I have a very hard time believing that the Milwaukee Bucks are worse than they were last season. While losing Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, the top two scorers on last year’s eighth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, seems like a big loss, their overall talent improved this offseason.
A lot of different players who currently reside elsewhere in the NBA landscape saw rotational minutes for the Bucks last season, but Ellis, Jennings, Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders were the biggest and most consistent contributors for Milwaukee last season. This summer Ellis, Jennings and Dunleavy all found new homes, along with the most random starting small forward in the league, Luc Mbah a Moute, center Samuel Dalembert and J.J Redick, who the Bucks traded for at the deadline. This season, Milwaukee will sport an entirely different roster and an entirely different look under new coach Larry Drew.
Milwaukee’s projected starting lineup is either Brandon Knight or Luke Ridnour (or Gary Neal, I guess) at point guard, O.J. Mayo at the 2, Caron Butler at the 3 and the same frontcourt of Ilyasova and Sanders. Is that any better than last year’s? It might not be. Is the bench any better? It’s not even a question. Either Ridnour or Knight will be coming off the bench, along with combo guard Gary Neal, sharpshooter Carlos Delfino, second-year big man John Henson and bruising center Zaza Pachulia.
Not bad, right?
I’m a huge fan of Milwaukee’s big men. Their four-man interior rotation includes a gifted, Euro-style starting power forward (Ilyasova), a defensive-minded, shot-blocking center (Sanders), a sophomore backup who showed real promise a year ago (Henson) and a tough as nails fourth big who comes on the floor and sets the tone immediately (Pachulia). These four guys will bring constant defense and rebounding, along with some scoring pop, especially from the 4.
I saw Henson dominate in the post a couple times last year, although it was clear that his body couldn’t take post play on a nightly basis. Henson is a long and lean, legitimate 6’11″, with Go-Go-Gadget arms (if you haven’t seen him shoot a hook shot yet, just wait). He has a little bit of polish in the post and once he puts on some weight, he’ll be a top-flight defender. Henson averaged about six points and five rebounds last season for the Bucks in just 13 minutes a game, but I think he’s going to emerge as an important player in their future.
Ilyasova and Sanders are a solid of a starting duo, although neither will wow you too often. Ilyasova struggled in the beginning of last season, but had a very good second half, nearly pulling his numbers as high as the year before. There was a definite rift between Scott Skiles and Ilyasova, but with Skiles out of town, Ilyasova’s numbers should climb to about 15 and nine this season. Sanders provides a change of pace from his frontcourt mate, serving as a better version of DeAndre Jordan on the floor (I’m not high on DJ). He was the team’s most pleasant surprise last season, after seeing little playing time in his rookie and sophomore campaigns. He managed to put up nearly 10 and 10 last year in less than 30 minutes per game, while also averaging 2.8 blocks a night, second-best in the league. Sanders signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Bucks this offseason and he projects to be a staple at center in Milwaukee for the near future.
As for the Bucks’ wings, they’re well stocked and shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding the right combinations. At the 3, they’ll be just fine, as Butler is one hell of a competitor and Delfino is a great scorer with some play-making ability. At the 2, O.J. Mayo isn’t too far of a drop off from Ellis and maybe he turns some heads on his third team in as many years. Mayo could emerge as an 18-point-per-game scorer this season, which is something he did in his rookie year, and maybe Larry Drew will feature his dribble drives and shooting abilities in the half-court offense. I wouldn’t be shocked if Mayo put together his best season as a professional next year and led a playoff-bound Milwaukee team in scoring.
Not that crazy of an idea, right?
To help the wings, Milwaukee will also feature three point guards, all of whom have also played off the ball in their careers. I’ve always been a real fan of Neal’s, noting his jump shot to be the most beautiful looking rise-up shot in the league. Ridnour has always been serviceable and although he’s not much of a defender, he is a weapon as a floor stretcher. If the post men play up to their potential, the shooting skills of both Neal and Ridnour will be on display all season long.
Then, there’s Brandon Knight. The third-year combo guard out of Kentucky had a decent rookie season with Detroit and figured to be the second anchor in their rebuilding process (along with Greg Monroe). However, Knight failed to improve last season, shooting lower percentages across the board and barely improving in points and assists per game, and in the middle of last year, Detroit traded for Jose Calderon, moving Knight to the wing. Then, Knight was shipped over to Milwaukee in the Jennings sign-and-trade deal, which has put his future into question. Maybe he fills the Jerryd Bayless role off the bench and serves as a combo guard who can run the second unit, putting points on the board in a hurry against backup floor generals.
Looking at Milwaukee’s overall point guard situation optimistically, I’d much rather have the Neal-Ridnour-Knight combination over the Jennings-Billups-Bynum combo and I’m sure John Hammond does too.
All in all, this really isn’t that bad of a team. I don’t think they’ll set the world on fire, but if they are able to find some chemistry with one another, they’ll be a playoff team in the East. As an organization are they doing the right thing? Probably not. Did John Hammond sling these veterans together in hopes of saving his job? Probably. If everything goes right for Milwaukee this year, they win 45 games, Knight and Mayo show improvement, Henson, Sanders and Ilyasova emerge as a very good interior trio and their veteran depth will pay big dividends.
Of all the teams in that logjam for the last three playoff spots in the East, Milwaukee has the most depth and their mix of veterans and youth will help their case.