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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: YET ANOTHER RE-BRANDIN'

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Fans of the Bucks know the drill all too well. Every summer the franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 2001 does a makeover, hoping the changes will start the climb back to NBA respectability.

This time owner Herb Kohl and general manager John Hammond outdid themselves, bringing in an almost entirely new roster to work with a new coach, Larry Drew. And for the rooting half of the Observers... well, what's wrong with believing these pieces will mesh into something worth watching?

 

Frank: Almost a dozen newcomers and Brandon Jennings gone like a one-term president after four years. How do all the changes strike you?

Artie: They've definitely got me interested, which is a lot more than I could say about the Bucks in April.

F: A big aim was replacing the scoring of the departed Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy and J.J. Redick. Seems like they got enough guys who can score from the outside.

A: O.J. Mayo to start at shooting guard, Gary Neal as his backup after Neal's impressive playoff showing with San Antonio, the return of Carlos Delfino to back up Ersan Ilyasova at small forward. All good additions, I'd say.

F: The big move was flipping one Brandon for another. A sign-and-trade sent Jennings to Detroit and landed Brandon Knight to take over at point guard. You'd have been happy with anyone, but how about Knight?

A: It could work out fine, especially since they've also brought Luke Ridnour back. He was great as Jennings' backup in the 2010 playoff run and he can be just as valuable now.

F: You follow the NBA more closely than I do. What's the dope on Knight?

A: He's only 21 and spent a single year at Kentucky, where he set the freshman scoring record. In high school in Pensacola he was a two-time Gatorade national player of the year. There's no shortage of talent!

F: But that speaks to scoring, and didn't they ditch Jennings for thinking “shoot” too much? And didn't I see some commentary that Knight isn't a true point guard either—that in one guy's words, he's “stuck in combo land”?

A: True, some people say that. On the other hand, he doesn't have much NBA experience yet and the Pistons kind of bounced him between the two guard spots. I think there's potentially a high ceiling for him, and with the help of Drew and assistant Nick Van Exel he can become a true point. And anyway, Jennings showed over four seasons that he wasn't gonna change.

F: Might as well be optimistic, I guess.

A: Plus at 6-foot-3 Knight has about three inches over Jennings. And he can play defense, which Jennings not only didn't do but couldn't do against some taller point guards.

F: Ah yes, defense. I've heard it helps.

A: I read some interesting comments by Zach Lowe, an NBA analyst for grantland.com. I'd read elsewhere that Knight is a “high effort” guy, and Lowe wrote that he "works really hard, both on the practice court and in the film room.” That tells me the guy can develop. Maybe he will and maybe he won't, but one thing is sure: Jennings sure didn't develop the kind of shot that would justify the way he played here.

F: Here are numbers for Jennings over four NBA seasons and Knight over two. Overall shooting: Jennings 39.4%, Knight 41.0%. Three-point shooting: Jennings 35.4%, Knight 37.3%. But I also notice that Jennings' assists-to-turnovers ratio is about 2.4 to 1 and Knight's is only 1.5 to 1.

A: I won't kid you. Lowe also wrote this: “Knight on the pick-and-roll is often out of sorts, slow to spot passing lanes, unable to engineer those lanes and a step behind in understanding how and where the defense is rotating.” Lowe added, “Experience and work can refine those skills,” but he wasn't optimistic about Knight. I, however, choose to think it will happen.

F: Of course a player doesn't develop in a vacuum. A lot depends on who he's playing with and how the coach blends talent.

A: I think Drew might be the right coach for such a turned-over team as the Bucks. You never know how long it will take to mesh, but with the Bucks going so young, and with the prospect that key guys will stay for a while, there's a chance for continuity.

F: I'm sure the fans would find it refreshing.

A: One last thing about the Jennings “era,” from Zach Lowe: “Jennings is a sexy name, with an Internet footprint and a hype level that outpaces his actual basketball ability by a huge margin...”

F: Ouch.

A: Players always talk about a trade being a “good fit.” Jennings sure found one in Detroit; it's bankrupt just like his shooting percentage.

 

TAKING A LOOK INSIDE

F: Everything we've discussed so far involves the Bucks' outside game. But their big trouble for, like, at least two decades has been the lack of inside strength to balance out all the jump-shooting. The emphasis in last year's remodeling was getting bigger and tougher in the paint, especially on defense.

A: And some progress was made with the emergence of Larry Sanders and the arrival of John Henson.

F: But the Bucks actually gave up more points per game, 100.4, than in the previous season, 98.7. And the opponents' shooting percentage went up slightly, from 44.9% to 45.4%.

A: I'd say a lot of that was because while Sanders and others were doing better in the lane, Jennings and others were doing worse on the perimeter.

F: But don't the Bucks still run the risk of being just a bunch that scores pretty well but mostly from the outside, and gives up just enough points to be mediocre?

A: I think Zaza Pachulia will help Sanders and Henson on the inside. He's been in the league a while and is a really good offensive rebounder. And the fact that Drew had him at Atlanta should help with the continuity thing.

F: The continuity thing... These yearly rebuilding projects raise a chicken-and-egg question about many of Hammond's moves. Were they dumb in the first place, forcing these yearly revampings, or did Hammond give up on them too soon, which didn't allow for continuity to develop?

A: Could be either, depending on which guy you're talking about. And then there's plain old bad luck.

F: Hammond has been here since April 2008, so he's going into his sixth season. Yeah, things might have been very different if Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd hadn't broken down. There have been bad draft choices...

A: Anyone remember Joe Alexander?

F: And additions that turned out to be Band-Aids at best and disasters at worst: John Salmons, Richard Jefferson, Jerry Stackhouse, Corey Maggette, Stephen Jackson and most recently Ellis and Redick.

A: Redick, for whom they traded Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb, giving up almost immediately on two guys who could have very good careers. I sure hope they hold onto this year's draftees, Nate Wolters and the tall skinny guy we'll just keep calling “G.A.,” a lot longer.

F: In the immediate future, with Miami, Chicago and Indiana looking so strong in the Eastern Conference it seems unlikely the Bucks or anyone else will be able to break into that top echelon soon.

A: The Pistons and their fans may have delusions of doing that, but when you've just acquired “me first” guys like Jennings and Josh Smith—who also never saw a three-point shot he didn't like—they've got some major chemistry questions.

F: As the Bucks had last season, especially in the last month or so. And it showed.

A: But everything I've read is that the guys the Bucks have added are really good characters, good locker-room guys.

F: I guess when you consider how last season ended—the four-game pounding by Miami, Jennings and Ellis obviously not meshing, Ellis and Sanders going at each other in the locker room, Jim Boylan obviously doomed as the replacement for Scott Skiles, who quit on the team—I guess the fact that we're seeing any reason for optimism is an improvement.

A: Even if the expectations remain as limited as making the playoffs, maybe getting as high as the 6 or 7 seed...

F: Sounds familiar, unfortunately.

A: Besides, if they'd kept Jennings he would have been making $4.5 million or so. Knight is down at about $2.8 million, and in general the Bucks are in very good territory under the salary cap. If things don't work out much in the coming season, they'll still be a young team with a lot of “pieces.” And if they don't make the playoffs, well, next year will be the year to get in the lottery, because everyone says the 2014 draft will be loaded.

F: Well, just as March is a time of blissful optimism for baseball fans, I guess August is a time for hope among hoops fans—even if they root for the Bucks.

A: One more thing from Zach Lowe: “Knight... is worth a look in Jennings' place, and especially with Luke Ridnour around to soak up some of the ball-handling and passing duties. (And Mayo can help with that after showing improved passing chops last season in Dallas)... He's a good shooter with speed and athleticism, and he should develop into a solid defender with enough length to take on some shooting guards.”

F: It still sounds like Lowe is saying Knight will, or should, wind up as a “2” guard.

A: And if that happens eventually, well, I say it's still an improvement over the Jennings “era.”

 

CHECKING UP ON THE CAMPERS

F: I never pay attention to NFL training camps. Anything coming out of Green Bay that's had you excited?

A: I was going to say there's been no major injuries, but now I see Bryan Bulaga, in his new spot at left tackle, apparently messed up a knee in the intra-squad scrimmage and may be out for the season. And the defensive backfield has some trouble; Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward haven't been able to practice because of knee and hamstring problems, respectively. But how about what happened to the Eagles—receiver Jeremy Maclin wrecking a knee on the first day of camp, a total non-contact thing. Welcome to Philly, Chip Kelly! How does something like that happen?

F: It's not like these guys are out of shape. Hell, the teams make them work out year-round, with all the minicamps and OTAs—as in “organized team activities,” which minicamps by another name.

A: But I have heard that between the last OTAs and training camp, that's when guys tend to ratchet down their workouts, take their one real time to rest. So maybe that's not a good idea.

F: I did notice that the news out of Minnesota's camp involved ex-Packer Greg Jennings, who was sniping at Aaron Rodgers for a while but then issued an apology—sort of.

A: I've seen some goofy stuff come out of players, but this was really ridiculous! Here was Jennings' quote: “I really don't recall saying anything negative about Aaron or anyone over there, but hey, I apologize.”

F: Well, if he needs reminding, here's what the Minneapolis Star Tribune printed:

"Don't get me wrong, '12' is a great person. But when you hear all positives, all positives, all positives all the time, it's hard for you to sit down when one of your teammates says, 'Man, come on, you've got to hold yourself accountable for this.' It's hard for someone to see that now because all they've heard is I'm doing it the right way. I'm perfect. In actuality, we all have flaws."

A: The apology broke new ground in dumbness—“I apologize for something I don't think I did.”

F: I think there was an athlete years ago who was asked about one of the quotes in his autobiography, and he said something like, “I can't comment; I haven't read the book.”

A: Jennings didn't talk just about Rodgers; he was blathering about how with Minnesota he’s got a lot of “freedom” to be himself, instead of just one of the “cookie cutter” receivers.

F: Vikings coach Leslie Frazier got him behind closed doors and said, “Shut up.”

A: I heard on one of the local radio shows that while Jennings had a good image with the public he was not a very popular guy in the Green Bay locker room. I can see that; wide receivers are the biggest divas in football.

 

LET THEM EAT BRATS

F: How'd you like Mark Attanasio's decision to give a $10 worth of food-or-merchandise coupons to every fan who pays for a ticket to any Brewers game in August?

A: A good gesture in light of a lousy season and the Ryan Braun mess.

F: Attanasio is nothing if not a good businessman. And I think he really cares about giving the fans a good experience at the ballpark.

A: The coupon sounds like a good idea for Braun to use at his Third Ward restaurant.

F: Hell, Braun ought to announce free meals for customers in August.

A: Or at least he should be at the restaurant every night, busing tables and washing dishes—but with the kitchen door opened so people can see him doing penance.

 

ONE SLAM CREATES ANOTHER

F: When I read the Journal Sentinel obituary of George Scott, I was glad to see my friend Dennis Sell's remembrance of “Da Boomer's” epic homer against the Yankees in 1973. I have a personal postscript to that story.

A: I think I'll enjoy this...

F: It was, as Dennis recalled, July 29, 1973, and the Brewers had won the first game of a doubleheader at County Stadium. I was a year out of Marquette and sitting in the left-field bleachers with a buddy from college. And to show my undying loyalty to the Yankees—who hadn't been in the post-season since 1964—I was wearing one of those plastic helmets with the famed “NY” logo.

A: They don't sell those at the ballyard anymore, ain'a?

F: I believe not, and one reason, I think, is that the helmets carried a warning that they should not be used for protection in actual games. And my story will illustrate why.

A: OK, back to Game 2 and Da Boomer.

F: As Dennis recalled, the Yankees led 2-1 with one out and two men on in the Brewers' seventh. Sam McDowell, the flame-throwing lefty, was on the mound. For some reason manager Ralph Houk had McDowell walk Davey May, a left-handed hitter, to load the bases for Scott.

A: Setting up the double play, I guess. But setting up something else too.

F: My recollection is that Houk then came out to the mound. And that year Lindy McDaniel, the veteran righty, was doing well as the Yanks' top reliever. So I figured that of course Ralphie was gonna summon Lindy.

A: But no?

F: Right. He must have gone out to give McDowell some sage advice like, “Get this guy.”

A: Or maybe to deliver some sandpaper and Vaseline.

F: Well, if McDowell “loaded” the ball it didn't work, because Scott absolutely crushed it. My recollection is that it went directly over my head, and I wasn't down low in the bleachers either. But about a second after that ball landed, my Yankees helmet had turned into half a helmet.

A: I wonder why…

F: Well, it had something to do with my slamming it down on the seating—I think it might have still been wood then—which split it neatly into right and left halves. I took the right one home...

A: It's always good to have a memento when your team gets swept.

F: I know I kept it for decades, but when I looked last week I couldn't find it. Anyway, that's a pretty good example of why those helmets were for decorative purposes only.

A: Forty freakin' years have gone by since then. And there was another Yankee anniversary last week: Thirty-four years since Thurman Munson's death.

F: And here's a coincidence: The last time he played in Milwaukee was July 29, 1979, six years to the day after the Boomer blast. It was another Sunday, and of course I was there again, but this time in the upper-grand on the first-base line. Munson was wearing down as a catcher and played first base that day as the Brewers won, 5-3. The Yankees played their next series in Chicago, and on Thursday, Aug. 2, a day off, Munson was killed when he crashed his plane near his home in Ohio.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek knows all about the wrong kind of continuity.