No team was as big a surprise last season as the Milwaukee Bucks. Coming off of a campaign where they went 34-48 and had an injury-plagued Michael Redd as their lone star, few saw the Bucks as much of a threat in the East. However, in head coach Scott Skiles' second season with the club, the Bucks tightened up the defense, put their fortunes in the hands of Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings and worked their way to a 12-win improvement and the sixth seed in the Playoffs. They may not have been a powerhouse, but their ability to catch the league off guard has a lot of people looking closer at them now trying to figure out if they can not only do it again, but if they can improve upon last year's achievements.
The Bucks, for the part, have not rested on their laurels of last season. They acted swiftly this summer, trading for small forward Corey Maggette, inking power forward Drew Gooden to a five-year contract in free agency and re-signing swingman John Salmons to a fresh five-year deal. They tweaked their roster around the edges, too, upgrading their perimeter with Keyon Dooling and Chris Douglas-Roberts and snatching power forward Larry Sanders in the draft. Heck, even when they weren't making moves they were improving, as Ersan Ilyasova led his silver-medal-winning Turkish National Team in scoring in this summer's FIBA World Championships. For the Bucks, there was very little to be disappointed with this summer.
What comes next, though, is anyone's guess. They were a sixth seed a year ago, and how much room they have for improvement is unclear. If we are to assume that Miami, Orlando, Boston and Atlanta or Chicago are pretty safe bets for the top seeds in the East, then it's hard to see how Milwaukee beats any of them in a seven-game series (except maybe Atlanta, a team they almost knocked out last spring). Their biggest issue comes down to the fact that, as well-rounded as they are, they lack that defining superstar. In a way that is a blessing, as they are not locked-in long term to a burdensome contract like Michael Redd has been (his $18.3-million deal expires at season's end), but when it comes to winning in the post-season it is excessively hard to do it without a bona fide All-Star leading the way.
The hope for Milwaukee, then, is that Bogut and Jennings as a tandem prove too overwhelming for a less balanced team. After all, the Bucks are a tremendous defensive group (they were eighth in the league in opponents field-goal percentage and third in the league in defensive efficiency last year), which is a great starting point, and the pairing of centre and point guard could conceivably be enough to pull off an upset of a team looking beyond them in the first round. Remember that as something of a one-man onslaught, Jennings averaged 18.7-points-per-game in the Playoffs last season, going for 34, 23 and 25 in games 1, 4 and 5. His efficiency was low, but he was basically working on his own offensively to try and upset the Hawks in the first round. If he has Bogut to play off of, one of the least appreciated bigs in the league, as well as Maggette's offensive arsenal alongside him, the team could match their defensive strengths with some potent offensive firepower. Nothing is guaranteed, but you have to appreciate a club that at least seeks to improve up on success without torpedoing their future cap space to do so.
Now that the league sees them coming, it will be very interesting to see if this club can maintain their high-level of play from the back half of last season. If they can, then the league will have found the heir-apparent to the blue-collar Detroit teams of the last decade, a hard-working foil to all of the flashier teams that are being built on the east coast of the NBA.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – BRANDON JENNINGS
It's not often that a coach hands the reigns of his club to a rookie point guard as willingly as Scott Skiles did with Jennings a year ago, but clearly it takes a former point guard to see when such a decision is warranted. Jennings' future, though, is completely tied to how quickly he can take his explosive scoring prowess and turn it into an efficient and complete offensive attack. His 37.1% shooting will not cut it in an era when the league's top point guards hover around 50%, nor will 5.7 assists cut it when you're turning the ball over 2.4 times per-game. That said, Jennings made tremendous strides in rounding out his game mentally as the season wore on, even as his body started to feel the fatigue of playing 33-minutes every night as a rookie. If he can keep growing that mental game, the team may even be able to claim to have a superstar of their own to lead their gritty, workaday roster.
SG – JOHN SALMONS
It's pretty safe to say that whenever Michael Redd returns from his latest injury (projections peg his return at around February), he won't be a featured member of this club. Salmons was traded to the team at the deadline last season and invigorated their scoring just enough to put them over the hump and into the Playoffs in the East. The worry is that when he was traded to Chicago the year before, he averaged 18.3-points and convinced the Bulls they could afford to lose high-scorer Ben Gordon because of his presence. However, last season Salmons' scoring dropped to 15.4-points before his trade to Milwaukee (and a scoring jump back up to 19.9-ppg). Simply put, the Bucks do not want to see a repeat of that fall-off after committing $40-million to him over the next five years.
SF – COREY MAGGETTE
This is a last-minute switch on my part, mostly because I'm too chicken to do what I believe will happen next season, which is Skiles will continue to go with Carlos Delfino at this spot while bringing Maggette in off of the bench. That's because Delfino, while not as potent a scorer as Maggette, is a more versatile player and plays with more intensity at the defensive end. However, Maggette had a career-year last year as it pertained to his percentages (51.6% from the floor) and if he can maintain that level of production then it might make him too potent to use as just a hired gun off of the bench.
PF – DREW GOODEN
These are the kinds of deals that leave casual fans scratching their heads while stat heads smile in agreement (sorta). Gooden doesn't do anything that jumps off of a traditional box score, but he's a high-percentage guy who rebounds, plays defense and knows how to help a team win. He is comfortable playing in the high-post, while leaves more room for Andrew Bogut to operate down low, he rebounds extremely well, ranking seventh last year in rebound rate amongst power forwards, and every season he brings those same qualities to the table. You never have to wonder what you're going to get from Gooden, you only have to ask how badly you need what he brings. The Bucks were clearly enamoured of his fit with their club (they signed him within hours of free agency opening up) and he would appear to fit the gaps they paid him to fill. What more could you ask for from your free agent dollars?
C – ANDREW BOGUT
Bogut was primed to have a breakout in the Playoffs last year before a terrible tumble knocked him out of action within weeks of the start of the post-season. After having a career-year to that point, averaging 15.9-points and 10.2-rebounds per-game, and playing killer defence, Bogut was left to watch from the sidelines as his team was narrowly knocked out by the Hawks in seven games. While questions remain as to whether or not he'll be healthy enough to start the season, Bogut needs to find a way to stay on the court for a full season (he's only averaged 66.2 games-per-season in his career) so the world can see how good a player he's become. Of course, the Bucks are probably even more invested in keeping him on the court because as good as he is when healthy, if he's not playing then his skill isn't doing the team a lick of good. If they want to take the next step as an organization, he needs to be a healthy part of the ascension.