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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Steering to Escape the Circle Route

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Fans of the Milwaukee Bucks have had a pretty dull ride since 2001, the last time their team won a postseason series. In 11 years there have been only two winning seasons and four brief trips to the playoffs.

Mostly it's been lap after lap on a roundabout—sometimes edging toward the route to consistency, only to find it blocked off by misjudgments or injuries, or both. That's not much better than the '90s, when the Bucks spent seven straight years in the sub-.500 lane.


Lap 5 has begun for the team's current drivers, general manager John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles. Hammond has tried just about everything—draft-day maneuvering every year, mid-season trades, even parting with popular but ill-fated Andrew Bogut, the face of the franchise. But if the Bucks don't reprise the last playoff run of 2010, he and Skiles will be left at the curb when their contracts expire next summer.

Two seasons ago Skiles had the kind of defensive team he craves, but woeful offense. Last season the scoring soared but the defense disappeared. So last week Hammond traded for shot-blocking Houston center Samuel Dalembert and drafted John Henson, a force in the paint at North Carolina. Will they nudge the Bucks toward the playoff juncture?

Frank
: Are you happy as can be about the draft?

Artie
: Mildly pleased, I guess. The Journal Sentinel said, “For Bucks, Draft Is for D,” meaning defense. But one of the online analyses I read, I can't remember where, said D was the Bucks' grade. The comment was, basically, didn't they draft the same offensively challenged shot blocker in Larry Sanders, two years ago?

Frank
: I saw a C-plus for the Bucks on SI.com and a C-minus on CBSSports.com. But The Sporting News gave them an A.

Artie
: As we always say about the Packers' drafts, it makes no sense to give a grade for at least a couple of years, ain'a?

Frank
: But we can say the Bucks drafted to their biggest need, interior defense. Two years ago they were third-best in the NBA in points allowed at 92.7 per game; last season they fell to 22nd at 98.7. That negated a rise from dead last in scoring (91.9. per game) to No. 5 at 99.0.

Artie
: So often last season it looked like the opponents were running a layup line. And from watching some of Henson's college games, I know he can play defense and block shots. But he'll have to put on a lot of weight for the NBA. It could turn out well, especially if he improves his offensive game. He's ambidextrous with his shooting around the basket.

Frank
: Hey, just like Bogut! Now let's see if he stays in one piece better than the Aussie.

Artie
: He's also supposed to be an exceptional guy, upbeat and a real good teammate. That counts, too. But he won't be an offensive force right away.

Frank
: How about Dalembert, the “true” center they said they needed to replace Bogut?

Artie
: Don't expect “big minutes” from him. He's 31 and last year averaged only 22 minutes per game with the Rockets. He's a good rebounder, about eight a game for his career, but about the same average in points.

Frank
: So where do they get front-court scoring? Drew Gooden had a nice season, averaging 13.7 points, but wasn't that partly because Bogut broke his ankle? The offense may rely way too much on the starting backcourt, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, along with Mike Dunleavy Jr. on the wing.

Artie
: It's absolutely essential that they re-sign Ersan Ilyasova. He really came into his own last year, and he just turned 25. He averaged 13 points and led the team in rebounding at nine per game. Plus he was second in the league in three-point percentage at 45.5%. He's the Bucks' version of Kevin Love!

Frank
: Presumably they have the salary-cap room to sign him. Michael Redd is off the books; Bogut is off the books.

Artie
: One guy I haven't heard mentioned in weeks is Carlos Delfino, who's a free agent like Ilyasova. That tells me they assume he's going elsewhere, or they aren't trying to keep him.

Frank
: He has had health problems, including a long post-concussion thing.

Artie
: They'd better make a good offer to Ersan before that mad Russian in Brooklyn gets to him! If they think they can find a cheaper alternative, well, then they're going backward—just the opposite of Hammond's talk about keeping guys together in a solid core. Now he's got three bench guys to replace—Jon Leuer, Jon Brockman and Shaun Livingston—because of the Dalembert deal. And if he doesn't keep Ilyasova or Delfino, that's two more who go out the revolving door.

Frank
: Looking at a list of Hammond's trades around the last five drafts, what struck me was that of all the guys they acquired, only Beno Udrih and Tobias Harris are still on the roster. Richard Jefferson, Kurt Thomas and Corey Maggette were gone in a year; Stephen Jackson didn't even last that long. And now Livingston is gone; I thought he showed some real talent, only to disappear in the late-season because Skiles nailed him to the bench.

Artie
: After the season they said, “We need more height in the backcourt.” Well, Livingston's 6-7!

Frank
: As was John Salmons, who flamed out after Hammond rewarded his half-season in the spring of '10 with a fat contract.

Artie
: How about another guy Skiles ignored late in the season, young Mr. Leuer. As a rookie, the pride of UW-Madison never looked out of place, and he's a big man who can shoot and pass! You'd think they'd really want to develop him.

Frank
: I know the Dalembert deal was three-for-one because the salary totals had to match up. To some extent, the constant turnover may be the fate of a small-market team.

Artie
: But still, what's the use of trading for a young guy or drafting him if he'll be dealt away so quickly?

Frank
: How about the second-round pick, shooting guard Doron Lamb from Kentucky?

Artie
: He's like Jodie Meeks 2.0. Meeks was drafted in '09 and shipped off to Philly in '10 for other guys who aren't here either.

Frank
: Hammond may not be done dealing. He may well look for more scoring, but to get it maybe he'll have to give up on Sanders or move Gooden or Ekpe Udoh, who just arrived with Ellis in the Bogut deal.

Artie
: It all might get 'em back to the playoffs, but this is the Bucks and Skiles is still the coach. I seriously question whether the always-scowling “Junior G-Man” is much of a motivator.

Frank
: Bogut's injury was a big factor last season, but this time Skiles will have no excuses, assuming the various shot blockers stay healthy.

Artie
: A guy like Sanders is still so raw. He has the potential, but he played less last season than when he was a rookie—about 12 minutes a game compared to 14½.

Frank
: Skiles and Hammond are lame ducks, so their future in Milwaukee is definitely now. And what about Jennings, whose four-year rookie contract expires next summer? Last season, after he got snubbed for the All-Star Game, he talked about looking at his big-market options.

Artie
: But he really does seem to like Milwaukee. He does a lot of charity things in the off-season, and on Friday he came to the draft picks' press conference and said he's open to a long-term deal here.

Frank
: “I'm happy here” certainly was the mantra. But he also said he was “comfortable” with Skiles, and if the latest revamping doesn't work, Skiles ain't likely to stay.

Artie
: Or Hammond, either. And then the place would really be in rebuilding mode.

Frank
: Would Jennings or Ellis want to sign on to that?

Artie
: I guess all we can say about all this is, “We'll see.”

Frank
: The only good answer for any sports question.
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