The Milwaukee Bucks tip off their NBA season today in Charlotte. Much has changed for the Bucks over the offseason, although their Australian contingent remains steadfast. For the third consecutive season, Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova will be teammates in Wisconsin.
There is a level of serendipity for both this year, with each facing a pivotal season that could define their careers for the indefinite future. Dellavedova, who battled through the worst injury run of his career last season, is looking to bounce back and return to the form that made him a high profile addition for Milwaukee. As for Maker, he must now deliver on his overwhelming promise. Occasional flashes are no longer good enough.
In anticipation of the year ahead, I sat down with Kane Pitman, who is spending the season in Milwaukee covering the Bucks for The Pick and Roll, to discuss what we can expect from Maker and Dellavedova.
Mallis: So Kane, you’ve been on the ground in Milwaukee for a couple of weeks now. You’ve spent some time up close with Dellavedova and Maker, what are your early observations on our Australian lads?
Pitman: Well, the overwhelming feeling right now is uncertainty. Unfortunately for both Dellavedova and Maker, they’ve been struggling with left knee soreness and subsequently received limited minutes throughout the preseason.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for both, as the Bucks rotation has not only gotten much deeper, but it looks markedly better than last season without the two Aussies involved.
Mallis: That’s a fair point and something that has been evident in the build up to this season for Milwaukee. A new head coach and the addition of veteran role players seems to have raised the bar. What are your expectations for Dellavedova to start the season? Is there a role available for him from the get go?
Pitman: Dellavedova in particular looks like he’s in for a battle for minutes, with Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon starting, and coach Mike Budenholzer preferring to stagger the other guard minutes between Tony Snell, Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown. The Bucks are throwing out some insanely athletic and versatile lineups in the early going, which doesn’t exactly fit the description of Dellavedova – particularly in the aftermath of his severely interrupted season last year.
We will certainly get a clearer perspective on this when the regular season begins and as he returns to full health, but it doesn’t appear that anything is going to come easy for him this season.
Mallis: It’s interesting to think back two years to when Dellavedova joined the Bucks. He joined Milwaukee as an NBA champion, equipped with an oversized contract and reputations created on the playoff stage. During the 2016-17 season, Dellavedova’s role extended beyond anything seen in Cleveland and truth be told, it was probably a case of him playing above his means.
For mine, Dellavedova showed in Cleveland that his ideal NBA setting is playing as an eighth man on a contending team. This naturally comes with the caveat that minutes may fluctuate, especially against certain opponents, although this serves Dellavedova best, as a reduced role mitigates his limitations.
The Bucks do have greater backcourt flexibility in the form of Snell, DiVincenzo and Brown; although this isn’t exactly the most proven of groups. Snell is the only one who has even cemented himself as a reliable role player in the regular season.
Giving DiVincenzo and Brown minutes works in the preseason, and is wonderful in theory, until the pressure of winning regular season games rises to the surface. He may be overpaid to serve this role, but Dellavedova comes with a certain level of stability and maturity that his competition doesn’t.
Do you think Dellavedova can find his way into Milwaukee’s playoff rotation, assuming the season goes as planned and they do indeed push for a top four seed in the Eastern Conference?
Pitman: On the initial point, a major part of the issue with Dellavedova coming to Milwaukee was the inflated role he was asked to take on under Jason Kidd. Remembering back to his Cleveland days, he was a torrid defender and a guy that would knock down open looks. In his first season with the Bucks, he was asked to shoulder a greater load with the ball in hand, and with inadequate spacing and offensive movement, he struggled.
I think that’s an area of optimism for Dellavedova under Budenholzer. The Bucks offense is now going to be tailored to their strengths, with excellent spacing and player movement. This will allow the Australian to get the ball out of his hands promptly and avoid working through broken half-court sets.
I do believe Budenholzer is going to favour the added size of Snell, DiVincenzo and Brown to start out, though I do see a way that Dellavedova sneaks his way back in, particularly if the latter duo go through early struggles. Again, the big thing is going to be health.
Mallis: One thing is certain, and that is the fact that Dellavedova is facing a big season ahead. There is also the possibility that Milwaukee tries to trade him, and his near $10 million player option for next season prior to the trade deadline. Let’s just hope good health awaits Dellavedova and he gets the opportunity to show out. What about the other Australian in Milwaukee? How is Maker looking?
Pitman: The outlook for Maker is more optimistic, though he’s not going to have the luxury of just getting minutes like he has in his first two seasons. The acquisition of Brook Lopez will lock up 25 minutes a night. It will then be a battle between John Henson and Maker to soak up the remaining time.
Maker certainly fits the bill of what it appears Budenholzer is trying to do with his size, length and ability to stretch the floor, but he’ll have to show improved consistency defensively and with his hands to truly cement his spot. While I think Maker improving is crucial to the Bucks success, he must ensure that he doesn’t become buried on the bench through inconsistent play.
Mallis: And that is my concern heading into the season. He must stop being a tease and start performing with regularity. Because if he doesn’t, this current Bucks roster is full of competent front court players who will erode all of Maker’s minutes.
I really like the addition of Ersan Ilyasova and it is a virtual lock that Budenholzer gives the Turkish international regular minutes. Ditto for Lopez, who will be starting and could play more than your 25 minute estimate if he can stay healthy. In my eyes, Maker is competing with Henson and Christian Wood for minutes as a reserve five man. And while Maker has the most upside of this bunch, he has not shown enough to receive the benefit of the doubt just yet.
Pitman: No, he hasn’t, but conversely, I think his playoff teases have been promising enough that Budenholzer will want to get this guy going in his system early on. From what we’ve seen thus far, Henson is a guy you can rely on a little more, and Thon will need to flip that script.
There’s no question that Maker is a guy the Bucks want in the rotation. Milwaukee staff and teammates alike are continuously praising his skillset and work ethic, but eventually there comes a time where you really just need to see it. He’s still only in year three, but the Bucks are looking to contend, and they can ill afford to hand out developmental minutes with potentially stronger options on the bench.
I still remain super optimistic about Maker, and I think with an adequate coaching staff, he stands to benefit immensely.
Mallis: Maker’s potential will invariably ensure that he gets further opportunities to show his worth at the NBA level. Coming off the bench, in a reserve role behind Lopez, might actually be the best thing for his development.
This is especially true, if Maker can harness the energy he showed against Boston to close out last season. Fewer minutes, but a greater impact is what the Bucks will require from Maker as they look to climb the Eastern Conference. But I agree with your overall sentiment. The Bucks’ best case scenario involves Maker growing into a regular contributor and slowly realising some of his seemingly endless potential.
Thanks to Kane for taking the time to chat all things Australian related in Milwaukee. He will be on the ground all season in Milwaukee so stay tuned for live coverage of what promises to be an exciting Bucks season.