Milwaukee’s Makeover: How the Bucks Decided to Buckle Down and Play for the Future

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There is a sense of peace in Milwaukee — a feeling that after years of lurching around NBA purgatory, the Bucks have stumbled upon a long-term path they’re happy to stroll.

The Bucks think they have two franchise players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, super-young combo forwards with preposterous arms, a determined work ethic, and varied skill sets they’re only discovering. Any team built around 19- and 20-year-olds is a half-decade from anything like contention, and the Bucks under new ownership aren’t going to rush the process as they did in chasing the no. 8 seed under Herb Kohl.

At 11-11, the Bucks are decent, with a scrambling top-10 defense and a solid veteran bench left over from last season’s accidental disaster. They are exactly the kind of middling Milwaukee team that would have traded Tobias Harris for J.J. Redick on an expiring contract in years past. Not anymore.

“That is not who we are today,” says John Hammond, the team’s GM. “The core objective is long-term now: to develop into a championship-caliber team.”

Antetokounmpo and Parker are the only sure bets to be on this roster in five years. The franchise is content in the meantime to measure its other young players, especially Brandon Knight and Larry Sanders, and watch Jason Kidd imprint his identity. The team’s new owners, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, have spent millions building the infrastructure that must be in place if the Bucks hope to chase big things.

They’ve already hired about 50 new people, including a bundle of sales associates and a new sports psychologist. They’ll beef up the medical staff over the next few months, Lasry says, and they purchased a speedy new server for the team’s analytics department. They even hired the first director of merchandising in franchise history after Lasry became disenchanted at how difficult it was to buy Bucks gear.

“We just couldn’t find any,” Lasry says with a laugh. “It’s annoying when you own a team, and you can’t figure out how to get gear for your kids and your friends.”

The need for a new arena and practice facility looms over everything. The BMO Harris Bradley Center is dull and outdated, and the Bucks practice 15 minutes from downtown in the back of a Catholic archdiocese. The NBA holds an option to buy the team back at a cheap price1 if the Bucks haven’t started construction on a new arena by fall 2017, and there will be a vigorous debate if the new owners request public funding.

Lasry is confident the Bucks will secure a deal, if only because the buyback clause and the looming Seattle threat have everyone backed into a corner. “The reason it’s gonna get done is that no one has a choice,” he says. He and Edens are based in New York, and they will not entertain the idea of moving the Bucks to a West Coast market as long as they own the team. “I have no interest in being far away,” Lasry says. “The fun of owning the team is being part of the community. You can’t do that if you’re four or five hours away.”

Edens and Lasry have pledged $100 million to an arena project that could cost more than $500 million. Kohl made an identical pledge on his way out. It’s unclear where the rest of the money might come from, and any plan to divert funds from the coffers of a Rust Belt city into the hands of wealthy financiers will draw justifiable scrutiny. That is a real issue; sports are silly in comparison.

But set aside the arena debate and you can see the outlines of a fun basketball story brewing in Milwaukee — the league’s funkiest team, filled with positionally ambiguous players who can create highlights out of nowhere.

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Kidd gives his players a written test every game day, a trick he picked up from Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts in Dallas, he says.2 The tests ask about strategy and basketball history — everything from diagramming a particular set to naming the first coach of the Miami Heat. The coaching staff grades each one and keeps a running tally of player scores through the season.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Antetokounmpo says. “Sometimes I cheat and ask the older guys.”

Kidd hopes the players cheat. He noticed in Dallas how the tests got young guys talking about strategy, and he wants to foster the same kind of dialogue among Milwaukee’s players. Kidd is sometimes unsure the young foreign-born players understand instructions in English, and the discussion gives them another way to absorb coaching, he says.

It’s a handy tool, since the Bucks play an aggressive defensive style in which every player must cover a ton of ground. Kidd and Sean Sweeney, his defensive coordinator, want opposing ball handlers to see extra help defenders clogging the lane from almost the moment they catch the ball. Run any two-man action, like a simple high pick-and-roll, and your point guard should see a third Milwaukee defender at the foul line early — ready to bump the rolling big man:

Look at Knight meet Brandan Wright at the foul line as Devin Harris, a bit obscured on the left side of the floor, turns the corner after a Wright screen:

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This is a caffeinated version of a standard NBA defense. Every pick-and-roll requires help, but the Bucks pride themselves on getting that third defender into position before other teams would dare. Any big man rolling to the rim should feel a collision — a “tag,” in NBA parlance — right when he reaches the foul line. Letting that big catch the ball or roll deeper into the paint would open the door to a crisis.

“You gotta get ’em early,” Sanders says. “If you’re late, you’re already done in this league.”

“They tagged the absolute crap out of me,” Tyson Chandler told me after Dallas’s win in Milwaukee last Wednesday.

The goal is to snuff out that original pick-and-roll at all costs, forcing the opposing offense to swing the ball around the 3-point arc into options two, three, and four.

If offenses move the action to one side of the floor, Milwaukee will send that third help defender across the court to the strong side before that action really even gets started:

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“Great players, if they only see two bodies, they think, ‘Maybe I can still beat ’em,’” Kidd explains. “But if they see three bodies, they think, ‘Maybe I need to get off of it.’”

Overloading one side of the floor leaves the other side bare, and the Bucks are vulnerable to smart passing teams that can swing the ball ahead of Milwaukee’s rotating defenders. But that’s the point: Kidd is banking on the Bucks’ wing players being long and athletic enough to help inside and rush back out in time to thwart any open shot. Cross-court passes hang in the air awhile, after all.

“If we weren’t as long as we are, we probably wouldn’t play like this,” Kidd says. “But with our length, any long passes should give us time to recover.”

It might not work as well with Jerryd Bayless or Jared Dudley, but it’s perfect for long-armed menaces like Antetokounmpo and Parker.

When things are rolling, those arms will find their way into passing lanes for steals and deflections that ignite a deadly transition attack. Only three teams have forced turnovers more often than Milwaukee, a big reason the young Bucks rank eighth in points allowed per possession.

There will be growing pains, of course. Parker has looked uncomfortable defending in space, and Antetokounmpo is still green; the Bucks have allowed a disastrous 108.1 points per 100 possessions with both young phenoms on the floor, a mark that would rank 27th overall, per NBA.com.

Teams are killing Milwaukee on the offensive glass. Parker is a minus rebounder at power forward, and small-ball lineups featuring Antetokounmpo in that spot have predictably struggled. Sanders has never been a great defensive rebounder; he jumps and reaches instead of boxing out, and he can occasionally leap himself out of position chasing blocked shots.

Sending help defenders flying all over the court will sometimes leave mismatched pairings, with a small Milwaukee player battling a bulky center for rebounds.

The Bucks also have played the league’s third-easiest schedule. They will slip back, though with Charlotte, New York, and Detroit playing such catastrophically bad basketball, it may take real work for Milwaukee to fall out of the playoff picture.

And that’s fine with the brass, provided Kidd reserves enough playing time for Antetokounmpo and Parker. Kidd has nailed them to the bench during crunch time in several recent games, and if that keeps up, you sense it could become a minor organizational issue. “You either sell winning or you sell hope, and we’re selling hope,” Hammond says. “We all get caught up in the moment. When you’re in the trenches, like the players and coaches, you want to win every game. We want to win, but everyone understands the young guys need the opportunity to play.”

Hammond insists everyone is on the same page, and the young guys are guaranteed a baseline of minutes as long as they start. Everyone agrees the ideal scenario is making the playoffs with those guys getting ample time, even if they forfeit minutes to veteran bench players in some games. “Our best case is to make the playoffs,” Lasry says. “It’s not, ‘Let’s make sure only so-and-so plays, because they need experience.’ We want to play them, but we also want to win.”

The first step in Kidd’s view is to eradicate the notion that Milwaukee is for losers. “We don’t want to be a layover city,” Kidd says. “We want coming here to be like going through Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas — where if you have a dogfight in Chicago one night, you know you’re going to have a dogfight in Milwaukee the next night.”

More than anything else, these guys are super fun. They fly around on defense, and when they get out and run in the mold of old Kidd teams, they are must-watch entertainment. Antetokounmpo and Parker can push the ball after snagging rebounds, and Antetokounmpo has already become the freakiest highlight-reel player in the league. Who else can Eurostep from the 3-point line?

The Greek Freak just looks more comfortable overall in Year 2. He’s hit a sizzling 64 percent at the rim, up from 55 percent last season, and when he’s matched up against slower power forwards, the Bucks are happy to clear the floor and let him work one-on-one.

Antetokounmpo has good playmaking instincts, and he practically lives at the practice facility. He has his driver’s license now, and after games, he often practices with his 16- and 12-year-old brothers. Loud trash talk in Greek reverberates off the walls, team officials say. “Thank god I live like two minutes away from there,” Antetokounmpo says.

Even by the end of last season, Antetokounmpo was something of a mystery, but he looks like a future star now. If Parker develops along the same trajectory, the Bucks are confident they will be an appealing free-agent destination when the time is right. If Antetokounmpo and Parker are legit stars in five years, the Bucks won’t need to beg for meetings with the very best free agents. They could instead search for the right veterans to round out their core — their version of the David West signing in Indiana.

“If we build the right kind of team, people will want to be part of it,” Hammond says.

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The Bucks are a long way from that place, and dozens of bad breaks could torpedo their best-laid plans. Hell, Parker is here by complete accident — the product of Milwaukee trying to be good last season, only to fail so horribly and experience so many injuries that it ended up with the no. 2 pick.

The biggest question is whether the Bucks have a two-man or four-man core.3 Sanders is in Year 1 of a four-year, $44 million extension, so he’s part of the core in the most basic sense. He’s an elite rim protector, but he’s developed precisely zero other areas of his game since his breakout season in 2012-13.

He can’t stay on the floor, since he’s fouling more than six times per 36 minutes. He’s also sinking the Bucks on offense; Milwaukee has scored just 94.3 points per 100 possessions with Sanders playing, a mark that would rank 29th. Sanders can’t shoot and he’s an uncertain passer from the elbows, meaning his man can help around the floor and muck up driving lanes instead of guarding him.

He has a tendency to just kind of float in space after setting picks; he doesn’t pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop as much as he pick-and-stands. Kidd wants Sanders diving to the hoop, Chandler-style, but Sanders hasn’t embraced the idea of cutting hard every single time to suck in defenders and open up chances for others. “It’s a work in progress,” Kidd says.

Kidd and his coaching staff have drawn up plays to encourage hard cuts:

Even when Sanders executes the first part of the job, he has problems finishing it. He has so-so hands, he’s shaky around the basket, and he can’t shoot free throws.

In Sanders’s defense, a lot of Milwaukee’s pet sets feature him screening and passing from the elbows — a role he doesn’t fit. A reliable pick-and-roll point guard would make Sanders’s life easier, but Knight is not that kind of player yet, as he inches toward free agency this summer.

Let’s be clear: Knight is a good basketball player and a great kid. The Bucks are sold on that, and they’d love to have him back at a reasonable price — now in the $10–$12 million range per season, after Knight’s strong start. They’re less sold on Knight being a lead ball handler, even though he has some of the raw materials.

Knight is a speed demon who can burn into the lane at will. He’s a good shooter — 40 percent from deep this season — though he has been bricky on the pull-up jumpers that are such a key part of any point guard’s shot diet. His assist numbers are up, and as I wrote here, Knight has made progress reading the floor and using clever change-of-pace dribbles to contort defenses.

But the progress has been slow and fitful. Knight just doesn’t seem to have the natural passing vision of a top-level creator. As I’ve written before, Knight will too often mistime his passes, throw them a foot or two out of reach, and dribble his way into ugly turnovers. He has coughed up the ball on 23 percent of the pick-and-rolls he’s finished this season, a number that typically ranks near the bottom of the league, per Synergy Sports.

Knight has gotten better, and he’s only 23. But it’s revealing that even in praising Knight, Milwaukee officials urge caution. Hammond says Knight has good passing vision, but just doesn’t use it enough. “When his head is up and he’s looking, he can see,” Hammond says. “But when he speeds up, his head goes down, and you can’t see like that.”

Kidd thinks back to his first seasons in Phoenix, when he played with Kevin Johnson and under Danny Ainge. Kidd found Johnson’s game a bit irritating; Johnson would pound the ball on the pick-and-roll and look for his own shot before dishing off. That was not what a true point guard was supposed to do, Kidd remembers thinking.

Ainge had to take Kidd aside and remind him that not everyone had Kidd’s natural vision. Johnson was an explosive scorer, Ainge explained, and the Suns were going to let Johnson play to his strengths.

“When I look at Brandon, I think about KJ,” Kidd says. “We all want guys to do everything, but sometimes something just doesn’t develop. But we shouldn’t get caught up in what a player can’t do. We need to focus on what he can do, and when Brandon does that, the floor will open up for him. The game will slow down.”4

Kidd and Hammond are optimistic about Knight growing into the role of franchise point guard, but no one will rule out the idea of chasing another one in free agency — even while keeping Knight as part of the team’s core. “It’s too early to discuss that,” Hammond says. “Today, we’re really excited to have Brandon as part of our organization.”

Positions aside, the Bucks need to flank Knight with other ball handlers and more shooting. In the modern NBA, you can’t have enough of either. Perhaps Antetokounmpo will develop into something like a co–lead ball handler, and the Bucks expect Antetokounmpo and Parker to eventually shoot 3s well.

These are long-term questions for a franchise that can sit back and think long-term. It has the financial flexibility to be aggressive in free agency when the time is right, and that won’t be for years. The Bucks finally have a vision. Now all they have to do is execute it.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Donatas Motiejunas, Trickster

James Harden is a legit MVP candidate, but don’t sleep on Motiejunas, shooting 50 percent and holding the fort at both big-man positions for the red-hot Rockets as Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones nurse injuries.

Motiejunas has shot 28-of-47 (60 percent) on post-ups, per Synergy, and he’s straight clowning guys with a tricky array of pump fakes, up-and-unders, and hooks he can unleash with either hand. Houston is playing through Motiejunas — think about that! — at times when Harden rests.

He’s still developing as a defender and he can struggle on the glass, but this is heady stuff for a guy who had to fight just to crack the rotation.

2. Marc Gasol Running the Pick-and-Roll

If Gasol is going to start running the freaking pick-and-roll, we’ll have to rename this feature, “Nine Things I Like and Don’t Like, Plus One Great Thing Marc Gasol Did This Week”

3. Bojan Bogdanovic, Struggling to Keep Up

Bogdanovic is a well-rounded player, but he just doesn’t have the foot speed to defend shooting guards — something he has to do a lot in Brooklyn’s starting lineup, since the Nets need Joe Johnson to defend dangerous small forwards.

Brooklyn has surrendered 107.5 points per 100 possessions with Bogdanovic on the floor and just 97.4 when he sits, per NBA.com — a mammoth difference. That’s not all on Bogdanovic, and those numbers represent a small sample size. But he’s not helping.

4. Golden State Getting Klay Thompson a Head Start

Thompson is finishing better around the rim and earning a bunch more free throws, and while he’s worked hard on his off-the-bounce game, the Warriors are also putting him in positions to attack a scrambled defense.

They don’t just run high pick-and-rolls with Thompson. They give him a head start by having him fly off a screen, catch the ball on the move, and shift right into a pick-and-roll:

Note the Dubs using Stephen Curry as one of the screeners for Thompson on each of those plays. That is not an accident. Curry’s a willing screener, and no one is going to leave the league’s most dangerous shooter to contain a slightly less dangerous shooter. Golden State under Steve Kerr has leveraged the threat of Curry’s shooting in more creative ways. The team is a delight.

5. LeBron’s “Oh, You’re Guarding Me?” Haughtiness

I guess you can do what you want when you’re the king, but LeBron has a habit of objecting to the very notion of some inferior being defending him hard far from the rim. When James Johnson pressured him on two end-of-quarter possessions during last week’s game in Toronto, LeBron would take one hard dribble at Johnson’s chest, back out, stand upright, and shake his head while breaking out some fancy bounces. It was a nonverbal “Are you being serious right now, you no-name dude, bothering me 35 feet from the rim?”

On the plus side, LeBron’s haughtiness only motivated Johnson to press him harder.

6. Utah’s Off-Ball Defense

The Jazz are 28th in points allowed per possession, ahead of only the Wolves and Lakers, and their perimeter guys are too often asleep at the switch off the ball. The banged-up Alec Burks isn’t the only offender, but this Denver triple is indicative of his struggles navigating screens:

Utah’s weakside help is unreliable across the board, and Enes Kanter is bad at just about every part of defense. They’ll all get better, but Utah should be better than 5-16.

7. Senior Citizen Dance Troupes

A guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Maybe this would get old if teams overused it, but the senior citizen dance crew brings the house down every time. Milwaukee’s oldie dancers killed it last week to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” complete with a grand finale featuring a bespectacled, white-haired guy twirling one of those long ribbons you see in rhythmic gymnastics. Plus points to any senior team in which the members wear jerseys with numbers that correspond to their ages.

8. “Sha-Boom”

Eric Reid, Miami’s play-by-play guy, has been using “Kaboom!” to mark a made Heat 3-pointer for years. He even nicknamed the territory beyond the arc “Kaboom-Town.” It’s cheeky, but Reid knows it’s cheeky. That’s part of the fun.

With Shabazz Napier onboard, it was only a matter of time before Reid starting exclaiming, “Sha-Boom!” after every Napier triple. Good times.

9. Blake Griffin’s Insta-Hook

Griffin has turned to the post a bit more after a jumper-happy start to the season, and that’s a good thing for the streaking Clip Joint. Griffin isn’t the longest dude, but he’s quick and springy, and he can release a shot before his defender even has a chance to get off the ground:

There aren’t many bigs who can go from dribble to hook that fast.

10. Bradley Beal Leaving Extra Dribbles on the Table

Beal is only 21, and he missed the first part of this season recovering from a wrist injury. Still: The Wiz need to gradually coax Beal away from his habit of leaving productive dribbles on the table while running the pick-and-roll. Beal is such a dangerous shooter that defenders have to chase him over picks instead of darting under them. That gives Beal a chance to turn the corner and slice into the lane, but Beal will too often pull up for a jumper before exploring the opportunities before him.

It’s not even about Beal working for his own shots closer to the rim. One or two extra dribbles might bend layers of defense toward him, opening up passing lanes that won’t appear otherwise.

Beal’s young, and he’ll get this. But the Wizards are good now, and they could be a tiny bit better.

Filed Under: NBA, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Hammond

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA