As he has demonstrated so far in this young 2009 NBA season, Rookie sensation Brandon Jennings is able to take his team on his back and lead, even as young as he is.
Jennings skipped college to play in Italy, entered the NBA draft, and finally ended up in Milwaukee. The journey humbled the prep All-American along the way.
Many questioned Jennings' unconventional pursuit of a pro career in Italy, but his choice definitely made him a more polished player, not to mention more mature, by transitioning him from a high school big shot to riding the bench with little to no role on the team.
The lack of playing time kept him hungry and levelheaded. This humbling experience is paying dividends for him in the NBA.
While Jennings is playing a large role in the success of the Bucks thus far, new acquisitions Hakim Warrick and Ersan Ilyasova will also be important for the Bucks down the stretch. If Milwaukee will make a playoff run, they will have to stop big men (i.e. Dwight Howard, Shaq, Chris Bosh, even LeBron James) and control the paint. Bogut, Ilyasova, and Warrick will be the centerpiece of the defensive game plan when playing teams with "bigs".
Bogut, Warrick, Ilyasova, Redd, and Jennings: a young, talented lineup that any fan, coach, or GM could fall in love with, as long as they stay healthy. Lets not neglect to mention the depth the team has with Jodie Meeks, Charlie Bell, Luke Ridnour, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
While it's only six games into the NBA 2009-10 season, the Bucks are showing poise under pressure and the ability to close out games.
The real question, as it is with any Bucks season: Can the team put together a run?
Their next 10 opponents combined record is 35-52. As the best defensive team in the NBA (No joke, the Bucks are top-five in nearly every defensive category, and rank No. 1 overall...let that soak in folks.) the Bucks should be able to go 7-3 over this stretch:
Golden State (W)
A team that isn't playing up to its ability at 3-5 is a team that Milwaukee should be in a position to beat.
Milwaukee has found a comfort level with handing Brandon Jennings the ball early and often in games, which opens up the offense for the rest of the team. Dallas, a more finesse team, will struggle to match up with the potent combination of Andrew Bogut and Hakim Warrick.
While The Mavericks do have Dirk Nowitzki, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone willing to vouch for him as a strong post player, which is the opposite of Bogut. Nowitzki's best asset as a player is his jump shot, albeit as a seven-foot tall player.
New Jersey (W)
The Nets are winless thus far in the new season, and things continue to look worse. With young talent like Brook Lopez being abused nightly by larger, more dominant post players (watching Dwight Howard against Lopez was like watching the eighth-grader with the mustache and a 40'' vertical dunk on the nerd in gym class.)
Charlotte's Web scares me more than the current lineup of the Charlotte Bobcats. Young, inexperienced, and undersized, the Bobcats won't become a serious threat to much of anybody until they play better defense and learn to cut down on mistakes (they are turning the ball over 18.4 times per game, the worst in the NBA)
Memphis, Memphis, Memphis. When will you see what you are doing to your franchise?
Two seasons ago they handed Pau Gasol to the eventual NBA Champion L.A. Lakers, and received bench players and a draft pick in return. It was possibly the worst trade in NBA history.
To add insult to injury, they added the selfish Zach Randolph for the same amount that it would have taken to keep their franchise player Gasol.
It has to be rough to be a Grizzlies fan with the lone bright spot being Rudy Gay, an unrestricted free agent in the star-studded offseason of 2010.
@ San Antonio (L)
A veteran, yet capable Spurs team whom when healthy, have been a Western Conference contender for the last decade. The core of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker will prove too much for Milwaukee.
Both teams play tough defense, but the key to this one will be turnovers. San Antonio is averaging 11.6 turnovers per game, whereas Milwaukee is turning the ball over at a clip of 18.0 per game.
Look for a veteran team like the spurs who have scoring options like Parker, Richard Jefferson, and Ginobili to capitalize on Milwaukee's turnover problem.
@ New Orleans (W)
Milwaukee will storm into New Orleans like a hurricane (too soon?) and face Chris Paul, one of the best point guards in the NBA in the last 15 years.
Paul's New Orleans Hornets will look to stop Jennings, Bogut, and Warrick from dominating the post and scoring in the paint, which is where Milwaukee has made its living so far this season.
The biggest reason Milwaukee has the edge in this match up is their ability to lock down on defense. The Bucks' head coach, Scott Skiles has turned the team around defensively in his two years. Going from 30th in the NBA in overall defense, to being No. 1 in 2009. Skiles has led the team with the motto oh-so over played, but oh-so true: "defense wins championships." The players have certainly embraced this new philosophy, holding their opponents to a meager 88 points per game, compared to their own scoring pace of 93.4 points a game.
This 5.4 point differential is tied for seventh best in the NBA, so to say scoring defense is a priority would be an understatement. Killing rallies and shutting down opponents early (the bucks led the New York Knicks by 24 points midway through the third quarter, 71-37) has been a main component of the success the Bucks have had defensively this season.
New Orleans is also the only team in the NBA to surrender 100 points on defense in a game.
@ Oklahoma City (W)
One should anticipate a close game in this match up of young teams with talent to build on for the future. Kevin Durant, the rookie of the year in 2007, joins 2009 rookie Russell Westbrook in a young and potent offensive duo for Oklahoma City, but the lack of consistency (dominating the Orlando Magic one night, 102-74, then flopping to the Sacramento Kings the next, 101-98) and rebounding (the Thunder rank 17th in total rebounds per game) will hinder their ability to flourish.
Keys to a young team's success (see, Portland Trail Blazers) are coaching, defense, and rebounding.
Without quality coaching to bring out the best in a young team's potential, they may find themselves in neutral for weeks, months, or even seasons with little or no progression as a team.
A strong team defense will create more scoring opportunities for the young offensive attack that the Thunder have, especially with Durant (27 points per game).
This game is almost too close to call, but I'll give the Bucks the edge, if for no other reason than their lock-down defense thus far.
The reigning Eastern Conference Champions will test the resolve and leadership of the Bucks, and push them to their limits.
Solid defense, scoring, and possession offense with few turnovers lead the Magic to their current record of 7-3.
Dwight Howard, one of the premier big men in the NBA, is averaging a double-double (19 PTS, 10 REB) a game. For Milwaukee, Andrew Bogut will need to continue to be a presence in the post, and be physical with Howard.
To get Howard out of his zone, and force other Orlando Magic players to beat you is to win the game, as demonstrated by the L.A. Lakers in last season's NBA Finals.
However, I don't believe that the Bucks will have an advantageous match up in this one, with their only speed coming in Jennings, and too many mistakes (18+ turnovers a game) to succeed against a stingy offense that only gives up 13.6 turnovers per game.
Execution of offense so frequently determines an outcome of a game that it's nearly impossible to overlook the differential.
A divisional opponent will almost always bring their "A-game," and lately the Bucks-Bulls rivalry has been a pretty intense one, with the Bucks on the losing end of the most recent game on Nov. 3, 2009, which saw Jennings take on 2008 ROY Derrick Rose.
In a game that the Bulls came out flat, the Bucks took advantage early and often, building a 14-point halftime lead, reaching as much as 16 points in the third, but this lead would be one to slip away, as the Bulls made a run in the third and fourth quarters, taking what felt like an early victory from Milwaukee.
The Bucks blew a 16-point lead, a result of a charge led by Rose in the fourth quarter, (4-of-5 shooting, 2 FT, 10 PTS) and a tired defense in Milwaukee that watched as it's chances dwindled with each jumper.
Milwaukee looks for redemption in Game Two of the season series in the Bradley Center, but I'm not all that sure they'll find it.
Rose, Chicago's answer for Jennings, will be the key to this game, with Joakim Noah vs. Andrew Bogut being a close No. 2.
As much as I could hope for a Jennings-Rose showdown, I'm hard pressed to say that would be advantageous for Milwaukee. Not because Jennings couldn't handle being the No. 1 (he's shown that multiple times over this season already), but rather I'm more sure of the Bulls ability to facilitate their offense through other players than Rose, as opposed to the Bucks.
Overall, the Milwaukee Bucks have had some great early season successes, with Jennings garnering early praise as a ROY front-runner, and are playing some excellent defense leading the NBA. I find it difficult to believe this is all real. The Bucks, a team smothered with mediocrity the last 5-10 years, are finally a legitimate playoff threat?
Somebody pinch me.
Why am I still so confident in the Bucks this season? They are the No. 1 defense in the NBA right now, and it all comes down to keeping turnovers down, possession offense rather than fast-break, rebounding, and post defense. The Bucks are excelling in all four of these points so far in their 4-2 start.
If the Bucks are to make a serious run, be it to the playoffs, or a run while in the playoffs, it will go through their defense, and these next 10 games will go far in telling just how improved Scott Skiles has his team.
Here's something the Bucks must consider in their evaluation of the team in pre-trade deadline mode: trade Michael Redd and toss in Gadzuric if you can.
The Bucks need to keep some young talent, lock them up long-term (I'm talking about Bogut, Bucks Management!), and acquire a few athletic talents in the 2010 free agent class.
I'm not asking for Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, or even Chris Bosh, but there will be guys like Joe Johnson (ATL), Josh Howard (DAL), and Rudy Gay (MEM), which should draw some interest from Milwaukee.
As an aside—I would look seriously at this as a Bucks-Grizzlies deadline trade...Michael Redd straight up for Zach Randolph, then dump his salary after using him for a season (he helps the team immediately with rebounding, post scoring, and doesn't injure as frequently as Redd does). Then go into free agency in the summer of '10, about $20 million under the cap ($2 million under right now, without the $17 million or more for Randolph or Redd's deals) and sign Gay, no matter what it takes.
Rudy Gay would be the best long term option as far as youth, talent, and signability for the money for Milwaukee, and would leave Milwaukee with a very scary '10-'11 lineup:
SG—Mid-level F, like Ronnie Brewer (Utah)
To say the Bucks have a potentially bright future, is to be almost too cautious. If they could land a Rudy Gay and Ronnie Brewer combination in free agency, or even maintain the team they currently have and develop further in the draft, the Bucks are set for a long run of success in the years to come.
It's only a matter of time until this young team hits its stride, and when that does in fact happen, enjoy the ride Bucks fans.