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Bucks address man in middle, but backcourt remains thin


POSTED: Aug 23, 2012 10:32 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Much of the Bucks' offense will come from the undersized backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings.

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Next up: the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Nobody wants to lose, just like nobody wants to get hurt. Oh, every so often -- OK, every darn season -- we hear of teams that aren't exactly straining to win each and every game down the stretch, allegedly embracing the idea that a dip into the lottery (or a few more bouncing balls once there) might transform them.

But by and large, NBA players, coaches and executives want to win and they want to stay healthy. More than just where the money is, those are things from which reputations are built and satisfaction comes. So the idea that a contract situation might inspire a fellow to want one or both of those things more than they otherwise would -- in the Milwaukee Bucks' case, general manager John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles, both in the final year of their deals -- is easily overstated.

Of course Hammond and Skiles want to win. Of course they want their guys to stay healthy (a problem in recent seasons). And of course they want the Bucks to thrive, in what shapes up now as a team with a super-potent but thin backcourt and a gritty, deep and offensively challenged frontcourt.

Where they've been

Milwaukee had gotten accustomed to playing without Andrew Bogut through the years; the big Aussie had missed more than 100 games, along with the 2010 postseason, due to injuries in Years 2 through 6 of his career. But when Bogut went down after just 12 appearances with a fractured left ankle, the Bucks' patience was broken too. They traded him to Golden State in March in a five-player deal that delivered Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh.

Trouble was, it was like selling a bad stock -- it locked in the Bucks' loss up front. Their struggles defending the paint only got worse, and Milwaukee slid from fourth in defensive rating in 2010-11 to 16th. Their 9-4 bump immediately after the trade got them to .500, but a 3-7 finish dropped them swiftly out of the East playoff race. They hit the lottery for the seventh time in nine years.

Where they are now

The realization that they only had out-of-position power forwards (Drew Gooden, Udoh, Larry Sanders) to man the middle grabbed Milwaukee's attention big-time. It attended -- maybe overattended -- to the problem via trades (Samuel Dalembert from Houston), draft (UNC's John Henson at No. 14) and free agency (veteran Joel Przybilla). Henson is yet another power forward who could be pressed into service at center.

The frontcourt also has Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, Mike Dunleavy and Tobias Harris after a real "Mom likes you better" summer, relative to the backcourt. The Bucks were heading to camp with 14 guaranteed contracts but only four guards: Brandon Jennings, Beno Udrih, second-round pick Doron Lamb and Ellis. Lamb might get more minutes than first-rounder Henson based on what's available and Milwaukee's need for outside shooting.

Biggest hurdle

Depth isn't the only dimension in which Milwaukee's backcourt is challenged. There is height, too -- Jennings and Ellis both are point-sized, which not only gives opponents more options for guarding them but is a significant problem for the Bucks on the defensive end. The plan seems to call for Mbah a Moute to handle the most potent big wing players, assuming there's some matchup in which to hide Ellis. The former Golden State Warrior is a natural-born scorer but he sometimes look better when Jennings was catching a breather, allowing Ellis to function as the point guard and primary option.

It's not clear, either, if an offense that will be so guard-driven -- and Jennings in recent media comments has sounded eager to play in a guard-driven attack -- will get the most out of whatever skills the three other guys have, scoring-wise. Ilyasova didn't re-up with the Bucks just to watch Jennings and Ellis take turns.

Where they're going

The Bucks believe they coulda-shoulda been a playoff team last year and are determined to get there this season. Jennings, who helped Milwaukee reach the playoffs as a 20-year-old rookie, has been criticized for his modest improvement since then. He is anxious to sign a contract extension by the Oct. 31 deadline, then demonstrate that he and Ellis can thrive together over a full season.

Dalembert has been a virtual iron man, missing just three games in six seasons, a welcome change in the middle if he can stick close to double-double territory. Ilyasova was re-signed, a mild surprise given interest from Brooklyn, and could settle in as one of the league's top inside/outside threats.

Maybe Jennings joins him by Halloween as a key Bucks piece with a long-term deal. Neither Hammond nor Skiles will have one of those by then, but that shouldn't matter much to the team's fortunes. Those will swing more on the way the starting guards mesh, Ellis' outlook on his 2013-14 player option, and a tightness of defense that used to be expected from Skiles' teams but slipped considerably last season.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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