The Milwaukee Bucks will enter the “second half” of the season after the All-Star break Friday night with a 32-25 record, sitting 6th in the East with 25 games left to play. Given expectations before the season, only being 1 game out of the 4 seed and being on pace for 46 wins, an improvement from 42 last year, might lead someone to believe that the Bucks have been playing pretty good basketball. However, this team has had to make a plethora of adjustments in season because of trades, injuries, and a coaching controversy that lingered over the franchise for much of the season. As a result, the Bucks are probably lucky to have the record that they have, as they have not played up to the talent they possess, which is shown by their efficiency differential (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions).
Per cleaningtheglass.com (where all efficiency, lineup, on/off, and specific offense/defense stats in this article are from; Ben Falk does a great job on his site, go subscribe!), the Bucks have an efficiency differential of -.3 points/100 possessions, implying they have only played like a team that would have a 28-29 record, which would be on pace for 40 wins and most likely missing the playoffs. While this is cause for concern if the Bucks continue to play the way they have, it can also be promising if they start playing up to their potential and finish the season with more wins than they should have otherwise.
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the changes the Bucks have endured this season, starting with trades. The big trade the Bucks made took place on November 7th when they unloaded Greg Monroe’s expiring contract, their 2018 protected first round pick, and their 2018 protected second round pick to the Suns for Eric Bledsoe. While there have been some growing pains incorporating another high usage player into the lineup, returns have been mostly positive in the 46 games Bledsoe has played with the Bucks this year.
After a poor 4-6 start to the season accompanied by a -3.8 efficiency differential, the Bucks have a positive efficiency differential of +.4 since the trade, which still implies the Bucks have still overperformed, but it is an improvement when compared to the full season metric. The Bucks are also +12.3 points/100 possessions better when Bledsoe is on the court compared to when he is off the court, which ranks in the 96th percentile among all players. While his three-point shooting has been inconsistent, only hitting 32.3% of his threes with the Bucks, and he is turnover prone, ranking only in the 43rd percentile among point guards in turnover percentage, his impact in transition and on defense is evident.
Bledsoe’s on/off court numbers for points added in transition/100 possessions and opponent’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%, which adjusts a player’s FG% to account for the extra point threes are worth) rank in the 94th and 91st percentiles, respectively. There are some other circumstances that we will touch on later that may be influencing these numbers, but overall it looks like that despite his flaws Bledsoe has had a positive impact on the Bucks.
The other trade the Bucks made this year was acquiring Tyler Zeller from the Nets for Rashad Vaughn and a second-round pick. While it is never ideal giving up a draft asset for short term piece who will have a minimal effect on the team this season, the Bucks have needed extra size inside after trading Monroe, Thon Maker’s underwhelming season, and with John Henson battling an injured right hamstring. Given that second round picks can be bought fairly easily, the Bucks must have felt that parting with one was worth gaining some depth inside, putting less of a burden on the few other bigs on the roster.
Henson is just one minor example of the injuries that the Bucks have been plagued with all season. Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic, Malcolm Brogdon, and Bledsoe are all key pieces of Milwaukee’s rotation to have missed some time this year. While most of those have been minor injuries, a couple have been longer term.
Teletovic has only played 10 games this season after suffering a knee injury early in the season, and then was diagnosed with a pulmonary emboli in both lungs and has been out indefinitely ever since. The Bucks have missed his floor spacing around Giannis, as the team was +8.3 points/100 possessions better last year when the two were on the court. There has not been an update on Teletovic since his diagnosis in mid-December, so it does not appear likely that he will return any time soon.
The other significant injury suffered this season was a partially torn left quad to Brogdon on February 1, facing a 6-8 week recovery and putting a potential return around mid to late March. Without the reigning Rookie of the Year, the Bucks are short on backcourt depth as Brogdon has played a key role off the bench ever since Milwaukee acquired Bledsoe.
The main piece of the Buck’s core to miss time this year though is Jabari Parker, who made his season debut on February 2 after sitting out the team’s first 50 games after tearing his left ACL last season, the second ACL tear in that knee in his short NBA career. While Parker is still being incorporated into the lineup as he has only played an average of 17.7 minutes of the bench in six games this year, he has look good physically, being his aggressive self on offense and even attempting to posterize Kyle O’Quinn in his first game back.
Jabari was putting up career numbers before the injury last year, averaging 20.1 PPG and 6.2 RPG while shooting 49% from the field and 36.5% from three. Although Jabari’s net rating was -4.8 points/100 possessions last year, the Bucks never had a chance to have their entire core on the court together as Jabari tore his ACL on the same day that Khris Middleton made his return from an injury that had kept him out all season previously. With such a small sample size this season, no conclusions can be drawn from his play so far but how the Bucks fair with Parker and at least two of Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe all out on the court together will be something to watch going forward. Parker’s ability to stay healthy and produce on the court will have a big impact long term on the upside of this Bucks roster as currently constructed as well, especially if he can make strides to improve defensively where he has struggled thus far.
The Jason Kidd tenure in Milwaukee was a roller coaster ride from day one, as his failed attempt to gain basketball operation control in Brooklyn led to the Bucks trading two second round picks to make him their coach. Everything was looking good that first season as the Bucks finished a surprising 41-41 only one year after having a league worst 15-67 record. The big reason for that improvement was a result of the Bucks having the fourth best defense in the league that year, giving up only 102.2 points/100 possessions. This was spearheaded by Kidd’s new defensive scheme, featuring the Bucks using their length and athleticism to blitz pick and rolls, trapping whenever they could, and forcing as many turnovers as possible, finishing first in opponent turnover percentage that year.
In the following years teams quickly figured out Kidd’s scheme. The system requires players to essentially execute perfectly every possession, seeing as a rotation being even a half second late can lead to a wide open three or dunk. The Bucks did just that in the following three years as the NBA moved towards positionless basketball, putting better athletes on the court and emphasizing ball movement and floor spacing. After that first season the Bucks continued to force turnovers at a high rate, but they fell from fourth to 13th in opponent’s FG% at the rim in the following two seasons and from fifth to 26th and 15th in opponent’s 3pt% respectively. As a result, in 15-16 and 16-17 the Bucks’ opponent eFG% had fallen from ninth to 19th and 21st, and subsequently their fourth best defense plummeted to 23rd and 20th respectively.
Things reached its boiling point this season, as the Bucks ranked 25th in defense while giving up the most shots in the league at the rim and allowing the second best 3pt% in the league. There were many other questions involving Kidd’s coaching ability as well. His rotations did not make sense much of the time, as he played DeAndre Liggins 14.9 MPG in 30 games before he was waived. Liggins ranked in the third percentile (not good) among wings in eFG% and the Bucks’ efficiency differential was -16.2 points/100 possessions when Liggins was on the court compared to off it. Coaching decisions such as playing the starters heavy minutes, intentionally fouling when up four, and having Middleton intentionally miss a free throw when up three, among many others, led to the creation of #FireKidd among Bucks Twitter. Every game was overly scrutinized, and there was a (deservedly) negative cloud surrounding any conversation involving the Bucks as they were playing poorly and the #FireKidd movement grew.
After losing four of five games and sitting at just 23-22 and the 8 seed in the East, Bucks fans finally got their wish as Jason Kidd was fired on January 22. Joe Prunty has taken over as the interim coach, and has led the Bucks to a 9-3 record with the third best defense and sixth best efficiency differential over that stretch. Granted, the strength of schedule over that stretch was fairly weak (in their 9 wins their opponents are a combined 146-259 while their 3 losses are all to above .500 teams), it is promising that they are putting away bad teams, something they were not doing consistently under Kidd. Prunty is employing a slightly less aggressive defensive scheme, and while the numbers are surely inflated due to poor competition, the Bucks appear to be in better shape going forward without questions always surrounding Kidd.
While everything up to this point is important, the Bucks’ overall success ultimately lies with how far Giannis Antetokounmpo can carry them. The reason why it can be hard to interpret Bledsoe’s and other Bucks player’s numbers is because of how great Giannis’ impact is when he’s on the court. The 23-year-old two-time All-Star is averaging a career high 27.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game to go along with 4.8 assists per game, making a legitimate case behind James Harden to finish in the top 2 of the MVP race. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz noted in his article about the MVP race (where he ranks Giannis #2 overall), “Since 1965, only five players have compiled a 25-10-5 baseline, and every one of them — Westbrook, Barkley, Bird, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain — won the award.” While Giannis sports an eFG% of 55.6% that only ranks in the 53rd percentile among bigs, that number is largely driven by Giannis shooting 38% of his shots from the mid-range, where he is only shooting 36% from the field. However, he is still thriving at the rim, shooting 73% there.
Antetokounmpo’s impact can fully be seen when looking at how the Bucks perform when he is on the court compared to when he is off it. The Bucks are +14.7 points/100 possessions better when Giannis is on the court, ranking in the 97th percentile among all players. When Giannis is off the court the Bucks have an efficiency differential of -11.1, which would rank in the seventh percentile among all lineups that have played at least 100 possessions. Even when the other two of the Bucks’ “Big Three” in Bledsoe and Middleton are on the court, the Bucks still sport a -4.5 differential with Giannis off the court, which would rank in the 25th percentile. With Giannis it’s truly a “Big One” and then everyone else behind him. The Bucks will need to start playing better when he’s off the court for this team to take the next leap forward.
The Bucks will now look to continue their hot start under Prunty as they push for playoff positioning. The East playoff race is tight this year, with the Bucks being only 1 game back of Washington for the 4 seed and 1.5 games ahead of Miami for the 8 seed. There is a little cushion (4 games) between them and Detroit for the 9 seed, so if they play .500 basketball the rest of the way they should make the playoffs. The schedule gets harder in the upcoming days, with 7 of their next 8 games coming against teams above .500, and the ninth game is vs Detroit. If the Bucks can endure this stretch the rest of the season gets a bit easier, as they will push for the 4 seed to get home court advantage for the first time since 2001 when the original Big Three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn Robinson went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Getting out of the first round this year will be a good start to making it back to the conference finals and beyond.
Where the Bucks finish in the standing will also have an impact on their offseason. The first round pick the Bucks sent to Phoenix to acquire Bledsoe is protected 11-16 this season, so the Bucks will need to keep playing well to keep their pick. While this year’s draft is considered pretty weak outside the lottery, the Bucks won’t have any cap space going forward, making a young player on a cheap contract even more important.
The Bucks cap situation becomes even more interesting when considering that Jabari is a restricted free agent and will be looking for a long-term deal. After the summer of 2016 when so many big money, long-term contracts were signed that haven’t worked out (including the Bucks who gave significant money to Teletovic, Dellavedova, and Miles Plumlee), teams no longer have the cap space that was once so plentiful less than two years ago. With fewer teams with large amounts of cap space it’ll be interesting to see how the market for restricted free agency plays out, as players may be forced to resign to more team friendly deals or role the dice and bet on themselves by taking the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019.
After looking at this great graphic made by Frank Madden (@fmaddenNBA) the Bucks go into the offseason already over the salary cap and sit $15.4 million below the luxury tax. The Bucks will most likely want to avoid the tax, so they will have a tight window on how much they can offer Jabari barring a trade. Offloading one of their bad contracts would require them to attach an asset, so that seems unlikely. As Frank notes in that tweet, Teletovic’s $10.5 million contract will be entering its final season, so it may have some value as an expiring contract to be moved. Ultimately, I would guess that the Bucks pay Jabari what they feel is fair and what he is worth even if there are no other suitors given that he is such a high character individual. If he stays healthy and keeps progressing, somewhere around 4/$60 million seems like a realistic deal, fitting in right below the luxury tax, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to make some sort of move to gain some more breathing room.
The head coach of the Bucks going forward will also be a question this offseason, as GM Jon Horst did not commit to keeping Prunty as the head coach longer than the end of this season. While Prunty will most likely get an interview and be considered for the job, Milwaukee will surely open up its search to find the best option around the league. The position should be in high demand as the Bucks have one of the best young cores in the NBA led by Giannis who is on his way to becoming the best player in the league in the near future.
With so many questions still looming about the Bucks future, they still have a ways to go before they can make the jump to becoming a perennial title contender. As long as one of the future GOATs in Giannis is at the helm, however, this quote from THE GOAT says it all: “The ceiling is the roof.”