Good or bad, the Milwaukee Bucks will always be weird.
"We may not be exactly what everyone thought we would be," says Joe Prunty, the team's interim head coach, "but I think we're fun to watch."
He's right in this sense: The Bucks have no real idea what they are, or what they might become, and every game is a trial-and-error experiment designed to learn some fundamental truth about this strange brew of players. They're the NBA equivalent of a child wobbling into new skills. They'll fail at some, succeed at others, and come out each night with a little more knowledge of their basic strengths and weaknesses.
If you conceive of progress as linear, the 2015-16 Bucks becoming a sub-.500 science lab counts as a disappointment. The Bucks won 41 games last season, gave the Chicago Bulls a fight in the playoffs, and sold Greg Monroe, a max-level free agent, on the notion that he could push them up another step.
But incremental improvement is never guaranteed, especially for a team that acquired several strange players in a spasm of transactions that flipped half the roster in five months. Michael Carter-Williams is a pterodactyl of a point guard who can't shoot -- one of the trickiest pieces to build around. Monroe is a throwback bruiser who made for an awkward fit within Milwaukee's helter-skelter, pressurized defense. Milwaukee traded away three key veteran contributors -- Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia -- for essentially nothing in an effort to clear both cap space and roster spots. Milwaukee worked to find them good homes on playoff hopefuls, a concerted effort by ownership to brand the Bucks as a player-friendly organization -- an image they think will pay off in future free agency bidding wars.
All the change left the Bucks an unmolded lump of clay. No one personifies that more than Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft and a complete NBA mystery. "He has a very different skill set," Prunty says. "Everyone wants him to be something right now. But he's learning. Let's enjoy what he's doing now, in the moment. Let's enjoy the teachable moments we're seeing."
At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Parker looks like a power forward, and mostly plays as one. But on New Year's Eve against the Indiana Pacers, Prunty decided to try something radical: He had Parker, his nominal power forward, defend Paul George, Indy's All-Star wing. (Even when the Pacers start their small-ball group, as they did that night, most opponents have power forwards defend C.J. Miles, so their best wing defender can stick on George.)
George went off for 31 points, but the Bucks won, and Prunty has since tried Parker against Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Kawhi Leonard. That has left Giannis Antetokounmpo to guard big men, including Tim Duncan -- a setup that even confused some higher ups in the Bucks organization when Prunty first unveiled it.
Turns out, Parker asked for the job. "He came to us and said he wanted the challenge" Prunty says. That's an encouraging sign of maturity for a kid who won't turn 21 until March. Everyone within the Bucks describes Parker as a diligent worker who cares about the team first. It was Parker who called out Antetokounmpo for lazing through a practice in April, several team sources have told me. Jason Kidd, the team's head coach, benched Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee's next game -- a move the team never explained publicly.
Slotting Parker on elite wing scorers wasn't just about Parker requesting the job. He has struggled horribly with normal duties of power forward defense, which mostly include defending players who don't have the ball. He has been a mess guarding the screener in pick-and-rolls, flying out into space to cut off a ball-handler and lingering there too long with little clue where to go next.
He's late helping at the rim, and confused rotating around the floor when opposing offenses get the ball moving. None of this should be surprising. Rookies are generally awful on defense, and Parker entered the league with a reputation as an offense-first player. But the depth of Parker's struggle has been troubling. There was a legitimate debate over whether Parker should have been the No. 1 pick over Wiggins, and by December of last season, Milwaukee higher-ups were already factoring a max-level extension for Parker into their 2019 salary cap projections.
So Prunty and the staff thought out of the box: If Parker stinks off the ball, maybe they can put him on the ball -- even if that throws every traditional positional designation into upheaval. The strategy also spares Khris Middleton, Milwaukee's leading scorer, from exhausting himself chasing the best player on the other team.
It hasn't really worked, but it hasn't made Milwaukee's 29th-ranked defense any worse, either. Parker has good footwork and some ability to switch onto smaller players, but they've also burned him on and off the ball.
All this raises a question: what position does Parker even play?
"That's a good question," Prunty says, laughing. "And you can ask it about a lot of guys on our team."
You can see the outlines of the super-long, position-less basketball Milwaukee looked poised to play last season. Parker, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are all interchangeable, and at 6-7, Carter-Williams can bump up a position or two without conceding much. Hell, Prunty has even busted out a mammoth John Henson-Johnny O'Bryant-Parker trio, in which Parker is the "small forward," and let all three of those big guys toggle between assignments on defense. On Wednesday against Washington, Milwaukee used those three alongside Middleton and Antetokounmpo -- perhaps the biggest lineup, and certainly the weirdest, any team has used outside garbage time this season.
The Bucks have tried Parker all over the floor on offense. When Monroe holds the ball at the elbow, a starting point for lots of Milwaukee possessions, Parker might station himself at the opposite elbow -- the power forward's normal spot -- with Antetokounmpo in the corner. On the next trip down, they might flip, so that Parker chills in the corner as a spot-up threat -- typically the job of a wing player.
Or, Parker might hang out in some in-between space behind the 3-point arc, where he can attack bulkier power forwards on slithery baseline drives.
The Bucks run more of this flex-style action, with Monroe directing an orchestra of cutters from the elbow, than almost any team, and they do it because they don't have enough shooting to do anything else. Middleton is the only 3-point shooter in their starting lineup; Kidd declared that five-man group unplayable just a month ago in a chat with ESPN.com, and experimented with starting both Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo in place of Carter-Williams.
Run a Carter-Williams/Monroe pick-and-roll, and the opposing point guard will duck under the pick, daring Carter-Williams to shoot and allowing every other defender to stay home. And if that doesn't work, Parker's man will sag far into the lane to clutter up the action.
Parker should be a stretch power forward, but he hasn't made a single 3-pointer this season, and nobody respects his range. "We don't rely much on the pick-and-roll," Prunty says. "And our spacing is better when O.J. [Mayo] or Jerryd [Bayless] is out there."
Parker has the speed to blow by any opposing power forward off the dribble, but it's hard to blow by someone standing 10 feet in front of you. Slower guys can wait for Parker in the paint, challenge him at the rim, and watch him fling up ugly floaters in a crowd.
Fittingly, Antetokounmpo faces the same issue. He's a creative, turbocharged driver, but that speed does him no good against defenders who play 10 feet behind him. It looks like Antetokounmpo is throwing crossovers and spin moves at ghosts before barreling into a human wall.
As ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz mentioned on my podcast last month, the over-dribbling irked teammates who read it as Antetokounmpo hunting for his own shots and then passing them grenades when nothing materialized, and the shot clock was ticking down. Antetokounmpo is a gifted passer, but taking so long to draw help defenders made his passes less productive -- like Kobe Bryant holding the ball for 12 seconds, finally drawing help, then throwing a cross-court pass with four on the shot clock. Move it earlier, the thinking went, and the Bucks could string together three passes in the time it took Antetokounmpo to throw one.
But the total lack of shooting in Milwaukee's starting lineup sets up their cornerstone forwards for those aimless drives. It's hard to do anything else when you can't, or won't, shoot jumpers. The Bucks compensate to some degree with constant cuts and screens; that kind of whirring action makes everyone a threat, all the time, and if a team sustains that for 24 seconds, someone will come open. If the defenses switch into a mismatch, the Bucks usually have several players who can post up.
"We're built on moving the ball," Prunty says, noting the team is in the top-five in assist rate. "We feel like if the ball moves, that alone causes problems."
But that's hard work, especially for young players testing their own abilities, and how those abilities fit within a team framework.
It's going to be a long slog for Parker, and these Bucks. He doesn't have a post game yet. He has shot just 9-of-25 out of the pick-and-roll all season, and most of those are bricked pick-and-pop jumpers, per Synergy Sports. Parker can be explosive rolling to the hoop for dunks, but it's hard to find space when Monroe, Henson or even Antetokounmpo is loitering around the paint.
For now, Parker is just kind of a live body who occasionally catches the ball and jets through a random crease in the defense. Some of those herky-jerky drives at waiting defenders end in baskets.
He has been more confident lately launching catch-and-shoot jumpers from within 20 feet. He's a beast in transition, a place the Bucks need to get more often, since it doesn't matter as much if the participants in a three-on-one can't shoot. Parker will find NBA identity at some point, but Milwaukee already has to start thinking about whether he can do that with Carter-Williams and Monroe. The Bucks aren't ready to cut bait on the Monroe-Parker-Antetokounmpo trio yet, but Monroe will draw interest at the trade deadline if they put him out there.
They haven't yet, league sources say. But Monroe can opt out after next season, and if the Bucks don't think he's a long-term fit, now is the time to gauge the market. Monroe on a two-plus-one deal was always free money for Milwaukee. If he worked out, great, they'd probably make the playoffs again, and enflame a fan base as they sought public money for a new arena. If it didn't work out, what was the harm? Signing Monroe put Milwaukee on the free-agent map, and experimenting with a low-post bruiser wouldn't waste any of Parker's or Antetokounmpo's prime years. They are still just 20 and 21, years away from the point at which players develop into the centerpieces of contending teams. The long-term picture is fine.
All three of Boston, Charlotte and Portland could offer combinations of players, picks and salary filler that might interest Milwaukee. One lottery-protected Boston pick wouldn't do it, and the Celtics aren't flipping those golden Brooklyn picks for Monroe. But what about two of their own picks, or one pick and Jared Sullinger? Would one unprotected Charlotte pick do the trick, since the Hornets are something like a 50-50 bet to end up in the lottery even with Monroe? Portland has chased Monroe before, and they have some interesting young guys and $20 million in cap room. After working to establish themselves as a player-friendly place, the Bucks would have to be careful about where, and how, they deal Monroe.
All of this would go out the window if the Bucks surge between now and early February, and get themselves back within sniffing distance of the No. 8 spot. But if they don't, expect them to engage in these conversations.
As for Carter-Williams, here's a prediction: The Bucks bring him off the bench again for some extended stretch in the second half of the season. It's just hard to play all those non-shooters at the same time, and Carter-Williams might be able to feast posting up second-unit point guards -- and distributing from there. (To his credit, his jumper looked better for much of December and the early part of this month.) With Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Monroe all ready to do some play-making, perhaps the Bucks would be better off with a George Hill/Patrick Beverley-type spot-up shooting point guard.
Those guys aren't available, but the Bucks could use Bayless with the starters until they find the right fit.
Of course, using Carter-Williams as a sixth man is not what Milwaukee envisioned when they exchanged Brandon Knight for him in those insane final minutes before last season's deadline, when it seemed like half the league's point guards switched teams. It would also complicate his contract extension talks this fall, ahead of yet another cap boom that might have Carter-Williams justifiably expecting a fat offer.
If Carter-Williams as super-sub doesn't work, expect the Bucks to try a bunch of other stuff before the season is out. It's all part of their weirdo learning process.
"Guys are going to change and grow," Prunty says. "That's why we're fun to watch. That's the fascinating part of the NBA."