Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gone ’Til December: Four Things Bucks Fans Should Watch For in November

Bucks Forest is going on a thirty day sabbatical for the month of November.  I enjoy writing about the Bucks, but analyzing (some might say, “criticizing”) the Bucks is far from the only type of writing that I enjoy.  I have long been fascinated by the art of screenwriting, which means writing the script that actors, directors and others use as a blueprint when making movies.  

Scott Myers, who teaches online screenwriting classes and is very active on Twitter, is promoting November, 2015 as “Zero Draft Thirty” month (#ZeroDraftThirty on Twitter).  He is challenging writers to set some time aside and really focus on completing one draft of a screenplay during the thirty days of November.  The draft can be a first draft (which is what it will be in my case) or a revision of a previous draft, but it has to be completed in November.  

I am going to take a sabbatical from blogging about the Bucks in order to give myself a better chance at having a successful Zero Draft Thirty.  Most likely that means that the Bucks Forest blog will be idle during November.  It should be noted, however, that I have always considered BucksForest to be an open blog.  If you’re a Bucks fan and you find that there is an interesting Bucks storyline that the Bucks/NBA media is missing, then I encourage you to email me (ben_miller@mac.com) and write something up for this blog.

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Here are four things I’ll be watching when the Bucks play in November.  I chose the number four to honor Sidney Moncrief, a should-be basketball Hall of Famer and the best television announcer the Bucks have had since I started watching thirty years ago.

The Greek Freak

Giannis has been the best thing about the Bucks thus far.  While Greg Monroe has put up nice numbers and given a decent effort on defense, Giannis’s offensive growth and his overall presence as an athletic freak gives him the nod.  He will be a joy to watch in November.

It has been a vertical improvement for Giannis: he’s taken the things that he was already doing well and become even better at them.  He finished at the rim well last season and in the game against Washington he was downright uncoverable from certain spots.  He handled simple passes and cuts quite well during the 2015 season and he looked improved in that area as well.

I have been skeptical that Giannis could develop into an offensive dynamo.  His jump shot was inconsistent, he turned the ball over and he struggled to make great passes when the defense kept its discipline.  Those issues are still present, but to lessor degrees.  So lessor, in fact, that I now think that Giannis’s limitations, while permanent, will be only a minor drag on his game.

The problem area to keep an eye on is Giannis’s defense.  It appears that he could be headed down the James Harden path.  Harden was never considered a defensive liability in college, but as his offensive game became increasingly successful he seemed to lose the desire to defend attentively.  Giannis had an ugly +/- rating in his first game.  While +/- on its own is largely an irrelevant stat, in this case it was indicative of the way that Giannis struggled to be part of an effective defensive unit.

The Bench

The Bucks may have the worst bench in the League right now.  Vasquez, O’Bryant, Inglis and Bayless comprise the bench rotation.  Plumlee and Vaughn have also played for stretches.  The young Big men & Vaughn should not be playing regular NBA minutes at this point in their careers.  The way the veteran guards are playing, both men would be toss-ups to make an NBA roster if they did not already have guaranteed contracts.  Depth is a huge problem right now.

Fortunately, the current Bucks bench is not expected to be part of the rotation long-term.  By the end of November, OJ Mayo, John Henson and Jabari Parker are expected to return from injury.  If the rotation ends up being nine men, that would probably leave Henson, Copeland, Mayo and Vasquez as the bench group.  That will be a huge improvement.

Even with a healthy roster, the Bucks’ bench may be a problem throughout November.  The Bucks’ starting lineup is light on interior toughness.  Henson and Copeland offer no reprieve.  The Bucks have lumbering ballhandlers who struggle to keep opposing guards in front of them.  Mayo and Vazquez aren’t going to cure that.  All of these bench players are either too short to defend Big men or too slow to defend Wing players.  (It is at this point that I must mention that trading Brandon Knight and giving away Zaza & Jared Dudley would have solved just about all of these problems.  But, I’m not here to dwell on the past.  This is about the future.)

The next month may tell us a lot about just how much of a problem the Bucks’ bench is.  Is this like the 2013 Trailblazers, where a weak bench effectively sabotaged a solid young team’s Playoff chances?  Or is this like the 2015 Raptors, where an inconsistent bench turned an East contender into first round Playoff refuse?

The Big Offseason Contracts

Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton were richly rewarded in July.  Neither man has played to the level of his contract thus far.

Khris Middleton’s play has been the more worrying of the two.  Middleton’s contract was that of a top line scorer or an elite Three-and-D Wing player.  He looks like neither.  He hasn’t been able to create his own offense, he has been taken advantage of on defense repeatedly and he was never expected to be top catch-and-release guy like Ben Gordon or Kyle Korver.

Part of the problem for Middleton is that opposing players are going after him, ostensibly because they believe he is overpaid.  It reminds me of when Jeremy Lin got overpaid by the Rockets.  Brad Beal, Carmelo and others delighted in going right at Middleton and either getting or creating bucket after bucket.  If that continues throughout November, Coach Kidd may have no choice but to start finishing games with OJ Mayo on the court in Middleton’s place.

Greg Monroe has been a lot better than Middleton has and he should be.  Monroe received a max contract from the Bucks.  (According to Monroe’s agent there were other teams presenting max offers to Monroe.  According to the other teams who met with Monroe’s agent, nobody else offered a max contract.  You can draw your own conclusion on who’s being more straightforward.)

Monroe’s problem is the same problem Monroe had in Detroit: leaden feet.  The guy simply does not elevate quickly and cannot shuffle and step fast enough to close defensive holes and chase down tough rebounds.

Overall, Monroe has been one of the Bucks’ better defenders because he has been attentive and he has put forth a good effort.  But the Bucks need more than attentiveness and effort.  They need great defense, like they has last season.  Monroe might be incapable of being the Big man at the center of a great defense.  November will tell us a lot about whether he can ditch his defensive rep and overcome his slow-footedness.

His Guys

One conclusion that we can make from Coach Kidd’s tenure is that he will fiercely protect players who he sees as “his guys”.  The formula for a Bucks player becoming one of “his guys” is for GM Jason Kidd to acquire him and for some person on the outside (maybe even Bucks Forest!) to heavily criticize that acquisition.  When that happens, Coach Kidd seems to dig in and really try to prove the outside critics wrong.  He will protect “his guys” to a far greater degree than he will protect players who were acquired by a different GM (like Giannis) or players who were not subject to significant outside criticism (like Greg Monroe).

The two players who qualify as “his guys” are Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams.  While Parker was touted as a great draft pick and a Rookie of the Year favorite by many people outside the Bucks’ organization, he was also criticized as a “low ceiling” guy.  Once Parker began to play, a small but potentially influential group of NBA observers also criticized Parker’s defense, rebounding, toughness and ball-stopping.  Michael Carter-Williams was even more harshly criticized after Kidd acquired him, with many people outside the Bucks organization questioning whether Carter-Williams should be a starting NBA Point guard.

In response to criticisms of Jabari and MCW, Jason Kidd has dug in deeper.  GM-in-name-only John Hammond wanted to draft Bobby Portis in an effort to shore up the Bucks’ defense, rebounding and toughness, but GM Jason Kidd reportedly vetoed the choice because he worried that having an active young Big might stunt Jabari’s growth.  The Bucks could have acquired a quick Point guard who plays quality defense to compete with Michael Carter-Williams, but instead the Bucks brought in Grievis Vasquez.  (At the time, I thought that Vasquez might have been acquired to compete with MCW, but now it seems clear that Vasquez was targeted because he is the same type of tall, pass-first, defensively-challenged point guard, only worse.)  Those moves were clear signs that Jason Kidd is riding Jabari and MCW.  If they fail, then the Bucks fail.

November will be an interesting month for both Carter-Williams and Parker.

Carter-Williams simply must play better.  If he keeps getting beat by good, average and below-average point guards, as he has during key sequences in the first two games, then this could be a long month.  If Carter-Williams has what it takes to play an NBA starters’ minutes, then he must show it now.

Parker will play sparingly in November, if at all.  Hopefully he will play and when he does, I am hoping for baby steps.  I would like to see him get at least one tough rebound per game.  I would like to see him guard a scoring Big man without needing a double-team.  I would like to see him make quicker decisions; to limit his time with the ball to a couple of seconds at a time.

It is no secret that I have been pessimistic about the Bucks’ potential this season, but I still expect to see some positive signs.  The four things mentioned here are all things that could improve this season, hopefully starting in November.