Five reasons to feel positive about the Milwaukee Bucks

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(This is another in a series of 30 guest columns that will run in October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)

bucks small logoHaving witnessed just one meaningful playoff run in the past two decades, Milwaukee Bucks fans inevitably seem to fall somewhere between perpetually optimistic and hopelessly cynical. And while the month of April has all too often brought out the cynical side of fans in recent years, the month of October and the promise of a new season inevitably brings reasons to feel good about what may be in store for the upcoming season.

The Bucks once again had a busy summer reshuffling their roster, addressing their lack of frontcourt size by trading for presumptive starting center Sam Dalembert, drafting UNC big man John Henson, re-signing starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova and adding former Buck Joel Przybilla as a big body off the bench.

The Bucks hope that their added size up front will help offset their lack of size in the backcourt, where Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis will hope to build on their abbreviated 21-game audition together last spring. That’s the party line, at least; in reality no one seems to expect a Jennings/Ellis pairing to be the answer in Milwaukee, and in the long term there’s very little that we do know for sure about the current roster.

Thankfully, October optimism doesn’t require trivial things like long-termm certainty.

1. Whether they win or not, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings will entertain

It’s the question most casual observers seem fixated on when contemplating the 2012-13 Bucks: Can Ellis and Jennings coexist?

It’s an understandable starting point given the duo’s status as the Bucks’ most recognizable players, although it also seems unlikely that both players will be on the roster a year from now. (Ellis is the most likely departure as a potential unrestricted free agent.) Even so, Jennings and Ellis should at the very minimum provide plenty of cheap (and entertaining) thrills. They will push the tempo, gamble in the passing lanes, jack up their share of inadvisable shots, make a non-trivial number of said inadvisable shots, create easy buckets for others and – of course – provide explosive scoring at regular intervals. And if last season is any indication, they won’t prevent the Bucks from playing an attractive, ball-moving brand of basketball, either.

Even with Ellis falling short of his best, the Bucks were among the league’s fastest teams down the stretch,  and their offensive efficiency skyrocketed along with it, helping coach Scott Skiles earn the first top-20 offensive ranking of his career (13th). It couldn’t have been how Skiles envisioned the season going – it was also the worst defensive team he’s coached (16th) – but it was nearly enough to propel Milwaukee into the postseason after a difficult start.

The Bucks are hoping that a full training camp together will help Ellis and Jennings hit their mutual stride out of the gate, but the truth is that the Bucks don’t need the pair to be dropping 50 points each night to be competitive. But it would be pretty fun, wouldn’t it?

2. The defense should rebound from a disappointing season (pun intended)

It was no coincidence that the end of the Andrew Bogut Era coincided with a major dip in Milwaukee’s

Samuel Dalembert, the new starting center for the Milwaukee Bucks

defensive form, but there’s reason to expect better things in 2012-13.  For starters, it’s worth noting that the Bucks actually blocked more shots last season than in Bogut’s Defensive Player-of-the-Year-caliber season. They also allowed a slightly lower shooting percentage at the rim last season than the prior year (60.1 percent for 7th vs. 60.7 percent for 2nd). The problem is that the Bucks allowed significantly more attempts at the basket last season (26.2 vs. 23.0).

Defensive rebounding is the most obvious culprit, and among the four factors it’s the most obvious area in which Milwaukee took a major step back (from 8th to 25th). Look no further than the loss of Bogut, who for all his shot-blocking and charge-taking prowess is a top-flight defensive rebounder to boot. That’s also precisely why Dalembert’s arrival was so badly needed. Yes, he’s long been a very good shot-blocker, but he’s also equally adept on the boards, ranking 10th out of 53 centers in defensive rebound rate last season and finishing one spot behind Bogut (4th out of 60) in 2010-11. The fact that he will eat up a good chunk of Drew Gooden’s center minutes is also a very good thing, as the Bucks were a mind-boggling 12.7 points/100 possessions worse defensively with Gooden on the court last season.

It’s not just up to Dalembert, of course. But playing Luc Mbah a Moute more at small forward (where he’s an all-world defender and plus rebounder) and giving more minutes to Tobias Harris at the same spot also helps on the boards. Also worth noting: While most people tend to focus on Ilyasova’s offensive rebounding prowess, he’s always been an above-average defensive rebounder and last season was actually the first time he rated higher on the offensive boards.

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