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Are the Milwaukee Bucks the NBA's Most Underestimated Team?

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Are the Milwaukee Bucks the NBA's Most Underestimated Team?

After nearly three full weeks of NBA basketball, the Milwaukee Bucks stand alone in first place in the Central Division.

Let that wash over you for a moment. The Milwaukee Bucks. Yet when you scan the NBA landscape and plug into the myriad media outlets, you are certain to miss this fact.

The Bucks are a small market team that lacks your prototypical "sexy" star. But they are stacked with young talent, strong frontcourt defenders and one of the most explosive backcourts in the league.

It is for those reasons and a few others that the Bucks are the NBA's most underestimated team.

So how did this happen?

 

The Full Monta

If you honestly thought the Bucks would be in first place, you are either the biggest homer in the cheese state or you are lying to yourself.

The Bucks traded away their franchise cornerstone, Andrew Bogut, last year for the explosive yet vertically challenged Monta Ellis.  

It is a rarity that a talented young big man is dealt these days, and it is even more rare that that type of player is traded for a guard. But due to a history of injuries that seemed to be continuing, the Bucks decided to cut their losses and get the best player they could for Bogut.

 

Enter Ellis.

Throughout his seven-year NBA career, Ellis has done one thing extremely well and that is score. He can score from the perimeter. He can score near the hoop. He can score on pop-up jumpers. Heck, he can score while running concessions in the stands.

But the Golden State Warriors had lacked foresight and paired him with a player in Steph Curry who  played essentially the exact same game. The two diminutive combo guards had taken the Warriors about as far as they could before they cut bait.

Since joining the Bucks, Ellis has shown why he is one of the league's elite scoring guards. This season, he is scoring 20.3 points and handing out nearly six assists per game.

That isn't the most amazing thing. The most amazing thing about his numbers is that he isn't playing particularly efficiently by his standards.

Ellis, a career 46-percent shooter from the floor, is hitting only 40 percent of his shots. It's even worse from three-point range, where he's shooting 22 percent, 10 percentage points below his career average.

If his relatively long career is any indicator of future performance, those numbers are only going to go up.

 

Brandon Jennings Has Finally Figured it Out

When Brandon Jennings entered the league in 2009, he reminded nearly everyone of a young Allen Iverson.

The comparison was apt given his slight frame and penchant for getting to the hoop and drawing contact. Plus, he could score in bunches.

But for all the accolades and numbers that followed Iverson, he never won big. And let's face it, there really is only one Iverson.

Rather than fall in the footsteps of Iverson as an undersized scoring guard, Jennings decided to develop his point guard chops and learn to set up his teammates.

This year, Jennings finally appears to be on his way to being an elite point guard.

Through eight games, he is averaging eight assists with only a little more than two turnovers per game. Additionally, he is knocking down his shots consistently (36.6 percent from three-point range) and picking pockets with Gary Payton-like gusto (3.3 steals per game).

Add to that career highs in free throw and field goal percentages (nearly 88 and 44 percent, respectively) and it is easy to see that something is different about Jennings this year.

So what makes this year different for Jennings?

It would be too easy to say that this is a contract thing. Sure, Jennings is set to be a restricted free agent this summer. But two other factors are much more likely responsible.

First, transitioning from a shoot-first point guard into a more traditional signal-caller is a tough proposition and usually takes a few years and great coaching. Look at Chauncey Billups. He didn't fully turn into an elite point guard until he was nearly 30.

 

Second, we have to again point to Ellis. His addition takes a lot of scoring pressure off Jennings. He no longer has to initiate and finish all of the team's offensive possessions. Rather, he can set up his teammates and in a pinch toss it over to Ellis to bail him out.

This makes him free to develop as a point guard.

Whatever the reasons, the Bucks have to be delighted by Jennings' play, Having an elite point guard is generally a prerequisite for sustained success in this league.

 

The Larry Sanders Show

If you type the name Larry Sanders into your favorite search engine, it will inevitably lead you to a fictional late-night talk show host from the 1990s.

That's right, the Bucks' Sanders not only isn't the most famous person with his own name, the other Sanders doesn't even exist!

Overlooking Sanders is understandable. The former first-round pick out of Virginia Commonwealth looked more like a deer walking on ice than a Buck in his first two years.

He was an undersized center who had a hard time finding his footing in the league.

But this year things have changed for Sanders.

He is averaging more than nine points, eight boards and two blocks per game and doing so in basically half a game (24.4 minutes per contest).

He is helping to ease the loss of the defensive-minded Bogut and is helping out his small backcourt.

 

Add that he is sure to only get better given his extreme youth (23), and the Bucks should continue to improve this year.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Sanders can't seem to stay on the court. Through eight games, he is averaging five fouls per game. He has fouled out twice and has been whistled for five fouls in four other games.

Sure, this can be attributed to youthful exuberance and a desire to contest all shots. But he is going to have to reel in those fouls if he is going to make a lasting impression on this team.

 

Deep Rotation

Another reason for added optimism about the Bucks is the number of players who are contributing.

Excluding Ellis and Jennings, only four players—Mike Dunleavy, Ekpe Udoh, Ersan Ilvasova and Sanders— are averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Also, only Ellis, Jennings and Dunleavy are averaging double-digits in points.

So why is that a good thing?

For starters, it means that this team is deep. Of the 13 players on the roster, all but two are averaging at least 10 minutes per game.

Why are all these guys getting playing time? For the answer to that, you need only look at the age of the roster.

This is a young team, which means that coach Scott Skiles has decided to make them a hungry bunch.

 

Skiles has always been an intense coach, and his teams tend to play that way on the court. That means aggressive play on both sides of the ball.

With a young team full of unproven players looking to get minutes, Skiles has the luxury of mixing up his rotations and playing everyone.

Add to that a handful of crafty veterans and this leads to a team full of guys who are hungry for minutes and always looking to prove themselves to their coach.

So Skiles can start Tobias Harris at small forward knowing full well that if he isn't getting it done, Dunleavy is all too eager to come in and man the spot.

If Sanders or Udoh flip out and commit three fouls in a quarter, Skiles can plug in Samuel Dalembert and lose relatively nothing.

Even Jennings has the omnipresent Beno Udrih if he isn't getting it done. 

A hungry young team is just the type of squad you want if you are an intense coach like Skiles. It is perhaps the best way to develop young players.

 

Under-Performing Vets in the Mix

Another reason to believe that this year's Bucks squad is only scratching the surface of its potential is because of a couple of veteran players who haven't been lighting the world on fire.

Ilyasova, after a tremendous season last year and a hefty new contract, appeared poised to break out this year.

 

He possesses a similar skill set to Dirk Nowitzki as your classic stretch-four forward, capable of drilling three-pointers as well as fade-away jumpers from the high post. He also is an accomplished rebounder who doesn't shy away from contact.

But thus far this season, Ilyasova has been struggling mightily. A career 44-percent shooter from the field and 35-percent shooter from three-point range, Ilyasova is shooting just 31 and 27 percent, respectively.

All aspects of his game are struggling, from defense to rebounding all the way through free throw shooting (a paltry 42.9 percent for a career 77.6-percent shooter).

Right now his game resembles a broken lawn chair. But that is sure to change as he finds a way to fit in with this group.

Similarly, Dalembert has also been struggling.

He  has never been an elite scorer, averaging better than 10 points per game in a season only twice. But he has always been a good post defender who specialized in blocked shots and rebounds.

But so far this year, Dalembert has only grabbed eight or more rebounds twice. He also only has two multi-block games.

A big reason for his drop-off in production has been the emergence of Sanders as well as a desire to give rookie big man John Henson playing time.

But Dalembert will need to produce, especially if Sanders continues to foul out of games.

 

And we haven't even mentioned Luc Mbah a Moute yet. He has yet to play following knee surgery. But Mbah a Moute is a talented power forward who will provide yet another big presence up front once he suits up.

 

Continued Success Looming

The Bucks are only scratching the surface of their potential. This is a team stocked with hungry, efficient players who are very young (nine players 27 or younger).  

The youngest guys are still learning and the majority of the vets are not even playing at their usual level of efficiency.

Add to that a coach who tends to get the most out of his players, and you have a team that will be contending all season in a very weak Central Division.

Look for the Bucks to improve as the season progresses and finally reach the playoffs.

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