The Milwaukee Bucks return to action tonight after a much-needed five days off for the NBA All-Star break. It was a respite for the entire squad, which clinched a losing season on Feb. 10 in a loss to Boston. Through 52 games, only one player on the roster has played in all of them – second year guard/forward Khris Middleton.
While there have been plenty of "Did Not Play/Coach’s Decision" on the final box score for several players, the Bucks have gone through a litany of injuries and illnesses that began in the offseason. Not including Carlos Delfino, who is out for the year, the Bucks have missed an astounding 118 games due to injury or illness.
"I’ve never experienced anything like this as a player and as a coach, in all my years on this level," said head coach Larry Drew, who played in 10 NBA seasons and has coached for another for another 20. "But I think as long as you’re around the game you’re going to experience some things you never thought you would. But this is certainly an experience that, whether you’re coaching or whether you’re playing, they’re tough to deal with."
Last Tuesday, the day before the Bucks' final game before the break, guard Brandon Knight looked over at a relatively empty court. Only Gary Neal and Nate Wolters were putting up shots. It wasn’t a routine practice because it couldn’t be – the Bucks would be only dressing seven players against New Orleans on Feb. 12.
"It’s definitely needed with all the stuff we’re going through," guard Brandon Knight said. "The five days are definitely going to help us. It gives guys some time to get back right and give guys time to work on the things they need to work on."
So, with 29 games left to play, a losing record clinched, what is left to play for?
"Just trying to make sure we’re building the right habits as a team," Knight said. "And individually make sure that every night I’m playing hard and competing because I think a lot of times, with the record that we have, we can get caught up in ‘what are we playing for?’ so my mindset is just making sure that I’m one of the guys trying to bring guys along and no matter what our record is, we’re going to play hard."
It will be a challenge for this beleaguered squad, but things can’t get much worse than they are now.
Through the first 52 games, the Bucks are 29th in the league in scoring offense, 20th in scoring defense, 29th in offensive and defensive rating and the team draws the NBA’s smallest home crowds.
They’ve had losing streaks of 11, five, nine and six games, are 1-5 in overtime games and have been blown out by 10 or more points 22 times.
So, where do the Bucks go from here?
The young guards
After missing extended time with hamstring injuries, Knight has found a groove. After aggravating a hamstring in training camp and then seriously injuring it in the season opener on Oct. 30, the Bucks took a cautious approach with Knight after that.
Since then, the team’s leading scorer and assist man has averaged over 18 points and 5 assists per game since he returned the lineup fully healthy back on Nov. 29.
"I thank God that I’ve been able to stay healthy and just praying that I continue to stay healthy," Knight said. "It’s just a blessing to be on the court. You never want to be in a position where you can’t help your teammates and can’t be on the court fighting with your guys. I’m just thankful to be able to play."
Wolters has also emerged, building off his early playing time due to Knight’s injuries and taking advantage of Luke Ridnour’s ailing back. Since his playing time increased beginning on Jan. 25, Wolters has averaged 8.4 points and 3.9 assists.
Drew has liked the fact that Wolters has remained aggressive going to the basket and is a sure ball handler (0.9 turnovers per game) and feels he’s a good compliment to Knight when the pair on the court together.
"There are things we do try to run that allow Brandon to play off and with Nate handling we’ve got a guy that can make a play off the dribble," Drew said. "Both guys complement each other very well when you watch them play."
The 19-year-old was the only member of the Bucks who didn’t get a break last week, as Antetokounmpo was in New Orleans for the Rising Stars game and skills challenge. He was battling a nagging wrist injury leading into the festivities, and had dealt with some back soreness, but he’s been an exciting player to watch develop. He’s averaging only 7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, and his per 36 minutes numbers aren’t much greater (10.4/6.8/2.6), so how he continues to progress over the final 29 games will be an important thing to watch.
He’s been averaging over 28 minutes per game since Dec. 11, but he remains a bit tentative offensively (6.5 field goal attempts) and is still learning how to utilize his skills offensively, and defensively. And, frankly, the Bucks are still trying to figure out what he can and can’t do against players who are bigger, and smaller, than he is.
"To a certain degree it’s not fair to him," Drew admitted. "Because he’s still, I still say he’s a boy playing against men, and these guys have played in the league awhile, these guys that are very crafty and very skilled and they’re good at what they do. And to put him in that situation, it’s a part of his growth process and him learning how to play against those type guys and getting comfortable playing against those type guys."
The second year forward’s progress has been stunted a bit as he’s battled nagging wrist and ankle, but with an additional 14.8 minutes of action, he’s increased his scoring (11.9 points), rebounds (8.0), blocks (2.2) and assists (1.6). He’s also making more of his shots, converting at a 53 percent clip. He also increased his Player Efficiency Rating from 18.2 as a rookie to 19.2 this year.
If he can come back healthy for the final 29 games, and with Sanders out indefinitely, it could be a critical point in the 23-year-old’s development to play starter’s minutes and let the team determine where he fits best in its future plans.
Really, these are the only aspects to really follow over the final months.
While I’m not sure why O.J. Mayo (26) has fallen out of the "young core" narrative surrounding this team, but it would be nice to see him return to the 18 point per game scorer he was his first two years in the league – but then again, that was four years ago. Perhaps he is what he is what he is at this point.
Khris Middleton brings something to the table as a role player and has proven to have value as a shooter, but in nearly 30 minutes per game, he’s playing with a below league-average PER (13.0).
After that, the veterans are who they are, and there will be few surprises down the stretch in that regard.
Watching (and evaluating) the Bucks has gone beyond the box score and the win-loss column at this point, but there are definitely players – and specific matchups with those players – that are worth watching over the final two months of the regular season.
"It’s tough, because who’s really looking a year down the road, or two years down the road?" Knight said. "You’re thinking about the now, especially a player like myself – I want to see how we can improve right now. So it’s tough, but when you start to possibly have negative thoughts, that’s when you have to focus on the positive side and the future."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.