Over the past seven seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks have made two postseason appearances. In both of those playoff campaigns, Milwaukee suffered first-round exits. To make matters worse, the Bucks haven’t won the Central Division since 2000-01.
If Milwaukee hopes to turn things around, it will need to build through their interior.
If nothing else, the Bucks have one of the most promising interior tandems in the NBA with power forward John Henson and injured center Larry Sanders. Sanders being sidelined hurts the development of the Bucks as a unit, but both have displayed remarkable individual upside.
During the 2012-13 regular season, no player made as stunning and as unpredictable progression as Sanders. Despite playing under two head coaches with a number of different perimeter-oriented starting lineups, Sanders emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NBA.
In 27.3 minutes per game, the former VCU star averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 71 appearances. Sanders was second in the NBA in both blocks per game and per 48 minutes and fifth in rebounds per 48.
After Sanders broke out in 2012-13, Henson has done it in 2013-14.
Through 26 games, Henson has posted averages of 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Those aren’t stellar marks, but Henson has been getting progressively better and developing into the power forward of the future that Milwaukee was hoping to land when it drafted him in 2012.
Henson is currently in the midst of a streak of three straight double-doubles and six in his past 11 outings. He’s averaging 15.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 steals during the month of December and the advanced metrics offer even more insight into his quality of play.
Amongst players who have seen at least 20 games of action and face at least 4.0 attempts per game, Henson ranks No. 9 in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage when he meets them at the rim. His mark of 45.0 percent is No. 13 when that list is expanded to players who have participated in at least 15 games.
As a 22-year-old in his second season in the NBA, Henson’s progression is nothing short of remarkable.
Identity of Central Division
If there’s one thing that rings true throughout the Central Division, it’s that teams are being built in a defense-first manner. There are offensive stars such as Paul George, Brandon Jennings and Derrick Rose, but most teams have developed a defensive-minded identity.
The Bucks clearly need to improve their offense, but without an elite defense, it won’t be enough.
The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are two of the most legitimate NBA championship contenders and the only thing holding Chicago back is the absence of its star, D-Rose. Both teams ranked in the top five in scoring defense in 2012-13 and that’s a major reason why they routinely make the playoffs.
The attention immediately shifts to the star-caliber names, but it all starts down low for both squads.
At power forward, Carlos Boozer of the Bulls and David West of the Pacers are physically strong players with reliable offensive games and the power to make a quality impact on defense. At center, Joakim Noah of the Bulls and Roy Hibbert of the Pacers rank amongst the league’s elite in terms of all-around defense and rim protection.
If the Bucks are hoping to compete, they must continue to build through Henson and Sanders to discover similar success.
The next step is to find a lockdown defender along the perimeter and surround him with capable playmakers and shooters. Fortunately, the 2014 NBA draft is laced with all three type of athletes and that’s why the Bucks must measure more than just star power moving forward.
If Milwaukee is looking to return to the postseason, it needs to continue building a defensive-minded squad to complement its stellar interior tandem.