Posted Jul 21 2010 10:37AM
Here in the dread of summer, so far from basketball season you can't hear a sneaker squeak, so suffocated (still) by LeBronathon that you're hungover from free agency, this is what they're saying in Milwaukee: Sumthin's brewin'.
Yes, there's a distinct aroma about the Bucks, and for a change, it's well worth inhaling. The more you see, the more you like about this team, how it's built and where it's headed. About the highest compliment paid to the Bucks right now is to say they'll go into next season with expectations. When's the last time that happened?
When Ray Allen and Big Dog were together?
When Don Nelson was fashioning fish ties?
When Alcindor was sky hooking?
That was past; this is the present and perhaps future. Nobody would dare say the Bucks will challenge for Eastern Conference supremacy in 2010-11. Just the same, the long and painful drought (two winning seasons the last decade) appears over. Realistically, the Bucks can put a few players on the All-Star team, challenge for the division title, win 50 games, play into May and entertain along the way. Can't you Hear the Deer?
A team with fixtures at the two most important positions just addressed and satisfied most if not all questions about needs at other positions. Suddenly, there are shooters, rebounders and defenders to mix in with Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut, making the Bucks a solid favorite to be everyone's Team On The Rise for the upcoming season.
But that's a mixed blessing, isn't it? Can this team, still relatively young and somewhat untested, deal with that?
"When you win 46 games and reach the playoffs and surpass expectations like we did last year, nothing could be sweeter," said general manager John Hammond. "This year, it's different. And it's our responsibility to adjust to that."
Hammond reports that Bogut, months removed from a gruesome arm injury, should be 100 percent for training camp. Already, Bogut (age 25) and Jennings (just 20) have developed the kind of rapport between center and point guard that turns teams into winners.
"Those two guys realize they're the long-term building blocks," said Hammond. "The bond they'll have is knowing what they can accomplish together."
Hammond rolled the dice on contracts this summer, always a gamble for a small market team that's allergic to the luxury tax. He grabbed Corey Maggette in a trade with the Warriors, mostly because Maggette gets to the free throw line for a team that shoots few. He brought back John Salmons ($33 million) and signed Drew Gooden ($32 million), admitting "we stretched" for two players who probably wouldn't have fetched more money elsewhere.
"In my seven years with Joe Dumars," said Hammond, referring to the Pistons' boss, "Joe wanted to put a capable team with a fair salary structure on the floor. We're in the process of doing just that."
In another year, the Bucks will get relief from Michael Redd's contract ($18 million this season), which is crucial given the uncertainty of the next labor agreement. But that's an issue for down the road. Right now, it's about how rapidly the Bucks, with a few new pieces and a load of expectations, forge a new identity.
After all there are no guarantees, and there are still concerns. While Jennings was superb as a rookie leading Milwaukee to the playoffs after it lost Bogut late in the season, Young Money must sharpen his shooting (37 percent). After playing for a contract, can Salmons continue to perform at last season's level? Maggette was a solid scorer with the Clippers and Warriors but always seemed an awkward fit, and always mentioned in trade talk.
And then there's Scott Skiles, the best coach in the league over the last two months and through the first round of the playoffs. He gets the most from his players, but also tends to wear on them eventually. That's probably not going to happen next season, but how much can he delay that inevitability?
The gut feeling is the Bucks are going places. Good places. The nucleus is solid and the surrounding cast (including Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) is more than capable of pushing the Bucks up the standings. Much credit should go to Hammond, in his third year on the job, who entered this off-season without the salary cap room of those teams who chased A-list free agents, but with a singular goal in mind.
"With all that we accomplished last season," he said, "we just didn't want to take a step backward."
The Milwaukee Bucks, brewing something special? Could be.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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