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Bucks Trying To Rebuild From The Middle

The Milwaukee Bucks are a textbook example of the perils of the “mediocrity treadmill”. In the last five seasons, they have won somewhere between 31-46 games and haven't picked higher than No. 10 overall. Milwaukee has been caught in the middle: too good for high draft picks but not good enough to win in the playoffs. Things culminated when they went “all-in” last season, finishing with a 38-44 record, a No. 8 seed and a first-round sweep by the Miami Heat.

It’s been more of the same this offseason. The Bucks lost Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Samuel Dalembert, Drew Gooden and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute and signed O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino. Even if they bring back Brandon Jennings, their talented but enigmatic point guard, they’ll be in line for yet another 40-win season. Things are gloomy for Milwaukee, but there is reason for hope. For all their troubles evaluating veterans, the Bucks front office drafts as well as any team in the NBA.

Their last three first-round picks were Larry Sanders (15), Tobias Harris (19) and John Henson (14). That’s a tremendous haul, especially considering where they were taken. If you can turn a pick in the teens into a solid NBA player, you have done well. The Bucks have been consistently drafting players with All-Star upsides in that range. This year, they grabbed Greek teenager Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had as much talent as anyone in the draft, at No. 15.

Sanders left VCU the year before their run to the Final Four, when the school wasn’t as much of a brand name. That season, he averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds a game for a 27-win team that missed the NCAA Tournament. Milwaukee looked beyond his mid-major pedigree and saw his preposterous physical dimensions -- 6’11 220 with a 7’5 wingspan. After three seasons in the NBA, he looks like a future Defensive Player of the Year.

Harris was one of the most highly-touted players in the country coming out of high school. As an 18-year old freshman at Tennessee, he averaged 15 points and seven rebounds a game. Unfortunately, his play was overshadowed by the off-court implosion of Bruce Pearl’s program. Harris was a 6’8 225 combo forward who produced at a level similar to Luol Deng in college, but it’s surprisingly easy for a good NBA player on an average NCAA team to slip through the cracks.

Henson was the most obvious call of the group. Not that much separated him from No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. While the Kentucky freshman was younger and more efficient from the field, all the things that made him so intriguing applied to Henson as well. Both were 6’10 220 forwards with absurd 7’5 wingspans, great feet and an uncommon amount of skill. Henson had staggering per-36 minute averages as a rookie and looked like a man amongst boys in the Summer League.

Antetokounmpo is a roll of the dice, but the talent is there. He’s a fluid athlete with great length (6’9 200 with a 7’3 wingspan) and a good feel for the game. You just don’t see players with his size and playmaking ability very often. However, as an 18-year old still growing into his body, he would benefit from at least one season in the D-League. While it will be years before we know what he will become, he’s exactly the type of high-upside pick the Bucks should be making.

Of course, drafting well is only half the battle. Harris produced whenever he got on the floor in Milwaukee, but he never received consistent playing time. At last year’s trade deadline, he was the centerpiece of a deal for J.J. Redick. Harris immediately blossomed in Orlando, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds a game. Redick, on the other hand, was a poor fit on a mediocre team. Even worse, while Harris was locked into a rookie deal, Redick was set to be an unrestricted free agent.

There wasn’t much room for Redick in the Bucks' rotation. Jennings and Ellis averaged over 36 minutes a night and were playing for new contracts. Nor did Redick, at 6’4 190, have the size to play big minutes at small forward. In the playoffs, he averaged only 17 minutes a game. This off-season, Milwaukee sent him to the Los Angeles Clippers for two future second-round picks. It was asset management at its worst: buy high and sell low.

However, as bad as the Harris trade turned out for the Bucks, they still got more value out of their 2011 pick than a lot of the teams ahead of them. The Houston Rockets turned Marcus Morris into one second-round pick. Jan Vesely and Jimmer Fredette couldn’t fetch much more than that. Two years later, if teams could have a do over, Harris wouldn’t slip out of the Top 10. The same is true for Sanders in 2010 and Henson in 2012.

Going forward, the Bucks need to figure out a better way to maximize their young talent. Sanders has established himself as their starting center, but Henson will have to fight for minutes in an extremely crowded frontcourt. While he excelled as a small-ball 5 in Las Vegas, Milwaukee has three other centers -- Pachulia, Ekpe Udoh and Gustavo Ayon -- behind Sanders. At the 4, Henson will have to fight for minutes behind Ersan Ilyasova.

At this point, it’s unclear whether Henson and Sanders can co-exist. They played only 107 minutes together last season. The big concern is floor spacing, since neither has shown much of an ability to stretch the floor. Last year, both took over 65 percent of their shots in the lane. Sanders is a career 58% free-throw shooter and Henson was 48 percent from the line in three years at UNC. With both on the floor, there won’t be many driving lanes for the Milwaukee guards.

It’s the same issue with Antetokounmpo, another freakish physical specimen with questions about his outside shot. For basketball players, an outsized wingspan can be a gift and a curse, since long arms make a compact shooting motion difficult. However, even if the Bucks young frontcourt doesn’t fit together long-term, they have one of the best collections of under-25 talent in the league. That shouldn’t happen when a team is drafting in the teens every year.

The mediocrity treadmill only holds if drafting ability is evenly distributed across the NBA. As it is, it’s possible to rebuild from the middle of the first round. The Indiana Pacers built a contender -- Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Danny Granger -- that way. There are still a lot of teams out there giving away draft picks. In each of the last four drafts, one of the best players on the board fell in Milwaukee’s lap. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is the king.

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