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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Here’s to the Deerly Departed

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A few days ago the Milwaukee Bucks, playing without center Andrew Bogut, were on the brink of knocking the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference out of the NBA playoffs. But the Bucks' shooting went cold, the Atlanta Hawks' competitive fire rekindled and two lopsided losses ended Milwaukee's season.

Sure was fun while it lasted, though. From rookie Brandon Jennings' 55-point explosion in November to John Salmons' energizing arrival in February and Bogut's season-long emergence as a star, the Bucks trashed all the "expert" predictions. They improved by 12 games, to 46 wins, finished sixth in the conference and almost grabbed their first playoff series victory in 10 years.

So the Observers come to praise the Bucks, not to bury them.

Frank: A couple of big runs propelled Atlanta in Games 6 and 7 and removed any chance for drama.

Artie: Plus the Bucks just couldn't buy a basket! From the third quarter in Game 6 right through Sunday's finale, it was like the Bucks' slogan changed from "Fear the Deer" to "Fear the Rim."

Frank: The three big outside guns, Salmons, Jennings and Carlos Delfino, shot about 29% over those two games (26 for 91). It shows how much the Bucks relied on outside shooting without Bogut there to occupy the Hawks' big men.

Artie: But still, in Game 6 the Bucks led at the half. If someone had gotten hot, the upset was there for them.

Frank: I sure didn't enjoy watching the Hawks. All that isolation, backing down into the paint while four guys stood around watching. But still the announcers said, "If you were on the playground picking your team, you'd take five Hawks first and then Brandon Jennings."

Artie: They were speaking athletically, but that has nothing to do with playing team basketball. Especially when you've got strong egos like, say, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, who both want to be "The Man." What Scott Skiles' guys had was their willingness to play as a team.

Frank: This team had guys who not only could pass, but would pass. And although Michael Redd is a good guy and a fine shooter, I think his season-ending knee injury helped facilitate the unselfish play.

Artie: If Bogut was healthy, the games would have been played differently, and I've got to think the Bucks would have been able to take one of those first two in Atlanta.

Frank: But now it's on to next season for the Bucks. Looking at the payroll for 2010-’11, I saw two key numbers.

Artie: Involving two shooting guards, ain'a?

Frank: Yup. The numbers are $18.3 million for Redd and $5.8 million for Salmons—each an option entirely up to the player.

Artie: Redd's figure is way too high, given his injuries the last two seasons. And Salmons' number might be lower than he thinks he can get somewhere else—although he didn't feather his nest with his shooting in the last two games.

Frank: It's not Redd's fault he got a six-year, $91 million contract five years ago. What's he supposed to do, turn down the money?

Artie: Speaking of bloated contracts, is Dan Gadzuric still here next season?

Frank: Yup, for $7.2 million. Sen. Kohl and former GM Larry Harris gave him a six-year, $36 million deal at the same time as Redd's.

Artie: Gadzuric actually had some good moments in the Hawks series, after hardly hitting the floor all season.

Frank: He's always been an "energy guy," and for years I've thought they never gave him a real shot. It seemed like he'd have some good games and then disappear. Until this year, I was equally puzzled by how they used Bogut; it seemed like they'd get the ball down to him a couple of times early and then ignore him.

Artie: Good thing Skiles changed that. The inside-outside game with Bogut and the shooters was terrific. And speaking of the shooters, what's Luke Ridnour's status for next season?

Frank: He's down for zero dollars in 2010-’11, which means he must be a free agent.

Artie: He'd be a really tough guy to lose. He played so well as Jennings' backup, and sometimes in combo with him. I reckon he wants to start somewhere, but I think he stayed healthy this year because he didn't have to play a starter's minutes.

Frank: It'd be nice if Ridnour could be content as a backup—and Redd too, assuming the Bucks keep Salmons. Remember, the NBA has economic problems. A lot of teams are losing money, so there may not be too much out there for guys like Ridnour and Salmons.

Artie: I'm sure Salmons wants to investigate his options, but the Bucks will try to head that off by working out a new deal with him.

Frank: Maybe he and Ridnour will decide they want to be a part of what's building here—especially if they can't get hugely more money elsewhere.

Artie: After all, Salmons will turn 31 next season and Ridnour will turn 30.

Frank: The rest of the Bucks' core is set for next season—Bogut, Jennings, Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute.

Artie: That's the key. Teams that have playoff runs over several seasons keep their rosters together. You don't see teams like Utah and San Antonio changing two or three starters every year.

Frank: The way the Bucks did the last few years.

Artie: People can say, "We'll have Bogut and Jennings so we'll be OK," but what happens if you lose those other guys? Will Redd take over for Salmons? He sure won't play defense like Salmons.

Frank: But before you turn to full-time worrying over next season, enjoy this one. We never thought we'd be talking in May about 46 wins and a seven-game playoff series.

Artie: True, true. It was a wildly successful and encouraging year.

Wrong Spot, Wrong Time

Frank: Trevor Hoffman had to return to San Diego to pick up his only save last week.

Artie: "Get back to where you once belonged." The Beatles would be proud.

Frank: But here's the thing: I think I have played a role in Hoffman's amazing flops at Miller Park.

Artie: Remember how I thought I was "The Cooler" for years when I'd join you for a Brewers game and they'd never win? Now you're Hoffman's personal cooler?

Frank: You know my routine. If I have Terrace-level seats, in the ninth inning I move down and stand behind the Loge seats so I can exit the ballpark more easily.

Artie: Sound strategy, to be sure.

Frank: On April 9 I moved down and was standing there, just to the left of the press box, and boom! The Cardinals' Nick Stavinoha homers off Hoffman to win the game.

Artie: I get it. Two nights later...

Frank: You and I were there, we moved down for the ninth and boom! boom! Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday homered off Hoffman to tie the game.

Artie: The Brewers wound up winning, but a blown save nonetheless.

Frank: And then on April 28 I was standing in the same area and boom! Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit homered to tie the game.

Artie: Geez, as a Hoffman cooler you're absolute zero!

Frank: In my defense, I was NOT there the previous night when two Pirate homers, including Doumit's grand slam, trashed Hoffman. But still, I have a solution. If the Brewers give me two Club-level tickets for the rest of the season, I'll promise to stay put in the ninth.

Artie: Good luck with that. It's just a good thing you didn't have any relatives to visit in San Diego last Saturday night.