Somewhat fittingly, the Milwaukee Bucks were the last team examined at Pro Basketball Talk as part of their “What should your team do when the lockout ends.” Matt Moore runs down quite a few known X factors (Andrew Bogut‘s health, Brandon Jennings’ maturity on and off the court, Stephen Jackson‘s age), and concludes that the team, as it stands, has plenty of question marks in need of addressing once the lockout ends.His most notable statement was as follows:
“There doesn’t seem to be a plan in Milwaukee given the step backwards last season. Perhaps the team simply feels that if injuries had been different, they would have made the playoffs. But if the Bucks want to really build towards a championship, they need to get a core of players that can stick and not fill-in veterans.”
Not much to argue with there. However, Moore doesn’t address two of the most under-discussed “ifs” that could be the difference between a repeat 09-10 or a déjà vu 10-11: bench contributions, and first and second year player roles and expectations. The Bucks had one of the best benches in the NBA during their 46-win campaign two years ago.
Luke Ridnour shot his way to a career-best PER, Ersan Ilyasova finished second on the team in rebounding and fourth on the team in PER, and Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse defined the ambiguous term “crafty veteran,” by hitting shots, grabbing rebounds, and bumping opponents when the team needed them most.
The end result was a bench unit that finished second in the NBA in points per game (36.2), fifth in rebounds per game (15.7), and fifth in assists per game (7.3). No matter what button Scott Skiles pushed, the chemistry experiment never left the laboratory in ruins. The same can’t be said for the 2010-11 rotation.
Last season, the Bucks’ bench production dropped dramatically, averaging 31 points per game (14th in the league), 12.9 rebounds per game (21st), and 5.8 assists per game (20th). Keyon Dooling couldn’t score like Ridnour, Ilyasova took a major step backwards while battling injuries, Chris Douglas-Roberts couldn’t stay out of Skiles’ doghouse and often played like a full body dry heave set to basketball, and Corey Maggette was who everyone knew he was.
Chemistry and depth are even more crucial on a team like the Bucks because they can’t depend on a consistent, proven star to take over games when it matters most. When players weren’t rising to the occasion, Skiles wasn’t afraid to pull a quick trigger, and fluctuating minutes never really allowed an already aloof group to maximize their respective skills. On paper, Skiles already has a better looking bench than a season ago (minus a backup center and shooting guard/small forward that will come through trades/free agency).
The knowns include a defensive stopper worth the offensive sacrifice (Luc Mbah a Moute), an undersized power forward that won’t see meaningful minutes, barring injury (Jon Brockman), and a lengthy, raw four with great shot blocking skills (Larry Sanders). The improvements in production will likely come from the newest faces to the organization.*
*I’ve intentionally left the rookies off this list because their potential contributions will be covered in an upcoming post.
The Bucks currently have three backup point guards on their roster, but it seems more and more likely that Keyon Dooling will be the odd man out once the season is officially begins. Beno Udrih is a definite upgrade over Dooling, and brings more to the table as a backup point guard than Luke Ridnour. Dooling led the Bucks in +/- differential last season, which shouldn’t be discounted, but he wasn’t capable of riding a hot hand for more than a play or two.
Compared to Ridnour, however, Udrih shot at a near-identical rate around the floor, with one notable exception: shots at the rim, where Udrih led all point guards with a 73.6% FG. Udrih also posted a lower turnover rate than Ridnour (13.24 to 17.57) while playing more minutes. Skiles shied away from pairing two point guards together in the backcourt last year, but Udrih’s offensive skills will make that a much more attractive proposition for the Bucks, especially since the only other wings on the current roster (Carlos Delfino, Stephen Jackson) are expected to start.
In the back-backup point guard spot, Earl Boykins has been swapped out for Shaun Livingston, a pass-first floor general nine years Boykins’ junior and a healthy 1’2″ taller. Boykins made the most of his court time last year (he led the team in PER, albeit playing limited minutes), but Livingston, understandably, has a much more versatile skill set to go with the amazing court vision you’d expect from a 6’7″ point guard.
Focusing on the necessary improvements in play and health for Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut, and the rest of the starters is justified. After all, they are the true backbone of the Bucks. However, the team’s ability to function in their absence will be equally critical to Milwaukee’s success or failure in 2011-12.