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For Bucks, long season may still have long-term rewards

On paper, the next ten games figure to tell us plenty about the fate of the last-place Milwaukee Bucks. But they may not be as conclusive as you'd expect.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks into the new season, the Bucks are battered, beaten, and bruised.

At 2-7, they've faced a steady stream of injuries both minor and severe, have yet to see their projected starting lineup play a minute together, and sit last in the Eastern Conference.  It's been a perfect storm for anyone hoping to see higher doses of John Henson, Nate Wolters, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo (note: this should be everyone), and it's exactly the kind of disjointed, injury-plagued scenario that would be needed to, ahem, maximize the Bucks' lottery prospects next June. Which is exactly what Herb Kohl doesn't want, and yet what many people who cheer for his team want at all costs.

Just another day in the weird, perverse world of the Milwaukee Bucks. But more on that another time.

Nine lives, starting next weekend

Anyway, the theory goes that the Bucks’ next stretch of games will go a long way to telling us what happens next. After hosting the much-improved Blazers on Wednesday, the Bucks face a nine-game stretch against precisely those East teams standing between them and a shot at the playoffs. Two games each against Washington, Boston, Charlotte, and Detroit, with one against Philadelphia for good measure. None of those teams have winning records, but all of them are in better shape than the Bucks right now. So either the Bucks claw their way back into the East pack, or crash further into the morass. Your preference may vary.

Still, I'm skeptical that this will be as make-or-break as it might initially seem, or that the team's continued struggles would result in an immediate move one way or the other. The season is long, and the middle of the East is wide open, with the last-place Bucks just a game back of the three teams tied for the 8th spot. The six-to-fifteen spots of the East are an amorphous blob of overachieving purported tankers (Sixers? Celtics?) and underachieving playoff aspirants (Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto and Washington). Could the Bucks fall fast and hard enough to be toast by Christmas? Without Larry Sanders it's possible, but it's also possible that the East is weak enough to keep everyone vaguely in it into the New Year.

Besides, Milwaukee's horrible injury luck also gives them a convenient built-in excuse to be patient. Given Sanders' extended absence, it may be January before the team's full complement of starters see the floor together. And as much as we might want the Bucks to realize that the deck is firmly stacked against them, history suggests they will be loathe to pull the plug early or at all. No matter how bad things might get record-wise, I'm not holding my breath on a firesale of the team's veteran assets at the deadline--nor would they likely net the Bucks much in return. Hint: Caron Butler's expiring deal isn't netting anyone a first round pick.

The most interesting question is what it would take for the Bucks to part with Ersan Ilyasova, who has both significant value around the league while also looking potentially expendable in the long term given the continued development of John Henson. I'm not sold on the Bucks being open to moving Ersan at the moment, but if they ever did want to flip the switch from awkwardly competing for a playoff spot to rebuilding for the long haul, he's the first guy to move.

The slow death of win now?

But before everyone starts breaking into hives with Tobias Harris flashbacks, let's be realistic about what the Bucks can and can't do. Because while Herb Kohl may want his team to challenge for a playoff spot, whether they have the ammo to do it is a very different question. Another "win now" move shipping a future first or promising youngster out for a "proven" veteran would likely be PR suicide for a front office that has already been savaged by fans and media alike for the Harris debacle. It can't happen. Hell, for the sake of my own sanity, I won't allow myself to even entertain it.

And perhaps more importantly, it's not clear what a "win now" move even looks like for the Bucks at this point. They're already relying heavily and getting valuable minutes from Henson, Middleton and Wolters, which leaves only one guy whose trade value is much higher than his current contributions: Giannis. Of course, he's also the kid whom the team has spent the past five months selling as Milwaukee's great hope for a star, so good luck explaining that trade to the fans. Ditto any deal involving a future first round pick. Short of a left field deal involving a future pick or Giannis that lands them a top-ten player, it's difficult to see what kind of deal would actually make a major difference in the short term.

So if the Bucks do make a move, expect it to be a more subtle one. Ekpe Udoh may get bounced from the rotation once Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova return, while the emergence of Wolters and Middleton could make a veteran like Luke Ridnour or Gary Neal expendable. And don't forget about all those second round picks the Bucks stockpiled over the summer either. So if we do see a deal, it's likely we're talking about one that rebalances the roster rather than fundamentally shifts the overall talent level. It's not to say Herb Kohl doesn't want to go for a big splash to turn things around--I just don't think there's a game-changing deal that happens (sorry Rudy Gay, you don't count either).

Long season may reap long-term rewards

All of which is to say: keep calm. While the Bucks' frequent wheeling and dealing has burned them in recent years, they may be somewhat stuck with what they have for the remainder of this year. Maybe I'm just being unimaginative, but there's no obvious silver bullet kind of deal that turns the corner for this team the way John Salmons did in 2010. But that's OK. Their movable veteran assets aren't worth a whole lot, and their young assets are either already key contributors or so oversold that they can't afford to give up on them. All the summer talk about building around the team's young players seems to be checking out thus far, though they also haven't had much choice given all their injuries.

The path at this point should be clear then. Keep playing the kids, hope they grow up, and live with the consequences either way. Considering what we've seen so far, the Bucks' youngsters will probably win them as many games this year as the vets anyway, but the real payoff will be down the road. In the meantime the end results this year may not be pretty in the standings in April, but a long season could pay major dividends next June. And maybe the most oddly reassuring part? There may not be much the Bucks can realistically do about it at this point anyway.

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