Why Milwaukee Bucks Can Be the Future Powerhouse of the NBA's Eastern Conference

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2015

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 30:  Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 30, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the short term, Monday night's 94-88 victory over the Chicago Bulls is a means to a slightly delayed ending. The Milwaukee Bucks live to fight another day—maybe a few days—but not much longer than that.

Over the long term, however, this club's second victory of the series (which it trails 3-2) hints at something far greater: Milwaukee's potential to be a force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. If head coach Jason Kidd's young squad can hang with the likes of Chicago, there's really no telling what will happen when these pups actually grow up.

The Bucks are so effective in part because they aren't thinking about that future at all. They're a little busy at the moment.

"A lot of people look at it as house money," Kidd told reporters after Game 5. "You can always talk about the future, but we don't. We don't really understand what the future holds for us. We've got to stay in the present. This is what this team has done all year. They haven't looked at the future. They've just stayed in the present."

Admirable. But outside of the locker room, we'd be remiss to avoid that future. It promises to be even brighter than the present and all its overachievement.

The Talent

PHILADELPHIA,PA - APRIL 13: Michael Carter-Williams #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on April 13, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The decision to trade away Brandon Knight was confusing, particularly in light of the stellar season he was having. That said, there's no shame in making Michael Carter-Williams your floor general of the future. The 2014 Rookie of the Year is a prime starting point for any discussion about this organization's upside—primarily because the 23-year-old has only begun to discover his.

MCW posted 22 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and three blocks on Monday night, epitomizing his versatility and well-roundedness. And yet, his shortcomings remain obvious. Carter-Williams still isn't much of a perimeter shooter, and his overall success on the offensive end is mixed.

That will almost certainly change, especially under Kidd's guidance. Remember, it took Kidd some time to master that three-point shot, too.

Then there's the length. With the 6'6" Carter-Williams roaming the perimeter while guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson patrol the paint, Milwaukee is already a borderline elite team on the defensive end. The Bucks allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions this season—the league's second-best mark, according to Hollinger Team Stats.

So there's good reason to be focused on the present. In many respects, this team is already quite good. And, apparently, pretty hungry.

"I think they just played harder than we did," Bulls guard Jimmy Butler told reporters on Monday, per John Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com. "On both ends of the floor. End of story. They played harder than we did."

That kind of grit may take the Bucks further than talent alone ever could. 

The Flexibility

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 8: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 8, 2015 at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Still, talent is a good thing, and the Bucks will have their chances to add some this summer—and even more the summer after that. At the moment, Milwaukee is scheduled to have just under $44 million in guaranteed salaries on the books this summer, according to Basketball Insiders. With next season's salary cap projected to be at about $66 million, the organization should have more than enough money to throw at a top-shelf free agent.

Unfortunately, Milwaukee isn't a premier free-agent destination. And one strong season probably isn't going to change that, not during a summer in which iconic franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks are in hot pursuit of prized free agents.

Additionally, Khris Middleton figures to be in store for a fairly significant raise.

The organization could let him walk in a bid to pursue pricier talent, but that's dangerous. Middleton was the team's most consistent three-point shooter this season, making an impressive 40.7 percent of his three-point attempts. He was also one of the club's best all-around two-way players. His 6.9 net rating was tied with Zaza Pachulia for the team's best mark.

Letting him go probably doesn't make a lot of sense.

The Bucks desperately need his shooting at the 2. They have to surround Carter-Williams with as many shooters as possible.

So the most likely avenue for acquiring talent externally may be the trade market. Milwaukee has an abundance of forwards and swingmen, but only so many minutes to go around. General manager John Hammond could pool some of those assets together and potentially land a difference-maker—perhaps a starting-caliber center to replace Larry Sanders and usurp Pachulia's playing time.

With or without moves, this club will be better. It's poised for plenty of internal growth, and it may be wise to see that through before undergoing any radical reconstruction. That's how Hammond sees it.

"The important thing for us is not to try and expedite the process and let the process happen organically and build toward a championship team," Hammond recently told reporters, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "I've heard people say it's not that hard to go from bad to good, but the real difficult step is to go from good to great.

"Our goal is to become a great team and stay there." 

Sound thinking. After all, the biggest addition may already be on the payroll.

The Future

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 7: Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks against the Dallas Mavericks on December 7, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usi
Glenn James/Getty Images

Remember Jabari Parker? The 20-year-old tore an ACL in his left knee back in December and missed the remainder of the season.

More than any other addition, the former No. 2 overall pick could infuse all kinds of new life into this team.

"It's tough as a rookie to have that type of injury," Kidd told reporters in February. "But one, I think he's in good spirits. And two, he's done everything for rehabbing and he's excited to get back.

"He's around the team. He comes to shootarounds still, being able to learn the game from a different seat. When he comes back on the court, the game becomes a little easier for him because he's seen it all."

Through his first 25 appearances this season, Parker averaged a solid 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest. As he grows more comfortable in his NBA skin, those numbers are bound to increase. 

With similar growth from guys like Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo, Henson and Middleton (all under 25), this lineup could become something fierce. Oh, by the way, Kidd is still in the infancy of what could be a pretty accomplished coaching career. Having ushered two different teams to the postseason in his first two years on the job, one should hesitate to put a ceiling on his ability as a skipper in this league.

"He's done an amazing job," co-owner Wes Edens said after Game 3, per the Journal Sentinel's Charles Gardner. "He's been here before — this is the 19th straight season he's been in the playoffs. There's nothing surprising him.

"Bringing that experience to all these young guys, many of them have never been in the playoffs before."

That he's already instilled a defensive identity with this team speaks volumes about Kidd's ability to elicit fight from his troops. He's brought the best out of a club that only won 15 games a season ago, and he's done it without the rookie who was supposed to spearhead such a turnaround.

Admittedly, this probably isn't the Bucks' season. 

Next season? The one after that? Another story entirely.

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