A talented core of players and a front office willing to endure some bumps have made this letdown season easier to digest
POSTED: Jan 5, 2016 10:41 AM ET
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton remain crucial to Milwaukee's success.
The Milwaukee Bucks look nothing like a playoff team today. Their defense has relaxed, their record (14-22) is trending in the wrong direction and they stand 5 1/2 games out of the No. 8 seed in the improved Eastern Conference.
And yet theirs is an altogether enviable position.
Look at the roster: Jabari Parker is 20, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one year his elder, and both look like eventual franchise stars any rival would covet. Their senior starter is Greg Monroe, the 25-year-old center who spurned the larger-market New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers to sign here last summer.
"They have some very good, young, talented players here," said Monroe, who is good, young and talented himself. "I definitely would like to help them grow as much as possible."
Antetokounmpo Dominates Warriors
Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes the youngest Buck to notch a triple-double, scoring 11 points with 12 boards, and ten assists to stop Golden State's historic winning streak.
After making the 2015 playoffs and taking the more experienced Chicago Bulls to six games -- a team they face tonight on NBA TV (8 ET) -- there has been little drama during this relatively frustrating season in Milwaukee. Overall, there's no hint that changes need to be made or that jobs in jeopardy.
The reason that wisdom is prevailing is because the Bucks are not tanking. They already have a deep hierarchy that starts with two A-list talents amid several other high-upside players, along with a young coach in Jason Kidd who proved last year that he knows how to inspire them.
Now the job is to nurture their potential and develop the roster with patience, both of which will be Kidd's duty once he returns from the right hip surgery he underwent last month. Milwaukee should also benefit from the eventual recovery of backup point guard Greivis Vasquez -- their second-oldest player at 28 -- as he rehabs from recent ankle surgery.
Along the way the Bucks will continue to both impress and exasperate. The team that ended the Golden State Warriors' 24-0 start (and threatened to upset the Warriors again in Oakland six days later) will also continue to be the team that has suffered all but one of its losses in bunches of two or three games in a row.
"Everybody would like to make the playoffs, but we've got to work through the process, we can't skip any steps," Kidd was saying last month. "We've got to first make sure that we get better as a team and as individuals. So the carrot is to make the playoffs, but you're going to have your ups and downs, especially with a young team."
They're NBA champions now. But back in 2011-12, the Warriors were concluding an ugly four-season run in which they won 29, 26, 36 and 23 games, respectively. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry was there for three of them. He was 25 when he qualified for his first playoff game.
Another helpful example is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Going back to their days as the Seattle SuperSonics, they won 35, 31, 20 and 23 games from 2005-09. Yet that enabled them to Draft and develop talents like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
The Bucks haven't been in contention for a long time, and yet they haven't been consistently poor enough to benefit. In the last seven drafts they've had one top 9 pick (spent on Parker at No. 2 in 2014). Milwaukee's future is reassuring because GM John Hammond discovered Antetokounmpo in 2013 (No. 15 pick), traded for Khris Middleton (a 2012 second-rounder by Detroit) that same summer and picked John Henson (No. 14, 2012).
All-Access: Bucks Draft Parker In 2014
All-access look into the Bucks' war room as they select Jabari Parker as the number two pick in the Draft14.
A second lesson in perspective to be derived from the Warriors, Thunder and other young teams is that the Bucks are just need time to develop. Of course, the Bucks themselves want to hear nothing of this.
"A lot of times when I struggle, my teammates tell me, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to play so many years in this league,' " Antetokounmpo said. "But for me it is all about today. I think about today. I'm not thinking about tomorrow; I'm not thinking about the day before. I'm thinking about today and how can I do something today to help my team or to be better."
The pressing issue for Antetokounmpo and 24-year-old point guard Michael Carter-Williams -- the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year whom Milwaukee acquired last season from Philadelphia -- is to develop their shooting range. Antetokounmpo is attempting just 1.4 3-pointers (converting 26.1 percent) and Carter-Williams is down to 0.8 attempts (32 percent). "The Greek Freak" is averaging a career-best 15.3 points and he and Carter-Williams rank in the top 50 in drives to the basket.
"I don't think I can say it is my safer option," Antetokounmpo said of his driving. "I think it is my strength. Coach wants us to play to our strength, so that's what I try to do. I know sometimes I might be open but I don't feel it -- I don't feel like I'm going to make this jump shot, so I don't take it. Because if I don't feel like I'm going to make it, (that's when) I don't make it. So I just try to play through my strengths."
We've got to first make sure that we get better as a team and as individuals. So the carrot is to make the playoffs, but you're going to have your ups and downs, especially with a young team.
– Bucks coach Jason Kidd
"I've told them you're being judged on playing hard," Kidd said. "It's about rhythm shots. That's the one thing we'll talk about -- was that a rhythm shot? And if you can shoot rhythm shots -- make or miss -- those are the right shots to take."
It can be hard to convince young players to believe in themselves. Last summer, as Tom Heinsohn was entering the Hall of Fame for his work as coach of the Boston Celtics, he recalled forcing his rookie center Dave Cowens to look for his jumper. "I was eager to have him shoot the ball coming up on the break in the trailer spot," Heinsohn said. "That wasn't his best game at that point in his career. As a competitor he didn't want to shoot that shot because he was missing. He said, 'Tommy, I can't make that shot. I don't want to shoot it.' I said, 'Dave, don't worry about missing -- the more you take now, the sooner you're going to be making them.' "
The same dynamic may apply to Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams' shooting range.
"Sometimes as a young player, you don't know what that means," Kidd said of "rhythm" shooting. "That's just the process of understanding what the rhythm of a good shot is, and also feeling comfortable with yourself when it comes to shooting."
"If there's one thing on the offensive side that we definitely will continue to get better at, it's shooting," said Monroe, whose stats -- 15.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 52.3 percent shooting -- are in line with his numbers from his Detroit days.
"I think he has adjusted to that role of having to be the leader and being held accountable at a higher level than he was in Detroit," Henson, 25, said.
Monroe's presence has enabled the Bucks to develop a halfcourt structure where he's fed the ball in the post, waits for a double-team and then, finds shooters. To date, Monroe ranks 6th in total post-up possessions.
Monroe Delivers vs. Blazers
Greg Monroe records 16 points and 12 rebounds plus the game-winner as the Bucks come back to defeat the Blazers.
"He's getting double-teamed more than 50 percent of the time he catches the ball in the post, and Greg has been able to open up perimeter shots and driving lanes for other people," Hammond said. "It has changed us offensively for sure. But every team needs someone who can break down the defense either out of the post or off the dribble."
The Bucks celebrated a stunning 26-win improvement last season despite the absences of Parker and center Larry Sanders, who negotiated a buyout after playing 27 games. They were able to do more with less by relying on a long, hyperactive defense to create baskets.
While the defense has declined with the additions of Monroe and Parker, the Bucks' longterm outlook there remains strong.
Henson, the backup big man, is averaging a team-best 1.8 blocks in 16.1 minutes. The 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams has the length and athleticism to be a strong defender.
Henson Gets Two Swats
John Henson rejects Jahlil Okafor back to back.
"Giannis is a good shot-blocker today, and he's going to be a great shot-blocker," Hammond said. "He can be an excellent defensive rebounder with his overall length and his ability to stay in front of people."
The Bucks aren't finished filling out their roster, either. Another top 10 pick could be on the way in June. Five of their top six scorers in double-figures are 25 or younger, and it is not inconceivable that the continuing growth of Middleton and Carter-Williams transforms the team-minded Monroe into the Bucks' No. 4 or No. 5 player -- which would make them formidable.
"We can't look too far ahead," Middleton said. "We have to focus on doing our jobs right now. But I think definitely we will be one of the top teams in the league in a couple of years."
Can they balance their longterm promise with the need to succeed right now? The tension of these next two years will be fascinating.
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