In the Headlights

The NBA is right around the corner. Do the Milwaukee Bucks have what it takes to get back to the playoffs?

Mbah a Moute is almost always asked to defend the other team’s best player. The Bucks will have to decide how best to uses him this year. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

From the beginning of the George Karl era until now, the Milwaukee Bucks have rarely lacked talent or star-power. In fact, going back a number of decades, two of the greatest players of all time (Kareem and The Big O) have worn Bango on their jersey. However, that talent has been largely squandered in recent years, as stars like Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd have been oft-injured, supporting casts have at times been suspect, a number of draft picks have not turned out well, and the various talents have struggled to congeal into a functioning basketball team.

Some of the same themes appear to be recurring in 2012. Talent is not something Milwaukee lacks. Brandon Jennings has continued to improve, and is at times a legitimate number one scoring option. Playing alongside him in the backcourt is Monta Ellis, one of the most explosive scorers in the game. The only African prince in the league, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, is at the elite level of perimeter defenders, and he is joined in the frountcourt by Ersan Ilyasova and Samuel Dalembert, two premier rebounders. The bench is filled with long, athletic bigs like Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders, and rookie John Henson. Drew Gooden remains a wily veteran scorer, while young players Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb both have skills to contribute. The rest of the roster includes capable role players, including Beno Udrih, a solid defender and shooter, and Mike Dunleavy, a smart veteran.

The Bucks clearly possess one of the more intriguing rosters in the league. Unfortunately, intriguing does not win games. The 2010-2011 team, with a number of different names than the current one, had a similar composition of talented and skilled role players, but the season ended without a postseason appearance. This roster has a number of problems to face if it is going to come together into a winning team.

The most glaring problem is the backcourt duo. Individually, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are two very talented offensive players, but their styles of play are very similar and might not work well together. Surprisingly, in their short times as teammates, they were actually able to work a fairly effective offense together. They both like to dominate the ball, but Ellis is more willing a passer than most give him credit for. With a full off-season, the duo might be able to work together and become one of the more formidable pair of guards in the Eastern Conference. However, they are both defensively challenged, especially Ellis. Alongside the Rockets’ backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Kevin Martin, Jennings and Ellis have about the largest disparity between offensive and defensive ability among guard duos in the league.

The abundance of power forwards on the roster leaves Mbah a Moute in a predicament. If he plays at the small forward, the Bucks can get the most from him defensively, as he is best suited to perimeter defending. However, his offensive skills from outside are so limited that it would be beneficial if he could log some minutes at the four, where he is still strong defensively and can actually score occasionally. However, that does not seem to be a likely scenario, as Ersan Ilyasova took a major leap last season and looks to be the clear favorite to start at power forward. With Udoh, Henson, and the promising Tobias Harris looking for minutes at that position as well, the Bucks will probably have to accept The Prince’s offensive drawbacks in exchange for his lockdown defense.

This is the problem that the Bucks have: they have the talent, but not necessarily at the right places. Sanders, Udoh, and Henson are all very comparable players as far as their skill sets and styles of play. I could not believe the Bucks drafted Henson in the first round when there were other team needs that could have been met. Coach Scott Skiles is going to have to make some creative rotations if he is going to utilize all of his players.

Teams like the Bucks need to have a defining ability to get them to the playoffs. For instance, the Denver Nuggets, a medium-level talent team in the Western Conference, have built themselves into a potential contender by playing up-tempo and scoring big numbers. Last year’s 76ers shared the scoring load unlike any team in the league. If the Bucks are going to be successful, they are going to need to find an identity. Much of their roster is suited to be a rock-solid defensive team, but with their two star players lacking in that department that seems unlikely. This team has the talent to make the playoffs, but I do not see the team’s talented players working as a cohesive and winning unit. My guess is that the Milwaukee Bucks end up as the ninth place team in the East for a third consecutive season.

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