Grading our Milwaukee Bucks: Skiles and the players

Bucks coach Scott Skiles. Milwaukee Bucks photo.Tom Enlund delivered his season-ending grades this past Sunday, as he does every year. I tend to think Tom's an overly tough grader, and a bit inconsistent. But I also happen to look at the Bucks through a lens that is similar to Tom's — Scott Skiles, the face of the franchise. 

Were the Bucks on any given night playing Scott Skiles basketball?  Is the coach happy postgame? Did the players hold themselves and each other accountable in the areas of constant defensive pressure, uptempo transition and ball movement, the three principles of Skiles' system? How did the holdovers from previous seasons respond to the new Skiles system? Were the Bucks mentally ready to play 48 minutes night in, night out?

Enlund gives no higher grade than a B, which went to Richard Jefferson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. My curve starts a little higher, with RJ and Luc getting the same grade that Skiles and his coaching staff get — an A-/B+ or a 90. Let's face it: If Andrew Bogut had been healthy all season long, this Bucks team would have made the playoffs — regardless of whether Michael Redd ever suited up and played.

Scott Skiles in his playing days with Orlando.Coach Scott Skiles: A-/B+ … Did Skiles cost the Bucks a few games pulling Ramon Sessions, playing Redd too many minutes (never any reason to play Redd 40), or failing to keep his own favorite defenders in the game in the 4th quarter (Nets loss at home)?  Absolutely. But the in-game decisions for the most part were extensions of Skiles' long term plan of instituting both the Skiles system and new accountability standards in Milwaukee. He was fairly consistent, even in his preference to play 5th-year Luke Ridnour over Ramon Sessions, playing in his first full NBA season, at point. Whatever the outcome, Skiles made sure the new values stuck this season. 

To the very end, Skiles and his go-to player, Jefferson, talked in mantra, keeping the focus on defense, ball movement and shot selection. This was a refreshing change in Milwaukee, where previous coaches didn't have the players reading from their pages. This resulted in the Bucks finishing 7th in the NBA in assists (22 per game) and 1st in turnovers forced (16.5). The Bucks stayed in the playoff hunt for nearly two months after Redd and Bogut went down, yet Skiles was not content. That's culture change in the Bucks locker room.

Damon Jones: A … The clear-cut Bob Boozer Jinx award winner. Damon was not invited to be a part of this team until around X-Mas, when he and Bucks GM John Hammond agreed that, since Hammond couldn't trade him, that Jones should come to Milwaukee, practice, suit up and be a Buck. Damon did a great job, cheering from the bench and supporting his teammates. When Skiles did put him in the game, Bucks fans were treated to great shooting from the man who once crowned himself the greatest shooter on the planet. Every single shot Damon made for the Bucks this season was a 3-pointer. He made 11 of those (.393%, 2nd only to RJ) and every single one of those was a pleasure to watch. Cudos to Damon Jones in 2009, though he won't be resigned. I'm sad to see him go. He's been great in both of his Bucks seasons: this one and 2003-04 when he was the highest-rated point guard in the playoffs.

Skiles, RJ and Bucks GM John Hammond, when the Bucks were finally able to pry RJ away from his wife and get him in Milwaukee after last summer's trade.Richard Jefferson: A-/B+ … Played every game, was among the league leaders in minutes played most of the season, free throws made and attempted and a number of unkept leadership stats. Without RJ, this season becomes a nightmare quickly, given the brutal schedule and the injuries to, not just Bogut and Redd, but Charlie Bell and Luke Ridnour. Basically the Bucks played most of the season with RJ, Charlie Villanueva and three rookies healthy (Sessions, Mbah a Moute, Joe Alexander). While Sessions is a Skiles project, the young forwards looked to RJ for everything from defense to demeanor. It was very important that the veteran forward never stopped playing good D and never gave up on a play, leading by example. The Bucks topping the NBA in turnovers forced had everything to do with RJ, as he was on the court 3/4 of the time.

The Bucks have plenty of room to improve playing the Skiles defense, but the foundation has been established. RJ deserves a lot of credit for this. Led the team in scoring with a 19.7 ppg avg, and with a career-best, team-leading 39.7% from downtown, better than what Mo shot to lead the team last last season.

Luc Mbah a Moute made the All-Rambis team his rookie year.Luc Mbah a Moute: A-/B+ … Drew comparisons to Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey and Detroit's Tayshaun Prince in their rookie years. That's great company. Luc should be first team All-Rookie. It won't happen because defense isn't something considered as highly as "the stats" in those awards (it should be). Hopefully, he'll make 2nd team. In a single game, Luc guarded Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. I don't think any another player in the NBA was assigned those tasks. I watched him shut down Ben Gordon in the 3rd/4th quarter when Gordon was going off on Redd. Skiles started Luc on Chris Paul.

The beauty in all of this is that Luc will get better, much better, particularly on the offensive end. With RJ, Luc and a healthy Andrew Bogut, the Bucks should remain competitive, regardless of what happens around them.  Along with RJ, the only Bucks to play every game. 10th in the NBA in offensive rebounding %; shot a better % (46.2) than all of his teammates except the three centers (Bogut, Elson, Gadzuric). Plus, Luc was named 6th man on the East's All-Rambis team.

Charlie Bell, getting his minutes vs. the Bobcats in January. Yes, the Bucks won the game.Charlie Bell: B … The Charlie Bell factor. How does Enlund give Luke Ridnour credit for playing hurt (because Skiles said so?) but not Charlie, whose creaky ankles bothered him all season. Enlund (or was it Garry Howard?) gave Bell a C- and Ridnour a C. Charlie played hurt the 14 games Redd missed with a sprained ankle. He was out with lingering ankle problems in January, and rushed back again when Redd went down with torn knee ligaments. Bell played 70 games, hobbled for much of it, and played well. Charlie loves playing for Skiles (they're both Michigan State grads). Enlund went to him repeatedly as a team spokesman, especially when things were not going well in March/April (very surprised by the C-).

The evidence shows that when Charlie played 20 minutes or more, the Bucks chances for success improved. I also saw, repeatedly, that the Bucks have no other player with Charlie's referee-approved license to commit defense, in a league where it takes years to build that kind of rep. An above-average 3-point shooter who really should make more than 36.3% and score (8.4 ppg) in double digits. Smart. Can play the point and guard forwards, start (23 this season) or come off the bench. Practically off-limits in any trade discussions. A healthy Charlie Bell next season will make a big difference.

Francisco Elson B- … Had to go to the stats for this: 3.9 rebounds in 16.7 mpg isn't that great, but the blocked shots (0.6) and steals (0.6) were pretty good. My eyes don't lie. More often than not, Elson did a decent job backing up Bogut but didn't really step up when Bogut went down. Nevertheless, I saw a guy who continually made plays when he was on the court, and a more consistent backup option than Dan Gadzuric. Can the Bucks afford to keep them both? At $1.7m, maybe not a bad guy to have around.

Ramon guarding Lebron. Photo too good not to swipe from Cleveland.com.Ramon Sessions: C+Posted big numbers (19.9 ppg, 9 apg) when he had the point all to himself, but his lapses cost the Bucks a few games off the bench. Those are forgiven, because he was essentially a rookie, and usually Skiles yanked him when things weren't going well. A game in Minnesota comes to mind. Sessions was absent-minded on offense and terrible defending the perimeter, as Carney and Foye blistered the Bucks from three-point-land. This happened a few times, often when Skiles was unable to play Charlie Bell or simply didn't (Nets at home in March).

But communication between Skiles and Sessions was a constant, as they continued to work regardless of whether they were up 30 against the Knicks, or down 10 to the Knicks at home 2-1/2 months later. Ramon's explosive and can beat anybody to the hole, but that doesn't mean he should resort to his version of the Calipari dribble-drive offense instead of the Skiles ball-movement offense. RJ had to remind him of this prior to the Nets game in late March, after two losses in Florida. The kid listens — the Bucks blew the Nets out in New Jersey. Resigning Sessions is top priority for Bucks GM Hammond this summer.

Charlie Villanueva: C+ … Charlie V was thought to be a guy who wouldn't be able to play for Scott Skiles. However, he proved that he could, inconsistently, yet had the best season of his 4-year career: 16.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, and a very good defensive rebounding rate (17th in the NBA). Enlund is harsh on Charlie in his grading, but the New York incident he writes about was all too real. Charlie was on fire in the pregame warmups, and when the game started, all Charlie wanted to do was shoot (14-26). But it was as though he was in the throes of an offensive trance: he didn't want to play the other end — at all. Skiles yanked him. It was weird to see in a crucial late season game.

Charlie V in happy times. Sports Illustrated photo.Charlie was a suprising 8th in the league in what's called USAGE %. This is an "advanced" stat that measures what % of plays a player is involved in. Charlie was almost Kobe-like in the amount of ball-time he got in his 27 mins per game. Yes, he was trying to pick up the Bogut-Redd slack, and his teammates supported this, but … it led to some losses. Charlie doesn't stick the shots as much he should, and still doesn't always take the right shots. In the last 20 games in the season, when the Bucks saw their playoff chances die, Charlie shot 20-80 from downtown, a woeful 25%. You're not going to win games shooting like that, and the Bucks didn't. Maybe a C+ is generous here but he rebounded very well and made the Skiles transition work for him most of the season. Charlie's a good guy, and a good player. He's just not good enough. It'll be sad to see him go, and he'll be difficult to replace at PF.

Keith Bogans: C … Acquired from the Orlando Magic for Tyronn Lue in early February after Redd went down for the season. He got off to a good start and seemed to fit in, playing well with Charlie Bell off the bench and providing the kind of tough defense Skiles likes, tougher even than the Baby Bulls defense because Skiles' Bulls had only one a guy as physical as Bogans — Nocioni. Let's hope the defense rests because offensively, he struggled (37.6% shooting) after a decent start (no, I'm not going to go off on another Royal Ivey tirade here). Bogans is a free agent this summer, and the Bucks have to decide whether he's worth a couple-a-three mill. If the Bucks had the cap space, Bogans is a no-brainer signup, but they don't. To keep him, Hammond will need to clear salary space somehow. I hope he does, because I think Bogans is a Skiles-type player and the Bucks don't yet know how Redd will respond after knee surgery.

Lucky Luke or Crazy Luke?. Photo by Morry Gash, AP.Luke Ridnour: C- … I was tempted to give Lucky Luke the same grade as Ramon. However, as the season wore on, Crazy Luke ceased to be amusing. Enlund wrote in his grades that Ridnour was a good shooter when he had five fingers. That's simply not true. Ridnour has never been a good shooter, and, before he broke his hand, his three-point shooting had dipped down to the 30% range — not good enough. Coupled with Charlie V's woeful 3-point bombing, a recipe for defeat.

After the Mo Williams trade, I had the opportunity to chat with some Supersonics fans. Their take on Ridnour was this: "Frodo" will win a few games a year with some highlight reel heroics (which he did); but for every five he wins, he'll lose ten when the shots don't fall. The Bucks are not the 2005 Sonics, starring Ray Allen, hall-of-famer-to-be in his prime. They can't afford to rely on a 30% 3-point-shooting point guard to win games (neither could the Sonics in the end).  I'm no fan of how Skiles makes apologies for Luke based on injuries, yet refuses to do the same for other players (Charlie Bell). I think the coach sees a bit of himself in Ridnour, despite the fact that Ridnour is no rugged Scott Skiles. I'm wondering whether Frodo's durable enough to play a full NBA season.

Point of order: Neither Luke nor Ramon have shown they can really guard anybody, which is a problem … So I dropped them both a half grade from where I initially had them and placed Charlie V up with Ramon at C+ … then dropped Luke another grade slot.  While doing all this, it dawned on me that had Luke and Ramon and Charlie V performed better this season, the Bucks would be in the playoffs.

Dan Gadzuric: D … It made my stomach wretch to watch Gadz have good games in April when the games didn't count. It's not as though he didn't have the opportunity prior. This guy makes the mistake of repeatedly showing Bucks fans how good he can be at center, then reverts to back-of-the-class mode, hiding because his homework never got out of his gym bag. Gadz finished the season better statistically than Elson but who cares? Gadz is classic Redd-era Bucks inconsistent and overpaid, which leads to 26 or 28-win seasons. Definitely part of the problem, not the solution but is next to untradeable. At least Elson's willing to play Nov-Jan. Tell Gadz this the next time you see him with his entourage at Cush. Yeah, apparently Gadz has an entourage.

Joe Alexander: D … Am I being too harsh on the rookie? Probably. When given more playing time in late March/April, Joe delivered, blocking shots, knocking shots down, stealing the ball, turning over the ball, and playing active D. But this grade reflects where GM John Hammond drafted him (# 8), not how he finished the season. He's not an NBA player yet, though he's been playing ball constantly since the summer — it shouldn't have taken him until March/April to show that he had some game. Had 23 DNP's due to coach's decision, and that's too many. Joe may have enough athleticism and work effort to someday justify the # 8 pick in the 2008 draft. But not today.

Malik Allen: D … I suppose I'm opposed to giving out D- grades, because Malik sure deserves one. He was a favorite bench player of Skiles' from the Baby Bulls days, picked up on a $1.3m contract. What little he did play, it wasn't very impressive, though he did start ahead of Charlie V back in December. That lasted a game or two. Another low shooting % off the bench (42.9%), contributed to the Bucks season-long shooting woes.

MILWAUKEE - APRIL 08: Andrew Bogut #6 of the Milwaukee Bucks wears a mask over a broken nose suffered earlier in the season during a game against the Boston Celtics on April 8, 2008 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Celtics defeated the Bucks 107-104 in overtime. From Getty Images.Andrew Bogut: IncompleteMidway through the season, Bogut had been fighting back problems for a month (and missed 10 games) but was still 10th in the league in total offensive rebounds. He's becoming a more reliable stopgap defender, and that left-handed baby hook is looking like a go-to shot in the post. Made more strides this season toward becoming Dwight Howard's backup in All-Star games.

Michael Redd: Incomplete A high ankle sprain sidelined Redd 14 games in November, and torn knee ligaments in late January ended his season. Was he making the transition to Skiles' style of play? Not at first, as the Bucks opened the season in Chicago looking like last season's Bucks. The Bucks were 12-10 with Redd, RJ and Bogut in the lineup, but there were problems (starters benched against Detroit; a very upset Skiles in Philly and Los Angeles). Redd's 4th quarter shooting woes plagued the team all season (he was near the league bottom). Until January, was mired in an overall shooting slump but came out of it as Bogut missed time. Skiles remarked that his defense had improved. How will he respond to knee surgery? … I'm not looking forward to all the attention this question will receive in the Bucks-o-sphere.  … I'm really not.

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