Bucks ’10-11 Preview
30 teams in 30 days.
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
If Oklahoma City was the Cinderella story of the West last season, Milwaukee held that title for the East. ESPN realized this early on and picked up the November 27 Bucks/Thunder game to replace Suns/Wolves. The late add to ESPN’s national schedule foreshadowed the excitement generated by two young teams on the verge of contending. And that was only the beginning.
For the Bucks, it all started with Brandon Jennings. Somewhat of an enigma—overanalyzed and underestimated—Jennings proved any concerns about his attitude unwarranted and any doubts about his game largely unfounded. The unprecedented move of spending a year in Italy in lieu of college probably advanced his game in immeasurable quantities. Jennings was a name on an overseas roster instead of a hero at college. He entered the draft as an unknown quantity, but he had been a pro and mentally, he was ready. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Jennings’s 55-point effort in the seventh game of his NBA career was legendary. He joined Wilt Chamberlain (three times), Rick Barry, Earl Monroe and Elgin Baylor as the only rookies in NBA history to score 55 points in a game. Those 55 points also marked the most points scored by any player in a single game last season (Andre Miller and Carmelo Anthony had the League’s other 50-point efforts, scoring 52 and 50 respectively). Not bad for a rookie.
As you would expect, a 55-point outburst puts a player on every team’s radar, as Jennings’s name climbed to the top of opponent scouting reports. So the public doubted him, touted him, and then tried to tear him down as soon as he wasn’t sinking shots as efficiently. In the month of November (the month of his 55-point game), Jennings averaged over 22 points and shot nearly 50 percent from three. In December, he averaged just less than 17 points on 32 percent shooting from beyond the arc. At one point last season, Jennings claimed he didn’t want to shoot anymore—definitely not the self-analysis head coach Scott Skiles was looking for.
Jennings’s infectious confidence gave the Bucks an identity. He took a team filled with many guys who hadn’t played together—some who had played the previous season overseas—and made it work. His 15.5 points and 5.7 assists were more than solid for a rookie. His 37 percent from three was good, while his 37 percent from the field will need to improve. More importantly, he was simply the heart of the team. Jennings started all 82 regular season games and led the Bucks to the postseason. After Bogut went down in April with a horrific elbow injury, the team rallied to a 4-2 record without their center. And in the first round, where the Bucks were seemingly overmatched against the Hawks, Jennings averaged nearly 19 points as Milwaukee stretched the series to seven games.
From instances when Jennings put the team on his back like a seasoned veteran to showing up at the summer league sidelines with a Burger King Shrek watch, you never know what you can expect. The Bucks have the wild card with Jennings. And so far, it has worked in their favor.
The Bucks’ 46-36 record can also be attributed in large part to Andrew Bogut’s breakout season. The first overall selection in the 2005 draft averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks last season, anchoring the Bucks on both ends of the floor. Many have said that the outcome of the Bucks/Hawks series would have been different if Bogut had been healthy. We’ll never know, but it certainly gives the Bucks something to look forward to for the 2011 Playoffs.
One of the main advantages the Bucks had last year—and will have entering this season—is Scott Skiles. It is no fluke an undermanned team played like they were the favorites against the Hawks. Skiles has his team play the right way—hard, rotating to the right places, making the right plays and taking the right shots. Whatever shortcomings the Bucks had, they made up for in tenacity.
The Bucks’ main weakness was offense. The team averaged 97.7 points per game (23rd) and shot 43.6 percent from the field (29th). The scoring dipped to 90.0 points on 42.4 percent shooting during the postseason. At times, it was evident the Bucks just didn’t have the firepower to trade baskets with their opponents. The Bucks were far more consistent on the other end of the floor, ranking top ten in opponent points, opponent field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage last season.
GM John Hammond, named ‘09-10 Executive of the Year, addressed the team’s scoring deficiency this offseason. The Bucks re-signed John Salmons, who fit effortlessly into the offense and helped the team to a 22-8 record after joining the roster in a trade deadline deal. The team acquired Corey Maggette and a second round pick from the Warriors in exchange for Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric. Maggette will aptly fit into a role as a pure scorer and his 20-point average last season surprisingly came on less than 13 shot attempts per game. Chris Douglas-Roberts, added in a trade with the Nets, will likely benefit from a change of scenery, while free agent acquisition Drew Gooden—who has been with five teams in the past two seasons—can strengthen the Bucks’ frontcourt. With the loss of gritty point guard Luke Ridnour to the Wolves, the Bucks signed veteran Keyon Dooling to back up Jennings.
The Bucks usually give draft picks an opportunity to make an impact, so look for contributions from Larry Sanders, the 15th pick in the 2010 draft. Sanders, a 6-11 forward, was impressive during the 2010 Summer League, averaging 14.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in 33.6 minutes.
Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino will play important roles for the Bucks, as both players had a good showing at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Delfino averaged over 20 points for Argentina, shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc in nine games. Ilyasova reached the Gold Medal game with Turkey, averaging 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in just under 29 minutes.
One factor that cannot fail to be mentioned is former face of the franchise Michael Redd, whose expiring contract may be an asset the Bucks use in another trade deadline deal. If fully recovered from a torn ACL and MCL, Redd could be the missing piece to a contending team and provide financial relief to the Bucks with his $18.3 million salary off the books.
The Bucks had a solid and likely underrated offseason, addressing their needs through both free agency and the draft. In a summer of spectacle, the Bucks’ moves were under the radar, and it’s hard to argue that the team did not improve—or even significantly improve. The only issue is, other teams in the East improved as well, making it hard to envision the Bucks making any noticeable jump in seed or record this season. While they should finish anywhere in the 46-50 win range, the Bucks will probably pose the biggest threat during the postseason. In a seven game series, the Bucks have the scoring, depth and defense to challenge most teams. And while they don’t have a superstar, they have a roster full of talented players, some that appear to be future all-stars.
Last season, the Bucks went from off-the-radar to playoff contender in a rise that mirrored the trajectory of their rookie point guard. Winning games and the national television exposure that comes with it inevitably leads to more transparency. While Brandon Jennings and the Bucks won’t be able to sneak up on teams anymore, they will find a way to keep winning–and keep everybody guessing.
Previous Season Previews can be found in the archive.