Take a simple glance at the Bucks’ contract situation, the team’s past records and the make-up of their roster, and it’s abundantly clear this is a turning point season in Milwaukee.
Coach Scott Skiles and general manager John Hammond both are on the last year of their deals, and the previous four have been a struggle more often than not. Point guard Brandon Jennings could be a restricted free agent next summer. Shooting guard Monta Ellis could opt out of his deal after this season.
So for a franchise not familiar with winning in the past few decades — a franchise looking for a new arena at some point in the next 10 years — winning has never been more important than it is this year. But do the Bucks have the pieces to actually put together a winning season?
At the very least, the front office has tried its best to fill the holes from the 2011-12 season. Last year’s team, which finished strong but short of the playoffs, was anemic when it came to defending the rim after trading away center Andrew Bogut.
In 2012, the Bucks will trot out two new centers (Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla) and a rookie power forward (John Henson) who were added to the roster to defend the middle. They also re-signed power forward Ersan Ilyasova, who was one of the league’s most improved players and best 3-point shooters last season.
On paper, the Bucks should be improved in the frontcourt. It’s the step forward in the backcourt —the step toward being elite — that could decide how the Bucks finish. After just 22 games last season, Ellis and Jennings looked dynamic offensively but rather poor on defense.
The latter situation will be helped by having some rim protectors at the second level, but it may take more than that to really make a splash in the Eastern Conference.
The weapons are there for the underwhelming team of the past few seasons to emerge as a wild-card playoff candidate. The firepower is unmistakable, especially on offense. But after not coming together in the last few seasons, is this season the time?
For the sake of the Bucks’ four most important pieces, they better hope so.
Last season: 31-35, missed playoffs.
Coach: Scott Skiles (fifth year, 146-166).
Top returnees: PG Brandon Jennings, SG Monta Ellis, PF Ersan Ilyasova.
Key additions: C Samuel Dalembert, PF John Henson, SG Marquis Daniels.
X-Factor: Tobias Harris. Harris didn’t have much of an effect in his rookie season after missing training camp and battling injuries from the get-go. But no one worked harder this offseason to fight for a spot, and with Luc Mbah a Moute injured, it appears Harris likely will start at small forward. He has great physical tools to excel at the position, and if his defense is up to par, he could make the Bucks much bigger and stronger this season.
Strengths: The backcourt may have its share of defensive question marks, but Jennings and Ellis comprise one of the highest-scoring guard duos in the NBA. When they’re on, the Bucks are tough to stop on that end. Of course, Jennings and Ellis aren’t the most consistent backcourt in the league, as each relies on taking quite a few shots to be successful. Still, the potential is there to deliver a dynamite transition offense all season long.
Weaknesses: Ellis and Jennings will have to turn their subpar individual defense into impressive team defense for the Bucks to effectively handle opponents that are better than them on paper. That’s the main concern, but in general there are plenty of other question marks the Bucks have yet to answer defensively, and that will be a challenge for the defense-first Skiles.
Outlook: The Bucks have long been a middling franchise, fighting for one of the Eastern Conference’s final postseason slots, and that likely will be their fate this season. Milwaukee has no doubt improved, and if the Bucks can maintain a clean bill of health for most of the season, they could find themselves in a few playoff games. But in a season that is among the most important in the past decade, the Bucks better find a way to win, or else the star point guard, coach, and general manager may not be back next season.