Trying to predict what will happen during the regular season based on the results of games that don’t count is as futile as forecasting spring weather from the outcome of Groundhog Day. At the moment, this appears to be a fortunate truth for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Mind you, a 3-5 preseason record is no more worth fretting about than the team’s 2-0 exhibition start was reason to rejoice. The utter uselessness of actual game results this time of year is undisputed, but if you need proof, the 2008 Detroit Lions went 4-0 in glorified scrimmages before becoming the only 0-16 squad in NFL history.
Moreover, the Los Angeles Lakers, with two new stars, went 0-8 this exhibition campaign, and no one would argue that this mark lessens their championship aspirations.
Still, when you’re a team that’s failed to build on a surprise playoff appearance two seasons removed and declined to give your coach and GM contract extensions as a result, it would be nice to be further along the road to team cohesion as real games beckon.
Winning the first two over division weaklings Cleveland and Detroit turned out to be fool’s gold. Save for erasing a 20-point deficit against lowly Charlotte, Milwaukee would have dropped its last six. “Discouraging” is the only word that accurately describes the club’s performance in the dress rehearsal Friday night in Green Bay, which did nothing to divert the town’s attention from the Packers.
Scott Skiles rightly questioned his team’s readiness for prime time in Boston in a week and said he had not decided on a starting lineup. The players noted their struggles at both ends of the court. The only positive coming out of the locker room was the absence of excuses. Skiles wouldn’t tolerate any.
Let’s settle the matter of the starting five: Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt (obviously), and Samuel Dalembert, Ersan Ilyasova and Tobias Harris up front.
Harris wins the starting small forward job almost by default, with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute having yet to suit up this season. Harris will have his tough nights, especially on defense, but he’s worked hard to improve and is healthy. Unless Skiles does an about face, he prefers to bring Mike Dunleavy off the bench, and the same figures to apply to versatile veteran Marquis Daniels. The Bucks invested first-round money in Harris, and there certainly are worse fourth scoring options in the NBA.
A front line of Dalembert, Ilyasova, and Drew Gooden intrigues me, but if we ever see it, it would probably be more of a matchup-driven wrinkle than a staple. And as long as Milwaukee sports a glut of power forwards, Skiles will be able to do plenty of experimenting. Dunleavy might see some minutes at shooting guard if any kind of jumbo package is unveiled.
Defense remains the biggest area of concern as the Bucks break camp. Protecting the basket was priority one this offseason, and the team did lead the league in blocked shots in preseason. But they are young, and Skiles, who still wants to hang his hat on guarding, employs a complicated system. Milwaukee allowed 98.7 points per game last season, 22nd in the NBA.
Skiles has set an ambitious goal of a top 10 ranking in that category for this year. For it to be reached, a “Beware of Dog” sign in the paint won’t be enough. The team’s small guards will have to work extra hard to contain dribble penetration, a common source of easy points in an increasingly guard-dominated league. If Jennings and Ellis are beaten with regularity, the pressure on the bigs to protect the rim and on the offense to torch the nets will be too much to overcome on many nights.
Skiles is on the short list of coaches who may have been born to coax maximum defensive effort out of millionaires of average ability. He knows the season depends on it. As upbeat as GM John Hammond is, he knows it, too.
One wishes there were more tune-ups for the players to get that message. But ready or not, the real season is upon us. Here’s hoping the players are at their best when the lights are brightest.