We conclude previewing the Central Division with the Milwaukee Bucks. You can read past previews here.

by Brett Ballantini

Just a year ago, much of the focus of the Milwaukee Bucks centered on rookie Yi Jianlian, who through more fault of his Chinese “handlers” than his own had pinned the prissiness meter before lacing a single sneaker Stateside. First, the Fric-and-Frac administrative duo of owner Herb Kohl and GM Larry Harris went all UN on the Walled-off Yi by flying to China and demanding (translation: begging) Yi play for the Bucks. Soon rumors spread of a “minutes guarantee” offered, securing that the Buddhist would ball for Beertown.

Then there was all the ninnied hand-wringing over whether Yi could blend in with Milwaukee’s apparently burgeoning Asian populace, speculation that no team could afford to carry two seven-footers (Yi and Chaz Villanueva) allergic to the paint, and how to translate the triangle offense into Mandarin.

You can see where this headed. The Buccos were so captivated by off-court drama, they forgot to play basketball. The absentmindedness ended up costing both Harris and rookie coach Larry Krystkowiak their jobs.

While last year’s forecast for the Brew Crew was tabbed as a bit too dour by some savvy SLAM readers, its anticipation of all-out disaster—a chronically-soft team being bred for D, the triangle offense trotted out on the fly, only 10 wins by the Chinese New Year—proved astute. The Bucks were a mess, start to finish.

It’s a new era in Milwaukee, and even in light of the Grizzlyesque giveaway of Mo Williams—arguably the Buccos’ top clutch and only true playmaker a season ago—prospects are significantly brighter heading into 2008-09.

Change started at the top. After flirting with several East and West Coast teams over the years eager to steal away a top-flight talent evaluator, John Hammond chose to shuffle a couple of hundred miles west to Milwaukee for his first GM job. After building the strongest and most consistent East team over the past decade with Joe Dumars in Detroit, Hammond has set his sights on applying the Pistons Method to former division rival Milwaukee.

Hammond’s first move was to fire Coach K, who dropped the triangle as quickly as he picked it up because, get this, Senator Kohl didn’t like it. His replacement was quickly found, right on Milwaukee’s doorstep, in feistmeister Scott Skiles. There’s not a pundit out there who doesn’t claim Skiles burns through teams like Donatello Trump burns Benjamins, but it was a much more damning situation in Chicago than hothead-heads-out: Skiles lost the Bulls, in just two full seasons as coach. While it says more about the shameful lack of constitution among the Bullies than it does Skiles’ infamous impatience (“Q: Scott, what can Eddy Curry do to get more rebounds in this series? A: He could start by jumping.” Favorite. Retort. Ever.), if the Bucks flag in a couple of years and R-Jeff is getting ready to jump, expect a U-Haul to be backing up to Casa Skiles.

Still, Skiles will get the most out of a Bucks team that’s in transition but on the upswing, much as was the case with the Chicago club he led to a sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat in 2006.

With the “easy” part of Milwaukee’s makeover in the books, Hammond turned to the trading table to trim dead weight and lighten his club’s cap load. He made an auspicious debut in dealing Yi and Bobby Simmons to the New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson. As a 20-year-old rookie, Yi did not impress, earning unmerited time ahead of Villanueva and putting up 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds, shooting .421, and failing to eke out even one assist per game. Natch, Yi is a project, but his best rookie season comps landed somewhere near Derrick Gervin and Sylvester Gray. If you wonder who Gervin and Gray are, that’s exactly the reason why Yi will not inspire fear in the heart of the Eastern Conference anytime soon.

Jefferson immediately steps into the role of team leader, giving him an honor and responsibility that he never had while playing in the shadows of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter in Jersey. His stat-sheet filling nature gives Milwaukee a player they haven’t had since, lord have mercy, Marques Johnson. R-Jeff scored a career-high 22.6 points for the Nets last season, but perhaps more importantly set a career high of 3,199 minutes and playing in every game. A healthy Jefferson, who has averaged less than 70 games per season in his career, is crucial to Milwaukee’s playoff hopes.

Another source of strength on the Bucks is Andrew Bogut. We’ve had our fun with him in the past, but give the scowlin’ Taz Devil his propers: He’s improved in every one of his three seasons, and believe it or not, he’s the second-best center in the East. In essentially the same floor time as 2006-07, Bogut upped his scoring and rebounding and became a legitimate shot-blocker at 1.8 per. Apparently dropping the floppy hair before the season gave Mr. Thunder Down Under some hops. Bogut’s shooting, rebounding, and scowling was rewarded with a $72.5 million extension and has turned him into a 21st Century Swen Nater, a fact that must make that single-season Buck center wish he was born a generation later.

The third star in Milwaukee is sharpshooter Michael Redd, who’s consistent: superior bombing skills, non-existent defensive work. It’s a slap at Redd to dub him Ben Gordon north, but it will be crucial to get the heart of the team to buy into the new coach’s defensive intensity. And if Redd can find his inner Yosemite Sam on defense it should jump-start his offense, which flagged a bit in 2007-08. Redd manned up under Terry Porter, and expect average defensive play from him this year.

Villanueva is the X-factor for Milwaukee. Unsurprisingly, he brooded through 2007-08 after being benched in favor of Yi. He’s been in a holding pattern since a promising rookie season with the Toronto Raptors, and despite his sometimes-incendiary scoring skills, CV will have to focus a little more on the boards and less on isolation play to stay on the floor under Skiles.

That’s in part because top draft choice Joe Alexander is waiting in the wings and ready to become the team’s new Desmond Mason, as the Cowboy was also shipped off in the surrender of Mo-Will. Alexander is being chatted up as the “most athletic player in the draft,” which begs the question of whether GMs can find another way to hype their well-rounded but otherwise pedestrian players? Every white fella who has some grit, skill, and hops is being touted as “athletic.” Christ, he was an NBA Lottery choice, what is he supposed to be? Immovable? Desultory? Clever? Every kid whose floorburns are celebrated because they show up bright red on his knees is destined to be tossed out onto the Luke Jackson boulevard of broken dreams, GMs, so lavish such meaningless praise with caution.

At any rate, Alexander seems to fit all the clichés necessary to talk up a curious draft choice. The favorite: “He’s a ‘Skiles guy.’” Literally, this means Alexander will have somewhat of a journeyman career but on one glorious night, the 6-8 forward will put up a 5×5 or set the league record for single-game hustle points, and two decades from now when he’s coaching, fans and writers will ask him about it, just as Skiles still gets queried about his record assists game. Figuratively, it means Alexander will dress up as Andres Nocioni for Halloween and forget to take the costume off all season.

Ironically, the clear weakness on the Bucks is at the position Skiles harbored as an NBA player. And even sillier, the deficiency is at the position Milwaukee found itself overloaded at just two years ago, when T.J. Ford and Williams were battling for burn. Running the offense is now some combo platter of Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions. Uh, Luke, I’ve seen Scott Skiles play, and you my friend are no Scott Skiles; the sixth-year man is coming off of his worst season as a pro. On the other hand, extrapolated out to 36 mpg, Sessions was a double-double man last year, at 11 points and 10.2 assists. But to bank too much on such an extrapolation ignores the fact that Sessions played in only 17 games, starting seven.

Providing Skiles can find a suitable point guard without having to pencil himself into the starting lineup, the Bucks stand certain to snap their streak of four straight Central Division basement finishes. With a fairly formidable (albeit lower-cased) big three, depth everywhere but at the 1-spot, and a “convention bounce” that comes from the energy injected by Skiles, 45 wins and a long-awaited taste of the postseason are not out of the question.