The Milwaukee Bucks’ one-year turnaround last season was remarkable and not at all expected. After winning a league-low 15 games in 2013-14, they finished sixth in the East last year and gave the Bulls, a popular preseason title pick, an actual series in the first round of the playoffs. This despite losing future franchise centerpiece Jabari Parker to a torn ACL in January and trading their best outside shooter (Brandon Knight) midseason for a point guard who can’t shoot whatsoever. It’s a testament to Jason Kidd’s growth as a head coach and his fit with this roster, and also to major developmental strides made by the likes of Khris Middleton, John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo, that the Bucks managed to go from laughingstock to respectable so quickly.
Most of the attention this summer has been on what the Bucks did right, re-signing Middleton to a below-market deal and signing Greg Monroe to shore up their offense up front. It’s tempting to make them a lock for another playoff run (and I’m inclined to do the same, honestly). But it’s not as much of a sure thing as it seems, in large part because of the loss of two veterans who were important rotation players last season. The Bucks gave away Jared Dudley to the Wizards, Zaza Pachulia to the Mavericks and Ersan Ilyasova to the Pistons, and they leave a void that might be harder to fill than anticipated.
Monroe is a massive upgrade over Pachulia on the offensive end, giving the Bucks a legitimate first option inside. Pachulia wasn’t much of a shot-blocker, but he was perfectly adept at doing the dirty work on defense and being in the right spots. With Monroe in the fold and Antetokounmpo and Parker expecting to see some time at power forward, the Bucks have depth and versatility up front. Maybe Henson makes another leap, or Miles Plumlee (who didn’t play much after coming over from Phoenix at the deadline) cracks the rotation. But Pachulia’s presence will be missed.
That goes double for Dudley, who rebounded from a disastrous year with the Clippers to become an important rotation player for the Bucks. He found his niche as a small-ball power forward and was one of Milwaukee’s most reliable outside shooters, hitting 38.5 percent of his threes. He’s exactly the kind of versatile defender the Bucks enter training camp needing, and they gave him away.
Ilyasova’s value is a little harder to pin down. He’s not the defender Pachulia and Dudley are, but he was a reliable outside shooter on a team with so little offense. His loss should be mitigated somewhat by the return of Parker, if he’s even close to full strength.
Overall, this Bucks team is an improved squad from the one that surprised last season, but calling them a contender in the east is premature. A lot has to go right for them to reach that level. A full recovery from Parker is a start. Carter-Williams becoming an even passable shooter is another thing. Monroe’s defensive deficiencies should be able to be masked by the Bucks’ other bigs, but without Pachulia’s steady presence, there’s a risk of some regression there. If the Bucks can maintain at least something close to what they were on defense last year, an improved offense should be enough to make them a surefire playoff team at the very least, with the potential to be even more if enough breaks right.