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Friday, Nov. 2, 2012

This Step Better Be Upward

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Milwaukee Bucks fans are experts on fresh starts. In 11 seasons since falling one win short of the NBA Finals in 2001, the Bucks have had seven losing records and four playoff appearances, all first-round losses. Inconsistency, injuries and poor personnel decisions have kept knocking them back to Square One.

Optimism sparked by an exciting run to the playoffs in the spring of 2010 vanished two seasons ago when the Bucks played strong defense but were dead-last in the NBA in scoring. Changes were made last season that put the Bucks among the league leaders in scoring, but they plunged in the defensive rankings.

The team that opens this season Friday night in Boston has been revamped with defense in mind. If it doesn't step back up to the playoffs coach Scott Skiles and general manager John Hammond, in the final year of their contracts, likely will depart. And that would mean yet another fresh start.

 

Frank: Talk about "one step forward, two steps back." From a surprising sixth in the Eastern Conference in 2010 the Bucks backtracked to ninth the last two years.

Artie: First they couldn't score, then they hosted a layup drill every night. So they spent the off-season, in the jargon of the NBA, "getting big"—a cliché almost on a par with Mike McCarthy's "We'll get that fixed."

Frank: They certainly got lengthier by drafting 6-11 John Henson out of North Carolina and acquiring 6-11 Samuel Dalembert from Houston.

Artie: Although it took trading Jon Leuer, the Badger who had a promising rookie season. He's no shorty himself, but he's more of a wing player instead of an eraser in the lane.

Frank: You really liked Henson's play in the Las Vegas summer league, and I also was impressed in the one game I saw.

Artie: Henson was an all-star in Vegas and so was second-year small forward Tobias Harris.

Frank: The summer games were pretty helter-skelter, more free-wheeling than the regular season. But I saw a lot of changed shots on defense and some nice offense in the pivot from Henson.

Artie: Besides Henson and Dalembert, the Bucks are hoping for solid interior defense from third-year guy Larry Sanders, also listed at 6-11. Epke Udoh and Drew Gooden add wingspan at 6-10 and they got 7-1 Joel Przybilla for fill-in duty.

Frank: The exhibition games sure produced blocked shots. Eight in the opener, a whopping 14 in the second, 11 last week at Charlotte. But the overall defense was inconsistent; the Bucks allowed an average of 87 points in their three wins but 100 in their five losses—the last of them a 24-point clinker against Minnesota. But how much does all that mean, especially when you see the Lakers went 0-8 in their exhibitions?

Artie: It means nothing. The pre-season rosters have extra guys and teams are fooling around with rotations. But there definitely were some good things to see, like the shot-blocking.

Frank: The second-round draft pick, guard Doron Lamb, finally got over an elbow injury and looked good in his exhibition debut.

Artie: One scout quoted on SI.com said Lamb was one of the best shooters in the draft. Plus he's 6-4, which can ease the concern about needing "bigger" guards to back up Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Bigger is fine, but a guy's got to be able to play, ain’a?

Frank: The deadline is Wednesday for the Bucks and Jennings to sign a long-term deal and avoid a free-agency drama next summer. I can't believe Jennings would want to re-sign without seeing how the season plays out.

Artie: Right now I don't care either way. There are bigger things to worry about, such as Jennings and Ellis both shooting under 40% in the pre-season. And whether they'll play any kind of defense on the perimeter.

Frank: Along those lines, the absence of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute could be very important. He's had trouble recovering from knee surgery in May and it's not clear when he'll return. He's a versatile defender who can handle just about every spot except the middle. You see him on Kobe, you see him on LeBron. Remember, all those shot blockers won't be chasing the opponents' outside shooters.

Artie: But if the guards don't do the job the big men will have all they can handle from guys penetrating at will. There'll be plenty of shot-blocking opportunities for everyone, but that won't be a good thing.

Frank: Turning to the offense, has this push to "get big" added much scoring potential? In other words, will the Bucks be too dependent for points from Jennings and Ellis?

Artie: They didn't add much scoring with Dalembert. Henson has real promise but who knows how much he can contribute as a rookie? But with all the options at center they can keep Gooden at power forward instead of wearing him out at center, as they had to when Andrew Bogut was hurt the last couple of seasons.

Frank: Sanders needs to be more reliable after two rather nondescript years.

Artie: But remember, they didn't have a lot of inside scoring last season but finished fifth in the league. It's not like the guards did it all; there's the 6-10 Ersan Ilyasova, who had a breakout season as a forward who can score inside or outside. The Bucks let Carlos Delfino leave as a free agent but Mike Dunleavy is a dependable shooter on the wing. And they're hoping Harris can step in as a scorer.

Frank: Jennings and Ellis can't play 48 minutes. After them are they thin in the backcourt?

Artie: Beno Udrih did nice work backing up both spots last year. Lamb could really help, and they added Marquis Daniels, 6-6 and nine years as a decent role player.

Frank: Speaking of Henson, he hurt a knee in an exhibition against Chicago.

Artie: But it doesn't seem too serious. At first they were right on pace for their usual spate of early injuries, but now it seems like Mbah a Moute is the only long-term concern. That is, until the next guy gets Bogut-itis.

Frank: Bottom line, as a fan how do you feel about the Bucks' prospects?

Artie: I'm modestly hopeful. And modest progress is about all the previews are predicting.

Frank: Modest as in....

Artie: The ESPN.com power rankings put them 19th out of 30 teams, but eighth-best in the East.That would mean the playoffs at least.

Frank: It's the very least Skiles and Hammond need to keep their jobs.

Artie: But Fox Sports had the Bucks 20th in the league and 10th in the conference.

Frank: I think the improved interior defense will help make them a modest surprise, maybe enough to get the seventh or even sixth spot. Partly that's because the East is the weaker conference. Miami has to be the favorite and Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana look strong, but Chicago is entirely dependent on when, or whether, Derrick Rose comes back from his knee injury. The last few playoff spots look totally up for grabs.

Artie: Atlanta is a chronic underachiever, and now they don't even have Joe Johnson. New York and Brooklyn have huge question marks. The rest—Orlando, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Charlotte—are strictly bottom-feeders. It should be a pretty interesting season.