After limping into the playoffs a season ago, the new-look Milwaukee Bucks approach their 2013 training camp with the same goal as before: make the playoffs.
Of course that's easier said than done, especially in an ever-improving Eastern Conference.
After revamping most of the roster—just four players return—it's perfectly reasonable to wonder if the overhaul will improve the team, make it worse or flat out not matter much at all.
If these new players can gel and handle themselves with maturity, there may be something here. Otherwise the Bucks will look a lot like they did last season. That sounds good on the surface, but with other teams continuing to get better, it's not.
- 38-44 (.463)
- 3rd in Central Division
- 8th in Eastern Conference
- Swept by Miami Heat in Eastern Conference First Round (4-0)
Key Stats: The Highs and Lows
From a statistical standpoint, the Bucks were all over the map in 2012-13.
Defensively they were one of the worst teams in the league, allowing 100.4 points per game—ranking 20th—yet managed to rack up 550 blocks—second to only the Oklahoma City Thunder—thanks in large part to center Larry Sanders.
While that may seem perplexing, it's not.
In fact, it can be attributed to two things: Sanders' excellent shot-blocking ability and the laziness of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Far too often opposing backcourts were able to blow by the former Milwaukee guards and get quality looks going towards the rim.
Offensively—despite some major efficiency issues—the Bucks managed to score 98.4 points per game, while finishing in the top 10 in offensive rebounding and assists. They also managed to shoot a respectable 36 percent from three-point territory.
Given the imbalance of consistency between the offense and defense, they never managed to get over the proverbial hump and improve their playoff position.
Aside from holding opponents to fewer points, the Bucks would probably be content with repeating the rest of the aforementioned stats.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
There are two areas to keep an eye on as the Bucks head into training camp: how quickly team chemistry can form and whether or not a consistent, efficient offense can be established.
Despite what some may think, throwing talent onto a team and expecting wins immediately typically doesn't work.
Milwaukee added some solid pieces, but whether or not those pieces will be successful in the presence of one another will depend on the chemistry they can forge prior to opening night. With the moves made this summer, the plan is to win now.
In order to do that, chemistry tops the list.
Of course, much of that depends on the second biggest issue heading into camp: efficiency.
In order to compete for a playoff spot or improve on last year's eighth seed, the team will need to not only finish at a higher percentage, but take smarter shots as well.
Considering they shot a dreadful 43.6 percent from the field, it'll be very hard to get any worse. The only thing left to wonder is whether or not they can get better.
Not only are these major storylines, but they're also both things which will help define the season.
Key Additions & Losses
Key Additions: O.J. Mayo, SG (Three years, $24 million); Brandon Knight, PG (Three years, $8.04 million); Caron Butler, SF (One year, $8 million); Carlos Delfino, SF (Three years, $9.8 million); Gary Neal, SG (Two years, $6.5 million)
Key Losses: Monta Ellis (Three years, $25.1 million with DAL); Brandon Jennings, PG (Three years, $24 million with DET); J.J. Redick, SG (Four years, $27.8 million with LAC); Mike Dunleavy, SF (Two years, $6.5 million with CHI);
New Faces on the Coaching Staff: Larry Drew (Head Coach); Bob Bender (Assistant); Nick Van Exel (Assistant); Scott Williams (Assistant); Jim Cleamons (Assistant); Josh Oppenheimer (Assistant)
Coaches Who Departed: Jim Boylan (Head Coach); Joe Wolf (Assistant); Anthony Goldwire (Assistant); Sidney Moncrief (Assistant); Bill Peterson (Assistant)
Biggest Addition: O.J. Mayo
Mayo has yet to live up to his reputation of being an elite scorer at the NBA level. The Bucks are hoping that changes this season.
And there's a chance he could emerge as a go-to scorer.
Filling the void left at shooting guard by the departure of Ellis and Redick was imperative, and Mayo is a nice fit. For the first time, he shouldn't have to worry about sharing the spotlight with another star player like Rudy Gay or Dirk Nowitzki.
After two poor seasons from 2010-12, Mayo rebounded last season and will look to continue building upon that success in an offense in which he'll certainly play a larger role.
If he can do that, he'll be well worth $8 million a year.
Biggest Loss: Monta Ellis
A lot of negatives can be attributed to Ellis, but the opposite is true as well.
As far as scorers go, there aren't many guys who possess a better knack for getting to the rim and finishing tough shots. Ellis' quickness off the dribble will be missed as well, especially with that not being a strong point of Mayo's game.
The concern over his departure is tempered by the fact he far too often settled for contested jump shots and three-pointers, but make no mistake about it, Ellis could fill it up in a hurry—as evidenced on March 17 when he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter to lead a comeback (via USA Today).
It's explosions like those that could be missed.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Ersan Ilyasova vs. John Henson
Had it not been for a great finishing stretch last season and excellent numbers at the Las Vegas Summer League (14.7. PPG, 13.7 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 54.7 FG%), this probably wouldn't have been a debate.
However, heading into training camp, Henson winning the starting power forward job from Ilyasova is definitely plausible.
The second-year power forward out of North Carolina has made significant strides in his game and continues to prove that his future is bright. Meanwhile, Ilyasova has been a consistent player on offense and provides the team with exact efficiency from all over the floor.
If Henson does manage to impress during training camp, it wouldn't spell the end for Ilyasova.
The 26-year-old Turk could easily move to small forward when needed, especially with the lack of depth the Bucks have at that position. According to Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times, Delfino may miss the start of the season.
If that is the case, the team's depth at small forward dwindles even more leaving just Butler and inexperienced players Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
In the end, Ilyasova will most likely win the battle, but don't be surprised if the strong play of Henson makes him expendable by the trade deadline.
Battling For A Roster Spot: Miroslav Raduljica vs. Nate Wolters vs. Khris Middleton
From a roster standpoint, the Bucks are one of the few teams relatively set heading into camp and it's unlikely that anyone currently on the roster will be cut.
With that said, there are still decisions needed to be made in terms of the active roster.
And it's likely Raduljica, Wolters and Middleton will be the ones duking it out.
Immediately, Raduljica can be eliminated from the equation simply due to the team's logjam in the frontcourt. With Sanders, Henson, Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh and Zaza Pachulia all vying for minutes, it would be nearly impossible for him to see the floor at all.
When it comes down to Wolters or Middleton, the Bucks face a tough decision.
Knight is clearly the team's starter at point guard, but hasn't proven himself to be a very effective facilitator yet. His backup, Ridnour, is more than capable of playing the position but, again, isn't the top choice for running an offense.
So, even though he's a rookie, Wolters might be the best choice if the Bucks really want someone who they can run things through and a player who is an effective distributor.
Then again, he is a rookie.
Meanwhile, Middleton would add depth to small forward. He's not as raw as Antetokounmpo and would provide added depth behind Butler and Delfino, who are both veterans with aging bodies.
Ultimately, Middleton's case is the best and he'll likely be the one who earns the last spot on the active roster to start the season.
Biggest X-Factor: O.J. Mayo
Wondering which version of Mayo will show up in Milwaukee is a legitimate concern, as consistency hasn't exactly been his trademark.
Will the Bucks be getting the player who was excellent the first half of last season? Or will they get the player that struggled down the stretch?
Prior to the All-Star Game in 2012-13, Mayo averaged 17.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range and looked to be putting the previous two seasons behind him.
After the break, though, Mayo's offensive production dipped. He scored just 10.9 points per game but did manage to keep his rebounds (3.2 per game) and assists (4.5 per game) within the same neighborhood.
Without question, his season was a tale of two halves.
Best-Case Scenario: Mayo puts together an entire season that is on par or exceeds what he did for the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of 2012-13, scoring around 20 points per game. He leads the Bucks offensively, giving them the scoring spark they desperately need, and always shows effort on the defensive end.
Worst-Case Scenario: Mayo doesn't recover from his poor second half and fails to deliver the offensive firepower the team is relying on. His frustration on offense leads to laziness on defense and turns into nothing more than a role player, leaving the Bucks with a gaping hole at shooting guard.
Bucks Best-Case Scenario for 2013-14
Knight and Mayo pick up where Jennings and Ellis left off from a scoring standpoint, but do so more efficiently. Ilyasova plays a bigger role offensively, while the development of Henson provides a great one-two punch at power forward.
Sanders learns to control his temper while defending the rim without fouling, and Butler provides the veteran leadership needed to make a playoff push.
The Bucks finish in the 41-45 win range while teams like the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers don't improve enough to threaten their playoff hopes. With the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics taking steps in the wrong direction, the Bucks slide into the sixth seed and have a chance to compete in their first-round series.
Bucks Worst-Case Scenario for 2013-14
Henson's development stalls while Knight and Mayo fail to post the offensive production that management thought they could. Ilyasova proves he can't be anything more than a third-scoring option and Sanders regresses while still battling negative bouts of emotion.
Ridnour, Neal, Butler and Delfino have down years and provide very little value. Milwaukee finishes with 27 wins and its plan to remain competitive fails massively.
It's hard to believe the Bucks are worse than their 38 wins from a year ago. They've managed to add experience and depth, while replacing Jennings and Ellis with production that's almost equal and doesn't carry the attitude problems the former two did.
Meanwhile, Sanders and Henson have had the entire offseason to build on the successes of last season and Jim Boylan has been replaced with Larry Drew, a coach who has led every team he has coached to a playoff appearance.
In order for Milwaukee to miss out on the 2014 postseason, either the Pistons and Cavs would need to drastically improve or the Hawks and Celtics would need to somehow match their 2012-13 record.
Both scenarios seem unlikely and while there are plenty of questions about Milwaukee's team, the outlook is not as bleak as some may think.
Season Prediction: 43-39, No. 6 seed in Eastern Conference, first-round loss (it's a competitive series, though).
There are certainly doubts about the fresh look in Milwaukee, but until the team steps onto the court for the first time, no one knows how they'll mesh.
With training camp and a full preseason to work with, the team has plenty of time to work out whatever issues they feel are standing in the way of a successful 2013-14 season.