Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
Not long ago, I reached out to Racine Journal-Times writer Gery Woelfel, one of the foremost authorities on all things Milwaukee Bucks. Gery was kind enough to respond to my inquiries (which I tend to think are those of a casual fan not entirely plugged in to the Bucks) a second time this past week.
The Bucks are building some steam in 2012-13, with a healthy above-.500 record and solid playoff position, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference entering a Wednesday night battle with the Chicago Bulls at the Bradley Center. With the recent departure of coach Scott Skiles and a number of surprising wins – and defeats – it’s been an eventful year.
JR: The Jim Boylan era has started on a good note, but the Bucks’ run of success has also coincided with the return of Ersan Ilyasova to full-time relevancy. The limited amount of minutes Scott Skiles bestowed to Ilyasova seemed strange to me, as I thought he was treated like a role player instead of a guy who had just signed a big-time extension. At the same time, I understand letting the hot hand play and not letting dollar signs set the lineup. Did you feel Skiles’ methods made sense at the time, and aside from “freeing” Ilyasova, does Boylan present certain opportunities that can legitimately help this team win ballgames?
GW: Nobody can question Skiles’ basketball acumen. Where he has come up short, though, is in his communication with his players. Throughout his tenure with the Bucks – and even before that during his coaching stints in Phoenix and Chicago – he had frequent run-ins with his players. Boylan seems to be a more effective communicator. I know he’s already spoken to virtually every player on the team and spelled out what he expects from them. He’s had several talks with Ilyasova, and they have proven invaluable. Ilyasova, who had a rocky relationship with Skiles, is playing at a high level. During a recent four-game stretch, Ilyasova averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds while shooting a white-hot 61 percent from 3-point range. Suffice to say, the coaching change has done wonders for him and the Bucks.
JR: I recognize that the parting with Skiles is “mutual.” However, my initial reaction anytime a decent (slightly sub .500 to above .500 team) team parts ways with a coach mid-season is that the franchise didn’t have a good plan in place to begin with. What factors compelled this move to have the timeline it did, and do you think I should still see a red flag with an organization deciding mid-stream that this coach wasn’t going to work, even though it seemed fairly evident to the outside world that it was a bad fit prior to 2012-13?
GW: The Bucks simply had to make a change. Morale was horrible and some of Skiles’ friends insist he wasn’t happy and wanted out. Just not a good scene. As for making a coaching change in the middle of the season, that’s more common than people expect. I think there have been five coaching changes in the NBA already this season.
JR: This is likely to be a hot topic as Feb. 21 approaches. With Rajon Rondo out for the year, can the Bucks become realistic players for Paul Pierce? Perhaps a better question: given that John Hammond just signed an extension, is it a foregone conclusion that he’ll be pushing to make a splashy move by the trade deadline to upgrade this team?
GW: I don’t have any doubt Hammond would like to make a splash. And he could because he now has accrued enough assets to make a blockbuster deal. I just don’t think a deal for Pierce makes sense, though. He is 34 years old and definitely on the downside of his career. If the Bucks were on the cusp of contending for an NBA title, Pierce would perhaps be a player to put them over the top. What’s more, why help the Celtics, a team in the Bucks’ conference, by giving them some young, talented players for their rebuilding process? The Bucks have an intriguing, up-and-coming team now and, if I was Hammond, I won’t acquire any player over 30 years old and just stay the course.
JR: Is it realistic or unrealistic to think this team is one acquisition away from being a serious contender to win in the first round of the playoffs or even beyond? What are the stumbling blocks, if any?
GW: I think they can reach the Eastern Conference semifinals and perhaps even the Eastern Conference Finals this season. Outside of Miami, and maybe Chicago if Derrick Rose returns 100 percent healthy, there isn’t a dominant team. New York and Brooklyn have better talent than the Bucks, but their chemistry is iffy. The door is open for the Bucks to make a serious playoff run.
JR: The inconsistency of this team seems to be a hot topic. From my perspective, as long as the Bucks win enough to get into the playoffs, I’m comforted by the fact that they seem capable of beating the good teams -- the teams they will see in the postseason. On the other hand, they sure would have a better seed if not for clumsy losses to Detroit, Cleveland and others. What does the Bucks’ inconsistency say to you? Is it an attribute that can be overcome when the playoffs roll around?
GW: A major reason factor for the Bucks’ inconsistency is their youth. Some of the Bucks’ best players are still finding their way through the NBA. Ilyasova is just 25, Larry Sanders is 24, Brandon Jennings is 23 and John Henson is 22. Unless you’re a phenom like Kyrie Irving or someone of that ilk, it takes young players a few years to adjust to the NBA.
JR: So much has been made about the Bucks middle-of-the-road situation -- bad enough to get eliminated in the first round, good enough to miss the lottery. As the team stands now, what would be a better situation for the Bucks moving forward, to get a lottery pick next season or getting a chance in the playoffs?
GW: Reaching the playoffs, no doubt. The Bucks need to get a feel for postseason play again; it’s radically different and infinitely more intense than the regular season. Considering the organization hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2009-2010 season, it’s essential they regain that “winning’’ culture. One other thing: this year’s NBA draft is shaky. There isn’t a bona “can’t-miss prospect’’ in the entire draft. In fact, this could be one of the worst drafts in years.
JR: What are the characteristics of the universe in which Monta Ellis wears a Bucks uniform next year? Should there be interest on both sides?
GW: As you know, Ellis has an opt-out clause in his contract after this season. Ellis hasn’t discussed his future with any media members but I’ve talked to several of his friends and they all claim Ellis will exercise the opt-out and check out the free-agent market this summer. Before the season, there were some NBA officials who believed Ellis could make in excess of $11 million – the amount he would earn if he decided to stay with the Bucks. But Ellis has had a sub-par season and one NBA official recently told me Ellis would likely get $8-to-$9 million on the open market. If that’s the case, he’s not going anywhere. But there’s a lot of games to played yet and, if he comes up big in the playoffs, he could be one hot commodity.
JR: Brandon Jennings has been very solid at times, and yet I still can’t see him as a future superstar in the league. Tell me why I’m right or wrong.
GW: People have mixed feelings about Jennings; personally, I like him. I still think his upside is huge. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s only 23 years old. Yet, this season, he was twice chosen the NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week. The only other players who received that award as many times or more were LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. That’s heady company. To me, Jennings is only going to get better.
Pictured: Larry Sanders has spent much of the 2012-13 season blocking shots and being awesome. (AP)