It’s a new year, indeed.
We’re 27 days into January of 2015, and nothing (even the Green Bay Packers’ still-stunning loss in the NFC Championship game last week) in the major sports world in this state is more surprising, more "new" than this edition of the Milwaukee Bucks.
On this date in 2014, the Bucks were 8-35 and were two games into a new, six-game losing streak. This after they already had banked losing skids of five, nine and 11 games. They couldn’t score (around 92 points per game) and they couldn’t defend (giving up just over 100).
We all remember that Larry Drew’s squad won only seven more times in 2014, en route to the draft lottery and the No. 2 pick that secured Jabari Parker.
But now, on Jan. 27, 2015, look at them.
Jason Kidd’s bunch is 22-22, currently the sixth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, four games clear of No. 9 Brooklyn.
They’re doing this without Parker, who blew a knee after just 25 games.
They’re doing this without Larry Sanders, who left the team on Dec. 23 for personal reasons and has since been suspended by the league for violating its substance abuse policy.
More recently, they lost backup point guard and assist-machine Kendall Marshall for the season.
The roster has turned over a bit with the dismissal of Nate Wolters and the addition of Kenyon Martin, and there has been some injury volatility with Ersan Ilyasova, Johnny O’Bryant and John Henson missing time.
But what does this mean, outside of the fact that Kidd and his staff can really coach?
Let’s tackle a couple of the key topcis:
The playoffs and the "core"
This team is solidly mired in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race, which is exactly the place no one wants to be, and where the Bucks existed for the better part of two decades.
This year has a different feel in that this would be an accidental playoff berth akin to last year’s accidental trip to the lottery. At the beginning of this year, no one felt this would be a team that was going to make the playoffs. So, if they do, is that a good thing?
Well, they won’t win a championship, and they will lose in the first round. Maybe they’ll win a game, but that’s it. What does that get you? Only more questions.
Does it mean the "young core" is arriving earlier than expected?
Depends who you ask.
If you’re picking between 10 and 15, maybe it is better for Antetokounmpo and Knight to play those games than picking a player that you hope, someday, might be a rotational player. Maybe.
And the "core" isn’t really arriving ahead of schedule. Two key pieces of that group – at least the part you counted on at the beginning of the year – aren't contributing to this.
The year is a wash for Parker, who hopes to return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament next year with no issues. And say what you want about Sanders, but this would have a different feel if the 26-year-old center was playing every game and averaging 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks with Zaza Pachulia coming off the bench.
Now, Knight and Antetokounmpo and 23-year-old Khris Middleton are leading the team in minutes played, but the Bucks have yet to determine if Knight and Middleton are really part of the "core." Neither were extended at the October deadline and will enter restricted free agency.
What is their value? Is Knight the $44 million point guard? Is Middleton worth a 4-year deal? If those players walk away this summer, clearly they weren’t part of the championship vision. Obviously, time will tell on that end.
That said, the fact that Knight, Middleton and Antetokounmpo are three of the team’s leading scorers helps the feeling that this Bucks team isn’t in "basketball hell" like previous incarnations of the franchise, the teams that middled about .500 with no hopes of winning a title but just good enough to stay out of the lottery.
I also don’t believe you’ll see younger player like Middleton traded for some veteran to help the team push to 46 wins and the five seed. So that’s different, too.
But, to get out of basketball hell you need superstars, multiple all-stars. The only real (proven) way to do that is to either draft them all, or have an established group collude to join together.
Obviously neither are happening in Milwaukee this summer.
I believe Parker will be an all-star. The jury is still out on Knight and Anteokounmpo, for as highlight-worthy as they can be. So …
Rebuild the culture
Every player on the Bucks wants to make the playoffs. So does the head coach. They play that way every night. Yet they’re just .500, with all that effort. But, they’re not en route to 15 wins.
The word "culture" was tossed around nearly ad nauseam in the preseason, and I do believe it’s a real thing. I’ve seen it up close. You need winning players, and players who believe in winning. So, why not instill that as early as possible?
Even if I can run down this roster and say only a couple might be here if the Bucks reach an NBA Finals in four years, why not create an atmosphere that has an expectation of winning games?
That is important to this new ownership and the head coach, and perhaps more importantly, it matters to Antetokounmpo.
"On the court, we’ve tried to change things," Antetokounmpo said. "We’ve changed things to try and get better. I see all the guys. Last year, none of the guys were staying after practice and working. Now, after practice, you can still see guys working. When I’m going to come back, I’m going to see guy still coming back and working. It’s nice being on this team, man, it’s nice to see the guys competing and practicing hard and playing hard."
Which brings us to the last part of this, which is …
He’s the wildcard this whole project, and really the only player worth focusing on nightly if you’re a fan looking forward to the future of the franchise (mainly because Knight’s future here, to this point, is TBD).
When Antetokounmpo was drafted, general manager John Hammond basically said, hey, we’re swinging for the fences here.
And, with the way the 20-year-old is progressing, the team is encouraged the ball may have enough carry to fly over 440 feet.
The thought is that hey, maybe we got our additional top 5 lottery pick in 2013 at No. 15 overall.
It’s happened before, even though it’s rare. Very rare.
In 20 drafts, from 1994 through 2013, exactly seven – yes, seven – All-Stars have been picked between Nos. 13 and 17. That’s seven, out of 100 players (that number should increase as Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic was picked No. 16 overall in 2011).
But, when it comes to Antetokounmpo, a colleague brought up Jermaine O’Neal as possible comparison for the desired career trajectory.
O’Neal was 18 years when Portland picked him at No. 17 in 1996 (a draft, by the way, that featured Kobe Bryant at No. 13, Peja Stojakovic at No. 14 and Steve Nash at No. 15).
O’Neal didn’t become a full-time starter until his fifth year, at the age of 22, in Indiana. He started 80 games and averaged 32.6 minutes per game.
Beginning in 2001-02, O’Neal was an All-Star for six straight years, averaging 20.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game for a team that went from 42-40 in 2001-02 to 61 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004 to 35 wins and out of the playoffs in 2007.
And, O’Neal was the best player on those teams, though through the years he had Hall of Famer Reggie Miller (albeit on the decline) to lean on as well as other quality players around him like Jalen Rose and Al Harrington and fellow All-Stars in Brad Miller and Metta World Peace.
Can Antetokounmpo reach that level? It is the great mystery that may determine the future of this franchise, honestly.
But, Kidd and the Bucks are taking their time in finding out.
Antetokounmpo is playing more this year than last, but he’s averaging just 28.3 minutes per game, which ties him with Mo Williams for 99th in the NBA in that category. (The top end of the spectrum is Jimmy Butler in Chicago, at 39.5 minutes.)
What he has, that you can’t teach, is that "killer instinct" on the court, a deep hatred of losing and a work ethic that is important to have in a star player. The only question is if Antetokounmpo truly has the physical talent to manifest those intangibles into the type of player who makes $18 million a year and wins you games.
Unless more injuries strike the team or players are traded, it’s unlikely Antetokounmpo will see more minutes. But, if he can cut down on some turnovers, continue to rebound and knock down a few more jumpers (he’s shooting just 25.9 percent from 10 to 15 feet), it’s another positive step in his development that you can actually track from game to game.
Of course, unless you’re contending for a conference finals berth, or a championship, every team has a multitude of questions. The Bucks are no different. And while it is true that despite the fact this is perfectly mediocre team at this point – they are 22-22 after all – there is a different air to this team than other run-of-the-mill Bucks squads, and they definitely can get you excited at times, even if the end result isn’t going to be a deep postseason run.
Perhaps what is most exciting is that we’re not quite sure where they’re at, even 44 games in, and the questions that exist are interesting enough to keep you watching for answers.
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.