Last night I did something I promised myself I would never, never do. Sitting with friends, drinking a few beers, watching some Netflix, I decided I would do the impossible: watch an entire Milwaukee Bucks game, start to finish, without a single blue and orange knickerbocker to root for.
Because whether you love it, or hate it (or, more realistically, are just absolutely, 100% totally apathetic about it) the Bucks are all but locked into the postseason this year and, as such, are wholly deserving of a Knicks at Night playoff preview profile! So, maybe for the first time this season, an NBA sportswriter outside of Wisconsin will write a piece about the Bucks that isn’t solely about the lengthy freakishness of Giannis Antetokounmpo or the “bright future” of the Deer. Nope, we’re here to talk about the present and this team’s chances in May and June (wellll, maybe not in June).
It’s the Arms, Stupid
Length, length, length. It goes beyond a goal, or blueprint, or even team identity. Length is the absolute lifeblood of this Milwaukee team and the key reason the team has put together the #2 defensive squad in the league behind Draymond Green’s Golden State Warriors (although Jason Kidd is also sneaky-good in creating pressure on that end of the court as well.) While the Bucks are only a so-so shot-blocking team, what they really excel at is using those long arms for getting into passing lanes and causing havoc for their enemies. Milwaukee leads the league in forcing opponents’ turnovers and comes in a close second to Philly in steals per game (who’s no slouch in the defense department this season either).
And all that becomes a little more impressive when you realize that Larry “Sir Springboard” Sanders isn’t even a part of the conversation with this team anymore. No, the Bucks are getting their wingspan from other contributors, giving more minutes to the improving John Henson and the “Holy shit, he’s arrived!” Khris Middleton, plus just watching with a gigantic grin as Giannis’ arms grow longer and longer with every passing day. And oh right, they also just traded for the guy in that Philadelphia picture, Mr. Stretch Armstrong himself, MCW. So yeah, these guys know exactly what they want in an NBA player. And that’s not about to change anytime soon.
The Brandon Knight Swap
This one didn’t make a lot of sense to me when it happened. And while there might not be a clear cut winner-loser for another couple of years, it was certainly weird to see Milwaukee giving up on their first real winning season and a breakout year from Knight for one of the most underwhelming Rookie of the Years in league history, especially when you consider how difficult it might be to improve Milwaukee’s dreadful 6.9 3-point makes per game with Carter-Williams’ busted shot. Not only that but MCW is actually older than Brandon Knight! So outside of their respective price tags, and the promise of those long, beautiful arms, this just seems like an absolute downgrade for Milwaukee in every way.
Or is it? While most people have concluded that the Sixers abandoning Carter-Williams after less than two seasons says a great deal about his limitations, its worth noting that not a lot of people are sure of what it is the Sixers are doing (you want to be good when exactly?). However, there is the (much) smaller camp of people who compare MCW’s stats to those of Kidd himself over the eventual Hall-of-Famer’s first two seasons in the league and think that maybe the young sophomore has the potential to be a capable pass-first point guard who can shut down his matchup on the other side of the floor with his size and bulldog temperament. Not only that, but the same argument that states MCW used the Sixers’ general woefulness to pad his stats in Philly would point to his shooting and assist percentages dipping as he was surrounded by a poor supporting cast. And, while MCW may have shot one of the grossest, rainbow garbage free throws I’ve ever seen in the game against Orlando last night, he also put up 11-5-9 in a winning effort and ate Elfrid Payton’s lunch on a wicked chase-down block.
Wanna hear something gross? The Bucks had 23 turnovers in that game last night, eclipsing their 3rd worst average of 17 and forcing me to question whether that number was even a little generous as they threw a seemingly endless number of passes to completely stationary Magic players. MCW had 5 himself on the game, including a totally unjustifiable backcourt violation where he basically lost track of where he was and took a few steps backward without anyone in the immediate vicinity.
Turnovers can be a death sentence in the NBA, even if the team coughing up the ball can defend on the other side of the floor, and even if the ball is whistled dead when you do cough it up. Losing the ball is losing a possession, plain and simple, and for a team like Milwaukee, that lacks real 3 point shooters, or even one-on-one offensive threats, losing 17-20 possessions a night puts you in a pretty big hole to climb out of. While Khris Middleton was on fire last night, knocking down pretty much everything and setting a career high in point scored, he’s still not consistent enough to be the focal point of any good NBA offense. Giannis? MCW? Zaza Pachulia?? This team just doesn’t have a 20 point per night threat, though they are likely hoping Jabari Parker will eventually settle into that role.
Right now Milwaukee is in an enviable place. The general crumminess of the East allows them to make a playoff run while continuing to develop their young talent. Sure, it won’t be a lottery selection come draft time but there is a lot to be said for the learning experience that can come from experiencing high-stakes basketball for the first time. Even if the result is ultimately a first round exit, a loss can bring a team closer together, as well as give them motivation to improve the season ahead, especially as the Bucks haven’t mortgaged their future to grab that playoff spot.
And make no mistake, this will be a first round exit. Milwaukee is currently slated into the 6th seed in the East, only two games back on the sputtering Wizards and 4.5 ahead of the still up for grabs 7th and 8th seeds. If the playoffs ended today, they would be locked into a first round matchup with Chicago; overtake the John Wall and Co. and they play Toronto. Both of those teams are better than Milwaukee, by far. The Bulls have gone a perfect 3-0 over the Bucks this season, while the Raptors balanced their 2-1 series lead with an absolute SHELLACKING of the Deer 124-82 in the T Dot. Even if these two teams are a clear step down from the conference-leading Hawks and Cavs, they’re still solidly ahead of Milwaukee in their championship aspirations and current competitiveness and shouldn’t need more than 5 games to put away this young Milwaukee team.
But that’s okay! Because these Bucks aren’t just playing for the playoffs this year. They’re going to be there for a long time to come.