Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Milwaukee Bucks

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Andrew BogutGary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter a fast start to the season a year ago, Andrew Bogut and the Bucks fizzled out.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

Promises, promises.

The Bucks began the season promising that this would be the year they finally played defense, and for about a month they actually made that seem somewhat believable. Milwaukee went 7-4 out of the gate, with a five-game winning streak that included wins over Cleveland, Dallas and the Lakers, and a playoff berth seemed eminently possible.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 26-56 (Pythagorean W-L: 20-62)
Offensive Efficiency: 102.4 (22nd)
Defensive Efficiency: 109.8 (30th)
Pace Factor: 93.9 (17th)
Highest PER: Michael Redd (18.90)

Alas, the bottom fell out from there. Milwaukee regressed to the mean in a big way, going back to its usual shameful defense and slipping to 19-34 by the All-Star break. At that point, the chemistry frayed and the Bucks basically gave up on the season, and unlike a year earlier they weren't even tanking for the lottery this time. In their final 24 games, the Bucks went 4-20 and endured eight losses by at least 16 points; by comparison, they won by such a margin just once the entire season. It's not even like they were hit hard by injuries. They just sucked.

The Bucks essentially stopped defending, as head coach Larry Krystkowiak seemingly could do nothing to get his player's attention despite being in his first full season at the helm. Keep in mind that he had been hired to improve the defense that had failed under Terry Stotts, who was hired because of the defensive problems they had under Terry Porter, who was hired to fix the defensive problems under George Karl. Just a hint, guys: Maybe it ain't the coach.

In fact, they've never been worse. The Bucks finished dead last in defensive efficiency, which was a difficult feat in a league that included the Knicks and Grizzlies, and this came despite decent numbers in the rebounding and turnover departments. In other words, the Bucks didn't allow an unusual number of shots -- they simply allowed whatever shot the opponent wanted.

Defensive Efficiency: 2007-08's Worst

TEAM DEF. EFF. OPP. TS%
Milwaukee 109.9 56.8
New York 109.6 55.7
Memphis 109.2 55.7
Minnesota 108.9 56.1
Sacramento 108.7 55.5
League average 104.7 54.0

Milwaukee was last in opponent true shooting percentage, at 56.8 percent, and nearly last in opponent field goal percentage -- Memphis beat them out for the honor by seven ten-thousandths of a point. The Bucks gave up above average rates of both free throws and 3-pointers, and they were in the bottom five in defending both 3-point shots and 2-point shots.

I can churn out more depressing numbers in other defensive categories, but the upshot is they were just really, really bad. With soft, unthreatening defenders like Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva, Yi Jianlian and Mo Williams, that hardly should have been a surprise, but the effort level also was severely lacking -- especially in the second half of the season. After the All-Star break, Milwaukee's defensive efficiency mark of 113.4 wasn't just the worst in the league, it was 1.4 points worse than any other team.

Offensively, the story was a bit more optimistic, with Milwaukee ranking 22nd in offensive efficiency and third in offensive rebound rate. The Bucks pulled down 30 percent of their own misses despite lacking an imposing frontcourt, primarily because their bigs were far better on the offensive glass than the defensive.

But in the big picture, about the only positive news came late in the season, when little-used Ramon Sessions took over at point guard. He finished the year with five straight double-figure assist games, including 24 in a wild 151-135 loss to Chicago, and will take on a much larger role this season.

Once the largely forgettable season ended, it was time to pay the piper. GM Larry Harris was given the ax, along with Krystkowiak; neither move came as a surprise given the Bucks' lack of both success and future promise. In particular, Harris' three signature moves the previous 12 months -- firing Stotts and hiring Krystkowiak, signing Desmond Mason to improve the defense and using a high draft pick on Chinese forward Yi Jianlian -- all appeared to bear little fruit.

It didn't help him, however, that the Bucks were run just as much by a three-man cabal of underlings to owner Herb Kohl, whose interference had an unquantifiable impact on the team's ability to make positive moves. An effort to acquire the Knicks' Zach Randolph for a pair of bad contracts, for instance, reportedly was nixed by the Milwaukee politburo; there may have been other deals that met a similar fate.

Because of that reputation for meddling, not to mention an ugly cap situation, the Bucks had a difficult time finding a replacement. However, they eventually landed a reasonably qualified candidate in former Pistons assistant GM John Hammond. Hammond immediately set about hiring a coach to -- what else -- improve the defense, landing former Chicago Bulls firebrand Scott Skiles.

Unlike his more laid-back predecessors, he might stand a better chance of getting some results. Skiles' track record is that his team wearies of his approach after a couple of seasons, but he also gets immediate improvement. In particular, his quest for accountability may provide the kick in the pants that too-comfortable veterans like Redd and Richard Jefferson need.


Biggest Strength: Wing scoring

The Bucks don't have a whole lot going for them, but the Redd-Jefferson combo on the wings will put pressure on opponents who don't have two quality wing defenders to match up against them.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Bucks make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Redd is still the main man in Milwaukee, with his soft lefty shot complemented by a greatly improved ability to go one-on-one. And since there are more offensive weapons around him than last season, he may get more opportunities to show off his sweet catch-and-shoot game. Jefferson, meanwhile, is more the slasher of the two, with a knack for scoring in transition and a good midrange touch. Behind those two, Alexander is another strong one-on-one player, while long-time bench ace Charlie Bell can hit shots, too, though he's coming off a horrid season.

The question is whether any of those players can create shots for others. Milwaukee's offense degenerated into too much one-on-one last season; if Redd and Jefferson are creating only for themselves, it will fall upon Ridnour and Sessions to involve the others.

Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt depth

Milwaukee's interior defense has long been suspect, and that won't change this year with the starting frontcourt of Bogut and Charlie Villanueva. While Bogut is physical, rebounds and willingly takes charges, he's not particularly mobile and doesn't alter shots around the basket. Villanueva hardly plays any defense at all, though he's a decent rebounder, and one wonders how his laissez-faire attitude at that end will play with the hardscrabble Skiles.

But he may have no choice given his options off the bench. Though Allen is a bit of a teacher's pet among disciplinarian coaches because he doesn't screw up, the fact is he's a 30-year-old journeyman coming off consecutive single-digit PER seasons; you can't play a guy like this more than 10 minutes a night and seriously expect to win.

At center, the picture is arguably even worse. Dan Gadzuric has declined as sharply as any player in basketball over the past two years; he'll battle the equally thin and equally miserable Francisco Elson for minutes behind Bogut. Though Elson is the better defender, he also has the worse history -- like Allen, he's coming off a single-digit PER season, and his career mark is barely in double figures.


Outlook

I'll say this: They won't finish dead last in defensive efficiency. Skiles will play a team full of minor leaguers and score 57 points a night before he'll allow a team to loaf through a season the way these guys did in '07-08. That alone should help the Bucks' win total.

So should the addition of Jefferson, who fills a major need at small forward. And while losing Williams' scoring hurts, the addition of Ridnour and Sessions in his place should at least allow the others to see the ball a bit more, which ought to be helpful.

Nonetheless, there are just too many holes here for the Bucks to succeed with the reckless quick-fix approach that they're pursuing. The frontcourt is a mess, and if they have any injuries at all they'll be in a totally untenable situation. In the backcourt, the Bucks appear to have three backup point guards and no starters.

The sum of it all is that, basically, I don't get it. Milwaukee has capped itself out for three years and stuck itself with several midcareer players who are almost certain to decline in coming seasons, and for what? The chance to go 38-44 and get swept in the first round of the playoffs? Have they sunk so far that this is the new standard of success?

If so, they may be able to clear their lowered bar and declare victory. More likely, though, their still-numerous holes will keep them scrambling for more veteran retreads, and they'll sink deeper into salary-cap hell while losing the battle of the treadmill.

Prediction: 32-50, 5th in Central Division, 12th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.