Milwaukee Bucks: Amidst Turmoil There is Hope

The weeks before the trade deadline are a busy time in the NBA, as teams seek to change their fortunes before the opportunity slips away. With the stretch run approaching, clubs currently in the lottery ponder decisions to lift themselves up, both this season and beyond. Often times those decisions are taken out of their hands when injuries strike, or another team beats them to the punch.

This season is no exception, as the league’s lottery teams are beginning to increase their level of activity.

The Portland Trail Blazers cashed out Mason Plumlee before he cashed in. The Orlando Magic traded out Serge Ibaka for at best half of what they paid to acquire him. The Charlotte Hornets keep making big man moves with little effect on their actual quality of play. The Minnesota Timberwolves are publicly denying that the playoffs are out of reach despite the loss of Zach LaVine, but they’re likely playing and planning for 2018 already.

There has been a lot of movement among lottery teams, either to make a playoff run or gain value for the long game. With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, the activity level will only increase. But amidst the action, the Milwaukee Bucks have undergone more changes than any other lottery team, for the better and for the worse.

They traded center Miles Plumlee and his $50 million contract for two centers on expiring deals. Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes are unlikely to play this season, and almost certainly will not be on the Bucks next season. The move opened up playing time for Thon Maker and cap space for the future.

Then Khris Middleton, last season’s leading scorer and the epitome of a 3-and-D wing, returned to action. For a little over a quarter, the team had its full rotation on hand and hope for a playoff run.

Then disaster struck, as Jabari Parker went down with a knee injury, later diagnosed as an ACL tear – and in the same knee that suffered a similar injury two seasons ago. The young forward out of Duke will miss an estimated 12 months recovering. Those brief playoff hopes were seemingly dashed.

But things are rarely as they seem, and the Bucks have put together a three-game winning streak to enter the All-Star break on a high note. As rookie Malcolm Brogdon suits up for the Rising Stars Challenge and Giannis Antetokounmpo suits up for the All-Star Game, the Bucks coaches and executives will try to figure out what their short and long-term goals are.

Is this team good enough to make the playoffs this season? How do they approach the draft and free agency? And can they count on Jabari Parker to be a part of their long-term core – and do they pay him accordingly?

This Season: Playoffs are in Reach

Milwaukee fell to the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers last week in the immediate aftermath of Jabari Parker’s injury, and their playoff chances collapsed as well. The morning after the loss to the Lakers they had just a 16 percent chance to make the postseason, per FiveThirtyEight.

Then the team picked itself up, reset their rotations, and reeled off three straight wins. Two of those wins – over the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons – were against foes directly above them in the standings (the Brooklyn Nets, not so much).

With the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets swooning themselves out of the playoff race, Milwaukee finds itself within reach of a playoff berth. Their playoff odds have more than doubled, to 32 percent, and they are only one game back of the Pistons for the eighth and final spot. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are only another game up each, respectively.

Two key factors are fueling Milwaukee’s mini-run, and bode well for the last 27 games. First, Khris Middleton is playing the majority of his minutes at the 3, rather than the 2. His 6-8 frame and long wingspan allow him to check opposing small forwards, and permits the Bucks to lean on the backcourt rotation they have put together in Middleton’s absence.

Playing Middleton at small forward has also moved Antetokounmpo to the 4 when they share the court, filling many of the minutes Jabari Parker played. At 6-11 the Greek forward is likewise big enough to check the vast majority of power forwards in the league, and even with Jabari in the game he took many of the bigger defensive assignments. This “small” lineup with Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 2-4 positions is able to switch smoothly and smother opposing pick-and-rolls.

The second factor is how the frontcourt has stepped up in Parker’s absence. Jabari left a lot of shots on the ground when he left the rotation, and a number of players have picked up the slack. Greg Monroe has dropped a combined 50 points over the last two games, shooting 24-31 over that span. Michael Beasley went 10-13 against the Pistons, while Mirza Teletovic shot 5-9 from long distance en route to 19 points in their win over Indiana.

Milwaukee is not assured of a playoff berth, but they are in a much better place than just a week ago. Head coach Jason Kidd has his team playing hard, and it is paying dividends in the win column. If they can continue that momentum after the All-Star Break, the playoffs are within reach.

This Summer: Best Player Available

The Bucks have approached the draft with the same mindset as the most successful organizations in sports, picking players with long-term upside and elite talent without trying to match specific perceived holes in their roster. Taking Giannis Antetokounmpo four seasons ago clearly worked out for the team.

The organization has similar optimism for rookie center Thon Maker, who has come in and worked harder than anyone could have expected to improve his game. He is raw and needs to add muscle mass, but when he is on the court he flashes skill that few players his size have.

Despite standing 7-1, Maker has the green light to float out to the arc on offense. The Australian big man is shooting 50 percent from distance this season, highlighted by a 3-5 outing against the Indiana Pacers. While he has a long way to go before Milwaukee can consistently rely upon him, there is more certainty than when they drafted him that he can be a starting-caliber big man in the NBA – and perhaps even more.

This willingness to play the long game and develop players into unique, versatile stars has given Milwaukee a roster filled with young and talented players. Although they don’t have world-beaters at point guard, the two-headed monster of Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon is a solid match next to their wing talent. Middleton and Antetokounmpo are strong starters for years to come.

That reality means that Milwaukee will be trending upwards no matter how they approach the draft and free agency. They can afford to add the best player available, however that lines up. They can draft another center prospect, a wing, or even a long-term option at point guard. Adding a G-League team in OshKosh next season will give them a place to develop whatever young talent they add.

In free agency, the Bucks will look to fill out depth. If Greg Monroe leaves they will need another center, and a backup wing will serve them nicely. The versatility of Antetokounmpo means they don’t need a short-term option to fill in for Parker at the 4; Mirza Teletovic is signed to a long-term contract, and he and Antetokounmpo can handle the majority of the minutes there.

Looking Ahead: Compromise on Parker Extension

Starting this summer, the Bucks will have the opportunity to sign an extension with Jabari Parker. Prior to his injury, he was on track for a max deal with the team, perhaps even taking advantage of the extra fifth-year unused by Antetokounmpo.

Now the waters are murkier and depend on what the goals of both Parker and the team are. If Milwaukee performs exceptionally well this season, they gain leverage in negotiations because they have proven Parker is not an absolute necessity. Signing another power forward both gives them a contingency plan if he doesn’t stick around, but holds the potential to alienate him as well.

If Parker wants to stay in Milwaukee long-term – and there is reason to think this is the case, based on his friendship with his teammates and proximity to his hometown of Chicago – then he may be willing to take a discount. If he comes back fully healthy and dominates on offense as he was before, then he will stay eligible for a maximum extension if he sticks with the Bucks for the long haul.

If Parker wants to maximize his earnings now – a reasonable hedge against future injury concerns – he can sign the extension. If he wants to bet on himself, waiting until next summer allows him to return around this time next season and prove he is back at the same level.

If Milwaukee can sign Parker to a happy compromise of an extension, they will have one of the best young three-man cores in the league. If Maker turns into even 80 percent of the player he could be, then that expands to a dynamic four-man core.

While the pieces rotating around this franchise are fluid and uncertain, the center of their future is rock solid and has a very long last name. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an All-Star starter after just 3.5 years in the league, and continues to improve every year. The Bucks will rise as far as he takes them, both this season and in the seasons to come.