Milwaukee Bucks Season Preview: Stuck on the Treadmill of Mediocrity

Team Capsule

This year’s Bucks team fascinates me in a weird way. It’s not going to be a particularly good team, although I look at that team compared to the middle ground in the Eastern Conference and actually think that’s a playoff roster. It’s the decisions with lineups and playing time splits from Scott Skiles  that will make or break this team, and the intriguing part to me is that the team has 13 legitimate rotation players to split time amongst.

So as Zach Lowe pointed out on his season preview extravaganza on Grantland, the Bucks are a strong trade candidate. Specifically, Larry Sanders looks especially expendable, and if the hype around Tobias Harris turns into more than just that one of Milwaukee’s 3-4 players should also be moved. The current roster may undergo some change before the end of the season.

But while the Bucks have made trades previously, they’ve all been done with the same, seemingly innocuous purpose: making the playoffs. But the goal of making the playoffs and the goal of winning a championship are two totally different things; the Bucks seem to be building just to make the playoffs and not the title. For owner Herb Kohl,  and for others in that organization who rely upon the organization for their livelihood, that must be okay.

If I were a Bucks fan, however, I’d wonder if topping off as a low-seeded playoff team were worth it. While there’s probably still some room to grow there, it’s not worth it when the team’s peak is as a 4/5, the high point for a roster that’s just not a true contender. But this wouldn’t be much of a change over recent years for Bucks fans. The team hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs in over 10 years. In that time the Bucks have had two winning seasons, two .500 seasons, and only 2 truly bad seasons (and in one they were fortunate enough to win the lottery), and have still made no progress toward title contention. They’ve cycled and recycled coaches and players and nothing has come of it.

The phenomenon introduced above, the constant average-ness cycle that mid-tier NBA teams seem to go through for years at a time, was first coined by Kevin Pritchard as the “mediocrity treadmill” and was anglicized by the Wages of Wins guys as “the treadmill of mediocrity.” The idea is that NBA teams should avoid, if possible, the middle ground in the league. Building a team from nothing is easier to do than starting in the middle and trying to make incremental improvements to get to the top, since drafting a superstar with a top pick occurs much more often than it does in, say, the, 12th-18th spots. Furthermore, teams in the middle generally have little cap flexibility and cannot sign superstars to free agent contracts. And teams that are solid often delude themselves that all they need is a bit extra to contend when multiple superstars are generally needed for that. A couple of teams – my Sixers and the Atlanta Hawks, for instance – made moves this summer to at least try and get off the proverbial treadmill. While their records might not change much, if at all, the teams have created cap flexibility and a new direction. The Bucks, through trading their old franchise centerpiece for another supposed one, made moves to stay on board. The Bucks are no closer to contending other than through the passage of time, but the moves they’ve made may have pushed that time further and further away.

In all actuality, the treadmill is more like a hamster wheel of mediocrity. At least with a treadmill, you can kind of get pushed off. It seems that, more often, the teams must get tired of being mediocre. Teams need to stop pushing the wheel; instead, they need to stop themselves and fall flat on their faces. The Bucks need to get tired of being merely average.

In the meantime, we should enjoy the roster they have and the lineup possibilities they can produce.  Essentially, they have a bunch of offense-only and defense-only players and have to mix and match them for ultimate effect. The only real two-way player they have is Brandon Jennings, and even he is undersized for his spot and needs some support. The others? Ellis, Ilyasova, Gooden, Dunleavy, Harris, Lamb, and Udrih are significantly better offensive players than defensive. Dalembert, Udoh, Sanders, Henson, and LRMAM are all significantly better defenders than offenders. How well the roster meshes will determine their record, but ultimately something needs to be done to stop the hamster wheel, or otherwise they’re doomed to mediocrity.

Biggest Strength: Cloning Waves of Frontcourt Depth

The Bucks have a ton of depth in the middle, between Dalembert, Udoh, Henson, and Sanders (with Joel Przybilla as the backup’s backup’s backup’s backup). They have Ilyasova, Gooden, Tobias Harris, and possibly Mbah a Moute at the 4. The 7 guys not in parentheses have the talent to land in an NBA rotation, with Ilyasova and Dalembert as legitimate starters. The Bucks need a lot of help in the frontcourt to cover up for the mistakes on the perimeter, but this seems like too much. But the players they have here are all useful, and I wonder which will end up sitting on the pine (my guess is Henson and Sanders fall out of the rotation early).

Biggest Weakness: Guard Defense

Jennings and Ellis are each undersized for their positions. While Brandon makes up for his height disadvantage through smart, sometimes aggressive defense, Ellis exacerbates his defensive problems by taking plays off and gambling unnecessarily too often.

Player to Watch: Ersan Ilyasova

I was tempted to put Brandon Jennings here, but Ilyasova’s offensive explosion last season turned a lot of heads, and the follow-up to a completely unexpected breakout campaign just offers more things to watch than for Jennings, who could be the subject of trade rumors in addition to the previously mentioned trade candidates. In case you missed it (that is, if you didn’t play fantasy basketball or weren’t a Bucks fan), Ilyasova averaged 17-11 per-36 with a 45% three point percentage and a 49% overall percentage. The numbers, combining the volume and efficiency, pegged him as a legitimate number two offensive option. But you have to wonder whether or not the explosion was nothing more than a fluke: Ilyasova never shot nearly this well before from any range other than the foul line, and he never rebounded quite this well either. Furthermore, his contract expired at the end of the season – the timing was impeccable. And with Dalembert and Henson coming in, Ilyasova’s rebounding numbers sure seem to be vulnerable.

So in total, Ilyasova had a breakout at a convenient time for a team in flux, with numbers that he’s never put up before. How much he regresses – if at all – could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

2011-12 record: 31-35

Coach: Scott Skiles

Key Additions: Samuel Dalembert, John Henson, Doron Lamb

Dalembert can be horribly frustrating to root for (trust me, I have 8 years of experience) but as a stop gap, you could do much worse. He’ll rebound and block shots at strong rates and goaltend way too often. He will also hit some midrange shots and a pretty good amount of his free throws. While I don’t like the trade for Milwaukee, I understand it.

They got a coup in Henson and Lamb, two future contributors, in the draft, while Przybilla and Daniels are end-of-bench fodder.

Key Subtractions: Carlos Delfino, Jon Leuer, Shaun Livingston

None of the losses was significant either, which I guess is part of the underlying problem in Milwaukee, that they’ve been stuck in neutral talent-wise for a while. I really like Leuer, though.

Team Trajectory: Flat

The Bucks could have a better record than last season, but the maximum height this team can reach seems to be clearly short of title contention. For that, even with my projected progress, this team still has lots of work to do.

Projected Record: 42-40

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One Response to Milwaukee Bucks Season Preview: Stuck on the Treadmill of Mediocrity

  1. Pingback: The Bucks Re-Sign John Hammond, Who Must Get The Bucks Off The Treadmill « Hoop City Blog

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