As per tradition, Jeff Clark and the gang at Celtics Blog are organizing Blogger team previews this year--and what better way to kick off training camp than with some ill-fated predictions of the new season? Many thanks to Jeff for asking us to participate.
Team Name: Milwaukee Bucks
Last Year’s Record: 46-36
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Where to begin? Before the draft, John Hammond surprised many by picking up free throw-magnet Corey Maggette for the throwaway price of Charlie Bell and Gadzuric, addressing the Bucks' complete inability to draw fouls but also raising questions over their interest/ability to keep John Salmons. Afterall, it stood to reason that Hammond (or perhaps more accurately, Herb Kohl) might think twice about committing major dollars to the 30-year-old Salmons just a week after taking on the 30-year-old Maggette's three years and $31 million in remaining salary. Um, right?
Apparently not. After surprising the league by winning 46 games and nearly toppling the Hawks in round one without Andrew Bogut, the Bucks' braintrust clearly wasn't content to stand pat, and they made that perfectly clear in the early hours of free agency on July 1. In short order, Salmons agreed to a five-year deal that included $33 million in guarantees, while Hammond also locked up the well-traveled Drew Gooden to a five-year fully guaranteed $32 million contract. That's a lot of money for a pair of guys unlikely to be earning their contracts three years from now, but it was a risk the Bucks were willing to take to get better now.
Aside from the expensive vets, 15th overall pick Larry Sanders will add some much-needed length and athleticism to a 4/5 rotation that a year ago was scrappy but lacked size and depth behind Bogut. In Vegas, Sanders was impressive as a disruptive, mobile defender, and he also showed surprising touch for a guy that many have projected as little more than an athletic garbageman. He might not see huge minutes initially, but he has the look of a potential long-term starter and could provide a Serge Ibaka-like boost as a rookie.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Following two decades of mediocre-to-horrendous defending, the Bucks ranked second in the league in defensive efficiency, much to the exacting standards of the perpetually ornery and intense Scott Skiles. Though they fouled at the second-highest rate in the league, Milwaukee excelled at limiting shot opportunities and forcing misses, ranking third in defensive rebound rate, fourth in turnovers forced, and eight in opponent eFG%. All that begins with Andrew Bogut, who ranked second in the league in shot-blocking and quarterbacked a help-but-don't-switch defense that compensated for a lack of size and strength with guile and hard work. Luc Mbah a Moute has shown he can defend virtually anyone, Brandon Jennings and Salmons were underrated in the backcourt, and Sanders could give the Bucks a dynamic shot-blocking tandem when he's paired with Bogut up front.
And though the Bucks lack a true center behind Bogut--hence the recent interest in Erick Dampier--they have exceptional depth virtually everywhere else. Sure, it might be a challenge finding minutes for everybody, but that's the kind of problem Skiles wants to have. Power forward will be particularly tricky, as Gooden is the default starter but will get plenty of competition from Ersan Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute, Sanders, and Jon Brockman. At least one of those guys could be dealt by the trade deadline, and it pains me to admit that Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute are probably the most likely candidates.
Salmons is the only assured starter among the swingmen, while incumbent small forward starter Carlos Delfino would seem to have the inside edge on Maggette, who's being brought along slowly after offseason ankle surgery. Which is perfectly fine by me. While Maggette is the sexier scorer, the Bucks' starting lineup would seem to benefit more from a complementary, "do a bit of everything" guy like Delfino than another guy who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. Maggette still figures to get plenty of minutes if he's used as a scoring ace off the bench, where he'd be a big upgrade over Jerry Stackhouse. By the way, I love you Jerry, but you're way too old to be getting iso's called for you.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Bogut has the most important elbow in Wisconsin at the moment, and losing him for an extended period could prove disastrous. Still, early reports of Bogut scrimmaging in recent weeks have offered reassurance that he should be ready to go on opening night. Whether the injury impacts his performance is another question, but even a less-than-100% Bogut is vastly better than the alternative. Which is...Drew Gooden starting at center?
There's also the issue of scoring points. The flip side of the Bucks' high-energy defense is their low-efficiency offense, which ranked just 23rd in efficiency terms. Though the Bucks consistently moved the ball and were often effective in pick and roll, they rarely punished teams in transition and lacked the efficient shot-creators to put consistent pressure on opposing defenses. The latter begin to change with the arrival of Salmons, whose ability to initiate offense took pressure off Jennings and Bogut.
Still, look at Skiles' track record and you'll see that he's never had a team rank even in the top 20 in offensive efficiency over a full season. Too much effort spent on the defensive end? That's certainly part of it, as the Bucks emphasize defensive responsibility above all else. Still, the addition of Maggette and the continued development of Jennings and Bogut could finally give Skiles the talent he needs to get some points on the board. In particular, having shot-creating wings like Salmons and Maggette for a full year will hopefully bring the Bucks better offensive balance and fewer long scoring droughts. If you can't be explosive, you might as well be consistent.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Missing the playoffs would be a harsh blow given the excitement generated by the team's late season surge a year ago. And realistically, even another hard-fought first round exit would be something of a disappointment given the money spent to improve last season's squad. With Cleveland in LeRuins, the door is clearly open for the Bucks to challenge Chicago for the division title and a spot in the East's top four, which could mean a 50-win season for the first time since the 2001 squad that came within a game of the NBA Finals.
5. What could have the biggest influence on the upcoming season?
Few players are as fascinating to follow on and off the court as Jennings, whose growth as a sophomore will go a long way to determining whether the Bucks can develop into something more than a likable team of underdogs. For a guy who made his name by scoring (55) points, Jennings was miserably inefficient as a shooter, ironically providing most of his value as a consistent defender and game manager. It all seems a bit backwards considering the flashy profile he's developed, but the reality is that his biggest challenge remains developing the offensive substance to match his unquestionable style. I don't think there's any certainty that Jennings is destined for true stardom, but it might be the only way for the Bucks to become a true contender.
Bonus Prediction: The Bucks will miss Luke Ridnour's steadying influence and consistent shooting off the bench--but they probably won't miss Ridnour himself. That's because after his improbable career year, the 29-year-old will likely come crashing back down to earth in Minnesota. Still, Bucks fans shouldn't expect Keyon Dooling to replicate Ridnour's performance from a year ago.
Predicted Record: 50-32. Cracking 50 wins for the second time in 20 years is no guarantee, but the Bucks are a more talented bunch than they were six months ago--let's hope the chemistry is still there, too.