By Brett Ballantini
For the rest of our season previews, go here.
Talk about incongruous.
Minding my own business at a cozy little preseason ballgame sparsely attended by some Bucks family members, mascot Bango, and costumed trick-or-treaters who were apparently abducted from a large, downtown block party, came a throaty, beer-battered cheer: Yi, you rock!
Even the camera-toting Chinese media seated near me—comprising approximately 38% of game attendance that night—looked at each other with the ultimate WTF! look on their faces.
Yi fever has descended on Beertown. God, or Buddha, help us.
And help Yi Jianlian as well. His gut instinct—or rather, the gut of China’s basketball governing body, which brought an Ivan Drago chumminess to contract negotiations with the Bucks over the summer—not to report to Milwaukee may have been correct.
See, the Bucks are soft. And the only thing worse than playing soft in the NBA comes when your coach, Larry Krystkowiak, a lunch-pailer so serious he actually chose to coach in places like Montana and Idaho, practices a defense-first policy. And Jake Voskuhl is your enforcer?
What’s astounding about the Bucks is how much Velveeta game they bring even on the offensive side. Milwaukee is undoubtedly a solid team offensively—Michael Redd, Mo Williams, and Charlie Villanueva may actually come to blows over touches, to be sure—but this team is so tentative, it doesn’t even dunk.
Yeah, yeah, insert Andrew Bogut joke here.
No, really. It’s a rare thing to see a team of Milwaukee’s talent play so tentatively. I’m no Bad Boys piner, but watching the freaking Mini T-Wolves (OK, back when Ricky D, mopey Mark Blount, and Juwan were still on board, but still) push a full-strength Bucks ballclub around, even for a crowd of Bogut’s kid sister, Larry K’s pal from ’tana Burt, 16 foreign reporters and another 38 trick-or-treaters, made me want to go all Rick Mahorn on their asses.
But this is the roster Krystkowiak’s been dealt, and no amount of “we really need to work on our defense” or “I’m going to commit to a defensive session in every one of our practices” statements will change it.
Last season, the Bucks were bulldozed by injuries. Four starters missed a combined 102 games—and that’s only if you don’t count prospective starting small forward Bobby Simmons, who was shelved for the entire season with foot and ankle injuries.
Simmons is the only other Buck beyond power-packed energy wad Williams (coming off a minty-fresh career season (17.3 ppg, 6.1 apg, 4.8 rpg and requisite flirtation with Pat “’F’ for the Summer” Riley) who appears highly motivated on both ends of the floor. Even superstar sharpshooter Redd, who gutted any chance Milwaukee had for a playoff run last year by missing 29 games with a right knee injury and curtailing his best professional effort yet (a career-best 26.7 ppg, fifth in the NBA, on .465 shooting), mails it in when the ball’s not in his hands and does his best leaping on three-point bombs 25 feet from the bucket.
’Course, Redd did bust his knee on a dunk attempt vs. the LeBrons last season, so maybe that’s why Mr. K has kyboshed all the dunking. That or Bogut might get a little spooked being so close to the rim.
I kid the Aussie. His numbers improved as a sophomore, to 12.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and a league seventh-best .553 field-goal shooting. The third-year pivot has been criticized as soft, but even Wilt Chamberlain himself may well have drifted outside the paint and away from contact given Milwaukee’s sparse frontcourt and voluntary approach to defense last year, when the Bucks turned matadors to the tune of a conference-worst 112 points allowed per 100 possessions and opponents connected at a 48% shooting clip, second-worst in the NBA.
Surprisingly, the onetime fellow longhair is now an ex-hairbag, apparently having cut his flowing locks somewhere around the time this offseason he decided to trash and belittle his fellow players. Now that Bogut is rocking the Dragan Tarlac look, his infamous “the public’s image of NBA players is true” quote apparently also means a fan’s image of Bogut as a soft finger-pointer will be accepted fairly by the big fella inside the Bucks locker room.
Speaking of soft, there was hope that Krystkowiak could impart his Kung Fu defensive wisdom on the 6-11 Villanueva, but if so, Mr. K is more David Carradine than Bruce Lee. The enigma wrapped inside a finger puzzle crammed into a fortune cookie? No amount of Herb Kohl’s cash can make the defense take.
Yi’s camp was worried that the 7-0 finesse forward wouldn’t find playing time in his rookie season, thereby stunting his growth. Yes, these worries persisted even after The State was handed a copy of Milwaukee’s roster. Not to worry, comrades, Yi will play plenty—or at least until he reaches six fouls—and not just because suds-soaked fans shout out for him. (Full disclosure: the same well-served attendee of Bucks-Wolves later shouted, “you rock, Bogut!”)
Desmond Mason returns to the club that once cleverly dealt him for Jamaal “Shoulda Played for Canada While He Could Still Make the Team” Magloire, where he will provide that incomparable Darvin Ham-esque lift on defense and give Milwaukee’s scoreboard operator a prime player to use to exhort fans with a “woof” on the big screen when the team’s in need of a defensive stop.
Charlie Bell is also back in the fold after shifting from fan fave to Beertown turncoat to OK we’ll take you back in the space of one Riley-fueled week. (Yeah, the Ricky Davis trade was fine, but what does it say about the state of the Heat when the Slick One courts two decent Milwaukee guards and can’t steal either away? Southeast Champs my ass.) For a guy who could find himself squeezed under 20 mpg this season, Bell might be the franchise’s second-most important player. He’s selfless, durable (the only player to punch the clock for all 82 games in 2006-07), pesky on defense, and has the skill to run the offense at the point yet climb the ladder all the way up to small forward.
To be fair, despite all the team’s injuries and apparent deficiency of talent, the Bucks didn’t enter free fall last season until January, when Redd succumbed to a his patellar injury and the Buccos promptly trotted out three wins in 20 games, simultaneously preparing ex-mentor Terry Stotts his walking papers. A Bucks ballclub that maintains even average health will run two deep at 2-guard (Redd and Bell), small forward (Simmons and Mason), and power forward (Jianlian and Villanueva). With a proper parcel of breaks—i.e. Luol Deng smashes his wrist, Chauncey Billups trashes his leg, and LeBron crashes his Hummer—such depth could get the Bucks back into May play.
The Bucks also curiously rid themselves of their most precious home-court advantage, a visitors’ locker room so tiny that most small-town high school teams would have refused to suit up in it. What’s next, hot running water after each game?
On the upside, the Bucks are a talented and potentially dangerous offensive club. Flip it and you’ll see a fragile group of players who appear to be downright scared of defending anybody.