I’d imagine the Christmas cards are already en route from Milwaukee to Madison. If not for Bo Ryan’s surprising retirement at last night’s Badgers post game presser, all the talk today would be about the Milwaukee Bucks losing to the hapless Lakers 113-95 days after upsetting the best team in the league in Golden State. Even more so now that video has since surfaced of Bucks players at an L.A. strip club til after 2 in the morning the evening before the Lakers game. Greg Monroe, incidentally one of the players at the club, was a scratch for the Lakers game, apparently from a knee injury suffered at that shoot around hours after Bucks players were seen leaving the club. Ho, ho, ho.
Now let me be clear: we are dealing with alpha males in the prime of their lives who just recently became millionaires. To think that partying, either at gentleman’s clubs or other venues across the country, does not happen with NBA and other professional athletes traveling the globe is naive. I do not intend to sit on my high horse and pass hypocritical judgement on anyone for enjoying themselves or visiting an entertainment establishment on special occasion, possibly even til wee hours of the morning.
The frustration with such activities only really begins to creep in when the team is underachieving and losing in mind-boggling fashion. The Lakers only had 3 wins coming into last night’s contest, and they handled the Bucks easily. Was it because some players were out the night before? Was it because Monroe missed the game? Did he really have a knee injury or was he incapacitated for other reasons? Were those 20’s or 100’s when he was making it rain last night at the club (yes, this is in the video)? Are they incapable of winning on the road (2-11) because some players are often out seeing the city the night before? None of these questions need to be asked if the Bucks show up for their game last night.
Showing up is about all they did, and they may as well not have shown up at all. They showed up 2 games ago against Golden State, and that was a lot of fun. Even so, during the celebration of the Milwaukee Bucks improbable 108-95 victory that ended the Golden State Warriors record streak of wins to start the season, I’d imagine many Bucks fans were swept over by a wanton feeling of dissatisfaction. Don’t worry, as a sports fan this is completely natural. We do not allow ourselves to have nice things for long. That was quite fun, and we’d like to enjoy more of it. Where had that been all year? Where was it last night?
Looking at the win over the Warriors in a vacuum, the Bucks played like a young, talented and energetic team ready to ascend and compete for a spot in or just below the top echelon of the Eastern Conference. If informed that the opponent was the defending champs on a 28 game regular season win streak stretching back to last year that is playing the most impressive basketball we’ve seen in the NBA in quite some time, the feat would seem all the more impressive. Budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo notched his first triple double, and The Greek Freak was the youngest Buck to ever do so at the age of 21. Greg Monroe had a huge night with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, abusing interior defenders on numerous occasions. Jabari Parker had a season high 19 points in the first 3 quarters, and did not even play in the 4th. Michael Carter-Williams came off the bench to play great on both ends of the court, and put the cap on a great victory with a steal and slam late in the game. He and Monroe combined for 22 of the team’s 28 4th Quarter points. Mayo and Middleton played well early, with the latter going cold after starting off hot, but there was enough team offense elsewhere to more than make up for it.
The defense was the best and most energetic I’ve seen out of them this year, and helped to spark the transition game they took great advantage of against what is a good transition team in Golden State. On offense the ball was moving and everyone was playing together. Passes and cuts seemed more crisp and the sets seemed to flow a bit more smoothly. Even Kidd’s sometimes confusing rotation decisions seemed to mostly be working. Golden State made some runs of their own. The Bucks weren’t perfect by any stretch, but that was a marked improvement over what these young bucks have displayed so far this season.
To be fair Golden State contributed some to Milwaukee’s success. They shot the ball uncharacteristically poorly for their high standards. The rigors of the 7 game road trip they were concluding, including a double OT contest the night before in Boston, seemed to catch up to them a bit. The pressures of their own success seemed to take their toll as they continued to take everyone’s best shot during their historic run. I mention this all to be fair to Golden State, but make no mistake: The Bucks played like they needed to in order to compete against a very good team. They played with energy on both ends of the floor and pulled away from and beat an incredibly talented juggernaut of a basketball team by 13 points, no matter the circumstances. They held the baby-faced assassin Steph Curry to a mere 28 points, which is like holding anyone else to single digits with how he has been playing as of late. They played like many Bucks fans hoped and knew they could this year. But that has not been the story all season. Maybe the strip clubs in Milwaukee have lost their appeal?
Coming off last year’s earlier than expected success, hopes were high for this year’s Milwaukee Bucks team. Adding Monroe as a free agent in the off-season going up against bigger markets was considered a huge coup for a small market team like Milwaukee. They’d be getting last year’s 2nd pick of the draft Jabari Parker back healthy after missing the end of what had started as a promising rookie of the year bid. Battling constant roster changes, including a trade that shook up the roster and chemistry mid-season, new coach Jason Kidd proved his worth by coaching up an injury-riddled and inexperienced team to a .500 regular season that pushed the Bulls to the last game in their playoff series before succumbing to their superior foe. That exciting run helped fuel public sentiment and governmental dealings to get approval for the Bucks to build a new stadium and stay in Milwaukee for decades to come. Things were good, and they were only going to get better.
Last year’s surprising success came a couple years too early in the grand scheme of things for new ownership, but now the future was bright for this season. As the season had worn on leading up to the Golden State game that brightness dimmed to a flicker of fleeting hopes. Bucks fans were then left waiting to see if that huge win could re-ignite the flame in a young team still trying to gel and find it’s way this season. Much to our dismay, we got our answer.
Tonight they face the Clippers in the same venue as last night’s debacle. Let’s hope they were in bed by midnight after watching game film. After L.A. they’ll have a day off (hint: ok to stay out late) before heading to play what will certainly be a revenge-fueled Golden State team, and they’ll close out the road trip at Phoenix on Sunday before coming home for a 2 game home stand against Philadelphia and Toronto sandwiched around a 2 day Christmas break. What that means for the immediate impact on their record is beyond me; they can win or lose against anyone in the league, as they’ve proven in their last 2 games.
Thankfully in the NBA it’s much more important how you’re playing in the 2nd half of the season heading into the playoffs. Putting together some winning stretches to pull back to .500 and prepare to challenge for the Central Division and the Eastern Conference playoffs is still possible. I’ve been caught saying before that the NBA season doesn’t start until Christmas. but it is important not to be too far behind the leaders when the jolly fat man gets stuck in the chimney next week.
So what has plagued the Bucks on the court previous to last Saturday’s magical win? Currently 13th in the East and 5th in the Central, they are 29th in points per game, 30th in rebounding, 6th in assists, 10th in turnovers and 18th in points allowed.
The fact they’re 6th in the league in assists is interesting considering they are near the bottom of the league in scoring. This seems to indicate when they do score it’s through good team offense, but they aren’t scoring nearly enough. Partly due to turnovers, I believe it is also due to them being 2nd last in attempted 3 pointers at only 17.7 per contest. In today’s NBA you need some gunners to spread the court, and though they are 11th in the league in 3pt% at 35.7%, they are not getting those shots in volume because they don’t have a lot of shooters. The irony is not lost on me when I consider that I just suggested that the Bucks need to make it rain from deep more often.
On defense they clearly give their opponents second chances way too often after playing below average team defense to begin with. That sounds like a recipe for a middling to below-average basketball team that will show flashes in spurts but will not be competitive on a consistent basis against any type of decent competition, especially more experienced veteran units. Three more general things I’d like to cover quickly before looking at more specific immediate fixes to this year’s season:
- Expectations need to be reset by the fan base and I know that is difficult. But the fact remains that this was supposed to be year 2 of an Oklahoma City-styled rebuilding process fueled by talented youth that will play inconsistently as they figure out the NBA game. Last season pushed the expectations ahead faster than expected, but pumping the brakes is apropos here when considering the long term plan. The Durant/Westbrook/Harden blueprint took some time, and in that time it was necessary to have some down years that resulted in consecutive lottery picks to acquire the pieces needed for completing the rebuild.
- That does lead me to something that needs to be covered here. What exactly is the plan for the future? I was surprised by the Monroe signing in the offseason because it didn’t really seem to fit into the plans. It felt very Herb Kohl-esque in nature, and had a hint of a Mark Attanasio-Jeff Suppan signing if you fellow Brewers fans know what I mean. There’s no real middle ground to rebuilding a professional sports franchise, as Brewers fans will be finding out harshly this season. I don’t recall OKC signing a big name free agent in the midst of their NBA rebuild either. Maybe it can work if the plan is to try to remain competitive while rebuilding the core of the team for the future, but I’ve seen attempts at that before from Senator Kohl’s Bucks teams, and it never ended well, instead miring the franchise in a state of mediocrity for decades.
- Team composition is something I’d like to touch on a little bit here. It is no secret that Jason Kidd is for all intents and purposes calling personnel shots as well as coaching. John Hammond is a good GM, and valuable to the organization for his experience getting deals done. Though I’m sure his opinions are taken into account on personnel decisions, I think his job now is relegated to much like mine is on the occasional trip to the grocery store. I have a list and I need to abide by that list. I don’t get to go off and select my own ingredients and inject my own opinions very often. The meal has been planned and the ingredients have been listed. It is only my job to attain them now and not really ask questions. When you start to look at Kidd as de-facto GM and coach, it is funny to me to think that he is amassing a team of guys who resemble his playing style very closely. Brandon Knight was a shorter and more scoring-oriented point guard who was dealt last year to acquire a taller and longer point guard that can’t shoot very well from the outside. Sound familiar to anyone? The team is built around having length at every position to be able to defend and get out in transition and play in an equal opportunity offense that spreads the wealth, but, when looking at it’s players, has no semblance of outside shooting to speak of. I find this mildly amusing when comparing to Kidd’s style of game as a player. He’s an all-time great in this game, but he could never shoot the ball well.
After we’ve set expectations appropriately and put aside the debate on the pending plans for the future of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise and how the roster has been assembled, let’s look at a few things that could help the Bucks gain some stability and climb back into the race this season:
- Consistent effort – I know what I saw against the Warriors and I know I hadn’t seen as much of it prior to that this season. I’d imagine it’s more often the case with younger teams to play up or down to their competition as they struggle to find their way through a long NBA season. I was thrilled when Kidd was hired because I believed he would be a great fit for a young team. How coach Kidd can motivate his players to give the effort needed on a nightly basis will be key to playing better and more consistent basketball this season. Things like defense and rebounding are largely effort based. They have to want it bad enough and be willing to work harder for it, plain and simple. Jason Kidd is incredibly competitive, and though he’s a young coach still, I would think it drives him crazy when he sees his team not playing to their potential in areas such as effort and competitiveness.
- Shooting – Yes, defense wins championships, but if you can’t score, you’re not going to win in this league. This team sorely lacks consistent outside shooting from the guard and wing spots, which hurts when you don’t have posts that can step out and space the floor too much either. Mayo, Middleton, Bayless (currently out) and 1st round pick Rashad Vaughn all are capable of shooting the 3, but outside of them shooting better and more often, I’m not sure how you fix that at this point in the season. They did draft Vaughn in the first round to address this situation, but getting designed open 3 point looks in rhythm for the few shooters they do have needs to be a higher priority in my opinion. The benefits of spacing for the offense by forcing the defense to respect that credible threat would pay off nicely.
- Defense – Much of last year’s success was based around great team defense. For much of the stretches where the Bucks had success they were among the league leaders in defensive metrics. Good defense not only helps from the obvious perspective of holding the opponent to less points, but it also fuels transition offense off missed shots and steals, leading to easier points to make up for other offensive inefficiencies. At critical points in games, there’s nothing that helps sustain runs and keep momentum on your side than getting huge defensive stops and turning them into points on the other end.
- Offensive sets – The equal opportunity offense is a fun one to watch, and play in, but more designed plays to open up specific matchup advantages would be beneficial. Not only to create better looks from 3, but also to take advantage of the new weapon they acquired in free agency. When Monroe has a mismatch in the post, I’d like to see more effort made to run the offense through him. Getting the big man his touches could also help in opening up more clean looks from the outside after forcing defenses to double down and help in the paint.
- Rebounding – This has been putrid. Rebounding is something you just have to want to do. I have no explanation for it. We can talk technique and defensive/transition philosophies contributing to the issue but we have plenty of data at this point a quarter of the way through the season and it is clear as day to me that they just do not want it as bad as their opponents. The Lakers out-rebounded the Bucks by 16 last night. That is flat out embarrassing. Maybe the Bucks coaches should take a new approach: “You know how that one honey was boxing you out at the club?…”
As Milwaukee continues on this west coast road trip, Bucks fans hope Jason Kidd can find a way to connect with this young team and motivate them to play more inspired basketball with higher defensive intensity and improved offensive efficiency. That could culminate into exciting games like we all had the pleasure of witnessing 2 contests ago against Golden State. It would go along way towards curing any fan concerns with off the court activities. We don’t expect the world.
They say winning cures everything. I would add that just playing respectable and competitive basketball with consistent effort cures most things. Show up for the game tonight against the Clippers and play with intensity throughout, and you can do whatever you want after the game. After all, your next game isn’t until Friday against, gulp, Golden State. Let’s hope the Warriors haven’t made any VIP reservations on behalf of their out of town guests for Thursday night.