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Blowing Up?

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Michael Hunt's latest column at the Journal-Sentinel neither pulls punches nor offers any real solutions, but that's pretty much where the Bucks find themselves at the moment. Last night's shorthanded win in Charlotte will help offset somewhat the 101-77 drubbing they took at the BC on Saturday courtesy of the Wizards, but overall the Bucks still find themselves in quite a hole at 13-20, one that has Hunt and others feeling like it's time to hit the reset button.

As perhaps a final act, let Harris push the plunger. When a team dogs it as much as the Bucks have continued to do this season, there is nothing beyond Yi Jianlian and Andrew Bogut worth salvaging for a bottom-up restoration. Gutting the team and starting over is the only way to go at this point. The playoffs? Please. Besides, that would only cost the Bucks a lottery pick to expedite the rebuilding.

With Redd out, the Bucks were thrashed early, often and repeatedly by a solid but hardly world-beating Washington team, only to put together one of their better efforts in Charlotte. The Bucks' formula for losing 16 of 21: poor shooting (20th in eFG%), an inability to get to the line (25th in FTM/game), carelessness with the ball (21st in TO), and porous defense (27th in defensive efficiency). When they do have leads they seem so shocked that they inevitably let teams back in it, as witnessed in Miami on Wednesday, when the Bucks won but again failed to close out a poor team. In 33 games they've won by double-digits just twice, a pretty incredible stat when you consider that NBA teams don't differ that much in talent level and are prone to have off shooting nights.

What's wrong with the 07/08 team?

Ironically, Redd has often been the scapegoat this season, frequently losing confidence in everyone but himself and causing some internal rankling because of his head-down approach in fourth quarters. But the offensive ineptitude displayed by everyone not named Redd or Mo Williams is startling, and for all the lack of leadership Redd may be guilty of, you'd have to excuse him for feeling a bit frustrated by people who want the other guys shooting more.

Charlie Bell finally broke out yesterday with 27 points off the bench, but he continues to shoot below 30%. Bobby Simmons has had to deal with a nightmarish off court situation (let's leave it at that) while struggling to find his feet--the surgically repaired right one specifically. Neither has generally played well enough to be even a ninth man, but the Bucks have little choice with first Mason and now Redd missing time. Meanwhile, Charlie Villanueva has been much better but still below his historical production while struggling to find consistency as a sixth man. Then you have guys like Royal Ivey and Michael Ruffin, who work hard but simply don't have the talent to be on the court with players so seemingly unable to play together offensively. Ivey's been probably better than you would expect, but he still leads the league in blowing uncontested layups and is shaky when handling the point. Desmond Mason had some huge struggles the past two years, but actually played fine when he was healthy; maybe not $5 million per year fine, but watching Simmons and Bell since Mason went down has underscored how not terrible he was.  

So what's left for the Bucks this year? While it seems reasonable to think the team's huge group of underachievers could come around, games like the one in Charlotte yesterday have thus far been too few and far between. While the season doesn't seem that old and the Bucks are still only three games out of the eight spot, consider that the Bucks need to win 28 of their remaining 49 games (.571 win%) to finish with 41 wins, the rough target for playoff teams in the East. Then consider that only Boston, Detroit and Orlando have a winning percentage higher than that at the moment.

It's almost a given that the Bucks will give up points in bushels, and nothing has changed under Larry Krystkowiak. In spite of all the talk about energy, in spite of Andrew Bogut and Yi Jianlian bringing some shot-blocking presence, in spite of the pine being stocked with purported defenders like Bell, Ivey and Ruffin. While the team's defensive efficiency has again ranked in the bottom three most of the year, the offensive struggles are particularly troubling given the Bucks' weapons aren't so different from the more explosive vintages of the past couple seasons. Terry Stotts took plenty of heat for appearing at times to accept his team's defensive struggles and focusing on scoring to make up for it. But in retrospect you can make the case that Stotts was at least playing to his strengths.

What's perhaps most striking is how the Bucks continue to be unable to do the most basic things. After wasting time by trying to implement the triangle early in camp, Krystkowiak has since then continually spoken of needing to simplify the offense. Yet in the process the Bucks appear to have grown complacent and unimaginative, becoming easy to defend without a noticeable improvement in the turnover department. They frequently are slow to get into their offensive sets, too many of which end with players catching the ball with a foot out of bounds or with well-meaning attempts to thread the needle being easily picked off by defenders. Krystkowiak clearly has much to learn about coaching in the NBA, but it would also appear that his job will be safe for the time being, if only because Kohl might be wary of again showing an itchy trigger finger with a young head coach (see Porter, Terry and Stotts, Terry). If/when Harris is dispatched, the new GM might certainly be tempted by more experienced available coaches like Rick Carlisle, but Krystkowiak is a Kohl guy as well.

What's next?

As much as the national and even local media seems largely indifferent to what happens with the Bucks, the team's problems have started to get noticed. Adrian Wojnarowski listed the Bucks as the league's third most disappointing team, hinting specifically at Larry Harris' tenuous grip on the GM job.

Among league executives, there’s a belief that the Bucks are close to declaring everyone available, except for Yi Jianlian and Andrew Bogut. Larry Harris is fighting for his job as general manager. Owner Herb Kohl mandated playoff contention in the offseason, and the Bucks are spiraling. In the horrific 45-point loss to the Pistons, one league executive monitoring the game said of the Bucks, "After five minutes, that team just quit."

Wojnarowksi names former Sonics GM Rick Sund and Doug Collins as targets to take over the front office. Collins' name was also mentioned in the summer of 2005, but he apparently had no interest in running the team, or at least not that for the Bucks' price. Sund meanwhile has ties going back a ways to the Bucks, though his biggest impact on the Bucks came as Sonics GM when he swapped Desmond Mason and Gary Payton for Ray Allen. His record is mixed, but so long as Kohl and his legal team intend to lord over the GM's duties, it will be difficult to find a top-notch GM, and Harris himself might enjoy the opportunity to get a fresh start elsewhere for that very reason. Either way, there appears to be little answer to the Bucks' problems in the short term, as injuries have only further weakened a team that was having a hard time consistently competing in the first place. But while fans (and apparently columnists) love to channel their frustration into talk about "blowing it up," it's far from easy to do right.

While Yi and Bogut are probably the two safest spots on the roster, Bogut especially has failed to meet expectations on the offensive end, taking a step back this year while players drafted behind him in 2005 continue to leap forward. Though the experts unanimously approved the Bucks' decision to go big, Bucks fans will be excused for casting a longing eye towards Utah and New Orleans, where Deron Williams and Chris Paul have developed into the best young PGs in the game. Bogut's one of the few Bucks that has shown solid improvement on the defensive end, but struggles from the line early in the season have been compounded by struggles to finish near the hoop of late, last night's game providing a rare but promising glimpse of his post abilities. The only benefit to the Bucks is that Bogut shouldn't be as expensive to re-sign if the Bucks want to extend him next summer, but that's hardly the silver lining the Bucks were hoping to get.

In reality, "blowing up" the team has everything to do with Michael Redd. Redd's established himself as one of the league's most dynamic scoring guards, but he clearly can't be a winner without a more established supporting cast. It's a two-way street of course. Since becoming the man for the Bucks, Redd has never had an all-star running mate (no, Jamaal Magloire doesn't count), but he also has never shaken internal and external doubts about his leadership. At the moment it's doubtful Redd would concede his position as the team's alpha dog, but there also isn't anyone else making much of a case for that role. It could certainly be argued that the long-term interests of Redd reside elsewhere, and that the team would be best served to move Redd for some combination of young players, picks and cap relief. Unfortunately those things won't likely win the Bucks many games in 2008, the one thing the current front office regime would appear desperate to do. A year after tanking talk followed the team around for the final months of the season, team management is no doubt loathe to offer fans a repeat performance, especially by conceding the season in January with a trade that deals away the team's marquee player. There's little we can be sure of at the moment, but changes--such as acquiring another small forward at the minimum or cleaning house at the other extreme--appear imminent.