The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2015-16 season as a trendy pick to make the playoffs for the second straight season. As far as team performance goes, though, well, the bus never really left the station. The Bucks lost 21 of their first 33 games. They finished the season 33-49 (one more win than the New York Knicks), 11 games out of the final playoff spot. Their top 10 defense from the previous year sunk back to the middle of the pack, and holes in Milwaukee’s lack of shooting completely cramped their offense; the team finished dead last in the NBA in three-point field goals and attempts (Golden State shot more than twice as many threes as Milwaukee). As it turns out, shooting is kind of important in basketball. The Bucks finished 24th in offensive efficiency — 102.2 points per 100 possessions — and their roster of bricky shooters laid the foundation for that output.
Milwaukee garnered a lot of excitement a year ago thanks to their playoff run in 2015 — when they pushed the Chicago Bulls to a six-game series before bowing out in the first round. It was more than just that surprising postseason appearance that had fans excited, though; Milwaukee has a pair of the most dynamic youthful talents in the NBA: Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. NBA franchises tank — purposefully losing games in an effort to improve their lottery odds — just to have the opportunity to hopefully draft one of these caliber of young players. In the span of 12 months, Milwaukee was able to select two of them.
Greg Monroe — the team’s big free agent signing in the summer of 2015, a move that inspired even more false confidence — did his usual thing: the former Georgetown big man can get 15 points and nine rebounds in his sleep. However, like some predicted, Monroe’s cement feet, a homage to Al Jefferson, played a role in caving the team’s aggressive/trapping defense. The Bucks gave up four more points per 100 possessions with Monroe on the court. It’s not fair to blame this entirely on Monroe, but his lack of rim protection and speed left the team exposed in more ways than one on defense.
It should be noted, though, that Milwaukee allowed teams to shoot 52 percent on contested field goals at the rim, per the NBA’s player tracking data, which isn’t too bad. It’s near the middle of the pack, and not a significant drop-off over 2014-15 when their opponents shot 51.6 percent at the rim. The main reason Milwaukee’s rim defense was pretty good was largely because of UNC product John Henson, who posted a block rate of 9.7 percent, which would’ve tied Miami’s Hassan Whiteside for tops in the NBA if he’d played just one more game. Henson appeared in 57 games, and Basketball-Reference requires at least 58 games (70 percent of the games) to be ranked in their rate statistics. Opponents only shot 42.3 percent against him at the rim, which was No. 2 in the NBA — behind only the Stifle Tower Rudy Gobert of the Jazz. This is why Henson is worth $48 million over the next four seasons.
Milwaukee issues were further away from the basket: the Bucks averaged 8.2 steals per game, which is a good figure but down significantly from 2014-15 — when Milwaukee led the league with 9.6 steals a contest. Steals are miles away from the best metric to evaluate team defense, but that type of drop is symptomatic of a team that had to drop a lot of their productive trapping action to ease Monroe into the defense. More to the point, the Bucks led the NBA in turnovers forced per game in 2014-15 (17.5 per game); in 2015-16, though, they turned teams over 15.5 times per game. That number was good for eighth in the NBA, which isn’t too shabby, but ultimately had a significant impact on their defense. Milwaukee also allowed their opponents to shoot 52 percent on defended field goals at the rim, a slight decline over the previous season.
They also did an awful job defending the three-point line; teams shot an averaged of 26.5 long balls per game against them (an increase of more than two over the previous season), making 35.2 percent. These are not exactly the type of numbers you’d expect from a young and wiry team.
The Bucks are an intriguing mix of length and athleticism. No one is really sure what to quite make of them. Even as the league sprints towards its position-less utopia, the Bucks are positing themselves almost perpendicular to this shift. Parker, 21, is right at the center of this. They don’t covet just a flexible roster with multiple players who can downsize and flip between both forward positions. Instead, Milwaukee wants to totally invert the floor, and overwhelm you with their backcourt’s length and size. Parker spent the vast majority of his time last season the Buck’s nominal power forward, but this is a team that isn’t too concerned with positions. Milwaukee’s best lineup last season featured Parker, Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Monroe and O.J. Mayo. Those five posted a net rating of plus-11.6 points per 100 possession in 135 minutes together. This line features two 6-8 players (Parker and wing Khris Middleton) and two 6-11 players — one of which (Antetokounmpo) operates as the team’s primary ball handler.
It was disappointing, I’m sure, to miss out on the playoffs, especially in a smaller market, like Milwaukee, when the franchise is going through an ownership change. That stuff matters in the business of basketball. This is about seeing the forest through the trees, though: What Milwaukee was able to discover in 2016 is that Parker and Antetokounmpo — Middleton — are their franchise building blocks. They potentially have something special with those three, and were able to develop a better understanding of what they are working with. In Parker and Giannis, the Greek Freak, they have two superstars in the making on their hands.
Early in his professional career, Parker — the former Duke All-American — suffered a major setback. Only a couple months (25 games) into his rookie season, he tore his ACL. His promising rookie campaign came to an unfortunate and abrupt close. Parker, however, returned for the 2015-16 season in good form, and after somewhat of a slow start, he caught fire for the Bucks. Following the All-Star break, Parker shot 49.8 percent from the field and averaged 19 points and six rebounds per game.
He’s deadly in transition with the ball or as a decoy: of players who had at least 200 fastbreak opportunities last season, Parker finished 11th in the NBA — right behind Stephen Curry — in points per possession (1.21). If you watched Jabari during his time at Duke, you know just how jaw-droppoingly awesome he can be with a line to the basket. In my humble opinion, the single most exciting play of the 2013-14 ACC basketball season was when Jabari would take flight on his baby-LeBron/Charles Barkley style one-man breaks. ZOMG DUNKS.
In the half-court, Parker spends a lot of his time finishing around the rim — even if that’s not where he is to start a possession. Jabari likes to get to the basket moving off the ball, or on straight-line drives after blowing by a defender — two things he does well. Parker’s ventures to the rim are at times breathtaking; he will move a defender one way, then cross back to the other. Once there’s an alley to the rim, forget about it, he’s clear for takeoff. Of his 899 field goal attempts last season, 522 of them came within eight feet of the basket; he shot a pretty good clip from this range, too — a little over 60 percent.
Jabari will need to find ways to score points more efficiently, though. For a guy who plays around the hoop a lot, and uses a fair amount of possessions (20.9 usage rate), Parker doesn’t get to the free throw line all that much. He averaged only three attempts per game from the charity stripe. In 2015-16, Parker had only three games of double-digit free throw attempts; he scored 19 or more points in each of these games, by the way. On top of that, Parker had 13 games in which he didn’t attempt a single free throw. He scored just nine points per game in these contests. Jabari’s free throw attempt rate of .25 is too low. For comparison, J.J. Redick — the league’s top catch-and-shoot bomber from deep — posted a free throw rate of .23.
Any offensive critique of Parker will also make serious mention of his lacking of perimeter shooting prowess. Parker attempted just 35 3-pointers, making only nine of them; less than four percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc. Regardless of position, these are paltry figures. It’s sub-optimal that a guy who is frequently working to get open around Antetokounmpo drives connected on only 34.7 percent of his overall catch-and-shoot opportunities last season.
It should be noted, though, that the former All-ACC forward made modest improvements from range as last season progressed. During the final two months of the season, Parker — over the span of 22 games — attempted 1.1 three-point field goals per game, making 32 percent. This isn’t enough, but it’s a step in the right direction. Any additional threat from the perimeter will make him that much more difficult to account for offensively. It should also allow him to see more open lanes to the basket. Parker can blow by a defender, Eurostep into the lane, and finish with authority around the rim. If defenders have to closeout more quickly on his jumper, it will make his penetration game that much more potent. As a team, the Bucks led the NBA in two-point field goal attempts, which is not exactly ideal.
Parker must make strides from the free throw line and from beyond the arc. It will take time, but if he’s able to do that, though, look out. He’s already an expert cutter, and has good timing and chemistry with Antetokounmpo. More than a quarter of the passes Jabari received last season came from Antetokounmpo, per the NBA’s tracking data. Isolating for for just two-point field goal attempts, Parker shot 49.2 percent on passes from the Greek Freak. Parker will wait for Giannis to knife through the defense and draw a double team. As soon as the help defender arrives, Parker becomes a blur, darting into the open real estate for a high-percentage shot near the rim.
Jabari averaged 1.18 points per possession on cuts — good for 12th in the NBA (Antetokounmpo ranked fifth). According to Basketball-Reference.com, Jabari had 129 dunks last (1.7 per game), which ranked sixth in the NBA, and was 14 more than Detroit’s rim-running menace Andre Drummond. Those Jabari Bars must be good for the dunking.
Parker is already a force offensively that commands a great deal of attention; he can bend and warp defenses with his drives to the rim, which is why his development as not only a shooter but also a passer is important, too. Parker isn’t exactly a ball-stopper when he has the rock, but through two season, he’s averaged just 1.7 assists per game. Obviously, it would help for the Bucks to employ some better shooters around Parker, but his evolution as an all-around talent on offense won’t be complete until there’s some enhancement in this department. It doesn’t need to be anything drastic; he’s not Draymond Green. But simply — when Jabari draws an extra defender from the weak side, can he find the open shooter on the opposite side of the court for a juicy corner trey? Milwaukee runs a lot of their action on offense through the high post; it’d be neat to see Parker become more of a playmaker in this role.
Defensively, Parker needs work, too. Opponents shot 56.1 percent on him at the rim last season — a not so great number for an athletic power forward. The Bucks also gave up two more points per 100 possessions with the No. 2 pick from 2014 on the court. But this team was a mess defensively, and that certainly didn’t help his cause. Jabari usually gets matched up with opposing power forwards, which means he’s frequently having to defend bigger players, or guys who can. This tough and puts him at a disadvantage. However, Parker has to get less spacey on defense; if he could lock in a little bit better on that end, it would pay off nicely. Jabari will likely never be a stopper, but he doesn’t have to be, because he’s so damn good on offense.
Another summer of recovery and improvement — Parker participated out in Vegas with USA Basketball’s Select Team, along with a handful of other Dukies — should do a lot of good. The free agent signings of Mirza Teletovic — another power forward — and Matthew Dellavedova (ugh) should help Milwaukee’s cramped spacing, but it’s certainly not the solvent. Monroe remains on the roster after the Bucks shopped him and didn’t find that much interest. It’s tough to forecast this team making the playoffs in Eastern Conference that’s congested in the middle. However, they could be surprisingly frisky if their defense can tick up along with their shooting. Regardless, they’ll be a fun team to watch on League Pass as Parker and Giannis get even better.