As 2009 came to a close, the struggling Milwaukee Bucks, who had fallen to 12-18 to begin last season, gladly welcomed a new decade with hopes of revitalizing the beleaguered franchise which had not broken .500 since the 2000-2001 season. Carried on the backs of center Andrew Bogut, who they have deeply invested in since his selection in 2005, and breakout rookie Brandon Jennings, the fledgling Bucks made an astounding comeback. Much to the credit of blue collar coach Scott Skiles, the team went 8-7 in January, 10-4 in February, 11-4 in March, and 5-3 in April to compile an overall record of 46-36.
Although the impressive finish may have earned them a playoff berth, all wasn't well for Milwaukee. With only six games remaining in the regular season, Bogut, whose tremendous play willed the Bucks to their strong finish, was involved in a freak accident that saw him crashing to the floor following a dunk and suffering season-ending arm injuries. Despite a valiant effort, the three-seed Atlanta Hawks narrowly defeated Skiles' shorthanded crew in a tightly-contested seven-game series.
Now as the world turns into another year and the league shifts into playoff-mode, the Milwaukee Bucks once again find themselves between a rock and a hard place, expect this year the margin of error is far smaller and more imposing. Just as last year, the Bucks are 12-18 as a new year arrives and will attempt to gradually edge their way into the playoff picture. Unlike the 2009-2010 season, pressure is beginning to mount on this young and talented team, and the 2010-2011 Bucks will not be able to sneak up on anyone. How did a team that seemed entirely out of contention for the foreseeable future arrive at this point?
Following their startling finish to last year's campaign. the Milwaukee Bucks were touted as a thriving and up-and-coming group capable of making great leaps this season under the leadership of hard-working head coach Scott Skiles. This past summer general manager John Hammond, who was named the 2010 NBA Executive of the Year, made further moves to ensure the long-term success of his franchise.
First, on June 22, 2010, in an attempt to add more offensive fire-power to the Bucks rotation, longtime center Dan Gadzuric and guard Charlie Bell were exchanged for capable scorer Corey Maggette to the Golden State Warriors. Two days later, extremely athletic forward Larry Sanders of VCU was selected fifteenth overall in the NBA Draft by Milwaukee. The following day, shooting guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, best known for his time at Memphis with Bulls star Derrick Rose, was signed acquired from the New Jersey Nets. And in the month of July, Hammond added valuable veteran free agents Keyon Dooling and Drew Gooden to the improving roster.
However, the team also received its share of bad news last summer. On July 21, point guard Luke Ridnour, who had career year coming off the bench for Milwaukee last season, signed a four-year deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves in hopes of securing a larger role elsewhere. It was also confirmed swingman and former franchise player Michael Redd would not be able to return to active competition at the beginning of this season after re-tearing his ACL in January. His comeback is tentatively set for sometime in February.
Despite having what many felt to be an improved rotation, the Bucks dropped four of their first five games this season, and the young 2010-2011 season immediately began to unravel. On November 6, with Redd already sidelined for the long term, starter and viable scoring option Carlos Delfino suffered a neck injury during the Bucks' home loss to New Orleans. Suffering from the strained neck and potentially career-threatening, the veteran guard, Delfino, has not yet returned to the court but should be cleared to within the next few weeks.
The injuries have continued to pile up since. In the first 30 games, including Redd and Delfino, seven of the 15 contracted Bucks players have missed playing time. Douglas-Roberts, who was brought in to add further scoring opportunities, missed the season's first fifteen games due to surgery on his right eye. Maggette, who was signed to become the team's sixth man, has missed five games after hitting his head on the court against the Utah Jazz. Gooden, who adds considerable size and experience to the roster, missed several games in December after his performance was plagued by a nagging case of plantar fasciitis. Bogut, who has sputtered on offense at some points, was decommissioned for five games in December following a back injury. The most devastating loss occurred on December 15 when budding and improving guard Brandon Jennings suffered a broken left foot that should keep him out of action until at least late January.
Skiles, who became known for his frank honesty during his head coaching stint with the Chicago Bulls, disclosed to the press that his team has yet to complete a single practice with a fully-healthy roster. Because of the injuries to crucial scorers like Delfino and Jennings, the already stagnant Bucks offense has slowed even farther. Last season, the defensively-apt Milwaukee group allowed only 96.0 points per game but put up just 97.7 points of their own. This year, with Bogut leading the league with 2.8 blocks per game, the Bucks have continued to be impressive on offense, allowing an impressively-low 92.6 points, but have scored a staggeringly-dismal 90.3 points on average, a league low.
Following their last outing, a 90-77 loss to the Chicago Bulls, the frustrations of many players were obvious, and the downtrodden team seemed out of answers to their continuing woes. Maggette, who has failed to be as impressive as he was with Golden State, described his first season with the team in anything but flattering terms. "If I had to grade it, I'd grade it 'F'," said the 1999 first-round draft pick. Despite the grumblings of the disappointed players, though, Scott Skiles has tried to maintain a positive outlook and to instill that notion into his players.
"The East is open and we're hanging onto our spot," said the 46-year old coach of the team's current position in the conference standings. "That's really what we have to do right now. Our schedule has been very difficult, one of the most difficult in the league.
"For the next three weeks or so, it picks up speed again with a lot of good teams. We somehow have to weather it and keep contact with everybody. Then we'll hope we get everybody back and get some sort of continuity going. We have 10 of 15 at home in March and we hope somehow we can make up the ground we've lost."
The publicly-frustrated Maggette supported that idea urging his teammates and fans to "just stay positive." Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said following Tuesday's loss to the Bulls, "We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to go out there and play. That's what we're paid to do. We've got to go out there and win games. We've got to find a way."
Despite a less than imposing 12-18 record at the moment, Scott Skiles and the Milwaukee Bucks may soon find a "way." With the imminent returns of Delfino, Gooden, and Jennings and barring any further injuries, the team should be able to strengthen their woeful offense and establish a stable rotation (10 different players have been implanted into the starting five this year.)
By February, Skiles should be able to use his intended rotation of Jennings, John Salmons, Delfino, Gooden, and Bogut serving as starters with Maggette, Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Douglas-Roberts, Dooling, and Sanders coming off the bench. As for performance, many role players will have to sharpen their play in 2011. Ilyasova, who plays respectable minutes and sometimes serves as the team's first player off the bench, will have to be more accurate. Last season, the Turkish forward averaged 10.3 points per game and shot impressively well (44% from the field and 39% from long range.) This season though, the 23-year old has struggled to find consistency, shooting 39% overall and a discouraging 27% behind the three-point line. Delfino's return to the court should help the team space the floor and find open shots for players like Ilyasova.
Overall, the offense has to become more efficient. The Bucks rank last in points per game, assists per game, and field goal percentage. With Jennings eventually coming back, Skiles must instruct his team to execute wisely from the beginning of every possession. Jennings will have the opportunity to prove himself as not only an admirable scorer but a confident passer and team leader. Smart movement of the ball will enable sharpshooters Delfino, Ilyasova, Maggette, and Salmons to put up high percentage shots. Also, feeding the ball down low to a healthy Andrew Bogut and explosive young forwards Mbah a Moute and Sanders will provide the Bucks' offense with further scoring options.
As for defense....well, keep up the good work.
As critics continue to dismiss "Fear the Deer" as a fluke campaign and short-lived slogan, the future may not be as dire as many analysts will insist. If there is any coach that has the fortitude and perseverance to will his team a strong finish it is Scott Skiles. Pair the leadership of their coach with All-Star caliber play from the greatly talented duo of Bogut and Jennings, and I believe another playoff appearance will be secured. Given efficient play from all the players, new and old, in Milwaukee's rotation, a six-seed may not be too much to ask.
To me, it is apparent the Milwaukee Bucks have all the appropriate tools to startle their opponents and shock the league by sneaking their way into the playoffs. After all, they've done it before.