The Bucks angle on LeBron James deserting Cleveland isn't exactly top of mind for the national media, but his decision to join the Heat (and stop holding the sports world hostage) finally allows us to step back and consider the New World Order of the Eastern Conference. One obvious result is that it moves the Bucks and every other playoff contender up a notch in the Eastern Conference pecking order. With the foundation of the defending Central Division champion Cavaliers utterly annihilated, the Bucks and Bulls by default become the presumptive favorites for the division title, which delivers the warm-fuzzies of a stadium banner and also provides practical benefits come playoff seeding time.
Certainly, James' decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh also creates a potential long-term dynasty in South Florida, which isn't exactly good news for any team with ambitions of winning an NBA title in the next few years, particularly those residing in the East. But an up-and-coming team like the Bucks can also take solace in the damage it does to East rivals Cleveland and Toronto.I have no doubt that the Bulls will get significantly more hype than the Bucks as the season approaches, an expected byproduct of their larger market and sexier (if still somewhat disappointing) offseason. Adding Carlos Boozer fills a major hole in the Bulls' lineup, while new coach Tom Thibodeau is considered one of the best defensive minds in the game. They don't scream title contender on paper yet, but they're headed in the right direction and might still remake their roster somewhat if they can add another shooter and possibly move Luol Deng. Still, all the posturing for cap room means they barely have a team beyond their starting five, a fact that's easy to overlook at a time of year when everyone is focused on big names.
Still, we all know the dark horse role suited the Bucks just fine a year ago, when they did in fact finish five games ahead of Chicago in the win column. The pressure in Milwaukee will be heightened--the playoffs are a must, and losing in the first round will be much tougher to swallow--but the Bucks are still likely to fly under the radar as experts confuse the dollar amounts spent on players like Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire with actual progress in Atlanta and New York.
With free agency still chugging along, I'd peg the Heat, Magic and Celtics as the East's likely upper-crust, with the Bucks joining Atlanta and Chicago as teams jostling for home court in the first round. And as we usually see every year, one of those teams will likely fall on its face due to injuries, coaching incompetence and other unforeseen circumstances. For instance, the Celtics looked ready to fall off a cliff in the second half of 09/10, yet improbably pulled things together in time for a near-championship run in the playoffs. Will they crank out another 50-win season with KG, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce one year closer to retirement, or will they finally fall back into the chasing pack? As for the Heat, their new triumvirate would seemingly guarantee 50 wins regardless of who else is around, but they still have zero depth up front, where Bosh has shown he needs bigger bodies next to him to succeed. Ask Bryan Colangelo in Toronto...actually, you might not want to rub it in right now. But hey, at least he's got $127 million worth of Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Hedo Turkoglu to work with.
For the Bucks, the most obvious concerns are the continued health and development of building blocks Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings. We're used to being nervous about Bogut's health, though the good news is that he doesn't need to dramatically improve to be one of the top five or six centers in basketball. He's already there. The opposite is true of Jennings, who didn't miss a game as a rookie but is still a major leap away from being one of basketball's best point guards. The tools are all there, and at 20-years-old, the prospects for improvement are bright. Which is good considering he's the only point guard on the roster at this point. Beyond that, the Bucks' increased depth on the wings and up front should make them better able to weather an injury to key players like Salmons, Maggette and Gooden.
And though the Bucks are a backup point guard away from being a fairly complete team, it may take longer for their true ceiling to come into focus. Fifty wins? Clearly possible, and some might even say expected given good health. I'll wait until we're closer to November before making that prediction, but I will go ahead and say this: basketball in MIlwaukee is finally fun again, so enjoy it while it lasts. Just ask Cleveland.