanders can still be an elite defensive center, then they probably go for Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins or someone else who is not Joel Embiid.
If you start from the assumption that Sanders is worth keeping around, then the obvious need is on the wing. Middleton and Antetokounmpo are nice, but let’s not pretend they’re world-beaters or anything. I love Giannis as much as anyone, but it’s still unclear whether he’ll be able to shoot at a decent level in the NBA. Thus far, he strikes me as an Andre Iguodala type, which is great, but the Bucks could use some scoring on the wing. So I’ll say they should take Jabari, though it should be noted that I have only the vaguest idea of what I’m talking about here since I haven’t watched a lot of college basketball this season.
That would leave them with Knight, Wolters, Mayo, Delfino, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker, Ilyasova, Henson, Miroslav Raduljica, Pachulia and Sanders under contract headed into free agency. Ramon Sessions and Ekpe Udoh seem likely to move on, and it’s unclear whether Adrien will be back, but we’ll assume he won’t be for the sake of this exercise. That leaves them with about $11 million in cap space if they want to use it. That’s a pretty good situation to be in, really, as long as the Bucks don’t go all Bucks again and spend that cap space by overpaying mid-level talent to get back to the eighth seed.
If Sanders isn’t going to be what he was, that outlook becomes significantly worse. Sanders signed a 4-year, $44 million extension in August that kicks in next season, and while that’s a relative bargain if he’s the defensive force LARRY SANDERS!, that’s $11 million in dead money if he’s not. Maybe you’d be able to find someone else to take a chance on him — I wrote not too long ago about the Phoenix Suns, their copious cap space and their need for a rim protector — but it’s hard to say for sure. You certainly can’t count on that.
Beyond Sanders, the other main question in Milwaukee is the coach. Larry Drew had a decent run in Atlanta after taking over from Mike Woodson, but nobody’s ever confused him for Gregg Popovich. I disliked his hiring basically from the moment it was announced, and his first year has been essentially an unmitigated disaster. That’s hardly all his fault, of course, what with 10,000 injuries and whatnot. But when players talk openly about a lack of identity, let’s just say that’s not ideal. Drew isn’t known for his strategic acumen and his reputation is one of a guy who works with players, so that’s especially not good in his case.
Should he be fired? Probably not. It’s hard to justify firing a coach after one season, but I do think there are plenty of other coaches available that could do better.
I guess the answer to the question I posed in the headline is that Milwaukee should probably stay the course, more or less. Figure out whether Sanders and Drew are a part of the franchise’s future and then go from there. But I really hope they commit to a real rebuild and don’t go chasing that first round exit again.
Giannis deserves better than that, don’t you think?