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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

Bucks Must Handle a Rugged Trail

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"Disappointed" wouldn't adequately describe the Milwaukee Bucks or their fans last spring. "Dejected" or "devastated" would be more accurate. The 2009-'10 season saw the Bucks improve by 12 games (46-36) and stir excitement with a No. 6 playoff spot. Then a combination of bad health and extremely bad offense plunged them to 35-47, a neighborhood they've seen a lot since they last won a playoff series in 2001.

With the new season starting next week, coach Scott Skiles is hoping for another ascent. He's counting on the restored health of center Andrew Bogut, improvement by third-year point guard Brandon Jennings and newcomers to boost an offense that was dead last in the NBA in scoring and shooting percentage. It won't be easy, though, with a grueling schedule compressed by the NBA lockout.

Frank: You follow the NBA more than I do. Any predictions?

Artie
: It's fruitless at this point. All I'm saying is Oklahoma City over Miami in the Finals. But really, just about everything is a big question mark.

Frank
: How come?

Artie
: Sam Amico, a foxsports.com columnist, said it perfectly in a piece headlined, "In NBA, Chaos Is Order of the Day." He wrote this: "Question: What can make 15-hour meetings during an NBA lockout seem sane? Answer: Everything that takes place once the lockout is resolved."

Frank
: In other words, the chaos of cramming the free-agency period, trades and training camp together so the season can start on Christmas.

Artie
: Exactly. Amico quotes one GM as saying, 'It's like trying to put together a team to play on the AAU circuit. Except even that is probably more organized than this.'"

Frank
: As it happens, the Bucks did most of their adding before the lockout in that three-team trade. They shipped John Salmons to Sacramento and Corey Maggette to Charlotte, and got Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and rookie Tobias Harris from the Bobcats and point guard Beno Udrih from the Kings.

Artie
: Throw in their own draft picks, Wisconsin's Jon Leuer, and Darington Hobson from 2010, plus the recently signed Mike Dunleavy, and we have major roster turnover—but with very little time to mesh.

Frank
: Meshing, or "chemistry," was a big problem last year, from what returning players say. We can infer that the problem came from the guys who are no longer in the formula, Maggette and Salmons.

Artie
: Not that Maggette was a bad guy, but when they got him in the summer of 2010 a lot of fans were up in arms about chemistry issues.

Frank
: You said right away that he was a "black hole" on offense—the ball gets to him and disappears. And eventually Jennings said something like, "I pass the ball and I never get it back." And one can infer that Salmons, once he got his big new contract after sparking the playoff run in '10, wasn't putting out the same effort.

Artie
: That's what it looked like.

Frank
: And we can infer that Luke Ridnour was someone they really should have kept...

Artie
: Except I think he really wanted to start, so he signed with Minnesota.

Frank
: But he sure was good for the chemistry as Jennings' backup. And Jerry Stackhouse was a valuable "veteran presence" two seasons back.

Artie
: But he was pretty old and I guess they thought Maggette was an upgrade.

Frank
: Now they have Jackson, who told the Journal Sentinel: "I am crazy on the court, I am. I don't mind getting kicked out; I don't mind fighting, because I love the game that much." But he added, "Every guy I've played with wants to play with me." We'll see, but it sounds volatile.

Artie
: He does have baggage, like his involvement in the Ron Artest brawl with Pistons fans in '04 and his gun-firing incident outside an Indianapolis club in '06.

Frank
: He's a proven scorer, 18 points a game last season, but the craziness might alter a few games. How about the most recent addition, Dunleavy?

Artie
: I'm not thrilled. They have one of the quickest point guards in the league in Jennings, so what do they add? Possibly the slowest white guy to go with him.

Frank
: But Dunleavy doesn't really play a "2" guard.

Artie
: No, he's more of a wing man.

Frank
: He's a consistent scorer, 12 points per game over nine seasons at Golden State and Indiana.

Artie
: I guess. But really, the key to a successful season—and for me that would be .500—is staying healthy, something that didn't happen last year.

Frank
: Bogut seems sounder than a year ago. But that wouldn't be hard to do.

Artie
: He basically played with only his left arm last season because of that horrible fall in April 2010.

Frank
: But will he stay healthy? He seems to get back spasms fairly often.

Artie
: The same thing has kept Jackson out of some practices and the first exhibition game. And Drew Gooden, who's counted on to complement Bogut in the paint, has missed some practices because of plantar fasciitis, the foot thing that cost him half of last season.

Frank
: Speaking of feet, Jennings had a broken foot last season, and that sometimes can repeat itself.

Artie
: So here's a team with major health questions, and like everyone else they're facing a schedule that's brutally condensed.

Frank
: The Bucks' original schedule had 82 games in a little over 25 weeks, about three per week. The new schedule has 66 games in a little over 17 weeks, or about four per week.

Artie
: How about those dreaded back-to-back games?

Frank
: The Bucks' original schedule had 22 of those pairs. Now they'll have 20, but in eight fewer weeks. They'll also play three games in four nights 13 times, and three consecutive nights from March 22-24. Then after a day off on the 25th they'll go back-to-back, which makes five games in six nights!

Artie
: And at the end of January they play seven games in 10 days.

Frank
: Here's something else we can infer. The NBA, in scheduling 66 games instead of 60 or 56, wasn't much concerned about the players' health—or the quality of play on those "three in four nights" deals. So good luck, fans, when you pay to watch extra-tired teams.

Artie
: Even the healthy teams will get worn down, which is why I say the Thunder will win it all, because they're young and deep. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 23 and James Harden is 22. Compare them to, like, the Celtics. Those guys will need walkers by March!

Frank
: The Bucks only need 33 wins to go .500, and in the East that could mean a No. 7 playoff spot. But that'll probably mean a playoff whipping from Miami or Chicago.

Artie
: If they could stay healthy and get up to No. 6, they might have a chance in the first round.

Frank
: In other words, back where they were two years ago.

Eyes on the Prize


Frank:
 So the Packers won't go unbeaten. Reaction?

Artie:
Fire them all! Can't even put together a 19-0 season.

Frank:
But seriously, could the loss in Kansas City be a good thing?

Artie:
 They'll still have home field in the playoffs. And maybe the "perfect" buzz was a subconscious distraction. Now the total focus is on a Super Bowl repeat.

Frank:
We knew what factors might cause a loss, and they did: a strong rush on Aaron Rodgers, some inaccurate throws and dropped passes, and no takeaways to bail out the high-yardage defense.

Artie:
 Worst of all were the injuries on the offensive line. Derek Sherrod is done for the season, and we'll see about Bryan Bulaga. They already were missing Chad Clifton and Josh Sitton is battling a bad knee. All that has me concerned.