Bucks learning as they bide time in Eastern Conference hierarchy

Boasting a core of players under 26, Milwaukee may be the team to beat in the East in a few seasons

Khris Middleton sees light where for weeks there was mostly darkness, so 2017 already is looking brighter for the Milwaukee Bucks and their sidelined young shooter.

“It’s possible. That’s if everything goes right, with no setbacks and a good, long stretch of practices. Still a long way to go but I’m working towards it,” Middleton said Saturday night, a couple hours shy of a new and presumably better year.

The year just completed, 2016, had been rough. The Bucks went 20-28 after Jan. 1 in what was left of their 2015-16 season to backslide out of Eastern Conference playoff contention, a fall from .500 in 2014-15. Then Middleton ruptured his left hamstring so severely, he underwent surgery that, per initial projections, would cost him all of 2016-17 or nearly so.

It was a Wile E. Coyote step backwards off a cliff for Middleton and a team desperate for his 3-point shooting prowess (.400 career accuracy).

But basketball is looking brighter now because Middleton is on his way back. Sooner, possibly, than many may realize. He recently added running to his workouts and although he’s not had contact work yet, he has been doing strength training and post-surgery rehab work all along. He’s also staying involved otherwise during practices, in film sessions and accompanying the Bucks on the road.

Middleton’s timetable for his penciled-in return? Sometimes after the All-Star break. Considering Milwaukee’s ambition of a return to the postseason, that could leave two months or more on the Bucks’ schedule for Middleton to have an impact. Few teams can look forward to the arrival of cavalry that would fit so well, Middleton’s outside game opening up even more space for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and the rest.

“We definitely have a secret weapon,” Antetokounmpo said.

That’s the short-term future. The long-term future might be equally bright for Milwaukee, if you look at the conference soberly. No East team has reached the NBA Finals without LeBron James on its roster since the 2010 Boston Celtics. With James and his Cleveland Cavaliers squad considered heavy favorites to go back this spring, and factoring in both James’ career trajectory and the Cavs’ roster demographics, it’s possible the trend may continue for some time.

But at some point, the LeBron Era in the East will wane. It might be two, three or even five seasons from now. Five seasons from now, James will turn 37, Kevin Love will be 33, Kyrie Irving will be a spritely 30 and durable Tristan Thompson will be 31. The rest of the roster will have to have been replenished rather remarkably.

This is a little like the unfortunates — Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and many other East stars past — whose NBA primes happened to coincide with Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s. Look around now and try to project other East teams four or five years down the road. What do you see?

You see the New York Knicks’ leading man, Carmelo Anthony, aging in lockstep with James and only Kristaps Porzingis as a young, solid bet. The Toronto Raptors’ two best players, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, will be 35 and 32 by the 2022 playoffs. The Boston Celtics’ roster will have ripened to the far side of 30, more or less, with Al Horford turned 35.

The Charlotte Hornets are built for a more imminent shot, within the next few years, and the Washington Wizards’ timeline is tighter than that. The Indiana Pacers are a mixed bag based on Myles Turner’s youth but Paul George’s uncertainty. Who’s to say which way the Atlanta Hawks are trending, which at least puts them in a better spot going forward then the Chicago Bulls.

The Orlando Magic may never get traction. Detroit’s players might put coach Stan Van Gundy in traction before the Pistons max out their potential. The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers have laid their foundations, but both are going to do a whole lot of learning in the next few seasons.

That leaves Milwaukee. Out in front of the rebuilders, not so far along that they’ll be nipping at James’ heels on the back nine. From Antetokounmpo (22) and Parker (21) to Middleton (25), John Henson (26), Greg Monroe (26) and rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon (24), many of the Bucks’ key players are under 26. They’re learning as a group now, with a sweet spot anywhere from two to five, perhaps six, years out.

One could almost feel the growing pains Saturday in Chicago, when Milwaukee closed the calendar year with a 116-96 spanking of the Bulls. With both teams coming off dismal performances on the front end of back-to-backs, it was Milwaukee that roared off in the second half at United Center.

Parker quietly but forcefully scored 27 points. Monroe was the night’s plus/minus winner, giving Milwaukee 15 points and 12 rebounds off the bench while logging a plus-27. Antetokounmpo was crazy-good, stuffing the Bulls along with the stats sheet: 35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks and two steals. He shot 13-of-19, including his lone 3-point attempt.

“He’s one of those Kobe Bryant, LeBron James type players,” Brogdon said. “Playing with a guy like that makes the game easy. … If you’re not [seeing Antetokounmpo’s upside], I don’t know what games you’re looking at.”

Antetokounmpo — who might match razzle and dazzle with Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook tonight in Milwaukee (7 p.m. ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) — smiled at his new teammate’s Bryant reference.

“Let me tell you something: When I hit the jumper today in the second quarter, I feel like Kobe,” Antetokounmpo said. “Shot it and was like, ‘Ko-be!’ But no, it’s great to hear a teammate compare you to that. I think I’m not there yet but I’m going to work as hard as I can and take the right steps.”

Brogdon was the revelation Saturday, starting for the second consecutive game in Matthew Dellavedova’s absence (strained hamstring) and winding up with a triple-double (15 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists). Not bad for the 36th pick in the 2016 draft. The former second-round pick ranks first in assists, second in minutes and fourth in points among rookies.

“He’s ahead of his years, man,” said 39-year-old Jason Terry, the team’s resident old head. “They won’t talk about him in the Rookie of the Year conversation, but who else is there? [Philadephia big man] Joel Embiid has been in the league three years already. Malcolm is the true rookie and he deserves consideration, for sure.”

Coach Jason Kidd talked up GM John Hammond and the team’s scouting staff after the game, for their work in snagging someone such as Brogdon so late or Antetokounmpo as the No. 15 pick in 2013. The development of that talent by Kidd and his staff is apparent too.

For years, under the benevolent ownership of Herb Kohl, the Bucks seemed content to aim for .500, win more often at home and chase a low playoff seed. These days the goals are loftier, embodied by Antetokounmpo’s rise to All-NBA worthiness and the other Bucks as well.

Said Kidd: “You talk about [2016], the growth, the young guys. Growing each time you take the floor. Trying to bounce back from a bad performance. We all talked about that [Saturday morning] that we didn’t play well, and the guys responded. Each time we take the floor guys are getting better as a team, and that’s what wins in this league.”

Their timing looks to be right, too.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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