Thursday, April 1st, 2004
Little is certain in today's NBA. However, one thing that many NBA fans were pretty certain about entering the 2003-2004 season is that Milwaukee and Utah would rank among the worst teams in the entire league. Like I said, little is certain.
As of April 1st, Milwaukee (37-38) is tied for the fourth seed in the Easter Conference with Miami (37-38) and New Orleans (37-38).
Granted, it is the East, the junior-varsity conference of the NBA. But many thought that after trading Ray Allen late last season, trading Sam Cassell during the offseason, and starting a rookie point guard in T.J. Ford, the Bucks would struggle mightily to win 20-25 games under new coach Terry Porter.
Needless to say, the Bucks have been a pleasant surprise this season, despite their recent troubles. Milwaukee has lost seven of their last 10 games, including a five-game losing streak.
Their recent struggles might suggest that the Bucks are limping to the finish and that they might make an early exit out of the NBA playoffs, should they hold on for a spot. However, Bucks fans finally have something to be excited about in new coach Terry Porter, all-star Michael Redd, and fellow emerging talents Desmond Mason and injured guard T.J. Ford.
Coach Porter has instilled a hard-working, positive attitude into the Bucks' organization, one that has brought about some defensive integrity on the court. Their was no secret that former coach George Karl was not exactly a defensive guru. Not that many NBA coaches are, but the Bucks teams during the late-'90s through last season played terrible defense, if any at all.
The situation was not helped by Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, and Glenn Robinson. None liked to play defense or pass the ball, and all three had the mindset that they were the Bucks' number one scoring option.
There are a small number of deadly scoring threats in the league today that play stellar defense. And if a scorer isn't getting his opportunities offensively, good luck getting maximum effort out of him on the other end of the court.
Then Milwaukee gutted its team, so to speak. Over the course of a year, Robinson was shipped to Atlanta, Allen to Seattle, and Cassell to Minnesota. In return, the Bucks received players who had left situations where minutes were scarce to step into front-line roles in Milwaukee.
Toni Kukoc (Atlanta), Desmond Mason (Seattle), and Joe Smith (Minnesota) all checked their egos at the Wisconsin border and have stepped into their roles with grit, helping to turn the Bucks into the Eastern Division's surprise team of the 2003-2004 regular season, regardless of how their postseason endeavors turn out.
Even though Utah (39-36) has a better record than the Bucks, the league's geographic nature results in the Jazz clinging onto a one-half game lead over Portland (38-36) and Denver (39-37) for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race.
Unlike the Bucks, Utah's coach Jerry Sloan has been around the blocks a few times. This is Sloan's 16th season with the Jazz, but it only seems like his first. Without the services of Karl Malone or John Stockton for the first time in his Salt Lake City tenure, Sloan has had to turn to the likes of Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Arroyo, and Greg Ostertag to lead this year's playoff push.
Coming into the season, Utah's most well-known player was arguably Matt Harpring, who has missed over 40 games for the Jazz this year. Harpring's hustling style of play has seemingly won over the fans in Salt Lake City. Although he has had an injury-filled season, he has still managed to score over 16 points a game when he's in the lineup.
Nobody was quite sure how Utah would be able to compete with the Western Conference powers this season. But the emergence of Kirilenko has sparked a roster of role players and young talents striving to forge an identity for themselves in Utah.
Kirilenko's mohawk haircut and unconventional jersey number (#47) have won the attention and hearts of Jazz fans and have shown that they can still compete after the loss of two Hall of Famers in Stockton and Malone.
There have been other pleasant surprises in the league this year, too. Denver (39-37) is currently battling with the Jazz and Portland for that eighth playoff position out West. Much of their turn-around has been credited to Carmelo Anthony's arrival. There is no doubt that he is a star in the making, but let's not forget about the resurgent contributions of veterans Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard, and Marcus Camby, who have all found a home and a role in Denver.
The results have far exceeded everybody's expectations as Memphis still holds an outside chance to catch San Antonio for the Conference's fourth seed and homecourt advantage in round one of the playoffs.
Again, much credit must be given to Hubie Brown and Carmelo Anthony for being the focal point in their respective team's over-achievement this season. But who would have known that we'd be talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz in early April, and it wouldn't center around talk about the NBA draft lottery?