Friday, February 5, 2016

I'm Not Here To Talk About the Past

The 2016 Milwaukee Bucks have been a disappointment.  Whether you've agreed with the moves the franchise has made since last year's trade deadline or disagreed; whether you believe they'll make the Playoffs or you don't, Bucks fans didn't expect this.  Over half the season has been played and they occupy twenty-third place in the thirty team League.

There has been plenty of talk about what has led the Bucks to this point, but that's not what this blog is about.  This blog is about the future.

The Bucks' future has been the source of heavy speculation recently.  Bucks insider Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times kicked things off by asking if a major shakeup is coming.  For NBA front office executive Bobby Marks took the exact opposite point of view on The Vertical.  He said that the Bucks should stand pat and hope that their young core gets better with age.

If the Spinal Six (my name for Greek, Jabari, Middleton, Monroe, Henson and MCW) are kept together, the team will almost certainly miss the 2016 Playoffs.  That core has played almost 70% of the Bucks' minutes this season.  Here is what it has produced:  The team is seven games out of Playoff position with thirty-one to play.  They would have to surpass five teams to reach Playoff position.  Their point differential (which, by this point in the season, tends to be the best indicator of a team's true capability) is third worst in the East and fifth worst in the League.  This is a flawed crew.

The other side of the coin is that the Bucks' six core players are all young.  Every man is twenty-five years-old, or younger.  This is their first season together, and for several months of this season Jabari Parker was on a strict minutes restriction due to a past injury.  The team beat the Golden State Warriors, who are on course to be one of the best teams ever, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are the prohibitive favorites to win the East.  There is potential in this crew.

It's one of those situations where everyone wants the ability, but no one wants the responsibility.  Woelfel and Marks aren't the only two guys who believe that they have the answers.  Everyone has an idea.  But imagine if the wrong choice is made.  Nobody wants to be viewed as the guy who blew up a young team that could've contended, or the guy who fell in love with a flawed team and had to start over.

It's a tough call and it should be considered carefully.  If I were the one making the decision, here are some things I would ponder:

Every member of the Spinal Six has struggled defensively

It's not just Monroe, Jabari and Michael-Cartier.  We know that they've struggled, but it's beyond that.  Greek fouls way too much, struggles to defend inside and sometimes gets lost.  Middleton is a below average post defender (less of a problem in today's NBA, to be fair) and struggles to close out after helping.  Henson blocks shots, but is slow.

Young teams tend to struggle defensively, so this may pass.  Zaza is no faster than Henson nor stronger than Monroe, but he is a far better defender.  Dudley is hardly the athlete that Jabari is, but his defense last year was far superior to Jabari's this year.  And Michael-Cartier might follow the trajectory of his coach; learning to use his height and arm length to minimize shortcomings.

At the moment, it's tough.  We know that this is a bad defensive group and we don't know exactly how much better they can get.

Michael-Cartier has been the Bucks' best offense

The numbers show different.  Michael-Cartier is the lowest scoring member of the Spinal Six, per 36 minutes.

In reality, Michael-Cartier getting into the lane has been better than anything else the Bucks have.

Monroe?  The Monroe high post has been a big disappointment (though the lack of perimeter threats deserves some/most/all of the blame for that).  Monroe has scored on the low block, but it bogs down the offense and when Monroe doesn't score the team fails to rebound far too often.  (I swear a guy with Jabari's body and hops rebounding like he rebounds just makes me shake my head.)

Middleton?  Middleton is great on the block against small guards, but struggles when the defender is as long as him.

Greek?  Greek is a great secondary option, but his passing and decision making have held him back.

Henson?  Henson is actually a good option in spurts.  Unfortuately, he's like Andre the Giant in the '70's: effective in small doses, but exposed when left out there too long.

Jabari?  Out of respect for the young, I'll leave this one alone.

When Michael-Cartier gets in the lane it really opens the offense up.  And he's good at it!  He's deceptive and he gets low and he usually doesn't need a screener to help him.  It's no coincidence that in the Bucks' best wins (and even during their best games that ended in close losses), Michael-Cartier has shot 50% or better, gotten the Bucks into the open floor and initiated much of the offense.

The problem with Michael-Cartier, as we all know, is that he can't shoot, his passes have inconsistent accuracy and he goes through spells where he makes bad decisions.  Some players grow out of those things and some don't.

Jabari Parker has real value to a rebuilding team

Jabari has had a rough season.  His jump shot is off, he struggles to get rebounds and he has been blamed for many a defensive lapse.  And I'm not a big stats guy, but he has negative VORP.  That means that you could sign a small forward off the street and he would be expected to perform better than Jabari Parker has this season.

Jabari does, however, still have value.  He will be 20 years old for another month, he's tall, he's strong and he can jump.  He also scored like the dickens in college.  He remains attractive to any team that expects to rebuild for the next season or two, but has a veteran player who is ready to win now.  (I'm not sure that any of those types of teams exist right now, but if they do he'd be attractive.)

Khris Middleton has real value to a contending team

Khris Middleton has been a darned good player.  He's played up to his contract.  He's shown a better propensity for getting buckets than I ever gave him credit for.  He has shown in the past that he can be a part of a good defensive team.

There are lots of great reasons to want a player like Khris Middleton because, in the right situation, he will help you win now.  The open question for the Bucks is whether they're ready to win now and whether this is the right situation for Middleton.  They may not be and it may not be.  If either or both of those things are true (how 'bout them pronouns!), then the Bucks could possibly get a significant bounty in trade.  There are several teams in severe "win now" mode, and one of them might be willing to part with a player who fits a little bit better with the rest of the Spinal Six.

Greg Monroe has been a solid defender

Monroe has had bad defensive games and he looks bad at times due to his extremely slow foot speed.  Those facts have been known and publicized.

What has been less publicized is the fact that Monroe has been the Bucks' best defender.  Monroe has to deal with a lot of penetration and he has to match up against every opposing Big in the post.  He stays attentive and he makes offense difficult for the opposition.

There are reasons to look to trade Monroe.  He can be an unrestricted free agent after next season.  His passing loses a lot of its effectiveness on a team like the Bucks, where there are no knock-down shooters on the court most of the time.  He probably thinks that his post game is better than it really is.  And he could probably bring back a very good player (or a potentially high draft pick) in trade.

It's a difficult time for GM Kidd and I don't envy the responsibility he has.  Whatever he does between now and the trade deadline has major consequences.  And it will be years from now before those consequences are fully realized.