Stop me if you've heard this one; a seven-foot tall Australian with a "bust" label, a (barely) 6'1" Comptonite who can't shoot, and a head coach who was once fired on Christmas Eve walk into the Cousins' Center, and...
As of yet, there is no punchline to this joke. But as a fanbase, we're used to the ending being seriously unfunny, no matter how laughable the on-court product demonstrated itself to be. After the downfall of the George Karl era, we were treated to efforts like 41-41, 30-52, 26-56. We had the distinct honor of enjoying the signing of Dan Gadzuric, Bobby Simmons, and Michael Redd, not to mention the drafting of T.J. Ford, Yi Jianlian, and Joe Alexander. And let's not forget the Terry Stotts and Larry Krystkowiak experiences.
Starting with the Eastern Conference Finals loss to Philadelphia back in 2001, the last decade was downright dismal. We were among the NBA's whipping boys, along with the Clippers, the Knicks, the Grizzlies, and most recently, the Nets. Of those teams, only the Grizzlies have shown any hope of escaping the league's cellar, thanks to a boon of young, exciting talent.
Thankfully, all signs point to the Milwaukee Bucks making that rise from poor
to mediocre to above-average to potential contenders. It's difficult to figure out how they've done it unless you've been paying close attention to them. As it turns out, the addition of a brash facilitator (Brandon Jennings) and the subtraction-by-injury of a woefully overpaid shell of a scorer (Michael Redd) were the two catalysts to this season's surge. Most recently, it was the deadline trade for John Salmons that sparked two six-game winning streaks, a flood of national exposure, a 36-29 record, a number eight spot in the latest ESPN power rankings (no, really!), and most importantly, a firm grip on the fifth seed for the 2010 playoffs.
But here's my question to you: as a fanbase, do we really expect this to last?
Think about it for a second. At the end of the season, the Bucks will have won over 40 games, twice as many as most would have predicted. They'll have a ton of momentum for the playoffs, and they might even knock off a team like Boston or Atlanta in the first round. But do you really believe this current team can take down a healthy juggernaut like Cleveland or Orlando in a seven-game series?
Unfortunately, the likely answer is a resounding "no". This year, the league belongs to the two conference's top couples: Cleveland and Orlando in the East, Los Angeles and Denver in the West. But what of next year? Certainly, the Cavaliers' dominance hinges solely on the ability to keep LeBron James away from potential suitors. They lose him, they lose everything. Likewise, the Magic need to keep everybody happy in their established roles. If someone rocks that boat, it just might tip over.
What about the second tier of teams in the East? Boston is on it's way down, but Atlanta is on it's way up. Charlotte can be a perennial 45-game winner if they shake their home/away schizophrenia. Miami might be able to keep Dwyane Wade and put decent players around him. Toronto is Cleveland-lite: they lose Bosh, they're next year's Nets.
At present, Milwaukee is at a crossroads. Either they're a talented team that managed to get red hot at a good time and are not as good as advertised (kind of like Dallas), or they're a team that slummed it out for a few years in order to make their move to a higher rank during the shifting of the conference (kind of like Oklahoma City). But which route is it?
The basketball fan in me screams in favor of the latter. The formula of Bogut + Jennings + five role-players who complement each other extremely well + Scott Skiles' infusion of a defensive-oriented culture results in a team that just needs one more piece to put it over the edge. Perhaps a power forward who can both run and stretch the floor (I hear Chris Bosh wants to take a 75% pay cut!), or a shooting guard who does exactly what John Salmons does, except better and more consistently (Evan Turner, come on down!).
But the Bucks fan in me is more reserved, more pessimistic, and more concerned. The likelihood of getting a player that both meshes with the current core's skill set and is willing to buy into the program that John Hammond and Scott Skiles have implemented is iffy, at best. Remember, just because we're happy with marginal success this year doesn't mean we should accept anything less than exponential improvement in the following years.
Who knows, maybe that difference-maker is already here. Maybe John Salmons can get re-upped and have a late-career renaissance a la Chauncey Billups or Vince Carter. Maybe Ersan Ilyasova really can turn into Turk Nowitzki. Maybe Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can remain a scorer's worst nightmare, but add a long range jump shot to his arsenal. More likely than not, though, these players will remain what they are: role-players. That leaves the best option to add the missing piece coming either via trade or the draft.
With the right to swap first rounders with the suddenly-reeling Bulls, there's a shot of getting a difference maker in June, like the aforementioned Evan "The Villain" Turner (even though the only way the Bucks can get him is by trading into the top-3). Also, the mammoth expiring contracts of Michael Redd ($18.3 million), Salmons ($5.8 million) and Dan Gadzuric ($7.3 million) are outstanding assets that could be the foundation of a blockbuster trade that brings that difference-maker.
Or maybe we don't make any trades at all. Maybe we bide our time through 2010-2011, let those contracts expire, and try to make a move in the 2011 offseason. Maybe Brandon Jennings becomes the Iverson/Nash hybrid we think he can become and carries the team on his skinny back, or Bogut further becomes the uber-skilled foil to Dwight Howard's physical brawn. There's a dozen different ways where "Fear the Deer" could be the mantra for the next five years.
But these are all best-case scenarios. Hypotheticals that work out all too perfectly. For every possibility that goes right, there are three or four ways it can go horribly wrong. After all, Michael Redd was supposed to be the man. T.J. Ford was supposed to be the point guard of the future. Dan Gadzuric was supposed to be Anderson Varejao before Anderson Varejao was Anderson Varejao. Yi Jianlian was supposed to challenge Dirk Nowitzki as the premier finesse forward. Larry Krystkowiak was supposed to give the team the defensive mentality and swagger that it needed to complement its offensive capabilities.
Don't get me wrong, I trust John Hammond with his plan to build Milwaukee into what the Pistons were in 2003. If there's any way the Bucks get to the Finals, that's how it's going to happen, and if there's a man to make it happen, it's Hammond. Likewise, I trust Scott Skiles to keep his excellent relationship with Jennings and Bogut intact while keeping all 15 players on the roster accountable. But I can't shake the feeling that the team's meteoric rise will taper off all too quickly, leaving us only with the broken pieces of what was supposed to be.
In other words, I'm afraid that it'll turn out to be business as usual; a short period of success followed by a tumble downwards, punctuated with misfire after misfire. Because, after all, we cheer for the Bucks. And the Bucks can't be a contender in the NBA...can they? Is the team's stigma too much to overcome? Or has my pessimism blinded me to the subtle brilliance budding on the shores of Lake Michigan?
So...a seven-foot tall Australian with a "bust" label, a (barely) 6'1" Comptonite who can't shoot, and a head coach who was once fired on Christmas Eve walk into the Cousins' Center...
How does this joke end?