How good are the Bucks?

On the heels of my feature about Andrew Bogut that I posted a couple of weeks ago, the Bucks have won five of six — and 10 of their last 11 — to rise to the #5 slot in the Eastern Conference. Even SLAM has taken notice, as evidenced by Colin Powers’ piece, “How good are the Bucks?

The biggest factor, though, in the Bucks upward trajectory has definitively been Andrew Bogut. I saw the Bucks play live a couple weeks ago at the Garden, and was really struck by Bogut’s play. First of all, he is a massive, massive human being, completely dwarfing any of the Knicks players as he dominated all the traffic in the paint. For the season, his intensity and commitment on the defensive end has jumped far beyond what we have seen in the past, manifest in his 2.5 blocks per game, nearly double his career average up until this point. Bogut’s strength as a one-on-one defender as well as his presence in the lane as a bulwark against perimeter players attacking the rim have been fundamental to Milwaukee’s greatly improved team defensive (they rank 10th in the League in FG% allowed at 45%). Meanwhile, Coach Skiles’ credentials as a gifted defensive coach has only been reinforced by Bogut’s transformation.

On the offensive end, Bogut has great hands and is very active around the bucket, comfortable finishing with both hands, apt at using the glass and shooting the jumphook in addition to knocking down an occasional J from 15 feet or so. Since his Utah days, he has always been a gifted passer, whether downlow or from the high post, and he has continued to display that ability this season. His name doesn’t often come up in discussing the best young big men in the NBA, but it should.

Granted, the Bucks have had a nice schedule of late, with wins at Detroit, Charlotte, at New York, New Orleans (w/o Chris Paul), at Indiana, at Miami (w/o D-Wade), a home-and-home against Washington, Cleveland (w/o LeBron), and last night’s win against the relatively healthy Boston Celtics. But still, winning 10 of 11 is impressive, and their sole setback was a four-point OT loss to a talented Atlanta Hawks team.

Bogut has been the key. The Aussie averaged 16-11 with 2.8 blocks in February, and is off to a 19-10-4.3 start in four games in March. Moreover, he’s hitting better than 54% from the field and is finding his groove at the free throw line. (He’s shooting 85% in March.) Credit should also go to John Salmons (19-3-3 since the trade) and Carlos Delfino (13-7-3, 40% 3PT in Feb & March), who have given the Bucks legitimate threats on the wing. And let’s not forget the 22-year-old Ersan Ilyasova (10-6, 35% from 3PT on the season) who has played well all year, whether he starts or not.

But back to Bogut. His post-All-Star play has me wondering if he’s making a run at an All-NBA nod despite being passed over for the All-Star Game. Dwight Howard is a shoe-in for 1st Team honors, but who is the second-best center in the league? Tim Duncan is considered a forward, so Amare Stoudemire seems like the next logical option, but his defense pales in comparison to Bogut’s. If the Bucks end up with 45+ wins and the #5 or #6 playoff spot in the East, it will be interesting to see if Bogut earns an All-NBA nod. He faces a steep climb seeing that he has to shrug off the unbelievably high expectations of being a former #1 overall pick and that he plays in a small market for a team that few seem to care about around the league.

But first things first — the Bucks need to keep up their fine play. The road gets a little tougher as they host a hot Utah team on Friday and face the Nuggets, Hawks, Heat, Grizzlies and Cavs before the month is out. There are very winnable games intermixed — the Clippers twice, the Pacers, the Kings and the Sixers — and there are just two back-to-backs remaining in March.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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