State of the Bucks: Season Finale
FINAL: State of the Bucks 2010-11
Another season is in the books for the Milwaukee Bucks, and to say it as plainly as possible, the results didn’t quite match the expectations entering the team’s 43rd season. For the Bucks, the bar had been set high last year with a 46-36 regular season record and a game-7 loss in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The way the team performed down the final stretch of the season, mainly without their dominant center Andrew Bogut, led many to assume that that level of play could be maintained another season. That is how assumptions and scenarios can come back to bite.
The injury bug struck the team from the start of training camp, as newly-acquired forward Chris-Douglas Roberts had eye surgery and missed the first 15 games of the season. It snowballed at that point, as the five players expected to make up the starting rotation missed a total of 125 games. Not a single player played all 82 games, and only two reserve players even came close. Starting point guard Brandon Jennings missed 19 games in the middle of the season for foot surgery, Bogut missed 17 total due to various ailments and guard Carlos Delfino and forward Drew Gooden combined to miss 80 games, almost an entire season between them. It wasn’t until the Bucks were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs that they made their first road trip with all 15 players in attendance.
During the run to the playoffs the previous year, fans noticed a connection within the roster, a renewed team chemistry that players spoke of often. There was much speculation in the offseason on the possibility of the team recreating that chemistry after a summer of transactions that changed much of the team’s landscape. The combination of high expectations, the new dynamic of player attitudes and the constant flux of injured players all contributed to a team that could never fully work together. It didn’t help that opponents no longer expected a push-over Bucks team.
Of course, even with the magnitude of injuries the Milwaukee Bucks suffered, that excuse only goes so far. A number of losses occurred solely on poor decision-making, lack of effort and motivation, fatigue, terrible shooting, and the occasional string of bad luck. Naturally, all of those things lead to criticism up and down the organization.
Too many people have played their own “what if” game in judging the team and how it arrived at its current status. More importantly is the “what now” game. There is not much to do about what has already been done. Heading into this offseason, Milwaukee has 2 players who are restricted free agents and 2 players that are unrestricted free agents. The Bucks have the right to match offers given to young players Chris Douglas-Roberts and Luc Mbah a Moute. Upcoming free agents Earl Boykins and Michael Redd are free to negotiate as they please. The most notable of these is Redd, who made $18.3 million in the final year of a contract signed in 2005. The hope is that the Bucks will be free to make some important long-term roster decisions with that extra salary space available.
We have taken the liberty of ranking the priorities of the Milwaukee Bucks’ upcoming offseason, some of which they have little control over at this point:
1) Hope that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement can be reached: The NFL and MLB also have CBAs that expire in the 2011 calendar year, but most believe the NBA to have the highest risk of losing their next season. NBA Commissioner David Stern has gone on record discussing the possibility of struggling teams shutting down operations and the need to reduce player salary costs by $700-800 million. The sheer thought of teams closing their doors could lead to a civil war between owners who also have to fight collectively against the National Basketball Player’s Association. Things could get nasty as the summer heats up, and in my opinion, any amount of missed games will force Stern from his long-held office.
2) Hope Andrew Bogut gets healthy: Bogut had a third surgery to repair the arm and elbow he wrecked in a fall at the end of last season. He complained often during the current season about the lingering pain and how it limited his abilities. The fact that he had surgery before this season ended was a great sign. Having the operation by world-famous sports surgeon James Andrews was an even better sign. He needs to be at 100% come next year, nothing less.
3) Improve on Jennings as a point guard: Milwaukee has had a recent run of shoot-first, assist-later point guards. When a basketball team lacks a quality scorer or inside presence, that shoot-first point guard can become an important part of the offense. When a team has some quality shooters AND a dominant inside presence, a point guard who only occasionally assists can create problems on a team. Jennings needs to completely refocus his game as the point guard of this team, or the Bucks need to accept the reality that they simply cannot create a team around both Jennings and Bogut; Jennings would have to go.
4) Have the high-quality draft: During General Manager John Hammond’s tenure, the team has drafted 8 players and only 3 remain with the team. Its highest pick during that time, #8 overall Joe Alexander, ended up a complete bust. They cannot have that same result another year. Ignoring the NBA lottery, the Bucks would have the #10 overall pick. Depending how the lottery plays out, the Bucks could jump to a pick in the range of 1-3, they could stay at the 10th spot, or could fall between 11-13 if a team below them wins the lottery.
5) Make decisions on their own free agents: Unless Redd agrees to sign with the Bucks for the veteran minimum, expect him to be gone. Boykins is a 50/50 decision: he is a smart veteran and occasional offensive threat, but an incredible defensive liability at 5’5”. Restricted free agent Mbah a Moute should be extended based on his defensive ability and much-improved offense this season. Douglas-Roberts is a tough decision. He is young and has potential, but has publicly stated that he doesn’t see himself returning.
6) Utilize the extra $18 million cap space from Michael Redd’s expiring contract: This can be such a tricky process. Each team has a couple of players classified as restricted or unrestricted as described above. Finding the right player who would be a good fit for the team and who would want to come to Milwaukee may be a big challenge. Once the CBA expires on July 1st of this year, it will become even more complicated to complete player transactions.
It’s hard to look too far ahead without looking back at a few things. The free agent loss of point guard Luke Ridnour hurt the team when Jennings missed time. The Bucks can’t be blamed for not matching Minnesota’s offer of 4 years at $16 million, as Minnesota was paying Ridnour to be a starter. But Milwaukee dearly missed his veteran experience and the abilities of one of the scrappiest guards in the league. The true impact of free agent signees Gooden and John Salmons, both for 5 years and in the $30 million range, won’t be known until they can stay healthy for most of a season. Most fans will agree that Milwaukee reached too far on both total salary and length of contract for the two players. It would take a near-miracle if Milwaukee wanted to shed either contract. As for Corey Maggette, his value would be well worth the players traded to obtain him if another offseason would allow him to fit into the system better. Additionally, after next season, Maggette’s contract becomes the always-attractive “expiring contract” trade bait.
Going forward, the Bucks have plenty of questions to answer. Were all the injuries that piled up “freak occurrences” or are there problems with their conditioning program? It will be up to management to decide the fate of the coaching staff. Healthy or not, Milwaukee remained one of the best defensive teams in the league, but was miserable on the offensive half of the court. They need 100% health and efficiency from Jennings and Bogut in order to accomplish anything significant. Further development between the two players could lead to an All-Star tandem. Both players could have the ability to draw double teams from the opposing defense, but the other three players on the court must learn to capitalize.
There are too many uncertainties with the league and its CBA issues to predict what transactions could be made or what players could be available. The Bucks would be wise to add another shooting threat from the guard spot. Jennings simply doesn’t have the skill to be that threat consistently, and someone with extra size and athleticism would pair up well with Jennings. Assuming that Boykins and Douglas-Roberts won’t return, a small forward with quickness could be a great fit. Depending how the draft dice roll, a hybrid forward such as Kansas’ Marcus Morris could be developed well. If the Bucks get lucky enough to draft Arizona’s Derrick Williams, they would be getting a true athletic freak of nature.
By the time the NBA Playoffs end, there will only be a couple of weeks for GM John Hammond to make transactions before the CBA likely expires. The moves he has made up until now have been a combination of experimental needs while cleaning up the rotten financial status of the team. With the salary troubles nearly solved, it would be expected that Hammond will close the revolving roster door and begin building a solid core for the team.
Thanks for following up on our “State of the Bucks” each Wednesday. Stay tuned for what the Milwaukee Bucks have in store in 2011-12.