By Doug Russell Special to Published Feb 17, 2012 at 11:00 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

Nothing is going to be easy with this, is it?

I hope the Bucks haven't given up on their coach. I hope they haven't given up on the season. Most of all, I hope they haven't given up on themselves.

The eyeball test indicates that any or all of those possibilities are not out of the question. What else can be said about the lifeless embarrassment of performances we have all witnessed over the last two weeks?

It is a fine line between being in a funk and actually full-on quitting. And while it is true that you only can find the character of a man in his darkest hour, right now it is impossible to say whether or not the Milwaukee Bucks have reached that valley after falling to the putrid New Orleans Hornets at the Bradley Center Wednesday, 92-89.

"We just couldn't get over the hump," Bucks guard Mike Dunleavy said. "We're just struggling right now with coming out and putting together a full 48 minutes and playing with energy and passion."

Of course Dunleavy is right. But how can a team that seemingly has legitimate NBA talent, even without Andrew Bogut, not at least bring their "A" game?

When Brandon Jennings told reporters after the game, "It doesn't seem like we have the same passion we had in the first couple of months," no one was shocked. After all, we can all see for ourselves that something has gone horribly amiss.

But then when he admitted that "I can't say I've been playing hard the last couple games because I really haven't. I need to look in the mirror and ask myself is this something I'm up for," what are fans that spent perhaps hundreds of dollars to attend thinking?

And what exactly is Jennings wondering about what he is up for? Playing with tenacity and grit? Playing to the full capability he can? Or does he mean something worse? Is Jennings referring to playing for Scott Skiles, or is he uncertain about his ability to lead in the absence of Andrew Bogut?

Then again, I honestly do not know whether to commend Jennings on his honesty or want to ride him out on a rail for admitting to loafing. Under normal circumstances if there is a cancer in the locker room, you cut your losses and move on. But the Bucks simply cannot afford to do such a thing.

For better or worse, the Bucks are unable to do a wholesale changeover of their roster. It seems like general manager John Hammond has already tweaked things to the point that they should be able to at least be competitive with just a little luck. And as evidenced by yet another freak Bogut injury, luck has been in short supply with this franchise lately.

But you at least expect an effort. After Jennings' comments you wonder what the turning point was when he decided he didn't need go full-tilt. After beating the Lakers on Jan. 28 and then the Heat on Feb.1, the Bucks looked like the Bucks of 2010. Hustling after loose balls, playing defense, giving effort in all phases of the game made fans think that this year's squad was capable of overcoming Bogut's injury to at least some degree. In fact, after the Miami win, Milwaukee was just one game less than .500 with very winnable games right in front of them.

Since then, the Bucks lollygagged their way through almost half the game (particularly in the second quarter) against a poor Phoenix team Feb. 7 at the Bradley Center before losing 107-105. I suppose you can give them credit for coming back after digging themselves a massive hole, but just couldn't finish.

A pair of road wins (albeit to well below-average teams, Cleveland and Toronto) quelled the fears of some that the Bucks were incapable of coming from behind and keeping a lead.

And then three straight losses and Jennings admitting him and the rest of the team have not played up to their potential.

That begs the question of what has gotten into Brandon Jennings. Is it his new backcourt mate, Stephen Jackson? Jennings was never a problem child before this season in respect to his comments to the media. And while some of that can be attributed to him trying to be honest, it is human nature for him to look around at his situation and might think there could be something better for him elsewhere.

To his credit, Jennings has never come right out and said that he wants out of Milwaukee. Jackson all but has, when he accused Inside Milwaukee's Howie Magner of trying to get him fined when Howie was asking him the perfectly legitimate question of whether or not he actually wanted to still be here.

Meanwhile, Jennings told ESPN's Chris Broussard that when free agency arrives for him after next season, "I am going to keep my options open, knowing that the time is coming up. I'm doing my homework on big-market teams.''

Mind you, Jennings never said he was leaving, although Broussard's article cites unnamed sources indicating that Jennings is frustrated with the direction of the franchise.

"I'm not saying I won't (sign an extension with the Bucks) and I'm not saying I will,'' Jennings continued to Broussard. "I'm just keeping my options open."

The bottom line is this: If the players aren't invested in the team and are not giving 100 percent, the paying customers will know it. And they will start to get loud and disgusted with what they see. Some won't come back until they are winning consistently again.

The crime of all the issues on the court mask that there are well-intentioned, very competent professionals that have worked for the Bucks for years that want nothing more than to give fans the best possible experience when they come to the Bradley Center.

Bango is fantastic; the best in the NBA as a matter of fact as judged by his peers. The Energee! dance team practices for hours on end for routines that they do only once or twice so season ticket holders don't see the same thing over and over again. The Rim Rockers are unbelievable acrobats; and the break dance crew does things that you cannot even imagine are possible.

All this to make you have as good a fan experience for your hard-earned money.

But here's the rub. Most of the in-game performers do not get paid very much at all. Bango is well compensated, but he also works as the Bucks goodwill ambassador year-round at places like Summerfest and State Fair. The performers that get the lion's share of the cash are the main event.

And they are the ones that are letting everyone else down.

If the players cannot give 100 percent and they are making millions, why should Tiffany and Sara from Energee! learn their routines? Why should Bango keep honing his craft and looking for newer and more dangerous stunts? Why even bother with the break dancers in the fourth quarter? Should Eric Jensen on the PA mic just announce the players with zero intonation because it gets the job done just the same? Why should he give one hundred percent every game? What about the stat crew guys? If they miss a rebound or assist here and there, who is going be the wiser?

The answer of course as to why they do not is because they are professionals who have pride and care about their craft.

Look, losses happen. There is the whole "any given Sunday" axiom that correctly states that at any time, in any league (not just football, where the saying began); any team can beat another no matter the records of either squad. In other words, while it may not happen often, the worst beats the best occasionally. That's just part of sports.

But the Bucks right now are just getting out-worked by teams that are bottom-feeders. Detroit, Charlotte, and New Orleans are all teams Milwaukee should pound, especially seeing how they were able to be the Lakers and Heat (twice) is the days leading up to their current malaise.

If only it were that simple.

I will never be of the "let 'em leave" crowd. It is a foolhardy argument and one that does not have a good end. Just look at what happened after the Sonics were allowed to leave Seattle for Oklahoma City. They thrived with players they drafted while still in the Emerald City. Now, just a couple of years later, a new arena plan is being discussed in Seattle for either a NBA or NHL team because they did not know what they had until it was gone.

I maintain this team is not that far away from being a contender from a player personnel perspective. However, that means little to nothing when the players are not playing to their fullest capabilities night in and night out.

It isn't a matter of being in a funk; it is a matter of effort. It is a matter of trying. It is a matter of earning your paycheck.

It is a matter of just being a professional.

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.