By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 2:34PM
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- Back in the day, there was a saying for what the Milwaukee Bucks achieved over the summer: Don't know if they can play, but they sure will look good in airports.
Samuel Dalembert, Joel Przybilla and John Henson should see to that.
NBA teams haven't fiddled with airports as we know them for about 20 years -- it's all private hangars, separate tarmacs, maybe a charter terminal here or there. But the thinking then was, a roster stocked with an abundance of tall players, walking through some public venue like an airport concourse, at least looks like a serious basketball team.
That was an issue in 2011-12 for the Bucks, who were (ahem) short on bigs.
"Just standing on the side warming up, you can see, we have much bigger guys in the gym," coach Scott Skiles said after a handful of training camp workouts. "I don't want to say we laughed about it, because it wasn't funny, but there were so many games last year, just our team walking out for the jump ball against the other team, we were very, very small."
Think forward Drew Gooden, 6-foot-10, giving up two or more inches while filling in at center. And Carlos Delfino, 6-foot-6 on a good day, looking up while shaking hands with numerous small forwards. With longtime center Andrew Bogut limited to just 12 games, all in the first month, by injuries, a personal trip back to Australia and ultimately his trade in March to Golden State, Milwaukee had little or no rim protection.
The Bucks got outrebounded by 2.24 per game. They ranked 25th in defensive rebound percentage. Only Charlotte and Oklahoma City faced more shots from inside the restricted area (1,948). Factor in its undersized starting backcourt for the final six weeks -- Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis -- and it's clear Milwaukee lacked both a first and last line of reliable defense when opposing ballhandlers chose to attack.
Enter Dalembert, a professional rim defender. The 31-year-old from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, is a sturdy 6-foot-11, 250 pounds who is more than just a speed bump. Dalembert ranks 10th among active players in blocks (1,358), 10th in blocks per game (1.9) and fifth in total rebound percentage (18.7).
He averaged just 22.2 minutes with Houston in 2011-12, fewest since his rookie season with Philadelphia 10 years earlier, but produced at a double-double level (12.2 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg pro-rated to 36 minutes). And in Skiles, Dalembert has a coach again, finally, who values what he does best.
"One thing I see they're emphasizing is defense," Dalembert said after a recent morning session. "I've been to so many training camps, and Larry Brown and this maybe is it for me [where defense is a priority]."
Dalembert was with Brown as a rookie in 2001-02. Skiles is his ninth NBA head coach, with Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O'Brien, Mo Cheeks, Eddie Jordan, Paul Westphal and Kevin McHale in between. Skiles' teams previously had been known for hard-nosed defense -- until the Bucks dropped from fourth in defensive rating two seasons ago to 16th. As they played faster to compensate for size, their opponents scored faster too (from 92.7 ppg allowed to 98.7).
That's why three of GM John Hammond's key summer moves focused on size. Przybilla, 7-foot-1, was signed for his second Bucks stint. Henson, 6-11, was grabbed at No. 14 in the draft. And that was the deal on draft night that delivered Dalembert.
Now the Bucks have six players who stand 6-10 or taller.
"We certainly don't expect anybody at that spot to do everything that Andrew did," Skiles said. "Very few guys block shots and take charges, and he did those things, let alone kind of patrolled back there.
"But Sam blocks shots, Ekpe [Udoh] blocks shots, Larry [Sanders] blocks shots. Henson, y'know, hasn't blocked any NBA shots yet but theoretically has the ability. Drew takes charges, Ersan [Ilyasova] takes charges. We should have much better protection in the painted area."
Dalembert hopes it goes well enough that he can unpack. The Bucks are his fourth different team in 30 months, thanks to one-year stays in Sacramento (2010-11) and Houston (last season) after nine years with the Sixers. But like so many of the Bucks' principals -- Skiles, Hammond, Przybilla, Beno Udrih, Mike Dunleavy and Monta Ellis (early-termination) -- Dalembert is in the final year of his contract.
"If we're on a winning team, it doesn't matter," he said. "If we do what we're supposed to do and we play the way we've been practicing, it's just to me no doubt, with eyes closed, we are a playoff team.
"Our focus is to win. If this place is not going to be home, some other place will be because somebody will appreciate what you've done. That's what I try to get into the young players' minds. It's not about what you do, it's about what as a whole you accomplish."
Especially -- for Dalembert and the other Bucks bigs -- when guarding the hole.
1. The starting spot at small forward was in play as the preseason began. Second-year player Tobias Harris, the 19th pick in 2011, is just 20 and has only 479 minutes of NBA game experience, but the Bucks like his speed and athletic ability on the wing for the pace that Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis need to play. The 6-foot-8 Harris is noticeably stronger too, boosting his solid post-up game. Mike Dunleavy would fit in this spot, but Skiles has come to lean on Dunleavy's scoring off the bench.
2. The Bucks were better defensively with Udrih on the floor with either Jennings or Ellis, which might not bode well if the two explosive scorers start in tandem. The other two guys are better passers than they get credit for, but Udrih also is the closest Milwaukee has to a distributing point guard. He could see heavy minutes alongside each of the starters.
3. Hey now! We soon might have to put away the dated Hank Kingsley jokes if Larry Sanders doesn't seize this season as make-or-break for him. He's an all-D, no-O type and a prodigious fouler, likely to get squeezed by Dalembert, Henson and Udoh for playing time.
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LAST YEAR: 31-35, 3rd in Central
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
BRANDON JENNINGS, GUARD
19.1 PPG | 3.4 RPG | 5.5 APG
A shoot-first guy who'll never please traditionalists with playmaking skills, Jennings is a solid player of the passing lanes and improving playmaker.
MONTA ELLIS, GUARD
17.6 PPG | 3.5 RPG | 5.9 APG
A full camp and season with the Bucks could help him -- or boost his value to leave. Either way, he is a dynamic scorer -- which has been rare in Milwaukee.
TOBIAS HARRIS, FORWARD
5.0 PPG | 2.4 RPG | 0.5 APG
Injuries slowed him during his rookie season. The skilled forward impressed with his work ethic and will push Mike Dunleavy and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for the starting role.
ERSAN ILYASOVA, FORWARD
13.0 PPG | 8.8 RPG | 1.2 APG
Most Improved runner-up got new deal and has a long-term horizon in Milwaukee. His 45.5 percent from 3-point range was second-best in the entire league.
SAMUEL DALEMBERT, CENTER
7.5 PPG | 7.0 RPG | 0.5 APG
Career double-double man (per 36 min.) eases loss of Andrew Bogut inside. A scrapper on offense, he won't have many plays run for him, but will find ways to score.
|Beno Udrih||6-3||205||G||Heavy backup role for/next to Jennings.|
|Mike Dunleavy||6-9||220||F||Possible starter, though Skiles loves him as sixth man.|
|Luc Mbah a Moute||6-8||230||F||Designated defender for three positions.|
ADDED: C Samuel Dalembert, F/C John Henson, G Doron Lamb, C Joel Przybilla
LOST: F/C Jon Brockman, G/F Carlos Delfino, F Jon Leuer, G Shaun Livingston
ERSAN ILYASOVA, POWER FORWARD
Ilyasova has practically been tabbed as the power forward of the future for the Bucks. He'll not only be charged with providing their speedy backcourt with additional offensive firepower, he more than likely will be asked to take on more of a leadership role as well.
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