Sometimes, you need a reminder that basketball is a game where the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. In most sports, individual production usually directly leads to team production, but basketball is the rare game where you can actually hurt your team by doing something that shows up in the box score. That makes analyzing the game particularly interesting, and it means that there are teams that can surprise you in a given season.
The Milwaukee Bucks were that team last year. Last summer, the Bucks let their top scorer, Charlie Villanueva, walk in the offseason. They also passed on re-signing promising point guard Ramon Sessions, and dumped Richard Jefferson on the Spurs for Kurt Thomas and two non-guaranteed contracts. On paper, they looked to be significantly worse, and few predicted they'd compete for the playoff spot. Instead, the Bucks had an outstanding season, making the playoffs at 46-36 and nearly upsetting the Atlanta Hawks without Andrew Bogut, their best player.
How'd they do it? By using the same style of play that has made coach Scott Skiles so successful over the years. The Bucks employed a stifling, physical defense that frustrated opponents. They finished second in the league in defensive efficiency, behind only the Bobcats, and did it by shutting down the perimeter and the interior. Also, Bogut emerged as perhaps the most underrated all-around player in the league, plugging the middle better than anyone in the league not named Dwight Howard. Offensively, he was the team's only reliable option, at least until a midseason trade that brought John Salmons into town.
There were other causes for the Bucks' surprising season -- the surprising, though erratic play of rookie Brandon Jennings, the addition of Salmons and the out-of-nowhere performances from Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova and Jerry Stackhouse -- but the major causes were Bogut and the defense.
Now, fueled by their surprising success, the Bucks are thinking big in 2010/11. They were aggressive this summer, trading spare parts for the Warriors' Corey Maggette, inking veteran forward Drew Gooden to a five-year contract on the first day of free agency and re-signing Salmons to a $39 million deal. It was a massive shift from their philosophy last summer, when GM John Hammond looked for bargains. Time will tell whether it will all work out, but as SB Nation's Bucks blog Brew Hoop writes, it certainly shows a commitment to winning.
After surprising the league by winning 46 games and nearly toppling the Hawks in round one without Andrew Bogut, the Bucks' braintrust clearly wasn't content to stand pat, and they made that perfectly clear in the early hours of free agency on July 1. In short order, Salmons agreed to a five-year deal that included $33 million in guarantees, while Hammond also locked up the well-traveled Drew Gooden to a five-year fully guaranteed $32 million contract. That's a lot of money for a pair of guys unlikely to be earning their contracts three years from now, but it was a risk the Bucks were willing to take to get better now.
Maggette is helpful because he can get to the free-throw line, which was a major weakness for the Bucks last year (they shot the fewest free throws per 100 field goal attempts last year in the league), and Gooden provides another good mid-range jump shooter. They weren't bad moves. But the downside is that they push two of last season's surprises -- Ilyasova and defensive ace Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- further down in the rotation. In general, as NBAMate writes, the Bucks have a new problem: how to get minutes for all their wing players without sacrificing the kind of identity that made them so surprising last year.
Corey Maggette was brought in via trade at the expense of guard Charlie Bell and center Dan Gadzuric. Maggette is a slashing, streaky scorer at best who gives Milwaukee a third or fourth option in the offense, but not particularly inspiring at the defensive end. Is Maggette willing to make those sacrifices? Or will he be another one season and go player? A re-inked Salmons, coupled with Maggette's signing, along with the acquisition of second-year swingman Jon Brockman from Sacramento, the impending return of Redd, guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and the development of Carlos Delfino all spells ‘top-heavy' in the two-guard/small forward sweepstakes. A surefire minutes headache for Coach Skiles.
NBAMate says this is one reason the Bucks will "simply charade as animal carcasses to the monsters at the upper end of the Eastern Conference." That's brutally harsh -- whenever you are strong at point guard and center, you have a chance in this league -- but it is a concern.
Another concern is that a lot of the players are veteran guys unlikely to get much better. It's hard to expect Bogut to play better, especially because he's still recovering from his wrist injury to end the year. Salmons was on fire to close the season, and it's legitimate to wonder whether he'll play as hard now that he has the security of a long-term contract. Delfino and Ilyasova came out of nowhere, so they could regress, and Maggette and Gooden are what they are. Outside of rookie Larry Sanders, the only player with potential to be significantly better than last year is Jennings. As Brew Hoop writes:
Few players are as fascinating to follow on and off the court as Jennings, whose growth as a sophomore will go a long way to determining whether the Bucks can develop into something more than a likable team of underdogs. For a guy who made his name by scoring (55) points, Jennings was miserably inefficient as a shooter, ironically providing most of his value as a consistent defender and game manager. It all seems a bit backwards considering the flashy profile he's developed, but the reality is that his biggest challenge remains developing the offensive substance to match his unquestionable style. I don't think there's any certainty that Jennings is destined for true stardom, but it might be the only way for the Bucks to become a true contender.
Without security net Luke Ridnour, who departed for Minnesota, the Bucks will need Jennings to develop even more. If he can't, you can kiss a lot of the positive momentum gained from last year goodbye.
Will that positive momentum end up carrying over? The two blogs disagree with their record predictions.
- Brew Hoop: 50-32
- NBAMate: 44-38