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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

For These Bucks, 8 Would Be Great

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Another NBA season, another rebuilding project for the Milwaukee Bucks. The team is 88-158 over the last three seasons and hasn't won a playoff series since 2001. Last year the Bucks followed a dismal 26-win season by hiring Scott Skiles as coach and adding several new faces, including established star Richard Jefferson. They improved to 34 wins, but when the 2009-'10 season begins Oct. 30 the Bucks will be largely revamped again. Mainly for economic reasons, they traded Jefferson and let guard Ramon Sessions and forward Charlie Villanueva depart as free agents. Now their hopes rest on first-round draft pick Brandon Jennings at point guard, a wave of new forwards and the health of Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut, both coming off major injuries. The Observers' advice for Buck fans: Be patient.

Frank: The Bucks sure won't fall short of high expectations from the national media. A power ranking on ESPN.com puts them 29th in the NBA, above only Sacramento.

Artie:The Sporting News has them at No. 24. That's Willie Mays! Gotta be a good sign.

Frank: How many Eastern Conference teams are below them?

Artie: Indiana, New York and New Jersey. Of course, the Nets might surge once that Russian zillionaire buys the team. He'll put the fear of Stalin in ’em. Win or head for the Gulag!

Frank: Unfortunately, 12th-best in the conference would be four spots from the playoffs.

Artie: I'm not so gloomy. Redd and Bogut missed almost 50 games apiece last season, but the team improved by eight games. If they'd been healthy it might have meant 40 wins and the eighth seeding.

Frank: And a first-round hammering by Cleveland or Boston.

Artie: They've got to start somewhere. I think it's possible this time if Redd and Bogut stay in one piece. Redd's a born scorer and Bogut was averaging a double-double when his back gave out.

Frank: Bogut worries me; back trouble can pop up again anytime. Besides that, aren't the Bucks back at Square One?

Artie: True, it's essentially an entirely new team. Skiles will be mixing and matching to find the right combinations.

Frank: Traveling in the East for two weeks has kept me out of the loop. What have the exhibition games shown?

Artie: I like the addition of Hakim Warrick at strong forward. He's scoring well, making free throws and rebounding.

Frank: How about young Mr. Jennings at the point?

Artie: He's shown, what is the expression, "flashes of brilliance," but not as a shooter.

Frank: I noticed he did have 12 assists in a game. And Luke Ridnour provides some shooting from that position.

Artie: But Ridnour's always getting banged up. At small forward they've got some options with these newcomers from European teams, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova. And the second-year guy from UCLA, Luc Mbah a Moute, should build on a pretty good rookie year. He was a solid defender and rebounder before hitting the rookie fatigue "wall."

Frank: The Bucks sure didn't get much from last year's No. 1 choice, Joe Alexander.

Artie: That hasn't changed. A hamstring injury has kept him out of all the exhibition games.

Frank: I saw a recent headline saying, "Skiles Emphasizes Defense." Just change the coach's name and we've seen that for years, with few results.

Artie: In Skiles' first year they improved on the "D" side. In 2007-'08 their opponents made a whopping 48% of their shots, almost the highest in the league. Under Skiles they cut it to just below 46%.

Frank: That's only about two or three fewer field goals per game, but it's the difference in tight games.

Artie: If Bogut stays healthy they have a true shot-blocker in the middle, and Mbah a Moute and Warrick can be strong defenders. The improvement could continue.

Frank: And on offense?

Artie: I think they have a potential star in the second-round pick, Jodie Meeks out of Kentucky. He set a school record with a 54-point game and shot about 40% from three-point land. He could become a real nice shooting guard.

Frank: One thing that should help the Bucks is their early-season schedule.

Artie: It's gotta be better than a year ago, when they had only 13 of their first 33 games at home, and that stretch included 11 sets of games on back-to-back nights—EEE-LEVEN!

Frank: The Bucks did pretty well to go 15-18 through December 2008. But this season they play 30 games before 2010 arrives, with 16 at home.

Artie: And those brutal back-to-backs?

Frank: Only six of them through December. There's a six-game homestand in November that includes very beatable teams—New York, New Jersey, Golden State, Charlotte. On the other hand, in the first two months they play Cleveland twice, San Antonio twice, Orlando twice, plus Boston and the champion Lakers.

Artie: As with any team, everything depends on the Bucks staying healthy. But I think they'll be an interesting team.

Frank: Scrappy if not necessarily successful?

Artie: Certainly no title contender, but maybe good enough to surprise people and get to that eighth spot.

The Best-Laid Plans…

Frank: I didn't see the Packer game here in the East, but I guess they handled the Lions as easily as the 26-0 score indicated, huh?

Artie: As usual, I cite Mike McCarthy, man of coaching cliches...

Frank: As in, "We'll get that fixed" in regard to the penalties, offensive line, whatever?

Artie: "Fixed," or "corrected," or "cleaned up." And what better time to clean up than last week, when they had their bye?

Frank: So they came out Sunday and...

Artie: Finished the game with a mere 13 penalties.

Frank:Thirteen?

Artie: If McCarthy hadn't had the bye to “fix,” “correct” and “clean up” things, I guess they might have had 30. For crying out loud, they had eight in the first quarter alone! And in every shape and form—personal foul, offside, unnecessary roughness, false starts. Oh, and by the way, Aaron Rodgers got sacked another five times.

Frank: Sounds like they didn't get around to fixing the O-line problems either.

Artie: And it was the Lions! It's a good thing they weren't playing a good team, or even a mediocre one.

Frank: Meanwhile, Mr. Favre and the Vikings almost gagged against the Ravens, which would have put the Packers only one loss behind in the NFC North.

Artie: That sucked, plain and simple. As the Baltimore kicker lined it up in the last seconds I just knew he'd miss it.

Frank: Never fear, the Vikes could still be fit to be tied in the loss column when they hit Lambeau Field on Nov. 1. They play in Pittsburgh this weekend while the Packers face another weakling in Cleveland. So on Nov. 2 we could well see the Pack at 5-2 and the Vikes only a half-game up at 6-2.

Artie: Meanwhile, our master plan for the Badgers took a hit when UW lost at home to Iowa, ain’a?

Frank: Ohio State played right into the Badgers' hands by choking at Purdue. If Bucky had beaten the Hawkeyes, there would have been five Big Ten teams with only one conference loss, and UW facing the easiest closing schedule.

Artie: The Badgers were up 10-3 at halftime but Iowa torched 'em after that. Scott Tolzien seems to have the yips, forcing the ball and throwing interceptions that just kill them. And he got sacked four times.

Frank: With two losses, and two games behind Iowa, it looks like UW won't find a way to the Big Ten title.

Artie: But it could still finish 10-2 and make a decent bowl game. That'd sure be progress from last year.