New expectations for Milwaukee
Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd winces even at the mention of the topic. Redd and the rest of his teammates don’t have too many fond memories of last season, when injuries piled up almost as rapidly as the losses during a 28-54 campaign.
Already, the Bucks, who won 7 of their first 12 games, are being mentioned among the NBA’s most improved teams. Which is fine with Redd, who along with the rest of his teammates, had a bitter aftertaste from such a sour season and are using that as a motivation this year.
“We had such a miserable season last year and don’t want to experience that again,” said Redd, now in his eighth season. “Everybody has come in with a chip on their shoulder and really hungry to play the season and improve on what we did last year.”
If the Bucks can stay healthy, this could be a team that surely challenges for an Eastern Conference playoff berth.
While injuries alone can’t be blamed for the sour season, they were obviously the main contributor.
Redd missed 29 games, including 20 due to left patellar tendon strain and then nine others with left knee pain. It’s no surprise that the Bucks were 5-24 without Redd in the lineup. Forward Bobby Simmons, a key reserve, missed the entire season due to a stress reaction in his right heel. Center Andrew Bogut was sidelined the final 16 games of the season with a left mid-foot sprain. Forward Charlie Villanueva missed 43 games with various injuries, including a torn elbow ligament and shoulder tendonitis. On March 27, he underwent season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Point guard Mo Williams missed 14 games with various injuries.
“Injuries happen, but it hit me, and hit us hard last year,” Redd said. “This year everybody is healthy and back.”
The Bucks have added depth by drafting Chinese seven-footer Yi Jianlian and signing free agents Desmond Mason and Royal Ivey. This is Mason’s second tour of duty with the Bucks while Ivey was a free agent signing from Atlanta.
Yi, whose agent Dan Fegan had suggested prior to the draft that he wouldn’t play in Milwaukee, has made a smooth adjustment to a new culture, a new league. Through 12 games he was averaging 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds.
“He has been a real bright spot for us,” Krystkowiak said about Yi.
The Bucks had been warned by Fegan not to draft him, but they stuck to their convictions and selected Yi with the No. 6 pick in the first round.
Now the 20-year-old Yi is getting adjusted to the speed and the physical aspect of playing in the NBA. One negative is that he has had a tendency to get into early foul trouble.
“I have to improve on fouls,” Yi said through an interpreter. “I am definitely making that improvement in my performance.”
While he uses an interpreter, Yi speaks and understands English and is able to communicate well with his teammates.
‘We thought there would be a language barrier problem, but it hasn’t existed,” Krystkowiak said. “He is really smart and understands a lot of basketball English. He’s not your typical rookie.”
Mason, who spent the previous two seasons playing for the Hornets in Oklahoma City, has provided solid medium-range shooting and the ability to get to the basket.
The Bucks re-signed Williams to a lucrative contract and he is among the team leaders, averaging 14 points, 7.4 assists and 3.1 turnovers in the first 12 games. Defensively, Williams and the Bucks still have plenty of room to grow.
Bogut, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft following his sophomore year at the University of Utah, hasn’t produced monster numbers in his brief career. This year he was averaging 12 points and nearly nine rebounds a game.
“People forget this would be his rookie year had he stayed in college,” Krystkowiak said. “Whenever you are the first pick in the draft there are always expectations and I’m not sure he was ready for it.”
Krystkowiak says that Bogut is among the hardest workers on a team in which many players share that trait.
“I think he has grown as a player and awful lot and has kind of found his niche,” Krystkowiak said.
If the Bucks are to return to the postseason, it will be Redd who will be the difference maker. Averaging nearly 24 points per game, Redd is much more than a stand-still jump shooter.
Playing for the U.S. during this summer’s Olympic qualifying tournament had a profound impact on Redd.
“Every day we cherished it and ultimately we won the gold medal,” he said.
More than the medal, he benefited from being around some of the top players in the game.
“His game has grown after spending some time with high caliber players this summer and seeing how they make their team better,” Krystkowiak said. “He has had a good game where matched vs. LeBron James and the next night matched up with Kobe and is willing to accept those defensive challenges.”
All the early talk about the Bucks’ improvement has made Krystkowiak a little nervous.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the whole thing,” he said. “It wasn’t that many week ago when people were picking us 13th or 12th in the East during the preseason.”
The Bucks, like any team, will hit their share of NBA road bumps. One occurred during a 114-99 loss to the visiting Philadelphia 76ers in the 12th game of the season. At the time, the Bucks had been 6-0 at home, while the Sixers entered the game having lost seven of their previous eight games.
“We’re disappointed, but at the same time, you can’t take away from what we’ve done,” Williams said afterwards. “…We’re upbeat, we’re not down and we’ll stay together.”
And if they stay healthy, the Bucks could enjoy an extended season this year.
Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com