STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Following an offseason that brought a near-complete roster turnover – just four players remain from last year's 38-44 squad – Milwaukee yet again finds itself at a crossroads. Ownership's outright refusal to rebuild somewhat handcuffed GM John Hammond this summer, resulting in a slew of questionable moves that ultimately landed the Bucks right back where they were. "Eighth seed or bust" has become the fan base's despondent rallying cry, and it looks as though Milwaukee is poised to make another run for that spot in 2013-14.
Headlining the roster overhaul was the late-July deal sending Brandon Jennings to Detroit in exchange for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov (Kravtsov was later traded to Phoenix). Milwaukee also saw Monta Ellis and Mike Dunleavy sign with Dallas and Chicago, respectively, as free agents. The Bucks traded Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute to the Kings for two future second rounders and gifted J.J. Redick to the Clippers in a heavily-scrutinized sign-and-trade. Finally, late in August, Milwaukee acquired Wisconsin native Caron Butler from Phoenix.
An entirely new backcourt will grace the BMO Harris Bradley Center floor this season, as Milwaukee added O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino via free agency in addition to drafting Nate Wolters in the second round. By contrast, the frontcourt remains relatively intact with just five new additions: Middleton, Butler, rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, Miroslav Raduljica and Zaza Pachulia. While Hammond drew heavy criticism for many of his offseason moves, he solidified the future at center in locking up Larry Sanders with a four-year extension.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The Bucks made it clear shortly after acquiring Brandon Knight that he would be the starting point guard. He should see around 30 minutes per game to begin the season with Luke Ridnour serving as the primary backup (15-20 minutes).
O.J. Mayo is solidified as the starting shooting guard and is expected to handle the largest portion of the scoring load. He averaged just over 35 minutes per game with the Mavs last season and will likely see about the same in his first season with the Bucks. After Mayo, it's a bit of a toss up. Both Ridnour and Knight have experience playing shooting guard, as do Gary Neal and Carlos Delfino. Neal figures to be the first option, but coach Larry Drew will certainly experiment with several lineup combinations.
Just when it appeared the Bucks were content to go forward with Carlos Delfino as the starting shooting guard, the team acquired Caron Butler to shore up its weakest position. The 33-year-old averaged just under 25 minutes per game for the Clippers last season, but at this point it's uncertain what his role will be with the Bucks. Butler will be the starter, but with Delfino and intriguing young players Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo behind him, he's not likely to play big minutes on a nightly basis.
Ersan Ilyasova will almost certainly open the season as the starting power forward, but how long will that last? Second-year man John Henson turned in an impressive summer league performance and the two will likely see relatively equal minutes (20-30 per game). Ekpe Udoh is next off the bench and should see around 15 minutes per game at both power forward and center.
Despite enjoying a breakout 2012-13 campaign, Larry Sanders averaged just 27.3 minutes per game. If he can avoid foul trouble, look for that number to creep over the 30 minute plateau as he looks to solidify himself as one of the league's most feared rim protectors. Veteran Zaza Pachulia will be the backup center with the more athletic John Henson filling in when necessary.
Larry Sanders: After finishing seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, the Bucks rewarded Sanders with a $44 million extension. Now it will be up to the lanky shot blocker to prove he's worth upwards of $11 million per year. Thus far, he seems to have embraced the "face of the franchise" role, which hopefully means less of this and more of this. Sanders made a major leap from 2011-12 to 2012-13, improving in every statistical category as his minutes more than doubled. Though his offensive game outside of three feet is very much a work in progress, he nearly averaged a double-double last season (9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds) in just 27.3 minutes per game. The rebounds and blocks will be there, but offensive improvement is what could really elevate his stock. Sanders shot just 30.2 percent from 10-15 feet and a horrifying 26.5 percent from 3-9 feet last season – last among the 36 centers that averaged at least 20.0 minutes (min. 25 games).
Zaza Pachulia: Bringing in Pachulia on a three-year, $15.6 million deal was one of the more bizarre offseason moves around the league this summer. With a strong young core of Sanders, Henson, Udoh and Ilyasova already in place, Pachulia's role will be a bit of a mystery. Still just 29 years old, he has plenty of tread left on the tires, but he'll likely spend much of the season in an underutilized bench role assuming Sanders stays healthy.
Miroslav Raduljica: The Bucks signed Raduljica to a three-year deal in July after the Serbian seven-footer put up impressive numbers overseas (Ukraine) last season. Like most foreign players, he'll require some adjustment time, and with Sanders and Pachulia ahead of him on the depth chart, 2013-14 will likely be more of a learning experience than anything else.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Despite being the 15th pick in the 2013 draft, Antetokounmpo and his role with the Bucks this season remain a mystery. Typically a player as raw as Antetokounmpo would be stashed overseas for at least one season, but the Bucks will keep him on the roster this season. His commitment to the Greek U-20 national team prevented him from playing in Las Vegas this summer, but he'll join the Bucks for training camp and get his first taste of NBA action in the preseason. Future expectations are high for Antetokounmpo, but in all likelihood 2013-14 will be a developmental season as he adjusts to a vastly superior level of competition.
Caron Butler: Bringing in Butler at the end of August put the finishing touches on a fairly bizarre offseason. However, while the move was a bit puzzling, Butler is on an expiring contract and should shore up the small forward position for a season. He'll be the starter but will likely split time with Carlos Delfino and Khris Middleton, to a lesser degree.
John Henson: The second year man out of North Carolina will look to build on a strong close to the 2012-13 season. His role was minimal for much of the year, but he emerged as a standout rebounder and solid interior defender when given the chance (see: 17 points, 25 rebounds, seven blocks on Apr. 10). Larry Sanders is deeply entrenched as the starting center, but it would not be a surprise if Henson pushed Ersan Ilyasova for the starting power forward spot at some point. Regardless, he should see his role increase dramatically compared to last season.
Ersan Ilyasova: After signing a five-year, $40 million extension last offseason, Ilyasova got off to a very slow start during the 2012-13 season. He averaged just 6.7 points on 34.9 percent shooting in November but steadily improved throughout the year, culminating in an excellent month of March in which he posted 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds on 46.9 percent shooting. He projects to start at power forward but could see minutes at small forward in certain lineups. Rebounding and three point shooting are Ilyasova's strong suits, but consistency will be the key for him to avoid conceding minutes to John Henson.
Khris Middleton: Middleton came to Milwaukee as part of the mid-summer Brandon Jennings deal. The team initially expressed interest in making him an integral part of the rotation, but the addition of Caron Butler will make finding minutes a bit more difficult.
Ekpe Udoh: Udoh is not much of a fantasy contributor, but he'll serve as a versatile frontcourt backup that will see minutes at both center and power forward. However, the emergence of Henson and addition of Pachulia could cut into his playing time.
Carlos Delfino: Delfino returns for his second tour with Milwaukee, having been with the team from 2009-12. In 25.2 minutes per game for Houston last season, he averaged just over 10 points per game while attempting 6.3 three-pointers per game (fourth most in the league). He was projected to start at small forward until the acquisition of Caron Butler. However, Delfino will still see his fair share of minutes with his primary value stemming from long-range shooting.
Brandon Knight: In his first season with Milwaukee, Knight will start at point guard and could see minutes at the shooting guard spot as well. He struggled in the pick-and-roll setting in his two seasons with Detroit, averaging just 4.0 assists per game in 2012-13. Knight is a better three-point shooter and locker room presence than Brandon Jennings, but his decision-making will need to improve before he's considered an upgrade at the position.
O.J. Mayo: Since averaging 18.5 points per game as a rookie, Mayo's numbers have declined as he has struggled to find a role that fits his skill set. He got off to a blazing start with Dallas last season, but his numbers took a nosedive after Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury. Now, for the first time in his career, Mayo will be the undisputed go-to scoring option and his numbers should reflect that.
Gary Neal: After helping the Spurs to the Finals, the Bucks inked Neal to a two-year, $6.5 million deal in July. He'll space the floor with his three-point shooting off the bench but is not likely to provide much in terms of assists or rebounds.
Luke Ridnour: Like Delfino and Pachulia, Ridnour returns for his second rendezvous with the Bucks. He has proven to be a very capable backup throughout his career and will help aid in the development of Knight. Though Ridnour played the two-guard spot in Minnesota last season, he'll likely see the majority of his minutes at point guard in 2013-14.
Nate Wolters: The second-round pick has the skills to play both guard positions, but cracking the rotation will be difficult as a rookie. It would not be a surprise if Wolters spent time in the D-League this season.
John Henson: Henson will fall in drafts due to concerns over how many minutes he'll play behind Sanders and Ilyasova. Those concerns may be warranted given his inconsistent role last season, but chances are he'll end up stealing some starts from Ilyasova at some point this year. If given the opportunity, he'll be an elite rebounder while providing some blocks.
Caron Butler: Butler is 33 years old and his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers have all decreased in each of the past four seasons. New scenery could provide a boost, but the likely timeshare with Delfino and Middleton will ultimately limit his fantasy value.