We are not too far removed from the Milwaukee Bucks being one of the hottest commodities in basketball for the first time in over a decade. In the constant search for something fresh and unique, the Bucks were an obvious attractant for the hoops junkie. A 26-win turnaround and competitive playoff series with rival Chicago completed the perfect storm, and Milwaukee was again on the basketball map. Fans of the Association gravitated towards a literal “freak” unlike anything the game has ever seen, a highly-touted college superstar at Duke, analytics god Khris Middleton, and a head coach still better known for his days as a top player of the generation prior. Many, however, failed to properly recognize the true driving forces behind the scenes that could only explain this borderline-miraculous transformation. You don’t find 26 more wins overnight. Enough young talent was accumulated on the roster to compete on a nightly basis, but to materialize such an improvement, direction was necessary. Scilicet, a complete identity overhaul was vital to rejuvenating “Fear the Deer.” The ’14-’15 Bucks can be added to the laundry list of examples proving the best route to success is an impeccable blend of youth and experience. Said experience is, in large part, what injected a defensive identity, a winning culture into an annually middling small market franchise. Two players, Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia, can be specifically pinpointed as the most responsible. Dudley, the talker, the corner-pocket three marksman, very much acted as an extension of the coaching staff, being the undisputed vocal leader and communicating Jason Kidd’s defensive principles. Pachulia, the bruiser, the imposing Eastern European presence, embodied the idea of actions speaking louder than words, providing an excellent example of how the game of basketball should be played. The fingerprints of these two wily veterans were all over this team. They were the glue of the NBA’s #2 defense (99.3), the calling card of the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference. With a defense predicated on length, blitzing ball screens, and rotations and switching almost like clockwork, the likes of Dudley and Pachulia were ideal to fill in the gaps.
So what happened? 2015-16 saw a regression many felt was unforeseen due to justified through-the-roof optimism in the offseason. Yet, seemingly every transaction during the 2015 offseason proved to be counterproductive to the strides made just months prior. Dudley and Pachulia were gone, dealt for essentially nothing. A 2017 first rounder and the pick to be used on Norman Powell were shipped in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, a miserable failure to put it lightly. And of course the big splash. Milwaukee had established itself as a destination. They outdueled New York and Los Angeles for a name free agent, an unprecedented development. The Greg Monroe signing was the final domino to fall, and the Milwaukee Bucks bandwagon was standing room only. The theme of these moves, all in all, was opting for more scoring, the next natural step in the team’s progression. Not taken into account, however, was the defense expended with the acquisition of scoring. Defensive efficiency ballooned to 105.7 in ’15-‘16, good for 22nd in the NBA, while scoring continued to lag behind. Monroe became a clear non-fit just about three games into the season. The ability to switch wasn’t as rampant. Rotations were slow. Pace was down. Monroe’s back-to-the-basket ability did not outweigh his slow-as-molasses lateral movement on D and vertical just high enough to slide a piece of Dunder Mifflin cardstock underneath his shoes. The personnel changes, overall, prevented Milwaukee from successfully duplicating the previous season’s defensive scheme, forcing Monroe to spend more and more time on the bench, rendering his presumed added scoring punch on the other end of the floor mute. This decline begs the question to be asked: Were the Bucks too quick to pull the trigger? Was the overachievement of ’14-’15 actually a setback? When a small market franchise is presented with a golden opportunity to make a statement in free agency, it should undoubtedly be pursued, so I fully condone the premise of the Monroe signing. Sometimes it’s okay to count losses, admit mistakes, and move on, which I hope is our final chapter in the cautionary tale of Greg Monroe.
For the Milwaukee Bucks, nevertheless, “moving on” should mean hearkening back to what once worked. As one of the NBA’s smallest markets, flashiness in free agency is not a plausible route to sustained success. A gritty, defensive-minded, winning culture was lost with the departures of Dudley and Pachulia, and the effects were far more drastic than I had anticipated. Re-establishing defense as the organization’s cornerstone must be the only approach to the 2016 offseason. With Antetokounmpo and Parker max contracts likely in the very near future and a Monroe trade potentially handcuffing Milwaukee with another bad contract in exchange (or just Monroe himself), cheap options on the market will be prioritized. A few impending free agents fit the bill and would allow the Bucks to defend the way they want to, replicating what Dudley and Pachulia provided and then some. Let’s take a look.
In the 2016 free agent class, Ian Mahinmi is just about the closest thing to a Zaza Pachulia clone as the real thing. Mahinmi, 29, did have, by far, the best season of his career in a contract year, and that may raise a red flag. However, ’15-’16 was his first real opportunity to strut his stuff, starting all 71 of the games he appeared in for a playoff team that took the Toronto Raptors to the brink. Mahinmi’s interior defense was a huge reason why Indiana was just minutes shy of pulling off the first round upset, and was instrumental in a Game 4 blowout victory with a 22 point, 10 rebound, 5 assist performance. Mahinmi as a defensive stalwart is not a new development. A 3.6% block rate places Mahinmi at about the 85th percentile, and a 2.8 defensive +/- at approximately the 95th percentile, so this is no secret. As a very viable rim protector, Mahinmi can bring an improved offensive game and physicality to the table. His style mirrors that of Pachulia, and he’d likely even be able to provide greater production, making the pursuit of this unrestricted free agent a no-brainer.
Clark has been a favorite of mine since his college days. A 4-year starter, pure scorer, and standout defensive player for Belmont, one of the best mid-major programs in college basketball, Clark burst onto the scene as the 2013 NBA Summer League MVP with some dazzling performances, including 33 points in the championship game. It must say something about his ability that he was able to find a role on the best team in NBA history this season, albeit relatively tame. Clark, a 6-3 combo guard, showcased glimpses of his scoring knack throughout the season, specifically in Golden State’s first round series with Houston when thrust into action. He would be able to offer some spacing and creative ways to score to a Bucks team thirsting for some shooting, but it’s what Clark provides on the defensive end that makes him even more of a sensible free agent target. The 2013 Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year has provided endless energy off the bench for Golden State, annoyingly pressuring ballhandlers and using quick hands and outstanding anticipation defensively to his advantage. We can see evidence of this here, stripping James Harden leading to a layup on the other end.
Clark, of course, would see an increased role in a Bucks uniform, a selling point that probably a handful of suitors will have as he is likely to be a sneakily sought-after commodity. As a restricted free agent, Golden State, who is currently paying him less than $1 million, would have the opportunity to match any offer. Yet, Clark makes too much sense, and could see a rise similar to that of Cory Joseph in terms of moving from a limited role on a perennial contender to a greater role leading to greater production. He would have the potential to be a sparkplug scorer and pesky backcourt defender off the bench as a Buck.
Speaking of pesky, that may in fact be Matthew Dellavedova’s middle name, and I have about 29 NBA point guards that agree with me. Dellavedova plays with the exact edge and tenacity that the Bucks were lacking. Not only would his play style fill a void, but Milwaukee would also be able to offer a more solidified role as a third guard or perhaps even a starter. Like Clark, Delly is restricted, but obtaining the ideal man for regaining the culture would be worth outbidding the Cavs, which I’m sure wouldn’t be terribly difficult given their cap situation. Dellavedova’s defense is well-renowned, introducing himself to the world with shutdown performances on the MVP in Games 2 and 3 of last year’s NBA Finals. In addition, Delly would give Milwaukee a threat from deep, and the Bucks now know too well the perils of having a non-shooter at point guard. Free from the presence of LeBron, Delly, still only 25, would be able to show his true colors as a voice on the floor, another critical missing piece for Milwaukee. When he’s on the other side, he is easily one of the most hateable players in basketball. But when he’s banking in wrong-foot floaters and diving on loose balls up by 25 for you, you cannot help but love the man.