Though the Milwaukee Bucks’ season ended Thursday night with a 120-66 beatdown to the Chicago Bulls, they began a successful rebuild quicker than anyone imagined this season.
In 2013-14, the Bucks had the worst record in the league, finishing 15-67. In one year, the Bucks became the sixth seed in the East, winning a respectable 41 games despite low expectations.
The Bucks have essentially established a core of young, long, versatile, gifted defensive players that they hope to mould and build around in the coming years. While they’re still a long way from being championship contenders, their early growth makes them one of the most interesting teams in the NBA.
The face of that core is “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 20-year-old forward with the skillset of a guard, but the height (6’11”) and length (7’3″ wingspan) of a center.
Giannis is still raw, but he’s athletically gifted and is learning to use his physical traits quicker than anyone expected. In just two years he’s already flashed talents that few other players in the league possess:
Antetokounmpo is the most exciting building block for Milwaukee, simply because his potential is so rare and unknown, but the Bucks have put similarly young, talented, and long players next to him.
Khris Middleton, a 6’8″ wing with a 6’11” wingspan, will be one of the most coveted free agents this summer. Middleton had a breakout seasons in which he became a reliable scorer, an excellent shooter, and one of the best defenders in the league. Middleton finished in the top 10 in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and Real Defensive Plus-Minus advanced stats, which takes a team’s net differential with a player on the court and weighs it against that of his teammates to get a better picture of a player’s impact on the court.
Many people feel the Bucks will match any offer Middleton gets from other teams this summer.
The Bucks also saw strides from John Henson, 6’10” center with a 7’5″ wingspan who emerged after Larry Sanders decided to stop playing basketball.
Milwaukee is also waiting on the return of Jabari Parker, the No. 2 draft pick in 2014, who most people predicted to win rookie of the year. Parker tore his ACL in December after averaging 12 points and nearly six rebounds per game. Parker is also a long, versatile wing who people were comparing to Carmelo Anthony before the 2014 Draft.
The final piece is Michael Carter-Williams, the point guard the Bucks surprisingly traded for at the NBA trade deadline. Carter-Williams has put up lofty stats in his two years in the NBA, though most of those numbers came with the Philadelphia 76ers. He, too, is still raw. But at 6’6″ he fits the mould of what the Bucks are trying to build, and the belief is the coaching staff thinks they can fix his biggest weakness: shooting.
The result of all of this length is that Milwaukee is already a realised defensive juggernaut. The Bucks finished the season second in defensive rating and first in opponent turnovers per game. The four-player combination of Giannis, Middleton, Carter-Williams, and Henson hasn’t played much, but they all have the individual tools to be good defenders. Head coach Jason Kidd seems to envision a long, tall team that can switch defensive assignments at any moment because of their size advantage, and theoretically cause chaos to opposing offenses.
The difficult part is that this young core has to develop offensively. After trading Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams, the Bucks’ already iffy offence fell off a cliff. After the All-Star break, the Bucks were 26th in offensive rating. For all of the flashes these young players have shown, they each have trouble creating their own shots, and none of them can be considered go-to options on offence. Parker could help with this if he reaches his potential as a scorer, but he, too, will need time to develop after missing most of his rookie year.
While offence comes easier for most young players and teams, the Bucks have flipped that trend. They’re already elite defensively (with the help of some important veterans on the team), but now they have to develop offensively.
If all the players in the Bucks young core can realise their potential, the surrounding pieces become that much easier to plug in. With a core of five long, versatile players, the front office can essentially look for role players to put around them.
It’s a rebuilding situation unlike almost any other in the league, and it makes Milwaukee an interesting team to monitor.
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