Don't look now, but the Milwaukee Bucks' path to the Central Division crown might not be as treacherous as you thought.
We're only a few weeks into the NBA season, and the Bucks have only played seven of their scheduled 82 games, but Milwaukee currently sits atop the Central, ahead of the two teams who were expected to duke it out for the title, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
The dynamic in the Central has completely changed due to a pair of devastating injuries, the most serious one to Derrick Rose in late April when the star point guard tore his ACL in the first round of the playoffs. More recently, we learned that Danny Granger's left patella injury is expected to keep him out for three more months.
As far as a timetable for Rose's return, there is none. In fact, there is no guarantee that Rose will return at all this season, considering much of his game relies on hard cuts and driving to the rim.
The positive news for Chicago is that Rose has started to cut on his left knee (via aol.sporting.news.com) as part of his rehabilitation, which is going according to plan thus far.
Even so, Rose and Granger will be out until the beginning of February at the very least, which is why the Bucks need to take advantage of the opportunity presented.
Admittedly, Milwaukee has looked stronger than many people expected through its first seven games. Its lone defeats came at the hands of the Boston Celtics, who were projected to finish as high as second in the Eastern Conference, and the Memphis Grizzlies, who just put a whooping on the Miami Heat and have only dropped one game so far this season.
The losses are respectable, and the wins are just as impressive. Victories on the road over Boston and Philadelphia, combined with a thrashing of Indiana Wednesday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, means the Bucks are defeating quality opponents.
With Granger set to return in three months and Rose's future unclear, there is plenty of time for Milwaukee to build a cushion in the Central Division, perhaps even an insurmountable lead.
What has been the key to success for Milwaukee in this early NBA season?
Despite uncertainly surrounding how Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis would coexist in the backcourt, their give-and-take attitudes have been evident from the start. Both players have stepped up to carry the team on different nights this season, and Jennings is averaging over eight assists a game.
Jennings and Ellis could both be free agents at the end of the season, and it has been evident that both players—especially Jennings—are playing like they are in a contract year.
Depth has also been a strong suit of the Bucks with players like Larry Sanders, Tobias Harris, Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih putting forth significant contributions, even though 2011-12 regulars Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden have had little to no impact.
When all of these players combine to put together a complete-team effort like they have against Boston and Indiana, the Bucks are nearly unstoppable.
Milwaukee thrives in transition, and its up-tempo style makes them a fun team to watch. The shot-blocking of Sanders and Co. triggers fast break opportunities, and even when Milwaukee is in a half-court offense, they have players who can create their own shot and distribute the basketball effectively when the offense breaks down.
Who will win the Central Division?
Just imagine if Ilyasova could work out his issues. It would be yet another weapon the Bucks could utilize on a team that already has its fair share of players who can put the ball in the basket. And that's not to mention the eventual return of Luc Mbah a Moute, arguably the team's top defender.
Injuries have plagued Chicago and Indiana this season, and they have typically bit the Bucks in past years, but if Milwaukee can stay healthy (knock on wood), there's no reason to believe this team can't compete for a division title.
The Bulls are well-coached and their depth and experience allows them to overcome Rose's absence to a degree, so they will be the biggest threat to Milwaukee's quest, but it may finally be the Bucks' year to realize their full potential.
Again, it's early, so we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, but this Bucks team has looked very un-Buck-like through seven games—and that's a good thing.