If the NBA playoffs started today, the Milwaukee Bucks would be the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference—ahead of such presumed participants as the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Bobcats.
How did that happen? They haven’t had a taste of the postseason since 2006, and haven’t made a serious run at anything since 2001.
Things are changing in Brewtown however, as the Bucks have rattled off five straight victories to climb above .500 for the first time in almost three months.
The key to the surge has been the tandem of center Andrew Bogut and newly acquired forward John Salmons.
Bogut is averaging 19 points and 13.6 rebounds a game during the streak, while Salmons, acquired from the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 18, is averaging better than 18 points a game over the same span.
Brandon Jennings continues to benefit from on-the-job training at point guard. The rookie has slowed down considerably since his 55-point outburst against Golden State in November, but still leads the Bucks in both scoring (16.4 points) and assists (6.1) per contest.
Coach Scott Skiles would like to see Jennings’ shooting percentage and shot selection improve down the stretch.
More important, in Skiles’ view, is that the Bucks hang on to a playoff spot and learn from it. Chrix Mannix of SI.com reported that Skiles believes playoff experience now will be critical to the Bucks’ growth in the years ahead.
Mannix also wrote that the Bucks have their eye on players who will be free agents in 2011, not 2010. That’s when the expiring contracts of Michael Redd and Dan Gadzuric will come off the books.
With other major deletions in recent years (Charlie Villanueva, Ramon Sessions), the Bucks will have a payroll of $18.7 million, leaving them plenty of room to make a run at a solid star or two, whether through free agency or trades.
For now, however, budding talent like Ersan Ilyasova (10.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (6.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) provide GM John Hammond with something to build on.
Bogut is the biggest piece of the puzzle, however. Part of a solid 2005 draft class that included Villanueva, Derron Williams, Chris Paul, Danny Granger, and Andrew Bynum, Bogut is living up to the expectations the Bucks had when they drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick.
There aren’t that many outstanding centers in the NBA these days, but Bogut has the chance to be one. Some would argue that he already is, given his exceptional skills on offense and his continued improvement defensively.
Bogut’s ongoing development will drive the Bucks’ growth as a serious contender in the Eastern Conference over the next few seasons.
Milwaukee faces a gut check this weekend, with games at Miami and Atlanta. In some ways, their playoffs begin now. Simply qualifying for the postseason would be a major accomplishment for this up-and-coming team.
If things go according to plan, however, they’ll have their eyes on a much bigger prize within another two years.