Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
The Milwaukee Bucks have jumped out to a 6-3 start in 2012, but they are about to hit a stretch where they face LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls (twice), Carmelo Anthony and the red-hot Knicks, and a few other top teams.
It's been a fun ride for Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and the Milwaukee Bucks through the first nine games of the 2012-13 NBA season. The 6-3 start means Milwaukee is in a great position to earn some additional attention from national media outlets, but so far the Bucks have passed one test and failed the other -- they destroyed the Boston Celtics on the road in game No. 1 and they were blown out by the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Nov. 7.
Starting on Nov. 21, the Bucks face (in order) LeBron James and the Miami Heat on the road, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls in a home-and-home series, Carmelo Anthony and the league-leading New York Knicks, and then the Timberwolves, Celtics, Hornets and Spurs. It's a hellish two-week stretch that won't decide the ultimate outcome of the season, but will make an impression on fans looking for reasons to believe (or disengage).
We at Brew Hoop have decided to set up a round table discussion to talk about what this group of games means to the team and the fans. Before we dive in, here's a look at the upcoming schedule we have on our minds:
|@ Miami||Wed 11/21||6:30 PM CST|
|Chicago||Sat 11/24||8:00 PM CST|
|@ Chicago||Mon 11/26||7:00 PM CST|
|New York||Wed 11/28||7:00 PM CST|
|@ Minnesota||Fri 11/30||7:00 PM CST|
|Boston||Sat 12/01||7:30 PM CST|
|@ New Orleans||Mon 12/03||7:00 PM CST|
|@ San Antonio||Wed 12/05||7:30 PM CST|
Steve von Horn
Every year I casually glance at the schedule for the Bucks and start penciling in "obvious" wins and losses. It's a dumb exercise. I'm always wrong. Yet I can't stop myself from approaching a convoluted, context-driven process with my silly set of rules -- good teams with good records from last season should be hard to beat, and bad teams with bad records should be easy to beat. I'm not re-inventing the wheel, I'm staring at the wheel, pausing for effect and proudly declaring: "I see a wheel, it's the round thing right over there!" Then again, I don't think I'm alone.
Schedule analysis is a fun routine every NBA fans uses to build a narrative structure around the 82-game marathon we call the regular season. Theoretically, no game is more important than any other game. A 6-2 start is no more important than a 6-2 finish. Each contest accounts for 1.22 percent of the entire season. It's hard to get real excited about how any 1.22 percent segment of the season actually turns out...at least in theory.
This is a big stretch of games for Milwaukee. It carries a heavy symbolic meaning. Last season I yawned through the final few months as the Bucks destroyed the Bobcats and Wizards of the world while they simultaneously posted a 7-26 record against teams with +.500 records. I really want this stretch to go well, because I could easily fall back into a pattern of yawns. This is the best chance for the current team to prove they deserve the attention and support of fans who have managed to hang on during a dark decade of NBA basketball in Milwaukee.
The Bucks don't have to win every game, but they desperately need to show they belong. I get the sense that people want to believe in this team, but fans have earned the right to demand convincing evidence before they make a full investment. Nobody came into the year fully sold on this iteration of the Bucks, but here's the chance for the team to sell itself to the NBA world as more than the sum of some seemingly misfit parts.
Fear The Deer is dead. Let's remember it fondly and do our best to avoid turning this season into a bastardized version of that movement. That team played sub-.500 ball for most of the year and then wrapped up the schedule with a spectacular 22-8 run. Brandon Jennings is the only major contributor left from the Fear The Deer Bucks. This team has a chance to forge a new identity and show us they are different than what we thought they would be in 2012-13. Now let's see what they make of this opportunity.
Can Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis coexist? Can Ersan Ilyasova build on his strong finish to last season? Does the addition of Sam Dalembert actually matter? Can Tobias Harris make The Jump (or even a jump?) Will we see Good Larry Sanders or Foul-prone Larry Sanders? Are Scott Skiles and John Hammond finished? Are the Bucks ever going to become a contender?
These are the questions everyone is asking. How this stretch of games turns out,fair or not, for better or for worse, will determine how people start to answer those questions. And no one needs a positive answer like Herb Kohl and his prospective business partners as they test the viability of NBA basketball in the 414.
Yeah, it's important.
Note: I wrote this before the debacle in Charlotte and I didn't want to rewrite it because I was FUMING so DEAL WITH IT Y'ALL.
The Bucks are 6-3. They sit atop the Central Division with 9 games in the books. They've dominated many of the teams they've faced. So why do I feel so uneasy?
Impressive as it is, Milwaukee's start still feels a bit surreal. Maybe it's a lingering effect of the lockout, an overreaction to the length of the season that makes us blow off smallish stretches of games. Or maybe it's how unexpected the improvements have been -- nobody expected Larry Sanders to develop into an elite defensive rebounder seemingly overnight, but he apparently has, and it's got the Bucks on top of the league in defensive rebound rate. Few expected Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to suddenly become top-shelf distributors, yet here the team sits at No. 4 in assist rate.
Frankly, it all smells a little fishy. Awesome, but fishy. Milwaukee's point differential and schedule has earned them the No. 9 spot in Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System, so it's not like they've just been skirting past bad teams. And lots of stuff Milwaukee has done seems entirely sustainable: their bigs are sticking to the rim on offense and protecting it on defense, and the bench is regularly outplaying opposing reserve units.
It's enough to safely conclude the Bucks are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, when you remember that conference has just been decimated by injuries and sub-par play by supposed contenders. Now, that's not the Bucks' fault. All they can do is play and beat the teams on their schedule. But it does make me wonder if the improvement, while notable and impressive, has actually added significant "win-value" to the team.
We'll find out soon enough. The upcoming stretch of games is as tough a test as Milwaukee might face all season. And as much as I've just described the problems with judging a season by a small snippet of games, this is where the bar is set. Milwaukee's identity will be set, for better or worse, somewhere between "team to beat" and "flashy pretender". In reality, only our perception is likely to change, but the narrative would certainly change with an extreme result in either direction. The season began with the promise of inevitable change in the air, and now we're almost hoping for stability. Mostly we just want to make sense of it all.
The Milwaukee Bucks have been a pleasure to watch more often than not in the early season. If we're saying the same thing two weeks from now, something special is surely unfolding.
Like the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, the Fear The Deerevolution is indeed over. And I'm applauding.
While the second half of the 2009-10 season is firmly implanted in the bowels of my sports mind for so many good reasons, its momentum was unsustainable. History should've wised us up to the John Salmons' firestorm, Andrew Bogut's injury issues (a freak accident, but still), Brandon Jennings' youth, and the incredibly small sample size in which all of those memories were cemented.
Although Jennings is all that remains from that season, there is a common parallel between that Bucks team and the current iteration: Both sliced and diced their way through a soft early-season schedule.
Through 11 games, the 2009-10 Bucks were 8-3, stomping all over doormats as Jennings let the NBA world know he was "trill" in just his seventh NBA game. Then Milwaukee played the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and Cleveland Cavaliers (this is 2009, mind you), and a 1-8 skid later, the Bucks were back to clawing their way out of purgatory.
Now at 6-3, the 12-13 squad finds themselves in a similar situation. So it goes in a league so sharply divided between the haves and have nots. While the Bucks did catch fire after the calendar turned in 09-10, the path they traveled to 46 wins is not a situation I want to re-live.
Control the tone early, steal a road win or two against a solid opponent and build a snowball of fan support before New Year's. The Bucks aren't the Celtics, they are not experienced enough to coast against weak competition and rise against the good opponents. This upcoming stretch of games is crucial to Milwaukee's self and league identity. In a weak Eastern Conference, the Bucks have enough talent to control their own destiny. That should be more than enough of a reason to tune in.