I Was Wrong

The Celtics were eliminated 17 days ago in a game seven in the Eastern Conference Finals, without their best player Kyrie Irving, or their second-best player, Gordon Hayward, who missed the entire season with a fractured tibia. I wrote about the injury, with a sarcastic quip as the headline to boot; “Luck of the Irish”, with the image of Hayward’s gruesome twisted ankle centered above it. I was far too cynical of the situation, and to be honest, I questioned if Kyrie’s play-style would mesh with the system Brad Stevens had built. My best case scenario for them was a fifth or fourth seed finish, battling it out with the Bucks for a middle-of-the-pack finish, and then have that drag into a long playoff series where the winner would be rewarded with a loss to the Cavaliers. I was right about the Bucks and Celtics meeting in the first round, but unfortunately for me, I implied that the Bucks would be the ones to move on to the second round. The signs were there all season and yet, I stuck to my guns, so before I write any further, I must apologize to Brad Stevens for allowing myself to forget that great coaching often makes the difference.

Many a talented team has succumbed to mediocrity, and the first reason why is usually due to bumbling management, but on a more personal level, and more-so when dealing with an underachieving team with clear talent, it all starts with the coach. Jason Kidd is simply not cut-out to be a head coach in today’s NBA. He didn’t even understand the importance of having his potential future starting center stretch the floor all the way to the three-point line.

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Yes, that’s really Thon Maker, a 7’1″ center, stepping forward to take a mid-range jump shot. Maker has thus far shown no rebounding prowess, however, he did convert on 37.8% of his 74 shots he took from behind-the-arc during his rookie season, showing infinite floor-spacing potential and tremendous value to a Bucks team who desperately needs to provide its star player with more room to operate. On November 21st, the day before an underachieving 8-9 Bucks squad needed to squeak out an overtime win against the lowly Phoenix Suns, Jason Kidd was reported to have had a meeting with Maker concerning a detailed report of his shooting percentages, and instructed him to take more shots from mid-range simply due to the fact that he shoots slightly better from mid-range. I wish I was making this quote up in Matt Velazquez’s article, dated November 23rd, 2017, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel1,

“I thought he did a great job tonight of finding his sweet spot tonight, inside the three-pointer,” said head coach Jason Kidd. “It was just like shooting at shootaround, just catch and shoot. He made a lot of shots tonight inside that three.”

I mean, where do I even begin with a statement like that? It shows a clear lack of foresight, or more accurately, a lack of self-awareness. Wake up, it’s 2018; encourage the promising young man at practice to step back and attempt more threes. You only get better through practice, and he’s already shown flashes of potential during his rookie year when we didn’t have any expectations for him. In the same article I’ve quoted from above, Maker is later interviewed and reveals when he was growing up playing, he was often placed on the elbow in high school, and is comfortable with taking that shot. A great coach pushes players to be better, not make them complacent. Taking a deeper dive into Maker’s shooting stats reveals that Kidd’s philosophy actually hindered Maker’s overall development, as in his rookie season, Maker attempted 59.1% of his shots from two-point range, with 33.7% coming from around the basket, and 12.2% coming from that 3-10 foot area; contrasting greatly against this previous season, where 67.1% of his shot attempts came from two. His shot attempts from 3-10 feet went up to 13%, and yet his shooting percentage dipped from 36.4% (still below league average from that distance) to a paltry 31.7%, and what’s even more shocking is how his shots around the rim were cut down to just 28.5%, which yes, cut his efficiency down; 63.9% suddenly dropped to 54.4%, those elbow jumpers improved though right? Funny enough, they did, as his shot attempts from 10-16 feet and 16-23 feet doubled from 5.5 and 7.7 percent to 10.4 and 15.2 percent, respectively. His percentages from those areas improved as well, but of course his three-point shooting took a dip, so overall, did he not regress as a player?

Overall, this team did not have much of an identity under Jason Kidd. He established a trapping defensive scheme in 2014-15, his initial year as coach, and due to the length this team has had for the last few years now, it was successful for them; 4th in the league in defensive rating, 8th in points allowed per game, all while a developing young core of 20-to-23-year-olds began to find their way as players. That year, the Bucks went 41-41, improving upon a disastrous 2013-14 campaign that saw them fall to 15-67 under one-and-done coach Larry Drew. Since that season however, this franchise hasn’t developed much further than that. Their defense was quickly solved, and no amount of length can disguise defensive ratings that resulted in a 23rd place finish in 2015-16, and back-to-back 19th place finishes these previous two seasons. Gianni’s overall development may be the only reason this team even returned to the 40-win mark the past two seasons, and is also likely the reason their defensive rating hasn’t dipped back into twentieth place or lower, as the season prior to Giannis winning Most Improved Player saw the team fall to 33-49; a year after implementing a new defensive system and having a young team gel enough to make the playoffs. They were supposed to improve, and luckily for them, Giannis was able to cover some of Jason Kidd’s deficiencies in the ensuing two seasons.

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I’ll be referring to four games during this season for my images, two wins and two losses, all after the Bledsoe trade. This first game was a loss against the lowly Mavericks, on November 18th, 2017. Rick Carlisle is the kind of coach Jason Kidd wishes he could be, as the beautiful play-calling from the Mavs sideline gave Harrison Barnes an easy cut to the basket from the top of the arc as Tony Snell followed his assignment, choosing to go under Giannis, hindering the MVP candidate from behind able to blanket Barnes on his cut. Ball movement isn’t something that’s in Kidd’s wheelhouse, and the difference between a championship-caliber organization like the Mavericks under Mark Cuban’s tenure, and a continuous middle-of-the-pack franchise like the Bucks, is the lack of team identity and cohesion.

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This is the same game from the Thon Maker still image from above; a win against the Kings, ten days after the loss to the Mavs; November 28th, 2017. It’s obvious that this team still falls back on old habits, as they clearly intend to trap Fox once he begins to roll left, towards Willie Cauley-Stein’s pick, but he switches direction, skirting close to the out-of-bounds line, but yet has a clear path to the basket. Their pick-and-roll defense is surprisingly suspect for a team with such length, as their bigs are seemingly unable to move their feet quick enough laterally to cover any lost ground to a roll-man, and perhaps that’s why this trapping scheme became so relied upon for this squad, but four years into Kidd’s tenure, it’s clear that it just wasn’t up to par with the rest of the league. Yes, this game against the Kings was blowout win, but I did purposely choose this game simply because it was the Bucks’ largest margin of victory; 112-87. You can see in the fourth image of the above slide show against the Mavs that at one point they intended to trap J.J. Barea when he had no decent look at a shot anyway.

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Once again, we see a lengthy, agile Bucks squad beat on a basic easy pick-and-roll, this time by a veteran-heavy Cleveland Cavaliers, prior to their trade deadline deals. I’ll cover more of that eventual Bucks win over the Cavs on December 19th, 2017 later in the article, because first, I must talk about the massacre in Philadelphia on April 11th, 2018, the last day of the regular season. To close their disappointing regular season, the Bucks were blown off the court by a 76ers squad ready to make some noise in the playoffs, something the Bucks haven’t done four seasons into their core’s development. Losing by 35 isn’t a good feeling, and that may have been a factor as to why the Bucks could not win a game against the Celtics on the road. A sign of any well-coached team is their road record, as a good team should be able to win no matter where they play, or however hostile the environment may be. The Bucks’ road record was 19-22, good enough for 14th in the NBA, keeping in line with their brand of mediocrity. The natural evolution of their defensive scheme should’ve implemented switching, or some form of a zone, but this never materialized, and in today’s NBA, pure man-to-man, trapping, and no singular focus on an area of the floor will leave you struggling in the lower half of defensive ratings.

Where Kidd deserves credit is unlocking Giannis’s potential1, as he stated Giannis would be the Bucks’ primary ball-handler in 2016-17, after a disappointing 2015-16 campaign that saw the team’s defensive rating drastically drop, and the offense remained firm at the 26th spot for team offensive rating. The succeeding seasons, with Giannis as the primary ball-handler and focus of the offense, the Bucks’ offense jumped halfway up the list, ending the 2016-17 with the 13th best offensive rating, and then ending this season with the 9th best offense. However, despite those positive contributions, we know Kidd’s offensive schemes were rather unimaginative, and often relied on the talent of his best players to figure it out. It’s likely this is the best version of the Bucks we were ever going to see under Jason Kidd, and as an audience, we should all be relieved the organization decided to move on.

As you’ll notice in this game against the Kings, Giannis is sitting in a iso-heavy formation on the weak-side of the court behind the three-point line. He’s tall enough to survey the entire court, but despite posting a career-high 31.2% usage rate, his assists went down from last season’s career-high 5.4 to 4.8, while also taking a dip in assist percentage; 26.6 to 23.7 percent. His rebounding improved, and the most exciting part of the offense was letting Giannis grab a board, or receive an outlet pass, and then watching him sprint the length of the court in a few strides for a monstrous dunk or a quick pass to an open teammate. It was the most impactful and creative way to play to the team’s strengths, giving them an advantage over other teams, but it was also relied on far too consistently.

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Good things lead to pleasing results, but if relied upon too much, everything eventually has diminishing returns. Giannis is listed at 6’11”, and by those screenshots, you can instantly tell what kind of transcendent athlete he is; look at those damn strides. He’s deceptively strong as well, able to easily dunk over opponents, evidenced by how easily and often he was able to catch a lob and throw it down on Aaron Baynes during opening night of the 2017 season. Kidd wasn’t entirely dumb enough to not mix up the formula a bit, having Giannis set picks and be the roll-man in certain situations, leading to more scoring chances than I think Kidd thought possible, since his opportunities weren’t as fruitful as one would believe. In fact, his percentage of plays that ended in a dunk attempt went down from the previous season; 16.4 to 12.2 percent, and his shots from 0-3 feet out were cut from 49.6 percent, almost half of his scoring looks, down to 45.4%, and like Maker, his mid-range attempts from 10-16 feet nearly doubled; 6.4 to 11.4 percent.

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Look how much space other players have to operate when Giannis is at the center of Kidd’s pick-and-roll dominant offense. He sucks in the defense, and his playmaking skills and strength come in handy when he has to fling an overhead pass to a wide open shooter, such as the play in the slide show above against the Kings, and yes, this same concept applies to when Giannis is on the break, flinging an easy pass to a left-alone shooter on the wings, like in the still from two slide shows above; kicking it out to Brogdon as two Mavericks’ run to close off his lane to the basket. Kidd’s pick-and-rolls extend to the rest of the team as well, but if I’m being honest, it may be more due to Bledsoe being the best ball-handler at the point guard position that this coaching staff has ever had.

Last season, Malcolm Brogdon backed up Matthew Dellavedova until March, and the two put up comparable numbers. They were essentially running a point guard platoon, and they are better off with Bledsoe starting, however, they may as well have kept Greg Monroe if they were going to force Maker to take mid-range jump shots, since that’s Monroe’s sweet spot, and is also a much better rebounder and slightly better post defender than Maker. Just to hammer that point home one last time, take a look at this still image.

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A big and a guard stagger around the strong-side wing; planting another shooter in the weak-side corner three, allowing Giannis to cut to the rim, and due to his skillset that I’ve already mentioned, it shouldn’t be a problem for him to deal with the pin-down defender, who’s also a guard by the way; should Maker’s shot miss. Giannis’s man is forced to slide forward and at least put a hand up as Maker shoots; disintegrating the defense. Do you see how ineffective this set would be if Maker were two to three steps inside the line? Giannis’s man would be able to actually contest the shot, and the paint would be more bogged down.

With that being said, since I’ve highlighted the Bucks’ future starter, and then discussed the strengths of Giannis and Bledsoe, arguably the teams best two players, as well as their highest-paid players, I must mention their third highest-paid player, and arguably their third-best player, Khris Middleton. Middleton is a 6’8″ guard who’s converted himself into more of a wing the past three seasons, and he’s made himself a comfortable role on this team. Coming off a hamstring tear that shortened his 2016-17 season to 29 games, he came back and had his best season. If this team is going to continue to improve, then they should keep Middleton, because he’s continued to expand his game, as well as improve on what he’s already good at, including being the one who can hit tough shots when they need a bucket. The only downside to Middleton is that he’s a clear third-wheel, and honestly, if you’re a true championship contender, he’s more of a fringe third-wheel than a true tertiary piece. Kidd didn’t understand that, because Middleton’s usage rate went up this season despite having more talent on this roster than in previous seasons.

Joe Prunty used to be the lead assistant coach during some championship teams throughout the 2000’s, as well as on some other pretty good teams. Earlier this decade, he took the job as the lead assistant coach under Jason Kidd during his only season in Brooklyn, and the team arguably performed better under him when filling in for Kidd. Prunty followed Kidd to Milwaukee, seemingly forming a new partnership with Kidd as the pair attempted to build a culture in Milwaukee. It was thought Prunty would be able to fix most of the issues that developed under Kidd, but unfortunately, Prunty is a perfect example of an assistant coach who isn’t cut out to be the head coach.

Kidd was fired on January 22nd after a 19-16 record for the season; 139-152 overall. Prunty had the experiences and the talent necessary to make strides of improvement, but it never happened. The team remained static, finishing 22-16; my question is, what’s more shocking, a top ten offense that is shockingly stagnant and bogged down, or the fact this team never went on a five-game winning streak throughout the season. They had two streaks that ended at four wins, one under Kidd, and one under Prunty.

Prunty was replaced with Mike Budenholzer on May 16th, eighteen days after being eliminated by the Celtics in the first round. Budenholzer is a disciple of Popovich, and everyone is aware what type of talent he has; notice how the Spurs ball movement was never as crisp as it was when he was the lead assistant coach3, something he instilled into his team’s in Atlanta during his tenure. Above all, that’s what this Bucks team needs to implement into their offense.

The lack of rebounding and ball movement is a death knell to any team, but especially one without an identity already. You can’t rely on one guy to take over, something Brad Stevens reminded me upon his undermanned Celtics squad’s victory in the first round. Budenholzer can fix a lot of holes in this team by simply getting them in the habit of making the extra pass, and likely without effecting Giannis’ stats, if anything, it should make his efficiency improve, and maybe lead to a couple extra points on his per-game averages. The rebounding is a different beast altogether, as the best rebounders on this team are Giannis, Henson, and then Tyler Zeller. None of them are great rebounders, and it hurts this team greatly, but I doubt this core remains together for the next five seasons, so I would expect Milwaukee to make a trade or a signing that fixes that weakness sometime within the next three seasons, if they’re serious about winning a championship.

Their payroll situation definitely lends credence to that train of thought, as only Giannis, Henson, Dellavedova, and Tony Snell are locked up until 2019-20. Middleton has a player option for $13M that he may accept, but everyone else is off the books or is a team option. Snell is an overpaid three-and-D guy, but his contract isn’t egregious, and since the Bucks are one of the worst teams at taking and making threes, you might just want to keep him. Henson and Dellavedova are trade bait starting this upcoming season, provided Budenholzer quickly becomes comfortable with his players, develops a rotation, and discovers what they need to elevate their game.

The biggest question this Bucks team has to deal with is, do they offer Jabari Parker the max should someone offer him a salivating contract? Unfortunately for them they have very little time left to come to a decision, but he could be the difference between a championship, and simply contending for one. Despite being one of the worst defensive players in the NBA, and often injured, Jabari’s offense is incredibly potent, and could unlock a new dimension to this offense that Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty could only dream of attaining. Rather than restrict Jabari to mid-range jumpers, rolls to the rim, and post fadeaways; I have faith Budenzholer will utilize him in more creative ways and improve his range, provided he’s not offered a ridiculous contract that they feel like they are unable to match.

The other big question, and is also something they will have to deal with all season long, is do they re-sign Eric Bledsoe? Terry Rozier cooked him in the playoffs, making him look a step slower than he did in his Phoenix years, when he was one of the better, and most versatile, defensive guards in the NBA. Bledsoe runs the pick-and-roll well, but under Budenholzer’s assumed new offensive scheme, will he even have a place in the offense anymore? He’s got one year left on his contract, and despite obviously showing signs of decline at only 28-years-old, he may ask for a large contact since he regards himself so highly, evidenced by the disrespect he showed Rozier despite being dominated by him in only the first round of the playoffs.

I can only assume this organization will look to re-sign both of these players, as their value to this team is empirical, but in one of the smaller markets of the NBA, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the manager just let these players walk should their asking price be too high for them to justify the signing. Bledsoe could absolutely be the ball-handler needed to space the floor out and dish it to Giannis, Jabari, Middleton and Maker in a perfect world, but that’s not something anybody lives in. There’s a lot that goes into winning a championship; long-term planning by management, contracts, drafting, coaching, fan enthusiasm, player talent and skill, and chemistry. I believe another 40 win season is upon the Bucks, and likely another lower seeded playoff finish as the team goes through growing pains dealing with the coaching and schematic changes, but they’ll finish strong like Giannis on the fast break. Where do they go from there however? I predicted a second round appearance last season, and now I must eat my humble pie for that prediction, but I’m going to choose to believe in Giannis’ talent, Budenholzer’s coaching, and the not-quite-ideal collection of talent surrounding this transcendent talent, and predict a second round appearance for them in 2018-19. The city of beer has been dry for far too long now.

Editor’s Notes

  1. November 23rd, 2017 – Bucks’ Thon Maker seeing results from focus on midrange jumpers
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo to be Bucks’ primary ball handler in 2016-17
  3. This isn’t a knock on Popovich or an attempt to retroactively assign Budenholzer more credit than he deserves, just a neutral observation on how he was able to use his best strength as a coach to further accentuate Popovich’s own system.
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