Who helped themselves during preseason play, and who might have an uphill battle for playing time? With eight meaningless games in the books, we review the roster to pick out the Bucks' winners and losers.
Larry Sanders. Putting aside his one game suspension, Sanders was the Bucks' most effective big man during the preseason and finally (!) seems to be earning the respect of Scott Skiles and the coaching staff. Sanders may not be favored to start ahead of Sam Dalembert, but his game-changing energy on the defensive end is making Skiles think long and hard about that possibility. And while Sanders' shot-blocking is nothing new, his beastly work on the preseason boards certainly is.
Though seven games of exhibition basketball aren't much to go on, it's certainly encouraging that his rebounds/min rate shot up by 50% relative to his overall average from last season (15.4 rebs/40 min vs. 10.0). If Sanders ever figures out how to rebound, block shots AND not foul then you've got a damn good player--and you really don't care how ineffective he might be on the offensive end.
Tobias Harris. Harris wasn't exactly a preseason revelation, but he really didn't have to be. With Luc Mbah a Moute taking longer than expected to recover from offseason knee surgery and Mike Dunleavy still preferred off the bench, Harris was gifted the starting small forward spot at the outset of camp and has probably done enough to justify his selection for the starting five on opening night. Though he had his share of frustrations offensively (shooting 41% from two point range), he didn't look out of place defending opposing small forwards in the games I saw and his 5/10 shooting from three point range is another obvious positive as we head into the regular season. I'd still be surprised to see Harris closing out many games while Dunleavy is still around, but time is still very much on his side.
Doron Lamb. I never would have expected Lamb to wind up in this column ten days ago--torn elbow ligaments can be a dicey proposition--but his solid performances in the final two preseason games were arguably the best thing to come out of the preseason's up-and-down final week. Missing the first three weeks of camp would leave most second round picks scrambling to play catch-up, but Skiles has had nothing but praise for Lamb's maturity and controlled style, suggesting that regular season opportunities will be there for the taking. Beno Udrih figures to get plenty of run next to both Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, but Lamb and Marquis Daniels will have some minutes to fight over as the fourth/fifth guards.
Brandon Jennings. Jennings' preseason form wasn't anything worth losing sleep over, but the bigger concern is where he's at mentally. Will heading into the season without a contract extension prove motivational or distracting?
"To tell you the truth, I really don't know," Jennings said. "I'm going to just play this year out, do what I have to do here. The main goal is still to try to win and try to make the playoffs. Then I'll be able to make my own decision."
Jennings entered the league with a chip on his shoulder and it served him well as a rookie, and he claims that he'll be bringing that same level of focus as a fourth-year pro. But we also saw what a demotivated Jennings was like last February--for reasons that still aren't entirely clear--and it wasn't pretty.
Then again, this is the NBA, and half the Bucks roster and virtually everyone on the club's basketball operations side is operating without any long-term assurances. Contract years often bring out the best in players, but when everyone's in the same boat? Let's just say the result can be more volatile. Whether that's an effective way to run a franchise is open for debate, but Herb Kohl and everyone who roots for his team will have a much better sense of the answer very soon.
Luc Mbah a Moute. For much of the summer we figured Mbah a Moute would have the inside track to start on opening night; but on the eve of the regular season we don't even know when Mbah a Moute will return to practice, much less rediscover the conditioning and timing needed to reassert his niche in the rotation. It's unlikely anyone challenges Mbah a Moute's status as the team's best defender, so once healthy you have to think he'll find a way back into the lineup for his usual 20-25 mpg. But it's not clear how soon that can actually happen.
Scott Skiles. The Bucks' lack of a clear identity has been a recurring theme ever since Andrew Bogut was shipped to the Bay Area for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh, and unfortunately for Skiles it's still not clear where this Bucks team will end up. Will they more closely resemble the run-and-gun, defense optional outfit we saw in the final months of 11/12, the defensively-oriented teams of the prior two seasons, or something in between? The latter could either be very good or very bad, and with Skiles in the final year of his contract his margin for error is presumably shorter than ever. Then again, Skiles reportedly was looking for a buyout after last season, so it's not simply a question of whether the Bucks want t keep him around.
Monta Ellis. At this point we should know better than to make a big deal out of a veteran like Ellis starting slowly in the preseason (36% shooting). Then again, we should probably also know better than to expect Ellis to be something other than what we've seen for the past seven seasons, right? Ellis has thus far brushed off questions about whether he'll opt out of the final year of his $11 million contract, but it just doesn't seem like either party is interested enough to make this a long-term option.
John Henson. Henson looked excellent against the Pistons at the Bradley Center, but looked shaky otherwise and then missed the preseason's final two weeks after suffering a hyperextended knee in Chicago. With Sanders stepping up his game and the rest of the big man rotation healthy, Henson may have a tough time earning regular minutes for a while.
Drew Gooden. "Has Drew Gooden made a shot this month?" was a question I asked myself about a half dozen times during the preseason. His normally solid pick/pop game was MIA and though it turns out he did in fact make a shot (11 in fact), his sub-30% shooting this month won't help him make much of a case for playing time in the Bucks' crowded frontcourt. Considering the inexplicably long leash Skiles afforded him a season ago, Gooden figures to get opportunities off the bench early in the season, but the reality is that he has a lot of competition for fairly limited minutes at backup power forward and center.