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Under the Microscope, Part II- Milwaukee Bucks

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Mike McGinnis

In continuing with our season previews at the site, I wanted to learn a bit more about the Milwaukee Bucks, so I rang up BrewHoop founder and editor Frank Madden. Our conversation is below:

BF: How are you guys liking Jabari Parker so far?

FM: To be honest I think many of us still have to pinch ourselves that he's on the team. Not that we weren't expecting a high pick in the draft, but it'd been almost a decade since the Bucks last had a top five pick, and many fans had sort of become resigned over the years to the Bucks missing out on the draft's top talent. So everyone's pretty excited and anxious to see him suit up for the first time.

As for what we have seen since June? Well, Parker had his ups and downs in Vegas, but in general I think we saw the kind of player we expected: an aggressive, outside/in forward with an uncommon combination of physicality, athleticism and scoring instincts. He'll have lots of learning to do (especially on the defensive end), but expectations will be high that he can come in and immediately make an impact. Hopefully he's up for the challenge.

BF: This is the first time in about 20 years (as a player and his year of coaching) that Jason Kidd has been a part of a rebuilding project. How do you think he'll do with the young roster and low expectations surrounding the team?

FM: He certainly won't have a high bar in terms of wins and losses, and with job security not an issue I'm hoping he experiments freely with the young guys. Ultimately that will be the biggest barometer of success--can he keep everyone happy and get the most out of guys like Giannis and Jabari? If he can do that then the wins will eventually start to come, and they could even surprise a bit this season.

BF: O.J. Mayo and Ilyasova were the two highest paid players on the team last year and are coming off of their worst seasons. Do you think there's a possibility they give the Bucks anything close to league average production?

FM: I definitely have higher hopes for Ilyasova than Mayo, though I'm not sure either guy is part of the team's long-term (or even short-term?) plans. Ilyasova was extremely productive the prior two seasons, and there aren't many guys who've been capable of being scrappy rebounders while hitting >40% from three. Unfortunately he struggled with injuries and a prolonged bout of inconsistency last season, though a summer off will hopefully have served him well.

As for Mayo, he was the only Buck who completely went off the radar over the summer, which was fitting given the same thing happened under Larry Drew last year. I'm not making any bets on Mayo either way.

BF: How do you see Larry Sanders bouncing back after a rough season on and off the court?

FM: Larry was his own worst enemy over the past twelve months, so at this point it's entirely on him to get himself back to where he was two years ago. We've heard good things about him getting his head right and re-dedicating himself to the game this summer, but talk is cheap and he's no longer going to get the benefit of the doubt. That said, he was starting to come around when a stray James Harden elbow fractured a bone near his eye last February, and even with all the struggles he still ranked second among centers in defensive RPM last year. He'll have every chance to retain the starting center spot, and any hope of the Bucks defending respectably would seem to ride on his mobility and ability to protect the rim.

BF: I saw a few articles over the summer saying Kidd wanted to play Giannis at the point. How do you think that will work out if he goes that route?

FM: The idea of grooming Giannis as a point guard seems like better marketing than hoops strategy, though I do like the idea of developing his point guard skills. It's true that Giannis is an excellent passer and handler of the ball for a 6'11" kid, and Giannis was nominally the team's primary ballhandler for long stretches in summer league. But the path to actually being a capable NBA point guard is a rather long and unlikely one given the circumstances. And it's worth noting that in Vegas he was mostly looking to create shots for himself--which in all honesty is exactly what I'd want him to be working on. Being able to take two dribbles and get a good look from 10-15 feet will be more important to his long-term development than being able to bring the ball up and get the team into its sets, and I think that storyline kind of got buried in the OMG Giannis could be a PG! excitement. So looking ahead to the season, I think you'll see Giannis bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense at times this season, but I view that as more of a change-up to keep the defense guessing than a normal operating mode.

BF: Speaking of Giannis, how good do you think he'll end up being?

FM: It's strange--even after a year of seeing him play relatively major minutes, I still feel like I have very little sense of how good he'll actually end up being.

Like most people I didn't expect him to do much of anything last year, so the mere fact that he could get on the court and do a little bit of everything was obviously very encouraging. He's incredible in the open court, can be disruptive defensively, shot reasonably well from deep, and showed uncommon comfort handling and passing the ball for a guy his size. But I'm still not sure how all those skills will converge into a complete package, especially given that he didn't really have many opportunities to create shots off the dribble and didn't show much of a proclivity for it when he did have those chances. Ultimately he'll have to score to become a star, and that's also why it was so encouraging that he was able to do much more of that in Vegas.

So all told we're left in a weird but rather fun place: On the one hand we don't really know if he'll be great at anything, but it's also still possible that he'll be great at everything. I still think he's much more likely to end up as a second or third banana than a superstar, but a major leap this season could convince me otherwise.

BF: Do you think there's anything about the Bucks that national writers and people outside of Milwaukee gets wrong about the team that needs to be corrected?

FM: I don't think anyone expected them to be as bad as they were last season, but I also think there's a bit of a misconception about when the team shifted into more of a rebuilding mode. The standard narrative is that the Bucks wanted to make the playoffs last year, and on some level there's truth to that--I don't think Herb Kohl or Larry Drew had any interest in bottoming out like they did!

But after striking out on a number of free agents and then dealing Brandon Jennings for the unproven Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton last July, the messaging from the front office shifted pretty dramatically, and I think at that point they saw the writing on the wall. Suddenly no one was publicly talking about the playoffs anymore, and instead the focus was much more on developing the team's young talent.

Now that's not to say they were justified in paying good money for veterans like Zaza Pachulia, Mayo and Caron Butler, but I would say there was certainly a sense of reality setting in even before the season started. And I'd also suggest that pivot towards the team's youth was probably a big reason why John Hammond and his staff survived the ownership change--privately and publicly they had hoped to shift into a true rebuild much earlier, but it took the events of last summer in order to leave the Bucks with no other choice. The ownership change has had an energizing effect for the fanbase, but the good news is that the change in mindset was already starting before Lasry and Edens bought the team.

I also think it's a bit ironic how Drew was turned into a martyr during the Kidd affair. Clearly the handling of whole process was clumsy at best, and Kidd's role can fairly be questioned on his own merits. But ownership hadn't promised Drew or the front office anything beyond the draft, and Drew--whom most fans viewed as little more than a mid-tier coach when he was hired--couldn't have gotten less out the roster he did have last season. So while the Bucks made a big PR mistake trotting Drew out with Parker the day after the draft, the pity-party that came after it also provided a convenient distraction from the fact that Drew hadn't shown any clue as to how he could get the most out of this roster to begin with. I don't think anyone disliked Drew as a person, but I also think fans are happy he's gone.

BF: What would constitute a successful season in your eyes?

FM: A year ago I would have told you it was all about finding minutes for the youngsters and hoping they develop, and I'm thinking that's likely to be the theme for the next couple years as well.

They could win 20 games if everything goes haywire, or they could surprise people and crack the 30-win mark--provided the youngsters improve and guys like Sanders and Ilyasova turn things around. At this point it's just difficult to judge how the pieces will ultimately fit and work together, but as long as we're still talking about Giannis and Jabari as potential all-stars I'll be happy.

BF: Outside of Milwaukee, what player, team or story will you be keeping a close eye on this upcoming season?

FM: Obviously everyone will be watching what happens in Cleveland closely, though I also think that's drawn attention away from Chicago, which is almost as intriguing given Rose's return and all the changes made this summer. Out West, I've always liked the Thunder and I'm very curious to see if they can get back to the Finals--and if not, how will that affect Kevin Durant's interest in staying long-term?

Thank you to Frank for taking part in this interview. You can find him on Twitter at @BrewHoop.