Bucks putting defense first up front

MILWAUKEE — For the better part of seven seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks were confident they boasted one of the best centers in the NBA. As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, Andrew Bogut carried the brunt of the Bucks’ hopes for success in the past decade.

The problem, however, was that it was never that simple. With just one full, healthy season to his name, Bogut wasn’t on the on the court enough to truly turn a middling franchise on its head. So last season, the Bucks traded him to Golden State and started anew with shooting guard Monta Ellis, leaving a massive hole at the center position.

Normally a power forward, veteran Drew Gooden was asked to fill in at center and did as admirable of a job as you could expect from a guy playing out of position. He dealt with nagging injuries most of the year, finding out after the season that he had been playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist and a full fracture in his ankle.

“I was really playing banged up,” Gooden said at media day on Monday, “but we needed that.”

What the Bucks clearly needed in the offseason was a true center, one who would allow Gooden to slip back into the lineup as a forward. And in Samuel Dalembert, the Bucks found just that. He may not have nearly the offensive skill set that Bogut brought to the table — the most points he’s ever averaged in a season was 10.7 during the 2006-07 season.

But Dalembert’s strength is something the Bucks desperately needed: defense and durability in the middle.

In five of his past six seasons, Dalembert has played in 80 or more games — something Bogut accomplished in only his rookie season. Defensively, Dalembert has averaged 1.9 blocks per game for his career, a number slightly higher than Bogut’s.

“He brings length, and he rebounds well,” Gooden said of the Bucks’ new center. “We needed that. When Andrew Bogut went down, it was tough for us. . . . We’re in a fortunate place for us right now to have him come in and provide some size and some length and a defensive presence. That’s a major plus for us.”

But it won’t just be on Dalembert to fill Bogut’s shoes — a task that proved to be nearly impossible for the Bucks last season. They’ll need to distribute some of the big man duties, especially on the offensive end, to truly succeed in the interior this season and take some pressure off of Ellis and Brandon Jennings on the perimeter.

That could mean a lot more specialized opportunities for guys like Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh, and rookie John Henson to prove themselves as effective scorers in the post — something all three of them have been criticized for in the past. Still, with so many defensive holes, interior defense will likely be the main focus.

“When a guy like (Bogut) is on the floor, he’s going to plug a lot of holes,” Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles said. “That’s what he’s going to do, and he’s one of the better guys at that. You’ve got to do other things.

“(Bogut) was one of those rare guys. He could block shots and take charges. There aren’t too many of those guys that do both of those things. Hopefully we can make up for it with some other guys.”

And if they can make up for the absence of Bogut in the first full season without the former No. 1 draft pick, then Milwaukee’s frontcourt could be poised to be one of the Bucks’ biggest and most pleasant surprises in 2012.

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