Nobody saw it coming.
Last Feb. 19, the Milwaukee Bucks were the talk of the NBA town. After winning a paltry 15 games the season before, the Bucks had made a stunning turnaround. They were seven games above .500 and a playoff spot was a lock.
Spearheading the Bucks’ surge was point guard Brandon Knight, whom some thought was playing at an All-Star level. Knight, Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo were hailed as the Bucks’ new “Big Three," the pillars of the franchise.
In the days leading up to the trading deadline, Marc Lasry, one of the Bucks’ tri-majority owners, even said Knight wasn’t going anywhere, that he was a key piece to the Bucks’ puzzle.
Jason Kidd obviously didn’t agree.
The Bucks' head coach, who is calling all the shots, jettisoned Knight to Phoenix as part of a three-team deal that also included the Philadelphia 76ers.
Trading Knight shocked many in the NBA, including Knight's teammates on the Bucks. They were in disbelief upon hearing the news, knowing Kidd had dealt not only the team’s best offensive player, but a highly-respected colleague who won his teammates' admiration for constantly playing hard on the court and for having a work ethic that was second to none.
Almost a year later, the trade looks disastrous. Since Kidd moved Knight, the Bucks are 18 games under .500. The chemistry of the team is horrendous, and the intensity and desire exhibited last season has surfaced only sporadically this season.
A team that was expected to continue ascending in the Eastern Conference standings, a consensus pick to make the playoffs again, has struggled mightily and is on the brink of going back into the lottery.
The Bucks are 20-31, 6½ games behind Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. They have lost four consecutive games and six of their last seven.
Clearly, Bucks officials are deeply concerned. That’s reflected in their ongoing discussions with other teams about potential trades before the Feb. 18 deadline.
Based on conversations with several NBA execs from the Eastern and Western conferences, the Bucks are more than receptive to playing “Let’s Make a Deal.’’
And that includes possibly moving Michael Carter-Williams, who has been consistently inconsistent since joining the Bucks. Carter-Williams has had some dynamic games this season, like an 18-point, 13-assist outing against Sacramento and a 20-point, 12-assist showing against Chicago.
On the flip side, Carter-Williams had only two assists in 26 minutes against Portland on Wednesday night, one assist in 27 minutes against Memphis last week, and zero assists in 25 minutes against Miami two weeks ago.
But Carter-Williams isn’t the only frontline player the Bucks are apparently willing to move. A much bigger surprise is the Bucks have made it known that center Greg Monroe is available at the right price, according to some NBA officials.
The Bucks created a major splash last summer when they signed Monroe as a free agent, outbidding mega-market teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
On the surface, Monroe has seemingly been worth the Bucks’ hefty investment in him: $16.4 million this season, $17.1M next season with a player option of $17.88M for the 2017-2018 season.
Monroe has been a double-double machine, having recorded 26 this season. That ranks sixth in the league behind Detroit’s Andre Drummond (40), Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (33), Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins (28), the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (28) and Chicago’s Pau Gasol (27) and just ahead of Washington’s John Wall (25), Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (25) and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (24).
But Monroe’s man-to-man and help-defense remain suspect. And he most definitely isn’t the rim protector the Bucks sorely need. He is averaging a mere 0.9 blocks per game this season, which ties him with L.A. Lakers forward Brandon Bass for 46th in the league.
Justified or not, Monroe is being targeted as one of the primary reasons for the Bucks’ defensive deficiencies this season. After being one of the elite defensive teams in the league last season, the Bucks are now one of the worst, giving up 103.3 points per game compared to 97.4 last season.
Clearly, the pieces to the Bucks’ puzzle aren’t fitting. Several league officials said they would be surprised if the Bucks didn't make a major trade.
“From what I’m hearing is they (the Bucks) are willing to trade anybody not named Parker, Antetokounmpo or Middleton,’’ an NBA executive said. “I even heard they'd listen (to offers) for Parker and Middleton, but it would have to be some crazy offer.
"They want to do something; they know they have to do something. That group they have isn’t working.’’