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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

The Deer Tracks Point Toward Higher Ground

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Things haven't looked so good to Milwaukee Bucks fans for a while. Six months ago the Bucks finished a season that produced a 12-game improvement and a playoff series they probably should have won. Oh yes, and a cool new slogan: "Fear the Deer." Center Andrew Bogut's rise to stardom, rookie Brandon Jennings' flash at point guard, the February arrival of shooting guard John Salmons and coach Scott Skiles' insistence on better defense made the Bradley Center rock.

But the Bucks didn't stop there. General manager John Hammond acquired proven scorer Corey Maggette, power forwards Drew Gooden and Jon Brockman, shooting guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and point men Keyon Dooling and Earl Boykins. This Milwaukee roster has the most depth and variety in, well, a long time. Which means the Bucks need to reach the next level—the postseason's second round, at minimum—to make this season worthwhile.


Frank
: The good news is the Bucks have a great shot at winning the Central Division. The bad news is it ain't much of a division.

Artie
: Hey, a division title would be their first since 2000-’01, the year they almost went to the NBA Finals, and only the second since 19-freakin’-86!

Frank
: But it won't mean much if they don't win a playoff series, which also hasn't happened since ’01, and before that in ’89.

Artie
: Can do! They had a 3-2 lead on Atlanta last spring, and that was after Bogut got multi-injured in that horrible fall. Some so-called experts still rank the Hawks above the Bucks, but it ain't so.

Frank
: Sports Illustrated pegs the Bucks as fifth in the Eastern Conference, with division rivals Chicago and Detroit sixth and seventh. Indiana and LeBron-less Cleveland should be no trouble.

Artie
: Wow! SI gives Detroit a No. 7? The Sporting News has the Bucks and Bulls at 6 and 7, but dumps the Pistons to 12th in the East. And USA Today has ’em 28th out of 30 in the league.

Frank
: So it looks like Bucks-Bulls for the division. Chicago's big addition, Carlos Boozer, will be out at least a few weeks with a broken hand. But the Bucks haven't been at full strength either.

Artie
: Salmons missed every exhibition game with a knee problem, Maggette only played in the final exhibition and Bogut is still working up to full speed. But there's a lot to be said for taking their time. It's a long, long season and it's much better to be healthy late than early, ain’a?

Frank
: The same thing applies to Michael Redd, whose twice-rebuilt knee isn't expected back until February.

Artie
: By then Salmons or someone else might be hurt and Redd's three-pointers could be desperately needed. Hey, they've gotta pay him his $18 million no matter what.

Frank
: Redd said all the right things to the Journal Sentinel. "Any role, any role, just to play basketball..." He knows that on this team he needs to be a role player.

Artie
: Which applies to lots of guys. Hammond stocked the roster all right, but a game is still 240 minutes of available time.

Frank
: Guys like Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who all had lots of starts last season, will have to wait their turn. One key last season was the Bucks' unselfishness, and now it'll be even more important.

Artie
: The No. 1 priority is having Bogut healthy because his inside game and Jennings' speed complement each other so well. But No. 2 is Skiles being able to work in all these new players effectively. Not just in terms of minutes, but the chemistry of all the new combos.

Frank
: And No. 3 is that Jennings avoid a sophomore slump. As last season went on, his outside shooting fell off.

Artie
: The Bulls have a transition issue too, with a new coach in Tom Thibodeau, the former Boston defensive guru. And I think they have big weaknesses. At shooting guard they have either Ronnie Brewer or Keith Bogans, who are nothing special. They do have that three-point specialist, Kyle Korver. But there's an awfully big load on Derrick Rose at the point. He's terrific, but they're going to miss Kirk Hinrich a lot, just for his savvy and defense.

Frank
: Speaking of defensive gurus, Skiles seems to qualify. In points allowed per game and opponents' field-goal percentage, the Bucks were among the league's 10 best teams last season.

Artie
: One thing they didn't do well—getting to the free-throw line—improved a lot in the preseason.

Frank
: The guy who's supposed to help the most, Maggette, showed why in the final exhibition by taking 20 free throws. This stat from SI floored me: Maggette has scored 34.9% of his NBA points from the line, the second-highest mark among players with 10,000-plus points in NBA history!

Artie
: But he's a good outside shooter, too. Salmons isn't shy about driving and Maggette and Douglas-Roberts are two more "slashers."

Frank
: Who can help take the pressure off the "dump it inside, kick it outside" stuff.

Artie
: It'll be interesting to see the dynamic between Maggette and Skiles. The rap on Maggette has been that when he gets the ball he never lets it go. But consider the teams he played on—Golden State and the Clippers. Who'd he have to pass it to? Another rap was that Maggette often didn't play defense. But again, if you're down by 25 in the third quarter, what's your incentive?

Frank
: Skiles is a guy who, no matter how Maggette is scoring, will sit him if he doesn't play D.

Artie
: Another big difference this season is that for the first time since Bogut's been here, they have a complementary power forward in Gooden. He knows how to rebound and score, and if Bogut's hurting Gooden can still provide a threat down low.

Frank
: Last year if Bogut was out it was almost exclusively outside shooting.

Artie
: And don't forget Brockman. This guy plays like his pants are on fire, total effort.

Frank
: As for the overall NBA outlook, seems like the usual suspects, right?

Artie
: When it comes to teams that have a realistic shot at the championship, it's Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Magic. And maybe Oklahoma City because of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Frank
: Seems like the South Beach Trinity of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are happy to be the targets for everyone.

Artie
: I'm not conceding anything to them—even their division, with Orlando in it. Injuries can wreck any team, and Bosh and Wade have been vulnerable before. And their bench? The Bucks' bench is way better!

Missions Accomplished

Frank: A pleasant football weekend for you?

Artie
: Any time the Badgers and Packers both win, that's good. When the wins put them on track for conference and division titles, that's excellent!

Frank
: Wisconsin slugged it out all day with Iowa and parlayed a blocked extra point and several fourth-down conversions into a one-point win. The Packers had to battle almost to the last second, but they held off Brett Favre and the Vikings.

Artie
: Man, on that big sack near the end I thought, "Who the hell is this Jarius Wynn?" Shows how battered the Pack is. But the defense came up with Badgers intensity.

Frank
: I guess it was sweet to see Favre throw three interceptions.

Artie
: Then he hobbles around with that ankle thing, doing the wounded hero bit. I thought he'd start spitting out teeth.

Frank
: Wow, no love left for Brett. Didn't we learn the ankle has fractures?

Artie
: Fractures, schmactures. I ain't buying it. This act is right out of Tennessee Williams. He was always a diva; now he's Blanche DuBois!

Giant Aspirations

Frank: I would have liked to see a World Series replay of 1962 with the Yankees and Giants, but since the Yanks won last year I think it's fine to have Texas add some new blood. Besides, the Yankees sure didn't deserve to win the ALCS.

Artie
: The Giants have always been my favorite team except for the local guys. In the ’60s I loved to see Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and Marichal play the Braves. Color me black and orange!

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