Anyone who has traveled the highways of the United States extensively knows that Milwaukee area motorists have mastered the merge better than those in most other states.
If the Milwaukee Bucks can duplicate the way they performed at the defensive end of the court during the 2010-11 season and the way they produced offensively during the 2011-12 campaign and merge the two, they should find themselves bound for the National Basketball Association playoffs in 2012-13.
“We felt like, going into last season, one of the things we talked about with the guys was, ‘Can we keep our defense similar to the year before and get better offensively?’” Bucks head coach Scott Skiles said. “If we could do that, we’d have a very good year.
“Well, we got a lot better offensively and we got a lot worse defensively. Now it’s flipped. Now we’d like to keep our offense – be a top-10 type offensive team – and then get our defense back to the level where we need it to be at.”
The 2010-11 Bucks gave up a franchise-low 92.7 points per game and allowed the third-fewest points in the NBA, 7,603. Their defensive field-goal percentage was 44.7, a figure bettered by only five teams in the league.
Milwaukee struggled mightily at the other end of the court, however. The Bucks finished last in the NBA in scoring at 91.9 points per outing, last in field-goal percentage at 43 percent and 24th in the league in 3-point shooting at 34.2 percent.
During the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, the Bucks knew they had to make an offensive upgrade. And they did.
They shot from 30th in the NBA in points per game to fifth, averaging 99 points per game and climbed to 20th in field-goal shooting at .447 and to 15th in 3-point accuracy at .343. They ranked third in the league with 23.48 assists per game – their highest average since the 1993-94 season.
Milwaukee reached the 100-point mark 33 times last season and won 25 of those contests. They hit 10 or more 3-pointers in 12 contests and prevailed in 11 of those.
On the flip side, the Bucks slipped to 22nd in the league defensively, surrendering 98.7 points per outing.
A crossroads of their season came Jan. 25, when center Andrew Bogut – their leading shot-blocker and charge-taker, sustained a left ankle fracture during a game at Houston that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. That game would be the last Bogut would play for Milwaukee.
On March 14, the Bucks dealt Bogut and guard Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for guard Monta Ellis, forward Ekpe Udoh and center Kwame Brown.
After Bogut went down, underwent a metamorphosis.
Forward/guard Mike Dunleavy, one of the first-year Bucks who helped bolster the team’s offensive output, addressed the change.
“With the loss of Bogut to injury and the trade, we had to change the way we played,” Dunleavy said. “We stepped it up offensively, but we digressed defensively.
“This season will be kind of a flip-flop of last year. We’ve got to get better defensively and try to continue what we were doing offensively. That, in a nutshell, is what we have to try to do. I think the guys we brought in can help us defensively, along with internal improvement. They can help with the offensive stuff. They’re unselfish guys. We have good chemistry.”
The guys the Bucks brought in are veteran center Samuel Dalembert, acquired from Houston on June 27 along with the 14th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and a future second-round pick in exchange for Jon Brockman, Jon Leuer, Shaun Livingston and the 12th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft; University of North Carolina forward John Henson and University of Kentucky guard Doron Lamb, whom they selected with the 14th and 42nd picks in the draft; and center Joel Przybilla and guard/forward Marquis Daniels, signed as free agents in August and September, respectively.
The additions of Dalembert, Przybilla and Henson, known as defense-first post players, brings dramatic changes to Milwaukee interior that spent the majority of last season starting forwards at the center position out of necessity. The three newcomers join veteran forwards Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Ekpe Udoh and forward/center Larry Sanders to give the Bucks seven players listed at 6-feet-10-inches or taller.
“We talked many times before we did it about the implications of moving Andrew (Bogut) and what that would do for us on the interior,” Skiles said. “Drew (Gooden) did a heck of a job battling guys – guys much bigger than him.
“But we knew coming into this summer that we had to get some more size, some more length. So we did that. Hopefully we won’t see a lot of the kind of layup drills we were giving up last year.”
Ellis likes the way the Bucks beefed up their defensive security over the summer, particularly in the paint. He believes it will help him and Brandon Jennings guard the perimeter.
“When it comes on the defensive end, the only thing we have to do is hold our man to four or five dribbles, and if they go to the basket, we’ve got the big guys back there to wipe them out,” Ellis said. “The only thing we can’t do is open the door for them to go to the basket and get our big men in foul trouble. Our focus on defense has to be to keep our big men out of foul trouble.”
Most of the Bucks were talking defense as camp began, which was a noticeable difference from last season.
“The only thing we have to get better at is defense,” veteran guard Beno Udrih said. “I know we were talking before last season started that the goal for the Milwaukee Bucks was to get better on offense. We did that, but we got worse defensively. Hopefully we can keep going with the offense and get better defense.”
Ilyasova enjoyed a breakout season with Milwaukee in 2011-12, averaging career highs of 13 points and 8.8 rebounds and shooting career bests of .492 from the field and .455 from 3-point range. He collected career highs of 29 points and 25 rebounds in a Feb. 19 victory at New Jersey, becoming the first Bucks player to total 25+ points and rebounds in the same game since Swen Nater accomplished the feat in 1976.
The Turkey native, who was chosen by the Bucks with the 36th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, signed a multi-year contract with Milwaukee last July.
e, too, knows what it will take for the Bucks to navigate toward a winning balance in 2012-13 and beyond.
“Our whole mentality is to be a defensive team,” Ilyasova said. “By being an offensive team, you can win games here and there, but by being a defensive team, you can win a championship.
“Sometimes you’re not going to shoot at a high percentage, but you have to rely on something. You know that your defensive skills are always something you can use.”
It doesn’t seem possible that Ersan Ilyasova arrived in the United States eight years ago. But he has obviously learned the ways of the road.