Bucking Expectations, Milwaukee Strikes Fear in East
Now, the rallying cry is "Fear the Deer.''
One of the NBA's most surprising resurgences this season has been that of the Milwaukee Bucks (38-30), who have won 14 of their past 16 games after a surprising victory Saturday at Denver.
Last summer, the Bucks were shedding payroll. They traded Richard Jefferson to San Antonio for next to nothing, renounced restricted free agent Charlie Villanueva and yawned when Minnesota put down an offer sheet on restricted free agent Ramon Sessions and claimed him a week later.
Now, the Bucks are a good bet to land the East's No. 5 seed as they close in on their first playoff berth in four years. And you better believe Atlanta and Boston, fighting to be the No. 3 rather than the No. 4 seed, wouldn't mind if able to duck a Buck outfit in the first round.
"We're playing extremely well,'' said Milwaukee general manager John Hammond. "We're playing hard and we're putting forth the consistent effort.'''
Hammond moved into the conversation for NBA Executive of the Year when he swung a deal at the Feb. 18 trade deadline in which the Bucks sent forwards Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander, who have expiring contracts, to Chicago, which wanted more summer salary-cap room, and got guard John Salmons. The trade is looking better each day.
Salmons is averaging 19.8 points, with Milwaukee being 14-2 since he arrived. The Bucks also got an option in the deal to switch first-round picks, with the Bulls' pick protected for the top 10. But, as it stands now and is very likely to end up, the Bucks would get Chicago's No. 11 pick in exchange for their No. 18 selection.
"The key to that team is Salmons,'' Nuggets acting head coach Adrian Dantley said on Saturday before Salmons scored 26 points in leading Milwaukee to a 102-97 win, dropping Denver's home record to 30-6. "He's a very good individual offensive player.''
Salmons filled a void left when guard Michael Redd had been lost for the season in January due to a knee injury. The Bucks had initially looked to fill that role by signing guard Jerry Stackhouse, 35. But while Stackhouse has been effective, he's pretty much a 20-minute-a-night guy while Salmons is averaging 37.9 for Milwaukee.
"You got to ask somebody else,'' the modest Salmons said when asked to talk about how he's made such a big difference.
That's a typical Milwaukee player answer. These Bucks are so mild mannered that shortly after Stackhouse joined the team he had to plead for somebody else to speak up in the locker room at halftime of a Jan. 26 108-107 loss at Dallas. With the Bucks trailing 59-53, Stackhouse thought some emotion was needed to be shown.
"For the most part, we've got a lot of young guys who are just trying to find their way and they're not trying to rock the boat,'' Stackhouse said.
The Bucks leave it to their feisty coach, Scott Skiles, who was ejected from a December game and then suspended by the NBA for one game for arguing with officials, to do the boat rocking. As for the players, they're mostly yes-sir, no-sir guys.
Salmons had to put off an interview request before Saturday's game because he was going to chapel.
"In this locker room, everybody comes in with no agenda on the team,'' Salmons said. "Everybody is just trying to play hard and win games. That's the bottom line.''
One could say the Bucks might be too nice a bunch to win big time in the NBA. But guard Luke Ridnour disagrees.
"It's probably the quietest team I've been on,'' he said. "But I think people speak up when needed.''
Bucks center Andrew Bogut is one of the friendliest guys in the league, but his statistics are now going the way of no more Mr. Nice Guy. While some had been wondering if Bogut, taken with the top pick in the 2005 draft, was going to end up being closer to a bust than to an All-Star, he has put up impressive averages in his fifth season of 16.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.53 blocks.
Bogut was averaging 14.6 points in Milwaukee's first 19 games. But his scoring numbers then began to rise with help from Bucks rookie point guard Brandon Jennings.
Jennings began the season a scoring star, putting up 55 points Nov. 14 against Golden State and averaging 25.3 points in the first 11 games. But once defenses started adjusting to Jennings, his scoring average went into a free fall and he said he needed to look to become more of a distributor.
"I felt like teams started to play me differently,'' said Jennings, now averaging 16.0 points and 6.1 assists. "I felt like I needed to start going to my big man, Andrew Bogut. So it wasn't like a rookie wall. I was just trying to figure out a way to start winning against losing. Once Bogut started going, everything opened up. And then we picked up Salmons.''
Jennings, a first-round steal last June with the No. 10 pick, is bolder than most of his teammates when it comes to talking a little trash and making proclamations. But even he has limits.
When asked whether the Bucks could do some damage in the postseason, Jennings said, "I don't know. I've never been the playoffs.''
When the Bucks have made it, they haven't stuck around too long. Since George Karl steered Milwaukee to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, the Bucks have made the playoffs just three times, falling in the first round in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Milwaukee hasn't had a winning record since going 42-40 in Karl's last season of 2002-03.
It wasn't looking good last summer for any of those trends to come to an end when the Bucks were shedding payroll. But, as it turned out, Hammond also might have been smarter than most. Jefferson, Sessions and Villanueva, now with Detroit, have underachieved with their new teams.
While Hammond pilfered Jennings in the draft last June, he still has a strike against him for taking Alexander with the No. 8 pick in 2008 and the Bucks not picking up his option after it was determined it was a draft error. But even that turned out better than expected due to Alexander being packaged in the deal for Salmons.
Hammond's competition for Executive of the Year will come from Dallas' Donnie Nelson, who swung a big deal at the trade deadline to perhaps slide the Mavericks into title contention, and Cleveland's Danny Ferry, although Ferry's biggest move of acquiring Antawn Jamison might not help him if voting executives don't like how traded Zydrunas Ilgauskas is about to return to the Cavaliers. Sam Presti also is in contention for building up Oklahoma City, although there wasn't a marquee move this season.
Through it all, Hammond prefers to pass on much praise to Skiles.
"Scott Skiles deserves a lot of the credit for the leadership he's provided for us,'' Hammond said. "We know the players perform ... Our players deserve a ton of credit. But Scott deserves credit for the leadership he's had.''
Skiles is in his second season with the Bucks, having led them to a 34-48 mark in 2008-09. But that was an aberration.
Until last season, Skiles had led teams to the playoffs in each of the four full seasons he had coached. Overall, he's about to take a team to the postseason for the sixth time, having earned berths with Phoenix twice and Chicago three times in the past decade.
"We were playing a lot better before we got John,'' Skiles said about the Bucks being 18-25 in late January before going 7-3 prior to the Salmons acquisition. "I'm not trying to minimize John. But we had a pretty big significant uptick in our defense and our overall play ... Then, boom, you add a quality player like John, and Jerry was added in there as well (in January). Bogut's play, he was starting to be more consistent. Brandon started to settle down a little bit.''
Put it all together and Milwaukeeans no longer are crying in their beer. Buck luck has changed.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at tomasson@fanhouse or on Twitter@christomasson