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ESPN Summer forecast pegs Bucks for 23 wins and 14th in East

Mike McGinnis

An ESPN panel of hoops experts thinks the Bucks will be better next season...just don't confuse "better" with "remotely good," OK?

Based on where rosters currently stand, the ESPN Forecast Panel of 210 media members projects the Bucks to win 23 games--hey, 53.3% more than last year!--and finish 14th in the East, ahead of only the tanktastic Sixers (projected at 18-64). LeBron James, Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers (56 wins) are forecasted to beat out the Chicago Bulls (54 wins) for the top spot in the East, with Toronto, Washington, Charlotte, Miami, Atlanta and Brooklyn rounding out the playoff spots.

All of which begs the obvious follow-up question: could the 14/15 Bucks be a fair better than 23-59? The short answer is, well, of course. As disastrous as the 15-67 Bucks of last season were, they certainly didn't seem like a 15-win team on talent, and a year later there's no reason to think they won't improve from top to bottom. A new, young roster beset by injuries, veteran ineffectiveness and an uninspiring coaching staff might as well have been the perfect storm for finishing with the fewest wins in franchise history, so some improvement is essentially a lock.

But projecting how much improvement we'll see is no easy task. The Bucks are once again starting over with a new--albeit hopefully much improved--coaching staff, and the bulk of their rotation will be made up of youngsters between the ages of 19 and 23 years old (hint: not the recipe for short-term success). And hell, even the kids might be easier to project than veterans like Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo, each of whom thrashed through career-worst campaigns a year ago. Not everything is likely to go against the Bucks for a second straight season, but growing pains should still be expected even if everything does break right.

Ultimately, Jason Kidd and his staff might represent the biggest x-factor on a team full of x-factors. Can Kidd hit the ground running and adapt to his roster quickly, or will it take a while like it did in Brooklyn last season? Can he get youngsters minutes while also re-inspiring veterans like Ilyasova and Mayo? And perhaps most importantly, how will his staff fare as teachers after working with a veteran-laden roster in Brooklyn?

While the final standings are a secondary concern to the fundamental development of the team's young talent, success in the latter should also reflect itself somewhat in the former. And that's also why there's really no reason to stress too much about wins and losses over the next year. Riding a young core and a couple of rejuvenated veterans to 35 wins and a pick in the late lottery would hardly be a bad thing if it indicated a young core with contending potential had emerged, though another season of struggles and a pick in the top half of the lottery would also have its share of silver linings next June.

So whether you prefer your glass half full or half empty will mostly be a matter of inclination, though you also can't fault the national media for having low expectations--not after the dumpster fire of a season Bucks fans endured a year ago. For all the roster shuffling that took place over the summer, the East certainly appears stronger with only a handful of teams--the Sixers, Bucks, Magic and Celtics--looking like clear outsiders to the playoff picture. And yes, major talent infusions in Cleveland and Chicago mean the Central Division will be stronger despite all the bloodletting in Indiana, though divisions aren't nearly as important as conferences anyway. Consider that the Bucks always play more games on average against teams in both the Southeast (18 games) and Atlantic (18 games) than the Central (16 games) each year. If that seems counterintuitive, keep in mind that teams average 3.6 games/year against each of the 10 non-divisional conference opponents and four games/year against the other four teams in their own division. Since a team can't play itself, the Bucks therefore have more games against the Atlantic and Southeast than the Central. Translation: focus on conferences and quit worrying about the division.

So let's have at it with a poll: based on the current roster, where do you think the Bucks finish this season?