Milwaukee have got themselves in a bit of a pickle. Famously under a playoffs-at-all costs edict, their latest attempt to build a No. 8 seed team has imploded spectacularly. At 9-42, they are the clear cut worst team in the league, the closest thing there is to an assured W for any opponent. And worse than just not being good, they are beset by internal problems, with several players involved in public disputes for different reasons. The Bucks cannot score efficiently, create high percentage looks for one another, stop anyone, rebound or play as a team, and the 14 different starters they have used this season is a testament to just how little cohesion they have demonstrated.
Milwaukee’s identifiable core going forward consists of the genuinely impressive duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson. Giannis has proven to be not nearly as raw as expected – the point forward dream looks ambitious, but Antetokounmpo has nevertheless wowed at times with his athleticism, wing span, open court ability, slashes and cuts off the ball, and enthused if spotty perimeter defense. Henson meanwhile is putting up Gaudy numbers, a 19.7 PER and 2.1 blocks per game with some seriously effective rim protection, one of the better young bigs in the game and certainly one of the most overlooked. Khris Middleton has also played his way into the Bucks’s long term future, having added a 43% three point stroke to his crafty offensive game, and Nate Wolters has shown regular rotation point guard potential with a high IQ pick and roll based game that will benefit greatly from a summer spent adding jumpshot range (as he currently shoots 10% from three). He even starts at the off-guard spot now.
The Bucks are also resolute in the idea that Larry Sanders is amongst the core, and are turning away all interested parties thus far. However, Sanders, whose $44 million extension is yet to kick in, has apparently decided he has done enough, and is mired in a miserable year of his own doing. He's also now out indefinitely with a broken orbital bone.
A defensive wall last season, Sanders is defending lazily this season and has been thoroughly unreliable due to injuries, fouls, effort, and unnecessary off-court distractions. This unreliability can also be said of the other big move of the offseason, the one to sign O.J. Mayo, which has also worked out poorly. Given the keys to the offense to start the season, Mayo lost them, and now barely gets off the bench, confined there entirely for the last five games due to his poor conditioning. We are currently three fifths of the way through the season and Mayo is not in suitable game shape. This is reprehensible.
Everyone else can also be considered available. Aided by Carlos Delfino’s season ending injury – which has made him quite untradeable himself - Antetokounmpo won the starting spot from Caron Butler in fairly short order. Butler, whose one-year $8 million remaining was traded for using the dregs of the Bucks’s cap space, was brought in to be a jump-shooting veteran and a professional, yet he has shot only 35% from three and further complained about his role. He had two jobs to do and has fulfilled neither, and now struggles for any minutes at all after being further supplanted by Middleton, who is performing the role earmarked for Butler better than Butler ever approached.
Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour were two more offseason veteran acquisitions, who made little sense for the Bucks to acquire (they should instead have been making deals like trading for Tony Wroten, as Philadelphia did), but whose acquisitions could at least be somewhat justified if they helped the team at least approach the .500 mark. Of course, they have not done this. The long underrated Ridnour turns 33 next week and is what in what is by far a career worst year, losing the surprising quickness that made him a sneaky effective offensive player, and lumbered as ever with defensive concerns and overdribbling. Meanwhile, Neal shot 38% prior to the spat with Sanders that, combined with back spasms, has seen him dumped entirely out of the rotation. It has all meant that Wolters, the assumed third strong point guard, has leapt ahead of them both and Mayo into the starting spot at shooting guard.
Compounding the problems is the continued concern that is Ersan Ilyasova, who continues his worrying trend of playing noticeably worse in the first half of the season than he does in the second. When he is good, Ilyasova is very good, a energetic player with jumpshot range and occasional inside play who crashes the boards, moves without the ball, and steps up for charges on defense, all to decent effect. However, when he plays so sluggishly and disinterestedly in the first half, he makes himself only an albatross of a contract. Zaza Pachulia has been fairly effective in the backup centre role – his bizarrely anomalous 38% shooting offset by his even more anomalous 94% free throw shooting – but has battled injuries and is signed to a fairly expensive deal for the following two campaigns. And Ekpe Udoh, arguably the Bucks’s best interior defender thus far in light of the Sanders dilemma, nevertheless contributes so little offensively and on the glass that he is barely a net positive to the team.
It is difficult to say quite what Milwaukee will want to take in trade for these players, or indeed any other. More than likely, the question will be what little can they get. The players with value are the ones they need to keep, and the mistakes made are too expensive to be easy to rectify. These non-core players are not particularly good assets – the reasons for which the Bucks want and need to be rid of them are the same reasons they are not likely to be sought after. Milwaukee not only has a bad team, but they have a bad team that will be hard to get away from. Even the one prized asset of Sanders, should they deem him irredeemable, will be difficult to trade due to the Poison Pill provision. They are right to wait until his value is higher. Butler and Ridnour should be left to expire rather than be traded for yet more salary clogging mediocrity, and Udoh may be too if he cannot yield a second round pick from someone, but given the Bucks’s propensity for fiddling, we can never be sure.
The Bucks’ sole salvation comes from their strong drafting record. As evidenced by Antetokounmpo and Henson, Sanders and Jon Leuer before them, and Brandon Jennings and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute before them, the Bucks under John Hammond usually draft well, occasional Joe Alexander-sized miss excepted.
So even if they are only able to take back liabilities from other teams, it might be worth it if those liabilities come with draft picks. And even if those draft picks and just yet more second rounders – Milwaukee currently stands to have eight second round picks over the next three drafts – it is surely a better bet than this one was. Dealing players when their value is low is generally a bad thing to do, yet only if there is a chance of redeeming that value. If it will only get worse, then.
Or they might trade for, say, Eric Gordon and try to power out of it that way. Unfortunately, you can never tell.