Wednesday night will mark the midway point of the 2013-14 campaign for the Milwaukee Bucks when they host the Detroit Pistons; but, in many ways, it seems like they’ve already dealt with a full season’s worth of injuries, losses and turmoil.
Heading into this season, the Bucks appeared to have assembled a roster with a fair balance of experience and youth – one that could compete for a playoff spot and develop for the future at the same time.
This isn’t to say that they were primed for a deep postseason run, but perhaps the Bucks had enough talent to build off their 38 wins and eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13.
The injury bug, however, bit the Bucks early and often.
Carlos Delfino began the season on the inactive list, underwent foot surgery in December and has yet to play a game since he returned to the Bucks as a free agent in July. Furthermore, Larry Sanders missed 25 games after injuring his thumb in a much publicized nightclub incident, Zaza Pachulia has been out since Dec. 6 with a foot fracture and Caron Butler has missed a total of 12 games due to various ailments.
By the time Sanders returned to the lineup on Dec. 27, the landscape had changed significantly for the Bucks as they had endured an 11-game losing streak and compiled a league-worst record of 6-21.
A week earlier, on Dec. 19 to be exact, rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo was given his first career start, ostensibly because O.J. Mayo was absent for personal reasons. The move, though, became permanent and gave the impression that the Bucks were signaling a change of plans for the remainder of the season.
As I documented recently, general manager John Hammond actually went on record saying that, after an unexpectedly poor start, his priority now is to develop the team’s young core of players.
Since Hammond made those remarks, the veterans – Mayo Butler, and Gary Neal – have expressed frustration over their reduced roles and the evident change in direction that has shifted the focus away from winning. The overall sentiment of these three players, each in their first season with the team, is that this isn’t what they signed up for. Butler said as much when he spoke up about his role in an interview last week.
Mayo then joined the conversation after a loss to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 18, saying that he was frustrated by the team’s lack of identity and game plan. For a veteran playing on a team with a record of 7-33 and losers of nine straight games, that reaction is not surprising.
What is somewhat surprising is that Brandon Knight, just 22 years old and considered as the Bucks’ point guard of the future, publicly agreed with Mayo.
Both Knight and Mayo — who want the team to establish a consistent and recognizable brand of basketball, along with consistent playing time and substitution patterns — are looking squarely at coach Larry Drew to turn things around.
At this point, however, it’s difficult to believe that a win, or even a few wins, could turn the season around for the Bucks. Of course they would like to win more, and maybe that’s what they mean by establishing an identity, but the tone for the season has already been set. The general manager has already said he’s thinking about the future. The coach is likely on board.
Now the players, all tired of losing, are demanding changes to salvage the season.
Perhaps the Bucks have found an identity without even realizing it – that even if the losing can’t be stopped, at least it won’t be tolerated.