The Milwaukee Bucks limped into the playoffs last season because of a weak Eastern Conference, where they were summarily escorted out by the eventual champion Heat. With a young roster, it appeared the Bucks may be on the rise, but the departure of last year’s starting backcourt of Brandon Jennings (via trade) and Monta Ellis (free agency) has the team looking quite different now. With new coach Larry Drew taking over and a host of new faces coming in, it will be difficult for Milwaukee to improve in a division that already includes Eastern powerhouses Indiana and Chicago, not to mention improved outlooks for Cleveland and Detroit.
The Bucks move here will be critical as they have two very different candidates for the point guard spot.
Brandon Knight, the primary player acquired in exchange for Jennings is a talented young guard who some doubt has the make-up to run the point full-time. That said, he’s no more of a shoot first player than his predecessor was, and as I profiled in a breakdown of the trade, he may have more upside going down the road than Jennings. Still, Knight is young and has a ways to go before he’ll be able to have the same impact on a game Jennings did.
The alternative is veteran Luke Ridnour, a natural point guard who lacks Knight’s athletic skills. Whether starting or coming off the bench, Ridnour will certainly be a breath of fresh air for a Milwaukee rotation that has was sorely lacking in playmaking ability with Jennings and Ellis running the show.
Ish Smith, a young player who has bounced around a bit is an option as well, but with Knight, Ridnour, and newcomer Gary Neal all able to handle the point guard role, Smith may will be the odd man out unless injuries hit.
O.J. Mayo may not come with the scoring pedigree of his predecessor at the two-guard, Monta Ellis, but he’s a far more complete player. Mayo will give Milwaukee a versatile two-guard who can defend and distribute. He may be a bit inconsistent in his own right, but expect an upgrade in overall play this year. The concern lay in that the Bucks will be counting on Mayo as a primary offensive option, a role where he produced mixed results for Dallas. If Milwaukee wants to stay in the playoff hunt, Mayo will have to produce and produce big, with leading scorers Ellis and Jennings both departed.
The Bucks added a versatile piece in Gary Neal who can play either guard spot and hit from the outside. Neal, like Mayo, is a bit inconsistent, but his time spent in San Antonio has served his all-around game well and he’ll aid in providing a far more flexible backcourt unit than the team featured last season.
First round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo (from Greece) is an intriguing talent. At 6’9, he has plenty of size to play the wings, but also has the ball handling ability to potentially run the offense. His athletic ability and natural basketball skills are hard to find, but Antetokounmpo is still very young and may require quite a bit of seasoning before he’s able to make a definitive impact at the NBA level.
Ersan Ilyasova gives the Bucks a quietly versatile presence at both forward positions. Now locked into the staring small forward position, he will be depended upon for consistent point production to help off-set the loss of a high scoring backcourt. Ilyasova should be up to the task with a solid repertoire of skills. His ball handling may not be what the team would like from its starting wing, but look for Milwaukee to lean on him, especially early on as the new faces get accustomed to their surroundings.
Former Buck Carlos Delfino has returned to supply bench support on the wings after a solid season in Houston. Delfino isn’t flashy, but he gives the Bucks a good long range shooter who has a lot of second unit experience.
Khris Middleton, acquired in the Brandon Jennings trade, has some upside at the three position, but he’ll probably only get meaningful playing time if the team decides to keep shifting Ilyasova over to the power forward for long stretches.
In limited minutes as a rookie, John Henson impressed the current staff enough that he may well enter the season as the starting power forward. Pairing with Larry Sanders at the power positions would give Milwaukee a power unit that’s difficult to match physically. Henson has the tools be an elite defender at the four and while his offensive game is still a work in progress, with good coaching he could quickly become a well rounded starter for years to come.
Henson’s perspective backup, Ekpe Udoh, has a similar skill set. Athletic, with solid defensive ability and a strong work ethic, Uhoh’s struggles lay on the offensive end where he hasn’t been able to be as consistent as a four needs to be to get heavy minutes.
In Larry Sanders, Milwaukee has one the best defensive centers in the Eastern Conference. He may not provide a lot of flash on the offensive end, but what he gives is more than good enough considering that he’s a true impact player on the other end of the court. His progression in almost every facet of his game has been impressive and few would be surprised if Sanders had a breakout season in 2013/14.
Zaza Pachuila, a veteran signed from coach Larry Drew’s former team, Atlanta, is a consummate second unit center. It doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but he provides toughness and a defensive presence that will continue to earn him heavy minutes in his new home.
Miroslav Raduljica and Viacheslav Kravtsov are big-bodied imports that will compete for the limited minutes behind a deep power unit.
Milwaukee lacks star power, much less a go-to player at the top of its roster. The Bucks have some talented young players in Sanders, Knight, and Henson and some very good role players, but they lack the firepower to compete in a division that could be the deepest in the East this season. Look for the Bucks to take a step back in 2013/14 while the new additions and young players grow together.