Milwaukee Bucks: 5 reasons to be optimistic after 2016-17 season

Feb 26, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13), forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) and guard Khris Middleton (22) reacts after beating the Phoenix Suns 100-96 at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After a surprise run into the postseason, the Milwaukee Bucks have a bright future ahead of them. Here are 5 reasons to be optimistic after the 2016-17 season

The Milwaukee Bucks ended the season in defeat, but for 29 teams that is an eventuality that cannot be avoided. While one team (read: Golden State) will hoist the trophy at season’s end, the rest of the league faces optimism, uncertainty or hopelessness when looking to the future.

From another season-ending knee injury to Jabari Parker to Khris Middleton’s preseason hamstring tear, this season for the Bucks had all the potential of derailing the franchise. They seemed to have reached with their lottery pick on Thon Maker, their last draft pick (Rashad Vaughn) had a lackluster rookie year and the East was filled with hype from all sides.

But instead Milwaukee showed the teeth of its draft evaluations, unveiled the league’s next superstar and made the playoffs as the sixth seed. First round exit aside, this team found plenty of reasons to be optimistic about next season and beyond.

The rest of the league is on notice: the Milwaukee Bucks are ready to “Own the Future.”

While that optimism has to start with the versatile brilliance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, it doesn’t end there. Here are five reasons why the Milwaukee Bucks organization – and its devoted fans – should be optimistic after the end of the 2016-17 season.

Apr 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls the ball against Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) during the first half in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo was an MVP candidate

In the season of the superstar, the MVP race was one of the most closely contested in league history. Four candidates each had a strong case for the top spot, and it’s not inconceivable that a voter looks at Stephen Curry’s advanced metrics and gives him a first place nod. Five candidates for the top spot is not only insane, it’s the mark of an all-time great season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo submitted a season every bit as noteworthy as the best in the league, improving in every single statistic for the fourth straight season and leading the Bucks in each of those categories. No player in NBA history has ever finished in the top-20 in the league in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals — until the Greek Freak accomplished just that this season.

Not only was Antetokounmpo the best offensive player on a playoff team, but he was their best defensive player. How many other players can claim that? LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Paul George – that both exhausts the list and puts Antetokounmpo in lofty company among the very best wings in the league. He is a deserving candidate, if not the frontrunner, for the fifth place on the MVP ballot.

In just his second career playoff series Antetokounmpo did not falter, but was the best player on the court for all six games. During a Game 1 victory he was unstoppable around the rim, and in Game 3 he had the defensive play of the season blocking a shot with his elbow. In Game 6 he was the engine that drove a 25-point comeback in the second half.

The scary side of things is that Antetokounmpo is just 22 years old, with plenty of room to grow. His body is still malleable, so he should come back with more strength and a small amount of weight, that will help him hold up as the full-time power forward.

His game is equally open to improvement, and Antetokounmpo has already identified opportunities in his game to attack this offseason:

The Milwaukee Bucks have a true superstar, and the best part is that he’s going to get even better. To answer the question on everyone’s minds, the last MVP winner in Milwaukee was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won the award in 1974.

Bucks Draft

Jun 24, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks first round pick Thon Maker (R) and second round pick Malcolm Brogdon (L) hold up their jerseys at Milwaukee Bucks training facility. Mandatory Credit: Sam Caravana- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

More draft day steals

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player from the 2013 NBA Draft, and the Milwaukee front office snagged him at pick No. 15. While not to the same degree, they seem to have pulled off more draft day robbery this season as well.

Thon Maker was one of the more controversial picks of the 2016 NBA Draft. Bypassing college due to a loophole in the “one-and-done” system, Maker entered the draft as a relative unknown. Some scouts lauded him as an elite talent, others as a rail-thin mystery player with no role and a supposed age that could not be proven.

Malcolm Brogdon was a routine second round pick, an intelligent four-year college player with the tools and college production to suggest he may stick on an NBA roster as a defensively oriented fifth guard, the guy coaches bring in for the last possession of a quarter. But already 23 on draft night, his upside was limited.

Both rookies, the too-young center and the too-old point guard, started for Milwaukee throughout their playoff series with the Raptors. Brogdon emerged as a solid option at the point, draining three-pointers all season long at a 40 percent clip and providing stellar defense at the point of attack. He and offseason acquisition Tony Snell formed a formidable duo defending opposing backcourts.

Maker is still brimming with potential, with a number of skills yet to be fully realized. But in his undeveloped frame and with untapped skills he was still dynamic down the stretch for the Bucks, growing game-by-game into a stretch-5 who could guard in space and protect the rim. Jonas Valanciunas could not back him down in the post; so much for a fragile frame.

Brogdon could very well win Rookie of the Year this season based on his solid play for a successful team. His upside is limited, but he has shone it was much higher than expected. For Maker, the sky is the limit, and it is possible the Bucks have another star on their hands.

Dec 21, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) drives to the basket against Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 113-102. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jabari Parker was a special scorer

The Milwaukee Bucks were a better defensive team this season when Jabari Parker sat on the bench, and their surge into the playoffs was fueled by that side of the ball. With a second knee surgery in three seasons, there is no guarantee Parker will return at the same level he was playing at, let alone improve as a defensive player.

But when he was on the court, few players were as special as Jabari Parker at scoring the basketball. He came into the year with an even more diverse bag of offensive skills, battering through smaller defenders on the block and blowing past larger defenders on the wing.

Last season Parker’s greatest weakness was his lack of outside shooting, a problem intensified by a Milwaukee team with a deep pool of shooters. He came into this year a changed man, putting up 3.5 shots from beyond the arc per game, up from 0.5 attempts last season, and increasing his percentage on those shots from 25.7 percent to 36.5 percent. Parker turned a weakness into a strength.

Parker also improved his finishing at the rim, which made his ability to put the ball on the deck and drive that much more lethal. Overall Parker’s effective field goal percentage rose to 53 percent this season. Among players scoring at least 20 points per game, that put Parker ahead of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and fellow 2014 draftees Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.

The questions remain, and it may be the end of next season or beyond until we learn whether Parker will fully recover from this knee injury. But what we do know is that Parker’s athleticism and skill set, combined with his work ethic, can produce a special offensive player.

2017 NBA Playoffs

Apr 20, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe (15) looks for a shot against Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) in the second quarter in game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Monroe found his role

Greg Monroe found disaster in his first season in Milwaukee. Brought in to be the offensive centerpiece of a dynamic defensive team, Monroe oversaw the Bucks’ collapse on both ends of the floor in a disappointing 2015-16 season. Many Milwaukee fans began counting the days until Monroe could opt out of his contract this year.

But then 2016-17 rolled around, and Monroe and the coaching staff had an entire offseason to scheme how to best deploy Monroe off the bench. Putting “Moose” at the elbow instead of the low post opened up the floor around him, giving him room to score and lanes to pass.

Bench units featuring Jason Terry, Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic were tailor-made to space the floor around Monroe’s bruising post game. When the defense doubled he showed great strides in dishing the ball to open players, both on the perimeter and cutting towards the hoop.

Monroe’s per-36 numbers stayed relatively the same, with just his assists getting a boost this year. But the Bucks as a team played much better with Monroe on the court this season — seven points per 100 possessions better when he played than when he didn’t, the highest such mark on the team.

In the series against the Toronto Raptors, Monroe averaged 23.5 minutes, 13.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. Per-36 minutes that jumped to 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists. The Bucks had a 118 offensive rating with Monroe on the floor, and just a 100 defensive rating. Each number would have led the league in the regular season.

Monroe’s role next season is unclear – he excelled as the sixth man this year, but most players relish the start. He can opt out of his contract this summer, although Bucks fans have probably changed their tune over the course of his redemption year. What is clear, however, is that Monroe has the ability to be a solid piece for a team ready to make the leap.

March 18, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Tony Snell (21) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Bucks 117-92. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Role Players given room to shine

Head coach Jason Kidd has received plenty of criticism on his in-game coaching decisions. From the management of rotations to his after timeout plays, Kidd is considered among the bottom half of coaches in the league, and most likely deserves that evaluation.

But how many coaches have the track record that Kidd does in taking undervalued players and letting them shine? Not only has Giannis Antetokounmpo developed under his watch, but a number of players discarded by the league have grown to fill key roles for the Bucks.

Khris Middleton was an afterthought in the trade that sent Brandon Jennings to Detroit for Brandon Knight. While both Knight and Jennings have moved on from their respective teams, the tossed-in Middleton is thriving as a two-way wing for the Bucks. Fighting to come back early from a major hamstring tear, Middleton was the team’s second-best player down the stretch for Milwaukee.

Prior to this season, in the wake of Middleton’s injury, the Bucks needed another option on the wing. They proceeded to trade Michael Carter-Williams, a washout point guard with very little value, to the Chicago Bulls for Tony Snell, a 2-guard yet to make an impact on the league.

Fast forward to May, and Snell started nearly the entire season for Milwaukee. His length and hustle enabled him to guard opposing wings, and spotting up around Antetokounmpo he knocked down 40.6 percent of his three-point attempts. Snell’s effective field goal percentage skyrocketed, and he put up career numbers in points, three-pointers and steals.

Michael Beasley was another player added in the wake of the Middleton injury, when the Bucks traded another low-value point guard prospect to the Houston Rockets for the journeyman forward. Bouncing between NBA benches and Chinese leagues, Beasley’s main accomplishment of the past few seasons was drawing the first technical foul on Draymond Green, who was eventually suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals after receiving his fourth technical foul point.

Yet despite more low expectations Beasley thrived in Milwaukee this season, rotating with Mirza Teletovic as the backup 4. In the games following the loss of Jabari Parker for the season Beasley stepped up in a major way, scoring double digit points in six of the next seven games before going down with an injury of his own.

Jason Kidd’s public platform means he’s easily scrutinized, but it’s unfair to critique the in-game coach and ignore the developer, the man who has overseen stars being formed and one man’s garbage turned into Milwaukee’s gems. Whether Beasley and Snell stick around next season, or the organization brings in other role players to fill the roster, Kidd has shown he can work magic with what he’s given.

Looking ahead to next season and beyond, there will be plenty of magic in store for the Milwaukee Bucks.

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