The Bucks took a big step last season and hauled in a marquee free agent this summer. What does the future hold?
The pluck and promise of the Milwaukee Bucks has been made tangible. Greg Monroe, a 24-year-old big man in the max contract market, opted to sign a three-year, $51.7 million deal with the Bucks over teams like the Knicks and Lakers on the basis of the competitive advantage the Bucks could offer.
Let that sink in. Just a season prior the Bucks, built young and hit hard by injury, finished with 15 wins. Jabari Parker, who was chosen with the No. 2 pick that came of all that losing, played in just 25 games during Milwaukee's renaissance season. Theirs was a simmering, organic process. A single knockout trade (Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton) and smart drafting in the mid-first had stocked the Bucks with young talent. Innovative coaching made the most of it last season by winning 41 games and winning the East's sixth seed.
The momentum of a team so young adding a player of Monroe's caliber can be seductive—particularly when it comes to the fickle business of projecting the Bucks' season. There's room here for a good team to get better without yet eclipsing the 50-win threshold. Milwaukee can fully expect to be a playoff team. But penciling the Bucks in for anything more would come in disregard for the fact that adding Monroe is a component of a much larger process.
Monroe, after all, joined this particular team in part because of its youth. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are 20 years old, Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams are each 23, and John Henson is a resident senior at 24. That Milwaukee is a work in progress was very much part of the appeal.
With that must come some acknowledgement that the Bucks aren't equipped to vault to the top of the conference immediately. The 2015-16 season will be a platform for growth in Milwaukee—a chance to compete, surely, but also the start of a two-year term where a growing team can evaluate its options. The critical juncture will be the summer of 2017, when Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams will be poised for restricted free agency and Monroe will have a player option for his third and final season under contract. Until then, the Bucks need to fully gauge what this current core can offer and how far it might be able to carry the franchise.
That starts, now, with Monroe. From the time they replaced Knight with Carter-Williams at the trade deadline last season, the Bucks coughed up turnovers on a greater percentage of their possessions than any other team in the league. With Knight went Milwaukee's offensive structure; whatever scoring efficiency the Bucks had mustered to that point was very much reliant on Knight creating out of tight spaces and offering a solid return on 14.3 field goal attempts per game.
The specific transaction of replacing Knight with Carter-Williams drew attention to two fundamental flaws: The lack of a high-level shot creator and the pains of not being able to properly space the floor. The latter problem amplified the former to the point that the Bucks, despite elite defensive performance, ranked 20th in net rating from the trade deadline on, per NBA.com. Monroe, if nothing else, is a direct address of that creative dearth at what was Milwaukee's least involved position. The role of the center will change radically for the Bucks as Monroe absorbs more possessions on the block, facilitates more action from the elbow, and better shields the so-so creators around him than Zaza Pachulia (jettisoned to the Mavericks) or Henson ever could.
That alone should help to stabilize one of the league's more futile offenses. Unfortunately, Monroe will have to work against the grain in the same way Milwaukee's creators did last season, his every move cramped by opponents who don't yet have to defend the Bucks out to the three-point line. Smart defenses will sag off of players who shoot in the low 30s from three and happily live with the results. Milwaukee's perimeter blight is far more profound and therefore even more accommodating; players like Carter-Williams (14.3% from three), Antetokounmpo (15.9%), and Parker (25%) are such non-threats from long range that they allow their defenders to take up permanent residence in and around the paint.
Antetokounmpo and Parker are still young enough (and focused enough in addressing this specific need) that some improvement can be expected. Jumping from their previous percentages to three-point competence in a single season, however, would be miraculous. Temper expectations to modest gains: That Antetokounmpo will actually be willing to shoot a wide-open three-pointer without flinching in the near future or that Parker might be able to afford Monroe even sligtly more space than he would have had otherwise.
Regardless, the forward spots are now a point of immediate interest. Bucks coach Jason Kidd expressed a clear preference last season for length and speed from 1 to 4—an alignment that makes small-ball Milwaukee's default. The problem in that approach as it relates to personnel is that the Bucks just dumped the salaries of the two best stretch forwards on their roster. At least one of Jared Dudley or Ersan Ilyasova were on the floor for 252 of the Bucks' 288 playoff minutes. Now that role will need to be filled by a player without the same range (meaning that most Milwaukee lineups will have between one and two passable three-point shooters) or the recently added Chris Copeland, whose other limitations make him a poor choice for starting matchups or minutes.
The spacing issue will be difficult to puzzle out and might even require a trade down the line. Defense will tide over the Bucks in the interim, though it will also take time for Monroe to fully adapt to the bold, overloading system that Kidd installed last season. In the long run, Milwaukee's style of defense should be an outstanding means to keep Monroe out of sequences where he might be exploited and tethered to the areas of the floor where he can be most effective. He need look only to Pachulia as a shining example: One of the handful of bigs to register a lower block rate than Monroe did last season just so happened to fill the very same role last season.
Pachulia doesn't block shots and, according to NBA Miner, didn't draw a single charge last season. Yet his brand of defense works because he knows where to be and knows what he can get away with. That kind of physical, preemptive play can do wonders in the right system, as the Bucks found in his filling 24 minutes a game to great defensive effect (97 points allowed per 100 possessions while on the court, per NBA.com).
The hope is that Monroe, whose track record of defensive reads and reactions doesn't yet measure up to Pachulia's, might be able to find a similar strain of success. Doing so will demand an adjustment to Milwaukee's system, which endeavors to put as many bodies in between the ball handler and the rim as possible. Monroe, who will largely be protected from the kind of open space where his lack of mobility could be a problem, will largely keep inside to serve as a final, 6'11" imposition for whenever an opponent wiggles through.
Monroe will need to overwrite some of his learned habits, which in the short term could bring Milwaukee some defensive shortcomings. The Bucks' system worked as well as it did last season because Pachulia knew exactly where to position himself to deter drives, which in turn led opponents to force passes that could be deflected or stolen by a phalanx of long-armed perimeter players. Pachulia did so even at the expense of the rules; only five players in the NBA were tagged with more defensive three-second violations than Pachulia last season, despite him averaging just 23.7 minutes per game. Teams around the league teach their big men to '2.9'—staying in the paint as long as possible before clearing with a step out of the lane. Pachulia often didn't bother, daring officials to penalize his defensive positioning.
Monroe will need to learn to camp out in the same way. With that comes the trial and error of understanding how high to pick up ball handlers who make it through the first line of defense, how to mind the baseline without losing sight of other responsibilities, and how to segue quickly from zone-style help to good box-out positioning. These are tasks that Monroe is ultimately suited for and that make for his smart fit in Milwaukee. They also require the kind of repetition and familiarity that won't be earned in training camp alone.
We should expect awkward, cramped execution for minutes or quarters or entire games at a time, as befits a young team coming into its own. What matters most is that Monroe's skill set meshes with the other core players and the style Kidd prefers in ways that allow for steady growth. It's a promising setup, if largely for how the Bucks might look a year or two from now once their kinks have given way. Everything accomplished until then is merely the profile of progress.