How good are the Bucks?
While you slept, Milwaukee jumped to 5th in the East.
by Colin Powers
For the grander part of the last 20 years, the Milwaukee Bucks have gloomily lingered in perennial underachievement. The triumvirate of Shuttlesworth, Sam, and Big Dog nearly drove the franchise to the Chip in 2001 but quickly faded into obscurity afterward. Going back further, Vin Baker had them looking promising for a minute in the ‘90s but they never gained any serious. Recent years have been mostly listless beyond the panacea that is the Draft Lottery each year rejuvenating hope that a savior was on his way to the Miller High Life. The Big O aint walking through that door. Neither is Kareem.
For ‘09-10, there weren’t huge expectations. Brandon Jennings was young, untested and relatively physically frail, perhaps more of a project than an immediate contributor out on the court. You had to wonder how the formerly flamboyant playmaker out of Compton might partner with the new hard-nosed disciplinarian of a Head Coach Scott Skiles. Elsewhere on the roster, Joe Alexander, the previous season’s lotto pick, had struggled mightily and been left without a guaranteed third year on his rookie contract, an unprecedented vote of no confidence for the one-time Mountaineer. Ramon Sessions walked and Michael Redd was far from inspiring confidence in his earnest struggle to recover from microfracture surgery. Andrew Bogut had been a solid player thus far in his NBA career but not the decisive force that a No. 1 pick is expected to be, and reports often indicated he was disconnected and culturally isolated from his American teammates.
Something different was in the air this past October, however. The monotony and indifference of the recent past was eviscerated by the startling dynamism and enthusiasm of their young point guard. Even those who predicted Jennings would be a terrific player down the road assumed the transition from the Italian game (especially after his perceived struggles in Roma) would take time, patience, and a nurturing environment. Thoroughly unperturbed by conventional wisdom, however, Jennings came out guns-a-blazin’, breaking down defenders and preconceptions and flashing a reworked and viable jumper. There was buzz in Milwaukee and screams of agony in NY as another PG seemingly got away. When he dropped the double nickel, all that noise was just amplified.
Jennings eventually cooled as teams game-planned for his truly unique speed and skillfulness with the rock, and he has settled into a more normal state in his evolution as a player. His shooting numbers have fallen precipitously, but he has genuinely impressed me with his command and patience (beyond those occasional off-balance 3s). Jennings is not quite ready to be a consistently dominant performer night in and night out, and has shown great maturity by instead focusing on being a steady, reliable, restrained player for the team. Consequently, the Bucks have found a rhythm of efficiency on the offensive end as the season has moved along.
The biggest factor, though, in the Bucks upward trajectory has definitively been Andrew Bogut. I saw the Bucks play live a couple weeks ago at the Garden, and was really struck by Bogut’s play. First of all, he is a massive, massive human being, completely dwarfing any of the Knicks players as he dominated all the traffic in the paint. For the season, his intensity and commitment on the defensive end has jumped far beyond what we have seen in the past, manifest in his 2.5 blocks per game, nearly double his career average up until this point. Bogut’s strength as a one-on-one defender as well as his presence in the lane as a bulwark against perimeter players attacking the rim have been fundamental to Milwaukee’s greatly improved team defensive (they rank 10th in the League in FG% allowed at 45%). Meanwhile, Coach Skiles’ credentials as a gifted defensive coach has only been reinforced by Bogut’s transformation.
On the offensive end, Bogut has great hands and is very active around the bucket, comfortable finishing with both hands, apt at using the glass and shooting the jumphook in addition to knocking down an occasional J from 15 feet or so. Since his Utah days, he has always been a gifted passer, whether downlow or from the high post, and he has continued to display that ability this season. His name doesn’t often come up in discussing the best young big men in the NBA, but it should.
The Bucks have also received welcome contributions from Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Ridnour through out the season. Ridnour in particular seems to be effused with a new energy, perhaps more content and loose as a player now that he is no longer burdened by the expectation of being a team’s top lead guard. And while those role players have all fulfilled the demands placed upon them, it was the deadline acquisition of John Salmons along with Bogut’s play has really served to elevate the Bucks from mediocrity into one of the hottest teams in basketball.
Salmons took off when the Bulls pulled the deal for him last year, providing another veteran presence and gifted individual shot-maker for a team heavily reliant on the creativity of its guards. He lifted Chicago’s play by helping stretch the defense and establishing yet another weapon to penetrate into the lane. Salmons’ performance in the epic series against the Celtics was superlative. Strangely though, he really struggled for the Bulls this year despite the departure of Ben Gordon conceivably opening up more looks and minutes for the UMiami product (maybe Luol Deng cramped his style). Salmons seemed to have lost his touch from the outside along with that swagger that so embodied the precocious Bulls’ run in the ’09 Playoffs.
The deal to Milwaukee has thankfully rejuvenated Salmons. Since arriving on February 19, his regained swag has lent the team a similar certainty of purpose. Averaging 19, 3 and 3 (nearly a 7 point increase from his time with the Bulls), Salmons has helped push Milwaukee to a 10-1 record, leapfrogging the ranks of the Eastern Conference and becoming an exceedingly unappetizing first round foe for any of the top four in the conference. Scott Skiles teams will rarely beat themselves, and with this squad’s consistent performance on the defensive end, developing chemistry on offense, and the omnipresent threat that Jennings might find the range and just go off, the Bucks have finally emerged from the years of irrelevance. They have something legitimate to build on here. Hopefully they can find some staying power this time around.