Realistically thinking, we know the Bucks are going to be a bubble playoff team this season. They could sneak up to the No. 6 seed, depending on what breaks they catch, but odds are a 7- or 8-seed is in their future if they post a competitive enough record to warrant play after the regular season’s end.
This is a unique time, though, as professional basketball creeps back into the spotlight with official media days behind us and training camps underway. At the core of a fan’s heart is always a reserve of hope that tells the brain, against any logic, that this could be the year that turns the tide and transcends expectations.
Submit to this short line of questioning, if you will:
Do you remember the Miami Heat winning the NBA title this summer? (Of course, you do.)
What was Milwaukee’s record against the eventual champs last season?
The second question is more challenging, but you probably knew the answer. You’re reading this blog in early October, after all. Brandon Jennings and Co. bettered the Heat two times out of three.
There it is. The kindling for a fire. The Bucks, in a season when their defense dipped substantially and dropped from fourth to 16th in defensive rating standings, beat the Bosh-James-Wade triumvirate twice, accounting for 10 percent of Miami’s regular season losses and notching one more victory than the Oklahoma City Thunder — a team much more lauded than Milwaukee — did on the Finals stage.
Miami’s roster consisted of four guards, eight forwards and four centers in their most recent title-capturing campaign. LeBron was dubbed “One Through Five” and Bosh played significant minutes as a center, but considering primary positions, that was the roster’s makeup.
Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Bucks’ roster breaks down like this: four guards, eight forwards and three centers. This categorizes Drew Gooden and Mike Dunleavy as forwards (because, really, who is falling for those “C-F” and “G-F” tags?) along with Larry Sanders (whose “F-C” designation is accurate), but by going with a player’s natural position, those are awfully familiar numbers, no?
The only NBA championship winners with the exact positional composition as this season’s Bucks team are the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls. The ’76 Celtics rotated four in the backcourt with eight forwards and a lone center.
The ’88 Los Angeles Lakers and ’94 Houston Rockets threw lineups with combinations of five guards, seven forwards and three centers. Similarly, the ’96 Bulls went 4-7-4 in roster structure.
Those teams had frontcourt depth and were relatively thin at the guard positions, just like this season’s iteration of the Bucks. The obvious philosophical flaw in this comparison is that all those trophy-hoisting teams boasted the kind of star power — veritable Hall of Famers and, sometimes, better-than-usual role players — that cannot be found in Milwaukee.
Heading into his fourth professional term in the U.S., Jennings possesses upside like few players in the Association, but has established himself as a score-first point guard on a team that could use more distribution. Monta Ellis’ presence in his first full season as a Buck could coax Jennings into becoming more assist-happy, as general manager John Hammond recently noted, but they are one of the smaller backcourt duos in the league and that could be a defensive liability.
There’s an undeniable glut at the forward position to the point that Scott Skiles said at media day “there may be three [big men] that…didn’t play at all.” One of most heralded paint protectors in the NBA and the Bucks’ best all-around defender, Luc Mbah a Moute, is taking longer than expected to recover from a knee surgery in May and may not be available until after the first regular season tip-off. Ailing, too, is Doron Lamb, after tearing ligament in his non-shooting left elbow during a voluntary practice. There is not yet a timetable on his return, but the second-round draft pick was expected to add needed depth to the guard unit.
There is no reason to expect Lamb or Mbah a Moute to miss the entire season, just as there is no reason to doubt Jennings and Ellis’ ability to out-score their opposition, even if they may not be able to defend at the same level.
This is not the time for doom and gloom. Maybe October is even the time to be unreasonable. If the Bucks can win the season opener in Boston on Nov. 2 or unlock the BMO Harris Bradley Center with a victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers the following night, well, maybe that spark of hope will grow into something more. Ups, downs and possible playoff berths can wait.