Bucks 2015/16 Pre-Trade Deadline Review

We’re almost to the all-star break and have the trade deadline looming in the 2015-16 NBA season, so when your team has the third worst record in the conference it’s about time to look to the future. Since the Bucks are a good candidate for a bigger move before the trade deadline (and really no team is the same year to year), we won’t make any assumptions about the specifics of the future roster and will try and do this in terms of what should possibly be done now vs after the season and beyond. After the trade deadline passes, we’ll do a recap and make adjustments based on any moves that go down.

Current Roster & Salary Outlook

All numbers from Basketball-Reference.com

So there’s already $60.8m on the books for 16-17, with three bench spots potentially opening up via free agency (one of those spots being Vasquez, a player I like that came in a bad trade. Painful reminder of how that trade looked foolish at the time and is idiotic today).

We’re still expecting an $89m cap in 2016, which puts the Bucks in the same spot as much of the league. They can sign a max player if they wanted, but will have to compete with more than money. Regardless, money won’t be an issue immediately.

Contract Decisions

There’s a few players the Bucks will have to start make decisions about next year, both before the season and during, if not sooner. You can gather from the spreadsheet above, but here’s the breakdown.

OJ Mayo 

He was hoping for a big year to get a nice contract next season, but even with a 3 year high in minutes, he’s struggled to score and missed a lot of time by starting the season with an injury. Especially when he was injured, I loved Mayo as a glue guy (if you know Mayo’s history, you’re laughing right now). He was great early on, helping point things out to the young players, cheering from the bench, all the stuff you’d love one of your oldest and most experienced players (at a ripe old 27) to do.

I don’t know if it’s the poor team performance or his individual performance, but that seems to be turning. Lately there’s been a lot more arguing with refs, with coaches, being silent on the bench. It looks like the old Juice is back.

I’m still optimistic he’s just in a funk and can turn it back around. He’s still one of the few guys out there every night during shootaround working on his shot. He’s still a good defender and can definitely contribute on offense. I’d like to see him get what may be the biggest contract of his career next season, but on another team. If Mayo were having the season he hoped for, a 4 year deal at $40-45m would be in play for him. Maybe more given the direction of the cap. Unfortunately for him, he’s playing closer to the level of a midlevel guy.

Bottom line, I don’t see him coming back. It appears during MCW’s benching that the team decided Mayo doesn’t have a future as a starting PG. Even at a reduced salary from this year, there is enough money committed to 2017-18 already that you don’t want to add too much to the books while Giannis and Parker are going to be getting deals in the near future.

The other Expiring contracts

Bayless, Plumlee, Copeland and Vasquez. I could see the first three coming back as bargain contracts to fill out the bench.

Bayless has missed time because of injuries, but is a bit of a spark plug when he gets in. A lot of the bench lineups lack offense (and many of them are just plain lost), so he’s occassionally a good option to have. He also shares an agent with Jason Kidd.

Copeland and Plumlee almost never play and neither has much upside. They seem like good dudes and are by no means wasted roster spots. Copeland has a little history with Kidd from a year playing on the Knicks together, which I suspect is how he ended up in Milwaukee. In either case, they could be back or move on, and should take whatever option gives them the most money and/or potential playing time.

Vasquez is the one that hurts a lot. The trade has been recounted and analyzed many times. Bucks got Vasquez, gave up a 2015 2nd round pick (Raptors took Norman Powell, who is a typical 2nd round pick at this point) and a 2017 1st round pick. Lots of caveats, as there typically is with trading 1st rounders… It’s the Clippers’ pick and came to Milwaukee via the equally shameful trade (for LA) where Delfino and Raduljica went to LA for Dudley and the pick. It’s lottery protected, and you don’t expect LA to be in the lottery anytime soon. That means Toronto should expect a late 1st round pick in 2017.

What makes this so bad is, Vasquez is at best a backup. I’m assuming even though we had Mayo, Bayless and Ennis as options, the team wanted a more reliable guy off the bench to cover for MCW. I’d guess this may have been partially related to the unexpected success the previous year, and there was some degree of pressure not to take a big step back this year (didn’t work). Regardless, Vasquez is hurt and won’t play much, if at all, the rest of the year. I can’t imagine they’ll sign him, which means the Bucks gave up a valuable pick for 361 minutes of backup point guard play.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis is a lot more interesting. He’s still incredibly exciting and likely has superstar potential in him, but I think everyone hoped for a bigger step forward this year. His PER of 16.5 is not impressive, but he’s so young you don’t worry much about that. His defensive rating of 108 is bad, as well as a step back from last year. You’d think the poor team defense is the biggest factor there. His shooting away from the rim is still horrible.

Source: http://vorped.com/sc/c39c28d6464b4786bba2364e049ddac7
Source: http://vorped.com/sc/c39c28d6464b4786bba2364e049ddac7

You’d just hope for more this year. Instead, most indicators say he’s taken a step back. If you put any weight on stats like VORP and WS, he’s much worse and in some cases well below average. Ignore the YouTube highlights, watch games and just focus on him. It’s getting worrisome. You can see it in person and on TV… he just seems eager to make the highlight play. But his offensive skillset is still so limited, there aren’t many options to make that play. If he can’t score, or the possession doesn’t focus on him, he drifts off to the perimeter and loses interest.

source: http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/a/antetgi01.html
source: http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/a/antetgi01.html

Let me be clear, this does not mean you give up on Giannis. He’s of course barely 21 and this is his second season as a full-time starter. He’s had very different lineups around him each of his years with the team and his role has shifted a bit, but those are not things that should prevent growth.

You have to still assume that with this much raw talent and rare the rare size/skill combo, that Giannis will keep improving. You have to hope this year is a bump in the road. Again, he just turned 21. He’s probably three years away from really entering his peak.

But that’s where questions start to pop up. 2016-17 is the last year of his rookie contract. He’ll be a restricted free agent after next year, which helps, but there will definitely be teams legitimately trying to sign him (as well as probably a team or two trying to screw the Bucks into matching a silly contract). That means the Bucks could be hit with a sizable contract, something they may regret if this year is a darker omen of the future.

But what else can they do? A trade before he becomes an RFA has massive potential to be a disaster. It’s almost unheard of for good reason. Nobody would support that. You basically have no choice but to let 2016-17 play out, see how he’s progressing, and re-sign him regardless. There’s no way they let him walk, and even if next year is horrendous, there still would be sign/trade options as a worst-case, just based on his youth and potential.

That all seems like an overreaction, but I am a tad worried. Giannis came into the NBA so raw, that there was no rational way you could expect him to actually play like KD at the same age (even though the comps were certainly flying around). You’d have to think he’ll hit his prime later than typical players, simply because of the development needs. But when you don’t see the progress and you don’t see his game improving, it is concerning. The big fear is that Giannis ends up as a swingman version of DeAndre Jordan. An player that is able to overcome a lack of skill development with athleticism (which translates to being an overpaid player that you have to sit in crunch time).

That is not what the Bucks want. Ideally Giannis is the 2nd best player on the team at his peak, maybe the best. If he developed his offensive game, he has no ceiling. If he coasts on his athletic ability, it will be a dead end for the long term growth of the team. What could be a contending core of Parker/Giannis/Middleton a few seasons from now would likely end up being just another team stuck fighting for an 8th seed. They’d almost certainly have max money committed to each of those three players, and limited depth as a result. Middleton is not going to be the 2nd best player on a title contender, but projects to be a great third option. If Giannis isn’t a top 10 (or better) player, there’s no way this current core is a contender. That’s the quandary.

Players That Could Get Traded

Fire up the rumor mill! Even though one of the Bucks’ owners said they weren’t going to panic, there still is likely going to be some moves made during this season and leading up to next. I won’t speculate on specific moves, but instead, I think these players could be sent away in a potential trade.

John Henson

Henson’s extension kicks in next year, where his salary will be $9.5m and increase an extra $1m each of the following three years (through 2019-20). If he were paid that salary this year, it would be an atrocity. Next year with the increased cap, it’s a lot more tolerable but still a substantial amount of money for a player that will struggle to hit 20 minutes a game as long as Monroe is on the team.

Henson is a great bundle of energy that hasn’t been consistently contained to date. Last season, it appeared he was putting it all together after Larry Sanders fell apart as a high minute backup to Zaza. He was great in pick and roll and cutting to the rim. His rim protection appeared to be a skill that would turn him into a starter (which he was for a bit). But as the season went on, his inconsistency seemed to grow. This year, it’s more ups and downs. He’s an impressive shot blocker, but hasn’t offered much else and is always in foul trouble.

If Henson could be a reliable starter, he’d actually be an interesting fit for the team. If you move Monroe, he’d balance out the offensive touches a lot and his length, rim protection and athleticism would really help the defense. But I don’t think anyone is ready to believe that is an option.

Trading him this year is a bit interesting. His value is probably still high as teams will see him as a player on the rise under a contract that is easy to swallow with the new TV money. But his salary is low this year, which means if you’re going to trade him for anyone that makes an impact now, you’ll probably have to package him with another vet like Mayo to make the numbers work.

Other Trade Possibilities

OJ Mayo – I talked about his value above, and his nagging hamstring problem isn’t helping things. You don’t see teams putting a lot of value on expiring contracts since the new CBA and you especially won’t see it now since virtually everyone has max cap room next year. Still, he’s likely to be a part of any deal the Bucks make and has value on any team that wants to compete now but needs depth.

Plumlee, Bayless, Copeland – They’re all expendable, even though they’ve been very much needed to fill in depth due to injuries. Any of these guys could probably get more minutes elsewhere, but aren’t really helping anybody. But don’t be surprised if they’re tossed in to help contracts line up.

Major Trade Possibilities (aka “Can this roster work?”)

There’s plenty of “blow it up” and “go for the lottery” talk happening among fans this year. People want to trade everyone, I’ve even seen talk of moving Jabari among fans and at least one media member. But let’s look at this realistically, the current starters are almost certainly staying put. The team, from ownership down, has stayed on message that this is about the future. And when your oldest starter turns 26 in June, there’s no reason to worry about accelerating any timelines.

But even so, you’ve got to look to that future and wonder if there’s any way it could work. The ideal scenarios involve Monroe continuing to dominate the low post. Giannis really lives up to his name, can score 20 a night by killing it in transition and punishing smaller forwards or less agile big men in the post. Parker turns into a stretch 4 that can still make spectacular plays around the rim. Middleton keeps growing as an all-around wing player that can play the two guard or small forward in small ball lineups. MCW being a top notch two way guard that can distribute to everyone, get to the rim and score, and hopefully develop a respectable mid-range game.

There’s several problems with that scenario.

  • Touches. There’s only so many to go around. When your five starters all want to be the leading scorer, it won’t work. Even with the popularity of the “big 3” concept in team building, you usually have one or two ball-dominant scorers in that group and one guy that is a star but comfortable as a third option (Bosh, Jordan, Ibaka, Garnett are all examples from recent big-3 lineups). The Bucks have a team that ideally is a “big 5” concept, which just won’t work. You can’t keep everyone happy. Hopefully one player of the bunch would emerge as a true #1 scorer that you can rely on game to game as well as in crunch time.
  • Spacing/Points in the Paint. Parker, Monroe, and Antetokounmpo all score over 64% of their points in the paint. Add MCW and that group is taking 32 shots/game inside 8 feet. Spacing is an obvious problem for this team today, but can you really see it getting better? Kidd says Parker has a future as a stretch 4, but it would be far easier and even more logical for his body and athleticism to work on a post game first. Giannis and MCW have ugly shots and it’s really hard to imagine either of them adding a lot of range. The starters manage to score a lot of points regardless, but predictably are shut down in crunch time when defenses tighten and the paint is blocked off. I would hate to see what this lineup looked like in the playoffs, where any competent defensive group should be able to almost completely deny the paint.
  • Rim Protection/Defense. I’ll lump these two together, even though they are different issues. The defense as a whole stinks for many reasons. Compared to the unit that dominated last year, there are three new starters and Middleton is in a new position. Parker is a bad defender, and he’s hampered more by this entire season essentially being his comeback from a torn ACL. Monroe is a worse defender. MCW and Giannis both have the ability to be good, but you can’t rely on them even in one-on-one scenarios consistently, and they both take chances or get lost when switching. All of that is a problem, and it’s hard to imagine finding a solution.

    Parker has the talent to be a better defender though, and the MCW/Giannis duo really just need discipline. That will take time. Monroe is a lost cause at this point. He can improve, and the coaches should be expecting that out of him, but his deficiencies are so great that there’s no way I see him ever getting to an above-average level.

    Then there’s rim protection, which is a growing concern. Based on the league numbers for anyone playing over 30 minutes/game, Giannis is the best rim protector on the team, and he’s still bad at it. Henson is of course, one of the best in the league, but we already covered the issues with his lack of playing time and the things preventing him from getting more. One thing you see watching the Bucks on defense is all of the big guys cheat back to the paint, likely because they get burned so frequently on easy baskets and there’s no one guy in there to deter shots at the rim. But when they’re doing that along with trying to trap ball handlers and switch everyone on pick and roll, they end up with wide open 3’s all over the place.

    The Bucks are giving up 9.3 made 3’s a game, 3rd worst in the league. That’s coming on 25.5 attempts (36.5% is 7th worst). But what’s shocking is an average of 11 3-point attempts a game (43% of the total attempts) are wide open (no defender within 6 feet).

    It’s a mess all over, but one would think that with Henson as a starter to guard the paint and some more effort and polish from the other guys, we’d see far different results. Instead everyone is trying to guard the paint AND the perimeter at the same time, and thus, nobody is protecting anything.

Those are all pretty fundamental issues that don’t have easy solutions given the current roster. And I don’t think you can have a realistic contender by only addressing a handful of them.

For example, you could move Monroe for maybe draft picks or more young talent, then start Henson at center. That evens out the touches and should help the defense all around. There’s still no shooting and even less crunch time scoring (Monroe does make for the most reliable scoring option late in games).

And even so, you may have something with the kid Vaughn as yet another scoring option, but there’s nowhere for him to get minutes. Ideally, you’d want the flexibility to put Middleton at the wing in spots and have Vaughn at shooting guard. But that means benching one of your supposed foundational players to open that spot. That works in spots, and maybe it would be just what the team needs for stretches, but it mostly speaks to the idea that you need to bench at least one starter in order to attempt to fix spacing.

MCW is going to keep coming up as a way to fix things long-term, and you’re not necessarily wrong for thinking that. Mostly, people want to replace him with a guard that can shoot. But two shooters does not fix spacing or the touches issue. And unless you’re finding a way to get an elite point guard without giving up a starter, any guard with a better shot is going to be giving up something else or maybe several somethings.

The reality is that a lot of things need to go right for this team to work. Giannis, Parker and MCW all need to show dramatic improvements in their shooting if they ever hope to be on the floor together as part of a contender. They need to improve enough that when you start bringing in subs, you can leave one or two of them out there and not have performance fall off a cliff. Right now that’s the case, as the entire bench is a negative, but on good teams would be helped out by keeping one of the stars on the floor with them. Moose is probably not part of the team when and if that time comes and that means Henson (or someone else) needs to step in as a reliable presence on defense.

If all of those things don’t go perfectly, it would mean that building a contender requires moving several pieces., including Parker and/or Giannis, along with looking at options in the middle and at point guard. A lot of fans don’t want to hear that.

But in the end, that’s all part of having a young team. The Bucks can listen to any offer for any player right now, but I’d imagine Monroe or Henson are the only core players they’d serious consider moving. The rest can work itself out through player development and additional draft picks and smaller trades throughout the next few years.

We’ll check back in after the trade deadline and see what, if anything, changed. If the team looks different at that point, we’ll re-evaluate the outlook.

Put on your tin foil hats NBA fans…

When I decided to attend the Bucks game against the visiting Lakers Wednesday night it wasn’t because I’m a die-hard NBA or Bucks fan.  It wasn’t because I thought the Bucks could win (local Bucks talkshow host Steve Pfeiffer of WSSP said he’d be happy with a 12 or less point loss).  Really the only reason I went was because I had never seen Kobe Bryant play in person.  He is one of the last superstars from the days when I was a die-hard NBA fan that I had not seen.  So I expected to see Kobe play well (39-7-4).  I expected to see the Lakers big guys look way too strong for the Bucks.  I also expected to see more Brandon Jennings (~ 5min in the 4th and 0 min in OT).

So when there was about 6 minutes left and the Bucks were up by 5 I was just waiting to see the Lakers go on a run.  But they couldn’t… the Bucks had a shot and then I saw one of the most shocking scenes not involving Artest punching fans.  The refs just changed the course of the game right before our eyes.  First, with the bucks still up 5 and only 3:31 left, Gasol makes a short jumper and gets fouled.  Shot is good.  Free throw is not.  However, on the free throw Artest jumps into the lane about 5 seconds early and seems to pull Ilysova with him, who then goes to block out for the rebound.  Whistle blows, should be Bucks ball.  Instead, they call a lane violation on the Bucks!  Gasol gets another chance at the free throw and drains it.  Now it’s a 2 point game.  Bogut manages to tie it up late and Kobe misses a fadeaway as the clock runs out, sending us to overtime.  The Bucks look strong the majority of overtime, despite missing several shots for a stretch they have the lead with about a minute left.  Then it really happened.  Kobe has the ball about 15 feet out.  Everyone is crowding the key, Kobe drives, spins, takes a few extra steps and knocks over two Bucks players.  He makes his shot in the process.  Whistles blow but there is no call.  The refs just stare at each other until finally a block is called.  Kobe converts the 3 point play and brings it to within a point for the Lakers.  It was the most gut-wrenching backwards call I’d ever witnessed in a live game.  After that, the Bucks can’t make a shot and just like a scene from a movie, Kobe hits the game winner.

It really doesn’t matter that the Bucks lost.  The two calls I mentioned were a 4 point swing in Lakers’ favor.  The NBA and its followers can come up with plenty of examples where the Bucks missed opportunities late to overcome those 4 points.  They are all bad arguments though, because they rely on the “what-if” world of revisionist history.  I don’t care what happens if the Bucks make a few foul shots.  Should they make them?  Yes.  Might they have changed the course of the game?  Maybe.  The more important point is that the very hard to defend calls late DID change the outcome of the game.