Some endings make for great new beginnings (yes, even endings that finish with a 54-point loss at home). While last season saw the Bucks hit rock bottom for their franchise (or really, for any franchise), this season saw a record turnaround in the wins category, some unexpected postseason success, and a small glimpse into the future (at least while rookie Jabari Parker was healthy). The team that was heavy with the intangibles — potential, upside, chemistry, scrappiness — now has began to turn that into something tangible — wins. Not to get too heavy on the hyperbole, but this Bucks season may have been the most important non-championship season for any franchise in the history of the NBA.
The Milwaukee Bucks Intangibles Become Tangible (Pt. 1)
Since that fifteen win season, Milwaukee has made the following changes: sold the team to new owners, fired coach Larry Drew (in a semi-controversial fashion), hired coach Jason Kidd (in a more controversial fashion), added Parker with the second pick in the draft, saw Giannis Antetokounmpo show flashes of becoming a superstar, traded away their leading scorer (Brandon Knight), made the playoffs, won a couple playoff games, unveiled a new logo (with an unveiling of new uniforms coming soon), and drew up plans for a new arena which includes an entire “entertainment district” in downtown Milwaukee. If Milwaukee does get a new arena and the Bucks stay long-term, it would be fair to look at this season as being the catalyst that saved the franchise. The asterisk here, however, is that the new arena is far from a done-deal.
It is pretty interesting to note how the Bucks made their historic turnaround. They did it with basically the same roster as their fifteen-win squad, albeit a more healthy one. Amazingly, the weakness of the ‘13-14 Bucks was turned into a strength of the ‘14-15 version – although labeling an area as a “weakness” during the ‘13-14 season might be unfair because it would suggest there were areas that could be called “strengths.” During the ‘13-14 season, Milwaukee had an astounding fourteen players start more than ten games during the regular season. This was mainly due to injuries and players’ general ineffectiveness. Spreading around the minutes during that ill-fated season, however, proved to be a foundation for which team depth was built. In ‘14-15, the number of players who logged double-digits in Games Started deflated (a bit) to twelve – but that number is skewed due to the blockbuster Brandon Knight trade that saw an uncommon amount of in-season roster turnover, as well as factoring in the dismissal of starting center Larry Sanders. Thus, the ‘13-14 roster provided no answers for Larry Drew from a production and health standpoint – and Drew was forced to play guys out of position, and play them more minutes than they’re play warranted. By the time Kidd took over, the Bucks had gotten used to playing multiple positions and worked out the kinks, and Kidd used that lineup versatility to his advantage; now virtually every player on the roster plays two or three positions.
As much credit as Head Coach Jason Kidd deserves for the Bucks’ turn of fortunes, the health of the roster and valuable upgrades may be at least just as responsible. For example, in ‘13-14, Nate Wolters started thirty-one games at point guard – the second-most starts by a guard on the team, behind only Knight. In ‘14-15, the Bucks brought in Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall (who was later injured, then traded), and could not even find a roster spot for Wolters, as they released him after eleven games. This is indicative of how much more talented (and healthy) this year’s team was, and should be going forward.
Comparing the ‘13-14 Milwaukee Bucks to this season’s performance almost seems unfair. Consider this: This year’s squad not only made the playoffs, but won back-to-back games during the postseason, last year’s team did not win back-to-back games the entire 82-game regular season (while this year the Bucks won two or more consecutive games eleven times, including a span where they won nine of ten).
As far as defensive rating, which measures the average number of points given up per 100 possessions, last year’s Bucks were last in the league at 111.8. This year that number improved to 102.2, good enough for the fourth-best mark in the NBA. Conversely, and perhaps more shockingly, the Bucks offensive rating rated 26th-best both years, actually going down this year to 102.7 from 103 the year prior. Given that data, it is clear that the Bucks turnaround was based primarily on their defensive improvement, and that they will continue to improve should their offense get better.
Of course, there is still a chance the team does not get that shiny new arena and the owners are forced to sell the team back to the NBA (which would most likely be the precursor to the team’s move to Seattle). However, the chance of that happening is far less likely given the Bucks’ newfound optimism. Simply put, there should be some envious eyes around the league focused on Milwaukee going forward, which is pretty amazing since it was only a year ago that those envious eyes were replaced with rolling laughter.
Part 2 Coming Soon