Just a year ago, Milwaukee looked like the NBA's Siberia: a cold, depressing place with an old arena, a bad team and a bad cap situation. Not anymore. After a 46-win season, a near-upset in the first round of the playoffs and an influx of talent in the offseason, the Bucks appear to be a rising force in the East.
Twelve months ago, Milwaukee was coming off a 34-win campaign, and had jettisoned Charlie Villanueva, Richard Jefferson and Ramon Sessions. A turnaround seemed even more improbable because Michael Redd, although technically on the roster, was battling back from knee problems; ultimately, he'd play only 18 games. With that, the top four scorers from the previous season were gone.
Yet the Bucks persevered thanks to a variety of factors: clever signings, breakout seasons from Luke Ridnour and Andrew Bogut, a strong rookie campaign from Brandon Jennings, and a midseason deal for John Salmons. But most of all, there was a ferocious defensive effort throughout. The Bucks overachieved their way to the playoffs and, despite losing Bogut in early April to a gruesome elbow injury, nearly stunned the Hawks in the first round.
General manager John Hammond won executive of the year honors for his work, and two moves in particular deserve credit. The first was letting Villanueva walk and signing Ersan Ilyasova in his place. Ilyasova was at least as good as Villanueva and cost a third as much, holding together a tenuous frontcourt rotation.
Later in the season, Hammond grabbed Salmons in a salary dump by the Bulls. Salmons was perfect for the Bucks -- they desperately needed a one-on-one scorer at the end of the shot clock, and he fit the bill, averaging 19.8 points a game in March and April. The Bucks also moved up in the draft as a result of that trade and relinquished nothing of consequence to Chicago.
Any discussion of Milwaukee's improvement has to start with the defense. Milwaukee won thanks mainly to a gritty defensive style that was a near-perfect embodiment of coach Scott Skiles; in fact, his teams in Chicago won in a very similar fashion. The worry is that his motivational methods ran out of steam in Chicago after his third season -- he's entering his third year in Milwaukee.
Fewest Shots* Per 100 Opp. Possessions
Team Opp. shots*/100 poss.
*shots = FGA + (FTA * 0.44)
The Bucks were physical, tough and often reckless. They finished second in the league in drawing offensive fouls and third in defensive rebound rate; however, the drawback was all the fouls. Milwaukee opponents averaged .348 free throw attempts per field goal attempt; only Utah fared worse in that category.
However, the Bucks did one thing better than any other team in basketball: prevent shot attempts. Milwaukee opponents averaged only 94.05 shots per 100 possessions, with "shots" here including prorated free throw attempts. So even though the Bucks didn't force particularly low shooting percentages -- they defended the 3-point line very well but offset it with the myriad opponent trips to the foul line -- they finished the season tied for third in defensive efficiency because opponents took so few shots.
Milwaukee's aggressive defense made up for a pretty lackluster offense. Despite Bogut's breakout season and Ridnour's utterly unexpected shooting accuracy, Milwaukee ranked only 23rd in offensive efficiency. The playoff series against Atlanta showcased the Bucks' lack of shot-creators and shooters; they scored 69 and 74 points in losing Games 6 and 7, respectively.
That the Bucks were even that good owes, again, to their volume strategy. Milwaukee was nearly as good at rebounding and avoiding turnovers on offense as it was at forcing turnovers and grabbing boards on defense. As a result, the Bucks rated fourth in shots per 100 possessions.
Worst Shooting, 2009-10
Team 2-Pt FG% Overall
New Jersey 45.4 42.9
Milwaukee 46.4 43.6
Washington 47.1 44.9
Minnesota 47.1 44.9
Chicago 47.4 45.1
What they did with those shots is another matter. The Bucks fell to 29th in both 2-point shooting percentage and overall shooting percentage; only the woebegone Nets were worse in those categories. Jennings, as helpful as he was overall, was the second-worst 2-point shooter in basketball at 37 percent. Since only Bogut took more 2-point shots, this had some negative consequences for the team shooting numbers.
However, it took more than just Jennings to drag Milwaukee down. Only two Bucks -- Bogut and Ridnour -- sunk more than half their 2-point shots, something that eight teams accomplished last season. The Celtics, who shot 52.2 percent as a team on 2-pointers, outranked every single Buck.
But wait, it gets worse. The inaccurate 2-point shooting was aggravated by the team's near-total inability to draw fouls. The Bucks earned only .239 free throw attempts per field goal attempt, placing them dead last among the league's 30 teams. This, again, pointed to the club's lack of a true one-on-one scorer, which is why adding Salmons at the end of last season was so helpful despite his flaws.
Worst Free Throw Disparity, '09-10
Team FTA Opp. FTA Diff.
Milwaukee 1,675 2,211 -536
Indiana 2,019 2,346 -327
Golden St. 2,085 2,390 -305
Washington 1,895 2,088 -193
Sacramento 1,969 2,149 -180
New Orleans 1,661 1,841 -180
Combined with their hack-prone defensive ways, the Bucks' inability to get to the stripe produced a staggering free throw disparity. Milwaukee took 536 fewer free throws than its opponents did, or nearly seven a game, and that's a tough disadvantage to overcome night after night. The Bucks often made up the deficit through sheer scrappiness, but last season was about the ceiling. As reflected in the chart, all the other teams with negative free throw differentials fared quite poorly.
Skiles, amazingly, didn't win coach of the year honors, despite winning about 20 games more than anybody expected. His squad overachieved as much as any in recent memory, setting the stage for Milwaukee to rebuild more quickly than anyone could have foreseen a year ago.
It was another busy summer for Milwaukee, which went about shoring up the lack of scoring that plagued it last season. The Bucks' other big offseason concern was Bogut's recovery from a dislocated elbow -- he still wasn't at full strength by late summer.
Let Luke Ridnour go, signed Keyon Dooling for two years, $4.1 million. Milwaukee made the right move in letting Ridnour walk, as he was coming off a Fluke Rule season and would have required a long-term commitment to keep as an expensive backup to Jennings. Dooling isn't risk free -- he has had some injury issues the past two years and isn't great at running an offense -- but he defends and will make enough shots to keep opposing defenses honest.
Traded Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric to Golden State for Corey Maggette and No. 44 pick; sold pick to New York. This was one of my favorite moves of the summer, adding precisely what the Bucks need -- a proven, high-efficiency scorer who gets to the line -- in return for two dead-weight contracts. Maggette will miss 20 games with injuries and doesn't defend or pass much, but he's such a devastating scorer that he's still tremendously valuable. Financially, the deal saves the Bucks some money in 2010-11, and while Maggette is well compensated (owed $31 million over the next three years), Milwaukee has such a strong cap position right now that the Bucks can easily swallow it.
Drafted Larry Sanders, Darington Hobson and Keith Gallon. Sanders was a good grab in the middle of the first round as a running center who can provide some athleticism for the second unit. Basically, he should give the Bucks a less spastic version of Gadzuric and has some upside going forward. Hobson and Gallon were good value picks in the second round; Gallon is unlikely to play much while he tries to get in shape, but Hobson should see some action and could crack the rotation.
Signed Drew Gooden to a five-year, $34 million deal. A lot of folks didn't like this deal, and I understand why. Historically, full midlevel deals for second-tier players have worked out horribly. I think this one might be an exception. Gooden played very well the past two seasons and has filled out enough that he can steal minutes at center. He's been good enough, in fact, that even if he declines in the coming years, he'll justify most of his contract. In a free-agent market that quickly grew overheated, this might turn out to be one of the more reasonable contracts.
Re-signed John Salmons to a five-year, $40 million deal. The last year isn't fully guaranteed, but this is still a bad contract. The difference is the Bucks didn't have much choice. Once a team is over the cap, it has incredible incentive to overpay its free agents, because it has no means of replacing them. With Salmons, the Bucks' only realistic alternative was a sign-and-trade for a cap exception, and I'm not sure the exception would have been big enough for them to do anything notable. Salmons played great this past spring, but he turns 31 in December and never was all that good to begin with. One suspects the third and fourth years of this deal might get ugly.
Traded 2012 second-round pick to New Jersey for Chris Douglas-Roberts. Again, the Bucks sought out scoring over the summer and got it with Douglas-Roberts, whose skills as a one-on-one creator should prove particularly helpful during the 20 games Maggette sits out with hamstring pulls and ankle sprains.
Acquired Jon Brockman in a sign-and-trade for Darnell Jackson and a second-round pick. Brockman received three guaranteed years at $1 million apiece from the Bucks, locking up the league's top offensive rebounder (as measured by offensive rebound rate) from last season at a bargain price. Considering the deal cost the Bucks virtually nothing, this was a steal. He'll probably battle Sanders for the fourth big man role after Bogut, Gooden and Ilyasova.
Let Royal Ivey go, signed Earl Boykins for one year, veteran's minimum. Boykins is an insurance proposition as the team's third point guard.
Biggest Strength: The Bench
With so many additions this offseason, the Bucks legitimately go 12 deep. If Hobson makes an impact, you can make it 13, meaning the Bucks will have some serious competition just to don a uniform if everyone stays healthy. I have Milwaukee's bench rated fourth in the league in my preseason rankings, and that was with Maggette as a starter; if he comes off the pine, Milwaukee will have the best second unit in basketball.
It could get better, as backup point guard looms as the one weakness -- Dooling was an inexpensive pickup but is a question mark for this season, while Boykins also represents a liability. If Dooling struggles, we might see the Bucks use a big backcourt when Jennings checks out, sharing the ballhandling among Salmons, Delfino and Hobson. The good news is that backup point guard is the easiest position to fill in-season.
Otherwise, few teams have more options off the pine. The Bucks have an ace defender (Mbah a Moute), a spectacular rebounder (Brockman), a frontcourt greyhound (Sanders) and a long-range shooter (Ilyasova). Douglas-Roberts can provide scoring on the wings, Hobson another ballhandler and Delfino -- if he isn't starting -- the glue at both ends. If it's Maggette who comes off the bench, the Bucks also might have the league's sixth-man winner.
Finally, they have the perfect coach to take advantage of this strength. Few coaches like to go deep into the bench as early or as often as Skiles does, so he'll make use of his entire complement of players.
Biggest Weakness: Long-Range Shooting
The Bucks worked diligently in the offseason to address the lack of one-on-one scoring and the pitifully few free throw attempts that plagued their offense in 2009-10. Maggette's addition alone should bring them up to the league average in free throw attempts. Combining him with Salmons and Douglas-Roberts provides the Bucks with more shot-creating capability.
Now they face a different challenge: creating enough space for all their scorers to operate. Milwaukee has lots of players who can create shots, but opponents will be able to collapse against the likes of Bogut and Maggette unless somebody emerges to stretch opposing defenses.
The most likely suspect is Jennings, who notched a respectable 37.4 percent of his 3s last season and will need to continue doing so -- he's the one who will always be available for a kickout at the top of the key. Salmons (36.7 percent career) and Delfino (36.1 percent) are the next-best threats, giving Milwaukee a few average perimeter marksmen … and that's about it.
Maggete (32.1 percent career) and Douglas-Roberts (25.8 percent) aren't 3-point threats. Ilyasova likes to take 3s but made only 33.6 percent last season. Dooling had a good year shooting the ball last season but is at a modest 35.1 percent for his career. Mbah a Moute, Gooden, Bogut and Brockman don't shoot 3s at all.
As a result, Milwaukee is likely to shoot in the low 30s on 3s as a team. And without a 40 percent 3-point threat on the outside, teams will collapse and dare the likes of Jennings and Salmons to beat them from distance, making life much harder in the paint for Maggette and Bogut. The one player who could change that is Redd, but he's unlikely to be a participant this season.
Fear the deer. The Bucks won 46 games last season with numerous flaws, and they spent the offseason aggressively addressing most of those weaknesses. The only real decline will come at backup point guard, where the Dooling-Boykins combo is unlikely to approach Ridnour's career year.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for optimism. The Bucks have a pair of second-tier stars in Bogut and Maggette, and the hope that Jennings and even Salmons might join them in that category. Moreover, they are one of the deepest teams in basketball and should be able to match up in any way needed.
In projecting the Bucks' record, I had two big questions. The obvious one is health. Bogut's elbow is one concern, but the oft-injured Maggette's availability is another. Both players have enough of an injury history that I was conservative with minutes estimates for each; if they can stay healthy for 75 games, the Bucks will achieve beyond what I've written here.
The other confounding prospect is the defense. It's a credit to Skiles that the Bucks played so hard last season and finished third in defensive efficiency, but it also begs the question of whether they're doomed to regress. Most of the new players aren't accomplished defenders, most notably Maggette, so this is another source of potential slippage.
Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine this team missing out on the playoffs. If the D holds up, the Bucks should be in the mix for one of the top seeds in the East. If so, Milwaukee will continue a remarkable and unexpected shift to prominence from what seemed a hopeless situation two seasons ago.
Prediction: 49-33, 1st in Central Division, 4th in Eastern Conference