Today we journey into the underworld of the East (last season's lottery teams) and in the first circle (and likely on their way up) is the Milwaukee Bucks. With only the Orlando Magic seemingly assured to miss the postseason (not even that is certain), the Bucks seem as likely as any other team in the East to keep the Wizards out. Where does that sentiment come from? First, a little history.
In the summer of Lebron, the Bucks were fresh off a 46-36 season playing hard-nosed defensive basketball under Scott Skiles. They had pushed the Atlanta Hawks to the brink and dropped games 6 and 7. However, with oodles of cap space to work with, I was stoked to see what GM John Hammond would do. He re-signed John Salmons for 5 years and $40 million, gave Drew Gooden 5 years and $32 million and traded for the final three years of Corey Maggette's 5 year #48 million deal. Oooooops.
Injuries played a huge role the following season, but mostly, I want to remind readers that the Bucks seem poised to take a big step forward again. There have been no crippling deals signed (though one may very well be in the offing). Plenty of young talent is on board...smart money is on Milwaukee to make some noise, so let's take a closer look.
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Brandon Jennings is something of an odd case. He is capable of scoring in bunches, but only succeeded last season (his third) in bringing his TS% up to league averages. On defense, he's something of a ball hawk, but it's more true to say he loves to gamble on the passing lanes. When it comes to running an NBA offense, he's a work in progress. He's not a natural creator, but generally does a good job taking care of the ball. Taking his whole game into account, Jennings is about a league-average point guard, maybe a cut higher whose inconsistency will be masked in part by a blockbuster (for the Bucks) free-agent acquisition.
I mock, gently, since Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut is about as big as trades get out there (see: Nene, trade, DC) and without acquiring a superstar, this is the most one can expect from a GM. Almost forgot to mention that the Bucks swiped Ekpe Udoh from the Golden State Warriors in the same breath, a defensive monster who will probably see time at Center. Hammond acquired Samuel Dalembert from the Houston Rockets for the price of two draft slots in the mid-low lottery to help fill the hole left by Bogut's departure. Retaining Ersan Ilyasova for a relatively sane deal doesn't hurt, either. Did I mention Tobias Harris, John Henson and Doron Lamb (grrr) all looked more than satisfactory in summer league? What does all this add up to?
Their backcourt rotation is a touch thin...they're one injury away from looking to the D-league, but you can't call them anything but talented. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are backed up by Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb. Udrih is quite often underrated and Lamb is a willing defender (in addition to being an accurate shooter, glad the Wiz are set there). If the former Wildcat can translate his playmaking ability to the NBA level, Coach Scott Skiles most likely won't hesitate to play him at select times over the defensively-challenged Ellis.
Mike Dunleavy and Tobias Harris man the opposite wing. Dunleavy is quite reliable and should be an excellent choice to usher Tobias Harris into a starting role after the 2012-13 season's end. Harris may have raised his three point shot to a more respectable level, if his summer league play is any indication. In addition, Harris is dangerous in transition and a load on the block; combined with lottery selection John Henson's ability to hit midrange jumpers and the Bucks second unit should be plenty dynamic.
Better hold my horses there, because minutes might be hard to come by for Henson. Drew Gooden, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova all play the spot, creating a serious logjam. While it beggars belief that Henson might see time in the D-league, it's equally difficult to believe that Bucks will carry four active power forwards on game day. Henson could have a short stint in the D-league (say, one week), but I'm betting he stays with the team if that summer league form rings true. To further the minutes challenge looking past this year, all three players starting ahead of Henson on the depth chart are locked up for no less than three more seasons. Keep the Bucks in mind for a trade possibility if the injury bug strikes at PF around the NBA.
It's hard to say enough about the center position. Hammond flat stole Dalembert from the Rockets (who were desperate to pump up their package for Dwight Howard). With big man defensive force Ekpe Udoh on board from the Bogut swap likely sliding to center with the overmanned power forward position, it's likely the Bucks won't see much dropoff in the middle. Especially seeing as how Bogut couldn't really get back on the floor. Also, Joel Pryzbilla.
If the Wizards and the Bucks end up in a late push for the eighth seed and both teams have got their acts together, buckle up. There is a bevy of solid veterans on both squads and talented youth at every position. While I chose the 76ers as the most likely Wizards rival in the next five years, Milwaukee is a close second. Both teams are looking to build/build-on around a defensive identity, lethal transition games while praying the massive upside at poing guard bears fruit. Watching these teams grind it out in chippy regular season tilts should be massively satisfying and I can't wait to watch them go head-to-head.