In our NBA season preview post, published, uh, a couple hours after the NBA season began back in October, I wrote the following about the Milwaukee Bucks:
Are they worth watching?
HELL YEAH BUDDY HELL YEAH. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, JABARI PARKER, KHRIS MIDDLETON, GREG MONROE, MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS, CHRIS COPELAND, WHICHEVER PLUMLEE BROTHER THEY HAVE, HELL YEAH, MAN, HELL YEAH, HELL YEAH.
What is their deal?
HELL YEAH BUDDY HELL YEAH. HELL YEAH.
Will they be good?
HELL YEAH THEY WILL BUDDY, HELL YEAH, 900 YARDS OF ARMS AND ORBITAL BOUNCE AND THE GREEK FREAK, HELL YEAH MAN, HELL YEAH.
This was wrong. Holy smokes was it ever wrong! The Bucks’ deal emphatically is not hell yeah buddy hell yeah. In fact, it is hell the fuck no. The Bucks are really, really, really lousy. They’re legitimately one of the worst teams in the NBA.
They got clobbered last night in Chicago, 117-106. Here is a bummer of a video of the Bulls getting lots and lots of easy baskets against a confused- and discouraged-looking bunch of traffic cones:
By itself this loss isn’t such a big deal; only the night before, the Bucks played the Spurs (and got clobbered, at home, 123-98). Two games in two nights against the Spurs and Bulls, with travel in between, is about as tough as the NBA schedule will get for anybody this season. Plenty of teams better than the Bucks would have dropped both; most teams that play the Bulls will lose.
What’s notable is the big picture of the Bucks as it appears after last night. They have the third-worst record (14-23) in the Eastern Conference and a -6.05 average point differential worse than all but the reeking sewage fires in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Their 109.9 defensive rating (that’s a measure of the points they’ll allow over a hundred possessions) is the worst in the NBA—worse than a team giving 30 minutes a night to Kobe fucking Bryant—one season after it was the NBA’s fourth-best. Kyle Wagner’s math website gives them a three-percent chance of making the playoffs. It gives the Nuggets better odds than that.
Here’s a pretty gruesome list: Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York, Brooklyn, Detroit, Denver, New York, Portland, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Minnesota. When you set aside the Bucks’ deceptive, fluky November overtime home win over the Cavaliers, who were playing the second leg of a road back-to-back less than 24 hours after a hard-fought come-from-behind win in New York; and their deceptive, fluky December win over the Warriors, who were playing the second leg of a road back-to-back less than 24 hours after sweating out a double-overtime win in Boston; and their deceptive, fluky New Year’s Eve road win over the Pacers, who were playing the second leg of an away-and-home back-to-back less than 24 hours after a grueling last-second overtime loss in Chicago, that is the remaining list of their wins. The Pistons are the only team on that list with a winning record. Its eight members are 98-174 against everybody but the Bucks, good for a winning percentage (.360) worse even than Milwaukee’s.
What the fuck happened? The Bucks made the playoffs last year, then went out and signed Greg Monroe, one of the summer’s prized free agents; he was supposed to give their halfcourt offense the steady focal point it needed. They got Jabari Parker back from injury. They re-upped young Khris Middleton, their best shooter. Those guys, plus Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams, got another offseason to build their skills. This was supposed to make them better! That’s how this sort of thing is supposed to go.
Just for the hell of it, there’s a video of Jabari Parker getting his dunk attempt spiked into the core of the earth by Bismack Biyombo. (Via YouTube)
Ominously, none of these guys has been a huge disappointment individually, and yet the Bucks aren’t just muddling along; they’re dreadful. SB Nation and ESPN have covered the Xs-and-Os of it pretty well already; in short, the players mostly have been themselves, but don’t fit together into a workable whole at all. The Bucks got what they paid for in Monroe, more or less—a steady eater of low- and mid-post possessions, a fine rebounder, a generally smooth and competent player who needs to stay close to the hoop at both ends to be effective—but between his and Parker’s defensive shortcomings, the swarming, switching style the Bucks want to play has gone from high-risk to suicidal; for all intents and purposes, all they’re doing is voluntarily moving themselves out of position to contest shots or box out for rebounds against all but the clunkiest offenses. Meanwhile, Middleton’s terrific shooting can’t cover for the fact that at any given time he’s likely sharing the floor with at least three guys who need to be within leaping distance of the hoop to reliably put a basketball through it. (That’s when the Bucks aren’t turning in desperation to O.J. Mayo—O.J. Mayo!—and/or Jerryd Bayless for some help with spacing; both of them are atrocious, and neither shoots all that well.)
All of this raises the ugly and dismal point that this probably just is what results from putting these guys on a team together. Their weaknesses resonate so strongly with each other that waiting for them to adjust, in effect, is waiting for them to become entirely different players. Meanwhile, promising young dudes are stagnating. Antetokounmpo, Monroe, and Carter-Williams mostly being the same guys they were last season only seems fine until you remember that they’re 21, 25, and 24 years old, respectively. They should be getting better! All of this is premised on them getting better!
They probably would be, if they weren’t in each other’s way all the time. Who wants to hold their breath until, for example, either Jabari Parker or Giannis Antetokounmpo magically throws away his entire game and transforms into Danny Green, to have a chance of flourishing alongside these other guys? The likelier and more depressing possibility, by far, is that the Bucks will do the familiar desperate-team shit: fire coach Jason Kidd, or go into sales mode at some point between now and the trading deadline. The best realistic hope, in that case, is that they’ll look to replace bad fits with good ones, toward the goal of saving their season and redeeming their fun young core, rather than jettisoning everything they can and joining the Sixers in the tank. It’s not much of a hope compared to the hope it’s replacing—that these energetic young goobers could do something special and different together—but that one’s looking pretty beat these days.
Like the imploding Phoenix Suns, the Bucks made the cool and brave and ballsy choice to try the leap from maybe good to actually good, and are plummeting to the bottom of a gorge for it. This sucks! It’s a waste of the springy legs and youthful enthusiasm of some likable and entertaining young players; it’s unwelcome for other NBA front offices trying to not choose the ease and profitability of the deliberate failure scam over actually trying to be good at their jobs; it’s humiliating punishment for an organization that made the right choice in that situation; it’s a huge letdown for a fanbase that finally seemed on the cusp of something genuinely exciting.
It’s also just brutal to watch. Twenty-eight minutes a night for O.J. fucking Mayo! Jason Kidd summons him from the bench by gazing into a trash can and whispering “Larry Hughes” 10 times. I wouldn’t let him handle a basketball to shelve it at Target. C’mon, Bucks.
Top photo via Getty