Injuries and inconsistent play have made life difficult for Larry Drew in his first season with Milwaukee.
Just over a month ago, the Behind the Buck Pass staff published its official preseason predictions. We forecasted where Milwaukee would finish in the East, as well as what the team’s final record would be. Needless to say, given Milwaukee’s early season struggles and current six-game losing streak, some already appear to be more accurate than others. Now ten games into the season, we revisit those predictions, talk about what went wrong and offer up a revised edition.
You can find the original preview article here.
Original Prediction: 40-42
Revised Prediction: 30-52
Injuries have absolutely decimated the Bucks. We’ve seen less than five possessions from what was supposed to be the starting line-up of Milwaukee this season, so it’s safe to say that nobody could have realistically seen the Bucks being as bad as they’ve looked.
Fortunately, for every dark spot (Larry freakin’ Sanders), there has been cause for optimism (Wolters and Henson will both be in the league for a long time). Perhaps the biggest positive to take from their admittedly horrendous start is that they couldn’t have chosen a better year to be bad. There’s no need to reiterate what’s been said by everyone about the incoming draft class, but the Bucks could find themselves in a wonderful little situation when the ping pong balls get chosen.
At 2-8, the Bucks are currently the second-worst team, record-wise, in the NBA ahead of only the 1-12 Utah Andrew Wigginses Jazz. But is Milwaukee really this bad? The numbers say yes: 28th in scoring. 27th in field goal percentage. 28th in rebounding. 29th in point differential. Injuries have certainly played a large role in the atrocious start, but do a healthy Brandon Knight and Larry Sanders really make the team that much better? Let’s not forget Sanders was a virtual non-factor in the three games he’s played this season (small sample size, be damned!) and questions still remain about Knight’s offensive abilities, particularly in the P&R. It’s fair to say a healthy Milwaukee team doesn’t drop that game last week to Orlando, but other than that it’s difficult to make a case that this assemblage of role players is capable of contending, even in an Eastern Conference that looks to be more wide open than expected given the sluggish starts in the Big Apple. I feared my initial prediction would be on the low end given this parity, but that does not appear to be the case. We knew coming in that this team’s ceiling was 40-45 wins, and reaching the high end of that would be predicated on Sanders’ development as both a defender (avoiding foul trouble) and inside scorer. Given his injury, we haven’t yet had a real chance to note whether he’s improved, and by the time he returns, Milwaukee may be in such a hole that it won’t matter.
Though Milwaukee has staunchly stated that tanking is not, and will never be, a strategy employed by the current owner, if the losing continues, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Bucks don’t at least entertain the possibility of attempting to unload a player or two to a contender at the deadline, similar to the deal Milwaukee and Orlando completed last season. While that would hypothetically free up more time for inexperienced players (and thus, decrease the chance of winning), most of Milwaukee’s young players already play major roles, not to mention the team is nearly devoid of any appealing veterans that could help a contender. The most likely scenario is that the season plays out with the roster as it currently stands, and Milwaukee finishes (fingers crossed) with a poor enough record to snag a top-five pick. While that may be to the distaste of Herb Kohl, fans can’t help but salivate over the hope and desperately needed rejuvenation that a Parker, Wiggins, Randle or Exum could bring to Milwaukee. And it’s really not out of the realm of possibility – like, at all. Phoenix, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia – all expected to be bottom dwellers – already look much better than anticipated. And while that relative success is bound to curtail, it’s difficult to make a case that even a healthy Bucks team is any better. Plus, let’s not forget that two of those squads are expecting superstar players to return to the fold in the coming weeks.
What we do know is the Bucks are not a very good basketball team. What we don’t know is just how bad they are. Luckily, with ten consecutive games against teams currently under .500, we’ll have a chance to get a pretty solid indication of where Milwaukee belongs in the bottom-dweller hierarchy. If Milwaukee emerges from this stretch with anything less than five victories, it’s hard to imagine this group breaking the 30-win threshold.
If the Bucks continue winning (glass half-full!) at their current rate, they’re on track for 16.4 wins. That’s wildly short of my not-so-optimistic prediction of a 34-48 final record, although I think a plague of injuries and a lack of chemistry due to the renovated roster have quite a bit to do with Milwaukee’s sluggish 2-8 start. Once healthy and used to playing together, the Bucks should play at a higher level, meaning the season’s best basketball is ahead of them.
That being said, the Eastern Conference’s middle class has emerged from the gate stronger than I anticipated, most surprisingly with projected cellar-dwellers in Philadelphia trotting out to a 3-0 start. The 76ers have suffered several ugly losses since then, but there are flashes of brilliance. The squads in Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington are performing admirably, while New York stands to fare well once the Knicks’ schedule gets easier. Plus, Boston figures to get better upon Rajon Rondo’s return. Brooklyn’s issues lie in chemistry, similar to one part of the Bucks’ ailments, but the Nets have more inherent talent to keep their playoff hopes alive once they get it together. The same cannot necessarily be said for Milwaukee.
The Bucks have not been good through their first 10 games, and their final regular season record will reflect that as well as a more competitive conference. Able to time travel to any of the past several years, would this roster have better chances against opposition in the East? Probably so. But things are changing and, while they are trying, the Bucks haven’t quite figured out how to keep up with times.
I predicted the Bucks to finish at 32-50, good enough for 10th or 11th in the Eastern Conference, which was the lowest prediction of the whole panel. My reasoning for being such a pessimist was primarily based on the youth and the unfamiliarity possessed by this Bucks team. So far, my low-ball forecast is looking pretty good, not to brag or anything (totally bragging).
I’m going to stay relatively close to my original prediction and say the Bucks will finish 30-52 and 12th in the Eastern Conference. The first half of this season is, in all likelihood, going to bring minimal amounts of Bucks victories. Expect Milwaukee to start racking up meaningless W’s late in the season once chemistry develops and teams truly begin tanking.
So it appears that I was far too optimistic about this team. I regretted the 41-41 record prediction right after the first game. I was banking on the front court being productive and a lot of three point shooting while completely ignoring the one thing most important to NBA teams: superstars. The NBA is a star-driven league, and the Bucks probably don’t have a single All-Star caliber player on their roster (this includes Larry Sanders). Now the losses of Ilyasova, Knight, and Butler (for a time) due to injury and Sanders (due to his own stupidity) certainly didn’t help, but this team probably wouldn’t be much better with them anyways. The team doesn’t have anyone who can create his own shot other than O.J. Mayo, which is a huge problem. And while Milwaukee’s 3-point shooting has been stellar (currently 5th in the league in 3-point %), it’s not enough to bridge the talent gap against most teams. Looking at what the team has assembled now, a more realistic expectation is 30-52 and finishing 13th in the East. Luckily, this is the best possible thing that could happen to the Bucks, all things considered. With a little lottery magic they could end up with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, or one of the other 3 or 4 surefire All-Stars in this year’s draft, so all is not lost.
So my original prediction of 35 wins was based on good health, an improved Larry Sanders, and a semi-competent offense. When Larry has been on the court he’s looked anything but improved and if anything he’s regressed. Injuries have contributed to this sputtering offense as very little chemistry has formed between the roster. It’s also painfully obvious that this team has no post presence on the offensive end. Even more important this team has shown no interest in rebounding on offense or defense.
While the rest of the season looks bleak, there is a silver lining. This team still has talent, especially in the backcourt where Nate Wolters has done well in a surprising amount of playing time. More importantly, Brandon Knight has to get healthy eventually and once he does, he and OJ Mayo could form a potent scoring duo. It’s unlikely that Larry Sanders continues his weak play once he returns from injury – he just has too much talent. With that said, my new prediction is 27 wins. This will give the Bucks better odds entering the lottery and hopefully a top-3 pick in June. Apparently Herb Kohl will never tank on purpose, so it seems the Bucks organization is trying, they just aren’t very good.