MILWAUKEE — Sure, the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs last season, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought last year’s roster worked either on or off the court.
The Bucks backed their way into the playoffs with a losing record and were quickly eliminated by the champion Miami Heat. In the locker room, team chemistry was a mess. The team suffered from a lack of leadership and individuals more focused on their contract situations than how Milwaukee was performing on the court.
To their credit, Bucks general manager John Hammond and new assistant general manager David Morway realized the problems last year’s roster had and didn’t try to bring the majority of the team back.
Getting team owner Herb Kohl on board with a complete deconstruction of the roster, Hammond refused to give big contracts to Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis and managed to build a roster capable of competing while not overwhelming the franchise with bad, long-term deals.
Milwaukee’s complete roster overhaul — it only returns four players, the fewest in franchise history — was not only necessary but done in the right way. There’s not a single crippling contract on the roster, as Hammond stuck to maximum three-year deals with the exception of Larry Sanders’ extension.
It’s nearly impossible to construct a roster capable of competing for the playoffs while maintaining youth and flexibility to build an even more competitive roster for the future, but the Bucks have come close. The 2013-14 version of the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t going to compete for an Eastern Conference crown and may even be a last-place team. But if they are in the playoff mix this upcoming season it will be a much easier group to get behind simply because the core of the team is young and hungry.
Last season’s team was hard to watch at times for a number of reasons. This season should be much different. From young point guard Brandon Knight to Sanders, the majority of Milwaukee’s new core has something to prove. Led by a new coach in Larry Drew who preaches a team game, the Bucks now seem like a team who will leave it all on the court each night.
At point guard, Knight is out to prove he’s capable of being a floor general in the NBA. Talented and still very young at 21 years old, Knight was branded by the Pistons as a swing guard and not their point guard of the future. Hammond brought in steady veteran Luke Ridnour to serve as the primary backup point guard. Ridnour should give the Bucks a mentor on and off the court to Knight and rookie Nate Wolters, and his contract expires at the end of the season.
Milwaukee will also be able to see what it has in Wolters. A prolific scorer at the college level, Wolters has all the tools to be a solid NBA point guard. He has the size to play the position, but the Bucks will need to find out if his three-point shot translates to the professional game.
Hammond was able to replace Ellis with a scoring shooting guard without breaking the bank. O.J. Mayo will make $8 million in each of the next three seasons, not a bad contract at all for the player he should be for the Bucks. This is Mayo’s chance to prove he can consistently be a team’s go-to scorer. If Milwaukee needs to move Mayo in the next few years, his contract is one that should be movable.
Gary Neal was added from San Antonio at a reasonable price to serve as the Bucks’ primary backup shooting guard. Not only will Neal bring his three-point shooting touch to Milwaukee, but also he is expected to add experience in a winning culture to the locker room.
Milwaukee recently beefed up at small forward by taking on Caron Butler in a trade from Phoenix. Not only will Butler help the Bucks on the court, but he also seems to be embracing a leadership role. Coming home means a lot to Butler and should be a very good thing for the franchise. Even if Butler plays out the final year of his contract and moves on, his stay could be important for the product on the court and in the community.
Veteran Carlos Delfino was added on another affordable contract, but he may not be ready for the start of the regular season after breaking his foot in last year’s playoffs. Delfino is another guy who loved playing in Milwaukee and is a tremendous influence in the locker room. He’ll add depth at small forward and a sharpshooter off the bench, but Delfino also will go a long way in helping the Bucks avoid another team chemistry collapse.
The other two players at small forward are projects. Acquired in the Brandon Jennings trade, Khris Middleton flashed an ability to put the ball in the hoop during extended playing time with Detroit at the end of last season. He’ll certainly get a chance to prove what he can do, and the Bucks were excited to land him. Then there is 18-year-old rookie Giannis Antetokoumpo. Milwaukee’s first-round pick is certainly talented but incredibly raw. How Drew manages minutes and how the Greek forward performs and grows when he’s on the floor is something to watch.
Milwaukee is set in the front court, as all four returners come from the power forward and center positions. Ersan Ilysaova is back at power forward, while John Henson should find his way onto the court more in his second year. At center, Sanders will start and anchor the team’s defense. Zaza Pachulia was signed to be Sanders’ primary backup, while Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica was brought over to provide size and toughness. The Bucks were missing a big, bruising body inside last season and Pachulia and Raduljica were signed to remedy those issues.
One question left to be answered is where Ekpe Udoh stands with this year’s team. In the final year of his contract, Udoh hasn’t progressed like Milwaukee had hoped. Many felt the former sixth overall pick in the draft was going to be traded in the offseason, but Udoh will come to camp with the Bucks. He’ll have to earn a spot in the rotation with so much competition at both interior positions.
After an offseason filled with roster moves and a coaching search, the Bucks will open training camp three weeks from Tuesday with an entirely different looking team. Milwaukee’s offseason as a whole seems like a success for now, but nobody really knows if the culture has really changed until the calendar strikes October.