The Other Surprise

By Kevin Pelton
Jan. 5, 2004

Despite the loss of their two best players this summer, despite having as their go-to player a reserve from last season, despite being picked by most experts to finish last in their conference, despite multiple injuries, this NBA team is in the playoff hunt as the 2004 portion of the campaign kicks off.

The Utah Jazz, right? Wrong. Try the Milwaukee Bucks.

Despite the protests of Eric Jewell in Kirksville, MO, who wrote's "The Beat" last month to complain about how little coverage the Jazz had been getting, you can't go to a national site without hearing something about Utah. Whether it's Frank Hughes at eating crow for his prediction that the Jazz would win eight games (a prediction that caused fan site to create a musical tribute that simply must be seen) or several columnists pushing Jerry Sloan for the long-overdue Coach of the Year award this column would have given him last season, there's been tons of coverage of Utah.

Other than Hoopsworld's own Steve Kyler, who, to his credit, has been pushing the Bucks since training camp, the basketball media has generally ignored Milwaukee. (Editor's Note: Actually, Marc Stein of did write about the Bucks between when this column was written and when it was published.) Maybe it's because it's easy to write off the performance of an team in the Eastern Conference - and, for that matter, while the Bucks are the sixth seed, they are at the moment just a game above .500, 17-16.

Still, the Bucks' story is a more compelling one than Utah to me. The Jazz is winning with a system and a coach who has been in place for what only seems like all my life. While the Jazz has several rookies on the bench, its entire starting lineup was with the team last season. The Bucks, meanwhile, have a rookie GM and a rookie coach, as well as three new starters and five new players regularly in their rotation.

Nobody picked the Bucks to break the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers' record for futility, but few people had them much above last in the Central Division. I, alas, was no exception. In my season preview, I picked Milwaukee to win 30 games, the second-lowest total in the NBA ahead of the Jazz.

What have the Bucks done that neither I nor most experts saw happening? I can't speak for the experts, but personally I'm not sure the Bucks have really beaten my expectations by a whole lot. Michael Redd is in the NBA's top ten in scoring, averaging over 22 points per game, but he's slightly underperformed my expectation in terms of how much of his shooting efficiency he's lost. Tim Thomas has played well, but he's also been hurt a lot. Getting anything out of Daniel Santiago exceeded most everyone's expectations.

Power forward Joe Smith is the one exception. When I previewed the Bucks for last month, I started to write that they got virtually nothing for the two stars they lost this summer, Sam Cassell and Gary Payton, but I have to admit that isn't the case. While Minnesota coach Flip Saunders never seemed comfortable with Smith, the Bucks have made him their starter and gotten solid results out of him -- 10.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Bucks coach Terry Porter calls him "our most consistent starter".

What I probably have to confess is to underrating the combined contributions of a number of players I've felt are individually underrated. Redd is one. Every other column I wrote this summer included the declaration that he would average twenty points per game this season; I just didn't realize what that would mean for the Bucks. That is quite a bit, according to Porter.

"I don't know where we'd be without him, because he's done a tremendous job - offensively and everything we've asked him to do," Porter says of Redd.

Similarly, the performance of many of Milwaukee's reserves, like journeyman point guard Damon Jones and high-percentage second-year center Dan Gadzuric, isn't really a surprise, but has been important nonetheless.

I also didn't expect so much so soon from Porter, a Wisconsin native who starred for the Portland Trail Blazers during their late-80s and early-90s. After just one season as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings, Porter has become one of the NBA's brightest young coaches. It's early, but already Porter has his team playing well at the defensive end of the court -- one of the NBA's most offensively-biased teams last season, they are about even this year -- and has gotten fine production out of long-time enigmas Smith and Tim Thomas.

Most of all, Porter has his charges playing hard, one of the most important things for any coach of a young team.

"I think, from a coaching standpoint, you try to get the guys to play hard every night," Porter says. "We've done that. We've really been in every game and given ourselves chances to win games at home and on the road, so that's been definitely a good thing."

The Bucks have done that despite some costly injuries. Brian Skinner, an outstanding free-agent pickup by the Bucks' first-year GM, Larry Harris, went down just three games into the season, requiring arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Skinner did not return until late last month. Through eight games, Skinner is averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks on 51.9% shooting, the kind of production most teams would take from their starting center -- especially one making about a million dollars this year. (That injury was particularly devastating to me because Skinner was killing for my fantasy basketball team.)

Milwaukee was also without Thomas for nine games earlier this month, as well as his backup, Toni Kukoc, who has missed nine games.

"Obviously we've missed the three guys - Brian Skinner, Toni Kukoc, and Tim (Thomas), all those guys," Porter says. "They're important to us not only offensively, but defensively too. The thing about it, we really have to go at times with a small lineup that's hurt us at times on the boards."

At the same time, Porter points out that his team has to play with what it's got.

"I am not looking for excuses to 'fold the tent', so to speak early; we'll go out and compete with whoever we have and we play hard," he says. "That has been probably the biggest positive (to our season)."

With all three players back in the lineup, the near future is looking up for the Bucks. Their point differential is also a good sign. Though the Bucks are barely above .500, they've outscored their opponents by 39 points in the season, which seems to indicate they're not going away any time soon.

The bigger question is what we can learn from the Bucks. One lesson, I think, is the validation of a theory I've held for some time -- that the most efficient thing to do with the center position, unless you have Shaquille O'Neal or Yao Ming, is to avoid spending money or high draft picks on it. In years past, the Bucks have had a reasonably well-paid Ervin Johnson on the roster along with lottery pick Joel Przybilla, and gotten out of them mediocre production at best. (Johnson has had his moments, but his last two years in Milwaukee were pretty dreadful.) Skinner, Gadzuric, and Santiago aren't going to make any All-Star teams, but they've provided decent production while combining to make about two million.

Another lesson is that a low payroll isn't always a bad thing. Baseball analysts have discussed how a slashed payroll helped Kansas City Royals GM Allard Baird make better decisions, going with cheap young players instead of veterans like Chuck Knoblauch. In the same way, Harris had no choice but to look at lower-tier free agents, and that helped him find bargains like Skinner, Jones, and Erick Strickland (though that certainly shouldn't take any credit away from Harris, who has done a phenomenal job cleaning up the messy situation left him by Ernie Grunfeld and George Karl).

However, the most important lesson has yet to be answered, and is one that both the Bucks and the Jazz (and, to a lesser extent, the Denver Nuggets) will provide insight into next season. That question is how to manage surprising success.

You see, the dark side of the Bucks' story is their similarity to the 1999-00 Orlando Magic. Doc Rivers and Porter are virtual twins. Both were heady point guards who finished their careers with San Antonio and were thrust into a head-coaching role shortly after retirement with little experience -- and flourished nonetheless. Like the Bucks, the Magic shed bloated payroll and multiple name stars after the team's first-round playoff defeat, ending up with a group of journeymen and youngsters.

Milwaukee has more star power than Orlando did -- Redd could be an All-Star, while most of the rest of its starting lineup is well-established -- and its rebuild isn't focusing on future free agents, like the Magic were with Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, and Tim Duncan. However, the Magic's inability to do much better than they did that season even with McGrady in the lineup, which eventually culminated in Rivers' dismissal and a 19-game losing streak this season, is a cautionary tale. The Bucks must be careful to avoid selling their soul, their role as hard-working underdogs, for what seem like talent upgrades.

That is, however, a story for another day. For now, let us be satisfied with seeing another hard-working bunch that was counted out achieve more than almost anyone expected.

Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on He writes "Page 23" for on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at