Milwaukee Bucks: Will They Soon Begin to Fade In the East?

The Milwaukee Bucks may be in the thick of things out in the Eastern Conference. Their 16-13 record has them clinging onto the fifth seed in a three-way tie with the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. Still, they have holes that need to be filled with a devastating slate of games on tap. I wouldn’t call it a Happy New Year for the Bucks yet.

First of all, credit Scott Skiles for managing a mainly inexperienced team. Joel Przybilla, Samuel Dalembert, Drew Gooden, and Mike Dunleavy do provide a taste of experience, but other than Dunleavy, none of that group plays a major role. Dunleavy is scoring nearly 12 points a game at age 32.

Skiles has been also tested with the task of managing two capable scorers in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Both require the ball to make an impact, but this tandem hasn’t failed, per se. Ellis and Jennings do lead the Bucks in scoring, respectively, but it’s obvious that they don’t exactly play off of each other. Jennings’ numbers improve when Ellis isn’t on the floor and vice versa.

The same type of duo existed in Golden State for a few years with Stephen Curry and Ellis, two scorers who demand the ball more than not. It was exciting basketball, yes, but did it churn out any notable results in terms of winning? No.

The Bucks have said that they will match any offer for Jennings, who is a restricted free agent after the year. As for Ellis, who knows what the future holds for the scoring guard after the season terminates.

The long-time Warrior is likely to opt out of his contract at the end of the season according to Gery Woelfel of the Racine (Wis.) Journal Times. In a plan to avoid getting nothing in return for his services if he does head for greener pastures, the Bucks could be trade him before the Feb. 21 deadline. Or Milwaukee could entice him to stay.

Either way, the upcoming West Coast swing may reveal the daunting answers that Bucks’ fans crave to one question: Are they for real?

To say that the Bucks have had it “easy” this year would be stripping them of their success. They’ve beaten a good band of teams, including the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Bulls, Nets, and Boston Celtics. All could or will be playoff teams in the East come April.

A good portion of their schedule, though, has been against teams sitting in or near the cellar. According to Basketball Reference, their Simple Rating, which takes into account strength of schedule as a factor,  is -1.04 which technically gives them the seventh easiest schedule out of the 15 Eastern Conference teams. Also, Milwaukee’s 14-7 record against their own conference holds value when compared to their 2-6 record against the West, as the East is traditionally known as the weaker conference.

Perhaps that 2-6 mark will see an upswing over the next few weeks if they play their cards right, as beginning Wednesday they will play a slew of Western Conference teams, many of them legitimate contenders.

The stretch will begin at home against the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. The Bucks have already lost to the Spurs once, but it wasn’t a blowout (110-99 on Dec. 5). The Rockets, meanwhile, own the sixth seed in the West, so no easy assignment there.

Some of the other notable challenges the Bucks will be faced with in January include the Bulls twice, the Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors. Three of those games will be on the road where the Bucks own a respectable 7-7 record and all six teams would be in or on the cusp of making the playoffs should they start today.

So can the Bucks keep their good fortunate rolling in 2013? Well, probably not, if past trends serve as any indications, that is.

Even with two reputable scorers, they don’t have enough firepower to overcome some of the superior Western Conference teams. Their scoring average of 95.8 would land them a bottom-five spot out West, in front of only inferior teams such as the New Orleans Hornets.

The only anomalies at the bottom of the scoring list would be the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom currently own top eight seeds. But the Rockets, Spurs, and Warriors, for instance, all rank in the top 10 in points per game. And in January, Milwaukee will encounter the ambitious Western Conference, not the slow-paced, defensive minded squads that suit their style better.

While winning against your own conference may manifest into a low playoff seed early on, the Bucks are likely to fade before we can call them legitimate contenders. Meaning, Ellis, and perhaps a few others will probably be moved.

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Tags: Brandon Jennings Milwaukee Bucks Monta Ellis

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