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Bucks

BUCKS PREVIEW: Four things Milwaukee needs to do to make the playoffs

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Caron Butler, Earl Clark

Milwaukee Bucks small forward Caron Butler drives past Earl Claork of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half of an NBA preseason game Tuesday night in Cleveland. Butler scored four points in his first game as a Buck, but the Cavaliers won 99-87. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Usually when an NBA team reaches the playoffs, only a few changes are made for the following season.

That wasn’t the case with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Following last season’s Eastern Conference playoff appearance — the eighth-seeded Bucks were swept in four games by the champion Miami Heat — Milwaukee general manager John Hammond didn’t just tweak the roster, he blew it up. He traded starting point guard Brandon Jennings to Detroit and let starting shooting guard Monta Ellis walk during free agency.

When Hammond had completed his demolition job, only four players — Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh — remained from last season’s squad. It means the Bucks will have 11 new players in uniform, including Racine native Caron Butler, when they open the regular season Wednesday night against the Knicks in New York.

It is the biggest makeover in Bucks’ history and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau in New York, one of the biggest roster turnovers in recent NBA history. The only team that had as many new faces on its regular-season roster in the last three seasons was last season’s Houston Rockets, who also had 11 new players.

Considering all the changes, one might assume the Bucks could be in for a long season. But that’s not necessarily true. The revamped Rockets advanced to the playoffs last season and in the much tougher Western Conference.

For the new-look Bucks to reach the Eastern Conference playoffs again this season, the following four things will likely have to occur:

The big man has to play big

At this time last year, Larry Sanders were a mere afterthought for the Bucks. He was coming off two lackluster pro seasons and looked miserable in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. There were some NBA officials who strongly believed Sanders was in jeopardy of being cut by the Bucks.

But Sanders stunned those in and out of the organization by having a breakthrough season. The 6-foot-11 center/forward nearly posted a double-double for the season, averaging 9.8 points and 9.5 rebounds. He finished third in voting for the league’s Most Improved Player award and was even invited to participate in the USA Basketball Men’s National Team mini-camp.

The Bucks are convinced Sanders’ showing last season wasn’t a fluke and made him the team’s highest-paid player, bestowing him with a fully-guaranteed four-year, $44 million contract. If Sanders stays focused and driven, he’ll provide the Bucks with one of the premier interior defenders in the league.

Don’t pass the Mayo

While Jennings and Ellis were defensive liabilities, nobody could dispute they were potent scorers. In fact, Ellis and Jennings were the Bucks’ top two scorers, respectively, last season.

In their absence, it’ll be critical for Mayo to pick up much of the scoring slack. And, by all accounts, he should be up to the task. As a rookie for Memphis during the 2008-2009 season, Mayo averaged 18.5 points a game. In his second season, also as a starter, he averaged 17.5 points.

But Memphis coach Lionel Hollins opted to bring Mayo off the bench and his scoring dipped to 11.3 and 12.6 the next two seasons. Last season, after signing with Dallas as a free agent, Mayo became a starter again and his scoring average increased to 15.3.

Now on a team that has a dearth of prime-time scorers, it’ll be imperative for Mayo to produce as well or even better than he did in his first two pro seasons.

Improved shooting

The Bucks shot .435 from the field last season, the third-worst percentage among the NBA’s 30 teams. Jettisoning Ellis, who shot .416 from the field, and Jennings, who shot .399, should considerably help the cause. Yet, several of the Bucks’ newcomers had less than ideal shooting performances themselves last season.

Starting point guard Brandon Knight, whom the Bucks acquired in the Jennings trade with Detroit, shot .415. Butler, who’ll start at small forward, shot .424 with the Los Angeles Clippers, and reserve shooting guard Gary Neal shot .412 while playing for San Antonio.

Because they lack a true superstar and don’t possess any high-octane scorer, the Bucks figure to be in a slew of tight games. If they can improve their field-goal shooting, it should enable them to squeeze out a couple more wins.

Patience, patience, patience

While the Bucks aren’t in a full-scale rebuilding mode, they nevertheless have a relatively young roster sprinkled with several intriguing and talented young players.

Four of their projected starters are 26 or younger: Knight is 21, Sanders is 24, Mayo is 25 and Ilyasova is 26. The Bucks also have two reserves with enormous upsides: Henson, who is 22, and rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is only 18.

With the exception of Ilyasova and Mayo, all of those players are still in their formative years. Their lack of experience will undoubtedly rear its ugly head on many occasions and test head coach Larry Drew’s patience.

But Drew has vowed to allow his “Kiddie Corps” to play through their missteps and grow from them. If Drew sticks to his word, that patience could be rewarded not only this season but also in seasons to come.

BUCKS ROSTER

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. College/Home Exp.

34 Giannis Antetokounmpo SF 6-9 205 Greece R

3 Caron Butler SF 6-7 228 Connecticut 11

10 Carlos Delfino SF 6-6 230 Argentina 8

31 John Henson PF 6-11 220 North Carolina 1

7 Ersan Ilyasova PF 6-11 235 Turkey 5

11 Brandon Knight PG 6-3 189 Kentucky 2

3 O.J. Mayo SG 6-4 210 Southern Cal 5

22 Khris Middleton F 6-8 217 Texas A&M 1

12 Gary Neal SG 6-4 210 Towson 3

27 Zaza Pachulia C 6-11 275 Georgia 10

9 Miroslav Raduljica C 7-0 250 Serbia R

13 Luke Ridnour PG 6-2 175 Oregon 10

8 Larry Sanders C 6-11 235 Virginia Commonwealth 3

5 Ekpe Udoh C 6-10 245 Baylor 3

6 Nate Wolters PG 6-4 190 South Dakota St. R

Coaches

Head coach — Larry Drew (Missouri)

Assistant coaches — Jim Cleamons (Ohio State), Bob Bender (Duke), Nick Van Exel (Cincinnati), Scott Williams (North Carolina) and Josh Oppenheimer (Northern Arizona)

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