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Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014

Nightclub Fights, Humiliation and Unlikely Hopes: The Milwaukee Bucks Midseason Report

Notes from the Bucks' darkest season

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Photo credit: nba.com
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With the exception of the 2009-10 “Fear The Deer” era squad, the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t given fans much to be excited about since the fabled team that came a game from the NBA Finals in the spring of 2001. The majority of seasons since have found the Bucks either finishing with a losing record or backing into a low playoff seed and quick first round dismissal (they managed to accomplish both last season).

Despite having the worst record in the league (which carries the distinction of being to only team in the NBA without a double-digit win total) and having next-to-no chance of making the postseason at the midway point of the 2013-14 campaign, the first half of the Milwaukee Bucks season offered no shortage of interesting storylines, gripping off-court escapades and oodles of promise for the team’s future—which will hopefully still take place in Milwaukee.

After trading away major contributors Brandon Jennings, J.J. Redick and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute over the offseason and losing Monta Ellis when the free agent guard signed with the Mavericks, the Bucks came into this season with an almost entirely new look. Just four players from last year’s roster returned. After a breakout season—in which he had the second most blocks in the NBA, leading to a four-year extension last summer—Larry Sanders was one of the quartet of returning deer (not counting ex-Bucks reunions with Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour and Zaza Pachuia). However, that return was short-lived, as Sanders injured his thumb in a nightclub fight just days into this season, costing him eight weeks.

As Sanders sat (and fellow Bucks vet Ersan Ilyasova missed over two weeks this fall too), John Henson’s role expanded. The second-year power forward has seen many more minutes this season than he did in his rookie campaign. If the lanky youngster wasn’t already considered an integral part of Milwaukee’s rebuilding process, his near-double-double average has made Henson an indelible part of the big picture in Bucks country. With Sanders and Ilyasova back in action (and the former fighting with teammate Gary Neal), the fate of the frontcourt looks promising… barring another slippery nightclub melee, that is.

When discussing the organization’s future, it’d be a travesty to omit Giannis Antetokounmpo’s lengthy name from the conversation. When Milwaukee reached to take the (then) 18-year-old with the 15th pick in last summer’s draft based off a few YouTube clips, the selection tied tongues, shook heads and pushed spell checks to the limit. Yet the raw rookie has quickly endeared himself to the city with flashes of greatness—highlighted by insane dunks and incredible blocks—in limited playing time. He’s also grown nearly and inch and a half since draft day! With the Bucks continuing the descent in the standings, “The Greek Freak” has logged more playing time of late, and has quickly become an unabashed linchpin in the franchise’s long-term future.

The long-term future of the Milwaukee Bucks—though still murky, with arena uncertainty and questions regarding ownership—looks bright. Whether finally listening to the crowd-funded cries to tank or simply reaping the natural results of being a team whose circumstances forced Miroslav Raduljica into more than 20 games to this point, the Bucks are virtually ensured a high lottery pick in this summer’s draft—which is regarded to be among the strongest draft classes in recent seasons. At this point, the abundance of ping-pong balls would be in favor of the league-worst Bucks nabbing a top three pick, making Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins (who’s been called Canada’s LeBron James), Duke guard Jabari Parker or Wiggins’ teammate, Jayhawks seven-foot center Joel Embiid all possible deer draftees.

However, before fans prematurely order that Parker jersey, the Bucks have half a season to play. And honestly, things are probably only going to get worse on the court. Some (or all) of the expiring contracts of Ekpe Udoh, Khris Middleton, Ridnour and Racine native Caron Butler (who recently returned to the lineup after an injury-riddled year to this point) are likely to be traded away for draft picks or young talent by the Feb. 20 NBA trade deadline. The young team will almost assuredly struggle, while spreading playing time to its various projects.

With Sanders back, Henson and Antetokounmpo logging more minutes, point guard Brandon Knight showing he’s a worthwhile return for Jennings and a lottery pick likely, the future looks bright for the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately, it means having to first navigate the remainder of the darkest season in recent memory to get there.
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