The Milwaukee Bucks began the season without a single All-Star, the second-youngest roster in the NBA, and head coach Jason Kidd entering just his second year as a sideline commander. Last season, the Bucks finished 15-67, the worst record in the NBA. They were 28th in points scored, 25th in points allowed, 24th in rebounds, and 19th in turnovers. Essentially the Bucks needed help in almost every facet of the game.
They did have the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft in much-heralded forward Jabari Parker, but the stage was essentially set for a return to the draft lottery with postseason contention a few years away.
Instead, the Bucks have overcome their age, Kidd’s unproven success, Parker’s season-ending knee injury, and a checkered and now over season from center Larry Sanders to somehow have a 31-24 record and the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Now, if the Bucks are for real, they’ll have one more obstacle to overcome. The Bucks are two games into their radical shakeup at the NBA’s trade deadline, moving leading scorer and Most Improved Player candidate Brandon Knight to the Phoenix Suns and winding up with last year’s Rookie of the Year winner in point guard Michael Carter-Williams, a move that shocked the team and Knight.
"The first couple of minutes obviously were a shock," center Zaza Pachulia said Friday to Fox Sports Wisconsin. "We were just not expecting this. But we all realize it is a business, and we move forward.
"It was kind of silence in the beginning. All of us were looking at Brandon. He was sad. Obviously we couldn't act happy. There's something special going on this year with this team. It is really special, especially after the year we had last year. The chemistry was improving."
Knight showed promise with a career-best 17.9 points and 4.9 assists per game last season, but especially flourished under Kidd this season by improving his playmaking with 5.4 assists, and his three-point shooting jumped to a lethal 40.9 percent.
The offense improved with Knight as the floor leader, moving up to 20th in points scored, but team defense and playing within Kidd’s system is where Milwaukee made the biggest leap. The Bucks share the ball with the seventh-most assists per game and play impeccable defense, allowing 96.9 points per game, No. 4 in the NBA.
And just like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks have risen to the top of the league, the Bucks are knocking down 3-pointers at a 37.6 percent clip, the third-best mark in the league.
Veteran guards O.J. Mayo and Jared Dudley might slightly eschew the Bucks mean age, but the former leads the seventh-highest scoring bench in the league with 11.9 points and a 35.8 percent dead eye from three. Dudley leads the team outright with a stellar 43.1 return rate from beyond the arc.
Third-year guard and former D-League relegated second-round pick Khris Middleton is another sharpshooter with 11.6 points per game and hitting 42 percent of his threes.
Milwaukee also has two promising, lanky young big men in Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson. The second-year 6-foot-11 small forward Antetokounmpo has doubled his rookie year scoring effort with 12.1 points, pulls down 6.6 rebounds and swats at least one shot per game.
Henson missed 14 games between November and December due to a left foot sprain, but he’s gotten healthier as the season’s progressed and averaged 10 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks in eight games this month.
Thus far, Milwaukee has split their last two games since shipping Knight off to the Suns, but Carter-Williams hasn’t even seen the floor yet because of a sprained toe injury. The Bucks finished off a five-game home stand by shutting down the 20-35 Denver Nuggets and nearly handed the conference-leading Hawks their third-straight loss.
The rest of the haul for Knight included center Miles Plumlee, who figures to fill the void left by Sanders, and rookie point guard Tyler Ennis. Plumlee saw his first action in a Bucks uniform against Atlanta and provided four points, five rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal in 15 solid minutes off the bench. Ennis has scored eight total points and dropped five assists in 36 minutes in his first two games.
With 27 games left in the regular season, the Bucks figure to hold the No. 6 seed but could reach higher.
The rest of Milwaukee’s schedule indicates it should make the postseason for the second time in the last five seasons, its best stretch since 2006. The Bucks have 14 games against teams under .500 and out of the postseason, and another three games combined against the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets, both of whom are clinging to the last two spots in the East at 22-31.
Following the win over Denver, Middleton stressed Knight’s importance to the team but said there’s more to the Bucks than one player.
"He was a big part of what we did, but he's only one piece," Middleton said to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "We're a team here. Everyone just pulled together, did their job and we got out with a win."