Column: RICK SOLEM
From what the Milwaukee Bucks went through last season, it’s an exciting breath of fresh air for fans heading into Tuesday night, the start of a truly new season.
Monta Ellis is gone. Brandon Jennings is gone. Gone are 33.1 shots a game for the rest of the team, which basically sat and watched as those two pounded the air out of the ball and then threw up brick after brick – Jennings at 39.9 percent from the field and Ellis at 41.6.
The Bucks lost some players of consequence last year. They essentially traded Tobias Harris for J.J. Reddick, then were forced to sign-and-trade Reddick after the season for a second-round pick or lose him for nothing. What people don't understand is they used the Reddick money to sign a younger and more complete guard in O.J. Mayo.
But what’s done is done.
This is the team the Bucks have this season - which opens at 6:30 p.m. tonight against New York - and it’s going to be fun to watch. They could actually play like a team, with no go-to player, but always having five solid players on the court – some on the verge of all-stardom.
If there were a go-to player, the first thought would be Mayo, but in his role last year with Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, he thrived as a secondary option to career numbers – numbers that fell after the all-star break. He scored 17.9 points (46 percent from the field) before the break and 10.9 (41 percent) after.
Mayo is signed for three years, $24 million. The Bucks also signed Larry Sanders long-term (four years, $44 million), but he’s not a go-to player offensively at all and may actually be a bust altogether.
Two seasons ago, Milwaukee resigned Ersan Ilyasova to a long-term deal - in which he still has four years, $32.1 million left – with hopes he would develop into a dominant force, but it didn’t happen with Jennings and Ellis commanding the ball and shots.
This year, everything points to him living up to that contract and living up to his potential – if Knight can develop into a distributing point guard and new coach, Larry Drew, makes him the focal point.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Turk broke out two seasons ago when he averaged 15.5 points and 9.7 rebounds the last three months of that season.
Last year was a rollercoaster for the 26-year-old. He started slow, couldn’t ever get into rhythm. He was benched sporadically. He’d play 30 minutes one night, 5 the next. He’d take 15 shots one night, two the next.
Ilyasova has the potential to be the next Nowitzki. It’s just a matter of him having the confidence to be a leader of this team and, more importantly, his teammates recognizing his talent and getting him the ball – much like the Mavericks do with Dirk. He’s not a selfish player, which may be to a fault. But the offense needs to go through the guy can stretch the floor with his jumper.
For any of that to happen, Knight needs to develop. The third-year player shot just 41 percent last season, averaging 13.3 points, 4 assists and 2.7 turnovers .
He played with inconsistency like any 20 year old would. He also played on a losing team with no direction and little talent. The Pistons shuffled him between shooting guard and point. With Milwaukee, he should have a clear role and a veteran point guard in Luke Ridnour to help him develop.
And that is what the Bucks have at every position.
Ridnour is as solid a backup in the NBA. Sanders continues to develop at center and Zaza Pachulia is a competent backup – though that may have been the worst offseason signing last year at three years, $15.6 million when nobody was coming close to offering that. Milwaukee signed Gary Neal to back up Mayo and veterans Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino take over at small forward.
Lastly, there’s, Ilyasova, who stretches the floor at power forward, while 6-10 John Henson, 22, can come in, man the paint and crash the glass.
And that brings up how the Bucks manage their rotations this season. Last year, they were a catastrophe with consistency and roles.
Henson played the last five games of the season and averaged 15 rebounds. Why it took until the last five games of the season for him to see the court is baffling in itself.
But, come the playoff matchup with the Heat, he played 20 minutes the first game and no more than 6 the next three games. The Bucks apparently didn’t see fit to get their future playoff minutes, electing to give Ekpe Udoh that time. Maybe they thought they were going to beat the Heat?
They traded away Harris – making it obvious they were committing to Henson long term – but never gave him minutes, despite how obvious it was they weren’t going to get out of the first round of the playoffs – which shouldn’t be the excuse anyway.
Adding to the catastrophe, Milwaukee traded for Reddick at the all-star break and never played him correctly. He should have started, while Ellis came off the bench and chucked up shots with the backup unit – instead of taking turns with Jennings on who would shoot next.
Now, however, roles look completely clear, though many hoped the Bucks to try and bottom out like a lot of other teams appear to be doing with the strong college draft class next year.
Instead, Milwaukee went and grabbed Mayo, Butler, Neal and Ridnour, locked up Sanders and traded for Knight in hopes to make a playoff run.
Why? Who knows, but now that the team is put together, it’s solid and with assets and that’s the key. The Bucks have assets, trade assets. Butler and Delfino will probably be dealt, and maybe even Neal and Ridnour, because, at some point, Milwaukee needs to get No. 15-pick Giannis Antetokounmpo some minutes.
That, however, will probably come late this year or next when it’s obvious what they’ve put together this year is a solid team, but they're a piece away from contending for an NBA title. Maybe the 6-9, 18-year-old Antetokounmpo is that piece. Some have predicted he’ll be the rookie of the year.
Ilyasova is Dirk-lite. Antetokounmpo is Durant-lite. Henson could be a beast in the post. Knight has all the tools to be an all-star point guard. And Sanders is becoming a force in the middle on defense.
The pieces are all in place. Now, we wait.