Will Larry Sanders and the revamped Bucks return to the playoffs this season?
With less than two weeks remaining until the regular season tips off, the Behind the Buck Pass staff peers into the crystal ball and offers up some predictions for the 2013-14 season.
Final record: 34-48, between ninth and tenth in the Eastern Conference.
Despite all the offseason changes, Milwaukee’s endgame is the same for at least this season. Going eight games below .500 for the regular season, the Bucks are going to be pushed out of the playoff picture by either the Atlanta Hawks (a balanced game) or Boston Celtics (on the strength of Rajon Rondo exploding for nightly triple-doubles upon his return). The East is still the softer of the NBA’s two conferences, but the landscape adjustments between seasons are just enough to keep the Bucks out of the postseason.
Maybe a bolder prediction is that Milwaukee will be the only Central Division team not competing past the regular season. The Bulls and Pacers are locks to be in the top half of the East seedings, but Cleveland’s acquisitions (Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark, to name a few) aren’t just good on paper. Jack was integral to the success of Golden State’s bench last year while Clark was serviceable for the Lakers. As for Bynum…well, Anderson Varejao is still around and rookie Tyler Zeller is there, too, in case the kind-of former 76er takes up golf. The Detroit Pistons put out an imposing front-court that Larry Sanders alone won’t be able to handle, and even a Sanders/Ekpe Udoh/John Henson triumvirate may not be able to keep up defensively. That’s before taking into account the eff-you attitude Brandon Jennings will bring to every match-up against the Bucks, as he hammers home the point that he finally feels as though he’s surrounded with a cast capable enough of scoring that he can be Brandon Jennings: Point Guard rather than Brandon Jennings: Volume Shooter or Brandon Jennings: No. 1 Scoring Option.
40-42, miss playoffs (but who cares!?)
The Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Knicks and Nets are virtual locks as the top five seeds in the playoffs—they are, quite simply, much more talented than every other team in the East. Where the real fun is lies in those 6-8 seeds, where there are probably six different teams fighting for three spots. The Wizards looked the part of a playoff team last year once John Wall returned at full strength, and the Pistons acquisitions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith at least give them—optimistically— veterans with proven talent and playoff experience. That leaves the 8-seed and the right to be eliminated by the Heat/Bulls/Pacers and with such a challenge awaiting that playoff spot, whether or not Milwaukee makes the playoffs is more or less irrelevant. With an absolutely loaded draft class incoming, viable NBA talent will be present in the first 20 picks; the Bucks position in the draft won’t matter much. They aren’t bad enough to land a Wiggins/Randle/Parker/Exum-type talent, and won’t make enough of a run in the playoffs to fall out of the talent-rich pool.
What this year depends on for Milwaukee is cultivating what they already have. Unlike an injury-prone team ala Cleveland or one relying on streaky, inefficient scorers such as Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan in Toronto, we know enough of what to expect from Milwaukee to be fairly confident that they won’t be a trainwreck. The defense will be stout and perhaps even elite at times; all they’re missing is reliable scoring. Unfortunately for Bucks fans, they can probably expect their team to be floating within five games of .500 in one direction or another like every other year; however, if the traditionally win-now management instead decides to invest time in their tantalizing young prospects, the ceiling for them in the next five years may be higher than we could possibly expect.
38-44, ninth in the Eastern Conference
After an eventful summer packed with some very… Bucksy personnel moves, the franchise essentially circled the wagons and now finds itself in the same position as it has for the better part of the last decade: contending for the eighth seed. O.J. Mayo is an upgrade at shooting guard, and the Butler-Delfino-Middleton rotation on the wing will be effective, but is Brandon Knight really much of an improvement over Brandon Jennings? Despite Jennings’ mercurial tendencies, the statistics say no. Sure, the locker room will no longer be Richmond High pre-Sam Jackson, but the on-court product isn’t going to be capable of contending in a top-heavy East (unfortunately, Ersan is no Ty Crane).
Miami, New York, Indiana, Brooklyn and Chicago have all but punched their tickets to the postseason, leaving Cleveland, Washington, Atlanta, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee in a six-team dogfight for the final three spots. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if Milwaukee snagged the seventh or eighth seed, but I give the advantage to high-upside teams like the Pistons, Wizards and Cavs. With at least six or seven franchises prepared to tank lose a whole lot of games this season, Milwaukee’s ultimate standing in the East will be of little significance. A seven seed may land the Bucks a sweep at the hands of the Pacers and the 17th pick in June’s draft, while a ninth-place finish simply pushes that pick a few spots up into the late-lottery.
35-47, 10th in the Eastern Conference
Throughout the season the Bucks will be in a battle for a late playoff seed but will ultimately fall short as Washington or Cleveland takes the final spot. This young roster goes through growing pains and endures too many losing streaks when its outside shooting goes cold. O.J. Mayo will be a great signing as he matures on and off the court, even challenging for an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve spot. Offensively, Larry Sanders matures but still does not contribute enough, leaving the Bucks relying too heavily on the backcourt for scoring. However, Sanders continues improving defensively and finds himself on the All-Defensive second team, leaving Bucks fans disappointed when the trend of the Defensive Player of the Year making second team All-Defense comes to an end.
Once the season is over, the Bucks once again have a late-lottery pick because Herb Kohl refused to tank like Eastern Conference foes Orlando, Boston, and Philadelphia. This late-lottery pick means no Andrew Wiggins or any of the great consolation prizes in this year’s draft like Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, or Julius Randle. If the Bucks are lucky, Australian talent Dante Exum enters the draft and falls far enough for the Bucks to scoop him up. It’s a typical Milwaukee Bucks season consisting of decent play and challenging for a late playoff spot. Failing to appear in the playoffs or get a high pick in this year’s incredibly talented draft class starts making fans more impatient, and even the most diehard Bucks fans could start demanding more from the front office.
32-50, 10th or 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Discerning a final standing for this season is a little more difficult considering the transitional period the East is currently undergoing, as well of the promise of this year being a “tank fest”. There’s no doubt in my mind this Bucks team has the capability to be a playoff contender in the East. The new roster contains a sufficient amount of talent and Larry Drew is determined to get his team to adopt the characteristics of a winner. If the Bucks can get their chemistry clicking early and the town behind them, we could see another “Fear the Deer”-esque season.
However – I hate to be the pessimist here – but I don’t think the Bucks will be a very good team this season. Considering both the youth and unfamiliarity this team possesses, there are just too many factors that need to work out for the Bucks to be an above-average team, not to mention the rise of the Pistons, Cavaliers, and Wizards in the East, who are all more equipped than Milwaukee to earn playoff spots. This year has all the makings of a tough season for the Bucks, which may not be a bad thing. Getting a high draft pick in the loaded 2014 Draft, as well as giving valuable experience to the youth on the roster, are both things that can help Milwaukee succeed in the future. And that’s what it’s all about in the NBA, right?
41-41, eighth in the Eastern Conference
It’s quite fitting that after going through the Bucks schedule I ended up having them going 41-41. This is the epitome of a “meh” team in the NBA, a product of Herb Kohl’s “playoffs or bust” decree and John Hammond’s focus on adding high character veterans to surround Larry Sanders after the experience of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Brandon Knight doesn’t look like a true point guard yet which is discouraging, but maybe he can develop during the season. O.J. Mayo has constantly underachieved everywhere he’s gone and there’s no reason to think he’ll buck that trend this year; he’s likely to remain an average shooting guard in the NBA.
The two things the team does have in its favor are a solid frontcourt with some decent depth. John Henson looks improved from last year and should have a larger role this season. Ersan Ilyasova remains a great asset as a stretch 4 who can score and provide spacing for the offense. Caron Butler is a serviceable starting small forward who looks to have some left in the tank. And of course, Larry Sanders is a potential DPOY candidate and can become Tyson Chandler 2.0 if he develops a reliable offensive game on pick-and-rolls. Milwaukee projects to be a good three point shooting team which will keep them in a lot of games, but when the threes aren’t falling it will be tough for them to compete against elite teams. Ultimately the NBA is a star league, and without a legitimate star on this roster, it’s hard to project the Bucks above a middle-of-the-pack team that barely makes the playoffs.