Green and growing
Lost in the myopia of the NFL season, the Milwaukee Bucks are quiety preparing for what figures to be a rebuilding year in 2003-'04.
Coach George Karl and GM Ernie Grunfeld are gone, leaving Terry Porter and Larry Harris in their wake, inexperienced NBA leaders piloting a young, unproven team.
Training camp in St. Francis has been filled with the typical underdog talk of making the playoffs and a lack of league respect, which are valid thoughts to have in October. We'll have to see what the daily chatter evolves into come January.
With new leadership and a remade roster, let's get reacquainted with your ... Milwaukee Bucks.
HOLDOVERS -- Tim Thomas (1), Michael Redd (2), Desmond Mason (3), Toni Kukoc (4), Dan Gadzuric (5), Joel Przybilla (6), Marcus Haislip (7) and Jason Caffey. (Numbers denote assumed roster spots on the final 12-man version)
Thomas is the only significant holdover from the recent Milwaukee glory days. For the Bucks to make a run at the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Thomas will need to significantly increase his career-best 13.3 ppg average. His touches will increase accordingly, of course, as will both Redd and Mason's. While one of the primary camp questions is which young player will start at small forward, the fact remains that each "tweener" will play a pivotal role for the Bucks: Redd must make shots; Mason must defend and slash to the basket.
Kukoc was praised for an eminently professional season at age 34 last year. Porter will look for more of the same, in addition to better health, from his talented Croatian this season. Hopefully, he'll approach his '02-'03 per game averages of 27 minutes and 11.6 points. If either is significantly higher, the younger Bucks aren't delivering; lower, and he's probably injured.
Gadzuric and Przybilla are both fighting for the starting center job with Daniel Santiago (see below). Gadzuric is a great athlete who loves to run in transition, but Porter isn't convinced he can bang with legitimate No. 5 types on a nightly basis. Ideally, he provides energy and rebounding off the bench in critical stretches. Patience will soon wear thin with Przybilla, who apparently didn't have a great relationship with Karl despite starting 17 of the 32 games he was limited to because of ankle problems last year. So far, the No. 9 pick in the 2000 draft has been a bust, but he just turned 24 last week and possesses some defensive skills.
Haislip will be an interesting player to watch. Extremely talented physically, the second-year man saw some time in the playoffs during his rookie voyage last year, scoring 8 points in Game 1 at New Jersey. With Anthony Mason off the roster, he'll naturally get more minutes in relief of Thomas. He brings Kenyon Martin-type athleticism to the front line.
Caffey was perennially disgruntled under Karl, though who wasn't? Porter may elect to keep him around because of his rebounding skills, but he seems like a natural candidate to be shipped elsewhere at some point during the year.
NEWCOMERS -- T.J. Ford (8), Daniel Santiago (9), Brian Skinner (10), Erick Strickland (11) and Joe Smith (12).
Ford, of course, is the lightning-quick heir apparent to Sam Cassell at the point. Critics question his jumper and his size (5-10, 165), but I expect many will be won over by his electric style and pure speed. The Bucks haven't had a drive-and-dish point guard since the brief Terrell Brandon experiment in the late '90s, so it will be refreshing to have a No. 1 who actually likes to pass.
Santiago has size (7-1, 256) and some offensive skill around the hoop, including a baby hook shot. He spent parts of two seasons with Phoenix before shipping off to Italy last year; he also earned a bronze medal for the Puerto Rican national team at Olympic qualifying this summer. Porter would love it if the 27-year old established himself enough to earn starting time, but he'll most likely rotate minutes and fouls with Gadzuric and Przybilla, based on matchups.
Skinner averaged 11 boards in four games against the Bucks last year, so Harris employed the "if you can't beat them, sign them" philosophy and inked the Sixer to a three-year pact. Makes sense to me, except the caveat that Skinner won't be playing the Bucks anymore, and thus his overall total of 4.8 rpg may suffer. Actually, he can be sure to earn more than the 18 minutes a night he garnered in Philly, and at this point, the Bucks' interior can't get much more ineffective.
Strickland is a professional backup who will tutor and spell Ford. The Bucks represent his sixth professional tour of duty, and he's managed to offer 8.2 PPG and 2.5 apg cumulatively across five other teams. He's not a great shooter, but he's curiously effective from beyond the arc, averaging 35.3 percent for his career and 38.8 percent in Indiana last year.
The Smith acquisition spoke volumes about how badly the Bucks wanted Cassell out of town. In what amounted to a money swap, Smith -- the No.1 overall pick of the 1995 draft -- arrives on the heels of two generally bad years in Minnesota. He had knee and ankle problems last year and has been nursing a minor toe infection in camp. He should be good for 12 points and 6 rebounds a night.
LONGSHOTS -- Damon Jones, Lynn Greer, Greg Stempin and Antonio Meeking.
Jones has bounced around the league since 1998 and could earn a roster spot if Strickland goes down or struggles early on. He played in 49 games for the Kings last year but wasn't around for the playoffs. Greer is a 6-2 shooter who once scored 47 points against Wisconsin while at Temple. He's likely ticketed for more time in the NBDL, though the Bucks are interested in anyone who can score now that the Big Three is the Big Nada. Stempin (6-8, 202) is an NBDL-er himself and a slightly smaller version of Haislip; he would appear to be little more than a camp body. Ditto Meeking, who is bigger (6-8, 245) than Stempin and played well at camps this summer to earn a St. Francis invite.
The only roster question appears to be on the frontline, where Caffey looks to be the odd man out. But with the team's early injury trouble in camp, it's also a possibility one of the big men will start the year on the inactive list to open a spot for the veteran.
With its journeyman flavor and the lack of a defined star, the roster does smell a bit like ones from the dark days of the mid-90s. Clearly the Bucks are focusing on the development of Thomas, Redd, Mason, Haislip and Ford. If Porter squeezes a playoff berth out of the group, so much the better.
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