Get ready for some action.
The only precedent to the wild wheeling-and-dealing that is about to unfold over the next four weeks came back in 1999, when the NBA resumed action after its first-ever lockout. At that time, Milwaukee had a solid core of young players, including Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson, so General Manager Bob Weinhauer didn’t make any sweeping changes. The team’s offseason moves consisted mainly of signing two guards in the twilight of their careers: Dell Curry and Vinny Del Negro. Curry was a grand pickup, if for no other reason than the expert tutelage he provided to a young Allen.
The young Bucks did well after the lockout, as they fought through the condensed regular season and crept into the playoffs with a 28-22 record. In a best-of-five first-round series, though, the Reggie Miller/Mark Jackson/Chris Mullin Pacers swept the Bucks out of the playoffs.
But back at the trade deadline that season, Milwaukee made two moves that solidified the core of the team and laid the groundwork for a run to the Eastern Conference Finals two years later. First, they made a three-way trade that had them sending out Terrell Brandon and Elliot Perry, while taking back Sam Cassell and Chris Gatling in return. Then, they seized upon the desperation of the 76ers and took Tim Thomas off their hands (along with Scott Williams) for pennies on the dollar (Tyrone Hill and Jerald Honeycutt).
Now in 2011, key decisions need to be made again. While the labor agreement’s amnesty clause could trigger player movement in the preseason, the pending 2012 free-agent class could spur move substantial deals in March.
For December, however, here are seven important questions that will determine the short-term makeup of the team. With any luck, the Bucks will make the Eastern Conference Finals in the next few years. (Hey, there’s an “even playing field” now for small-market teams, so dream big!)
1) Who are the starters?
A few weeks ago, We’re Bucked put this question out there for readers to answer. Yes, it’s a survey, which in principle is a bad way to put together a lineup, but the results actually make a lot of sense.
Here’s what we do know about the 2012 lineup: Bogut starts at center, Jennings takes his spot at the point, but then things get a bit dicier. Drew Gooden probably fits in as the starting power forward, while Stephen Jackson and Carlos Delfino figure to get starting nods because, well, there isn’t much competition, especially if Luc Mbah a Moute isn’t signed to a deal quickly (see below).
Keep in mind that two seasons ago, Scott Skiles inserted rookie Brandon Jennings into the starting lineup from Day 1, and he stuck with it for all 82 games. Could he do that again with Tobias Harris at small forward? It’s a crazy notion, especially with the shortened training camp leaving little time to teach the young draftee from the University of Tennessee.
But sometimes you have to ask, “How crazy IS crazy?”
2) Who is the backup center?
To be honest, the Bucks don’t have one. Larry Sanders plays like a shot-blocking power forward, and although Drew Gooden and Jon Brockman spent time manning the job last season, it was a triumph of necessity over design.
If the Bucks look elsewhere, the most logical candidate is Joel Przybilla, who only played 36 games last season with a chronically sore knee. Przybilla himself declared Milwaukee as one of his desired destinations. He also claimed that his knee was “90 percent” of full health in September, but is that going to be good enough in a compressed schedule where teams will be expected to play on three consecutive days?
Bucks’ fans should hope so, because Przybilla could join the team soon. And if you remember his last stint here, it’s P-R-Z-Y-B…
3) Will the Bucks be able to sign restricted free agent Luc Mbah a Moute?
Back in June, the Bucks tendered a qualifying offer of about a million dollars to Mbah a Moute. It will take more than that to keep him in Milwaukee.
For information on how much teams will be willing to pay Luc, take a look at the leaked details of the tentative CBA agreement. Mbah a Moute is a solid NBA player who can defend three posistions at an elite level. However, given his limits offensively, savvy teams aren’t going to lavish any huge paydays on Luc. Some teams, though — especially those looking for a playoff-level defensive boost — may soon come calling. Those postseason-bound high-rollers will have the new mini mid-level exception to offer.
The details of the new CBA allow teams over the luxury tax threshold to still have a midlevel exception; however, the scale of the allowable free-agent deals for those teams is now smaller.
Mbah a Moute isn’t a player that you build your franchise around, but given the right system and the right talent around him, he is a very serviceable piece. Expect a high-caliber club to make Luc an offer to start the bidding, and as a result, he’ll get a contract somewhere between these two mid-level numbers.
4) Of the many options available, who is the backup point guard?
Jake McCormick is going to tackle this issue later this week, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of candidates. Keyon Dooling has a year left on his contract, but the draft day trade that brought in Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih has fueled speculation that Dooling could be headed elsewhere. (For a read on Beno and his thoughts on Milwaukee and the end of the lockout, check out the Journal Sentinel story posted Sunday night.)
Personally, I’m in the pro-Shaun-for-backup camp, but even if Livingston wins the job, Beno’s versatility means he should be able to snag lots of minutes as a shooting/combo guard.
5) Will Jon Leuer come back from Europe?
The 6’10″ forward from the University of Wisconsin is averaging 13.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game with the Frankfurt Skyliners in Germany. NBA second-round draft picks have neither guaranteed roster spots nor contracts. Will Leuer want to risk his European gig to take a chance on three-quarters of a season of limited minutes in the States?
6) What happens with Ersan Ilyasova?
Ilyasova didn’t seem happy last year, particularly when his playing time took a nosedive. Now, Ersan has gone on the record to say that he wants to spend the full season with Anadolu Efes and NOT in Milwaukee.
He has one year and $2.5 million left on his contract with the Bucks, but how will it play out? Will John Hammond find any willing takers via trade? Or will Ersan be forced into showing up at the Bucks training camp on December 9th, even if he doesn’t really want to be here?
It’s not surprising that Ilyasova wants to stay in Turkey. He’s a 24-year-old kid who moved overseas, didn’t like it, and made his way back home. And at home, his new team, Anadolu Efes, is 7-0 in Turkish League play and the odds-on favorite to win the title. Plus, Ersan is playing well for them. He is averaging 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game (in about 22 minute per game), while making 44.4% of his three-point attempts.
To cap off his displeasure, Ilyasova was slated to earn €2.7 million for a full season with Efes — which converts to about $3.5 million — so he stood to make more money in Europe than he will in the NBA. Count Ersan among the few folks disappointed to see the lockout end.
7) What about Darington Hobson?
The Bucks aren’t exactly swimming with roster depth at the wing spots. They have Carlos Delfino, Stephen Jackson, Tobias Harris (SF only), … and Hobson. The Bucks’ 2nd round pick in 2010 underwent two hip surgeries that kept him from action last season. He was cut in December, but given that he kept training and rehabbing in Milwaukee, it is all but a certainty that he is in Milwaukee when camp opens December 9th.
Given his talent and the current lack of shooting guards in town, Hobson will have a fair shot at making the team. His status could change, however, if the Bucks make a deal before the start of the season.
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