Improved D and rebounding crucial for Bucks

The Bucks must improve their D and rebounding if they want to be a playoff team again.

Updated: November 7, 2002, 3:40 PM ET
By Dr. Jack Ramsay | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Once again, Dr. Jack Ramsay is making weekly housecalls with sickly NBA teams during the NBA's regular season.

This week's team: Milwaukee Bucks.

The Symptoms
The Bucks, coming off a disappointing 41-41 season in 2001-02, haven't exactly jumped out of the starting gate (1-2), but coach George Karl isn't too concerned.

"I think we'll be OK. We'll have a good team once everybody settles in," Karl said as the Bucks prepared for tonight's home game with New Jersey (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). "I've made a real commitment to improving our defense, and it's taking a while for our vets and new guys to adjust to that, but I like my team."

Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas averaged only 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in the Bucks' 1-2 start.
Statistically, the Bucks' defense has improved significantly over last year. So far this season, their field-goal percentage allowed is .400 -- eighth best in the league -- compared to .441 last season. But they are still being outscored by opponents (94.3 to 93.3), and haven't been able to stop high-scoring two-guards. Philadelphia's Allen Iverson and New York's Allan Houston both hit for 28 points, and Orlando's Tracy McGrady lit Milwaukee up for 47. Ray Allen has never established himself as a defensive stopper, and there doesn't appear to be anyone on the roster, other than possibly Michael Redd, to cool off a perimeter hot hand.

Rebounding continues to be a problem for Milwaukee, which ranked 23rd in total rebounds last season. So far this year, the Bucks have also been outrebounded in two of the three games played -- including a 58-35 crushing on the boards by Philadelphia. Karl hopes that Anthony Mason, who is nursing a sore hamstring, will help rookie center Dan Gadzuric, Tim Thomas, Jason Caffey, Ervin Johnson and Toni Kukoc to at least hold their own in this department.

With Glenn Robinson now in Atlanta, the Bucks have not scored as well as last season -- about four points fewer a game. Both Allen (18.3) and Sam Cassell (14.3) are below their averages of last season, while Thomas, despite extended playing time, is scoring about the same (11.3). Karl thinks that Thomas is feeling the pressure to be the 20-point scorer that Robinson was, while the coach says that 15 per game will do just fine.

The Diagnosis
Karl's emphasis on defense will ultimately pay dividends, but he doesn't have a roster bristling with tough stoppers. Individually, the Bucks are weak at the perimeter and only average inside. Mason is the team's best interior defender. Gadzuric shows an ability to block shots (three per game), and Karl likes his athleticism. Johnson is another proven shot blocker who will see more action against teams that play a big front line, and Caffey is a reliable reserve. Karl simply must find a way to improve the team's rebounding.

While this season's big three of Allen, Cassell and Thomas won't average 60 points a game, they'll score enough for the team to win consistently. The bench appears to be deeper and more talented offensively. Karl especially likes the versatility of Kukoc, who seems ready for a solid season (14.0 points per game), and Kevin Ollie, a capable back-up for Cassell at the point. Swingman Redd has lifted his game nicely -- he's the team's second-best scorer at 15.7 points a game -- and Joel Przybilla, currently on the injured list, should bolster the rebounding department when he returns.

The Cure
The Bucks need to be patient until their offensive game comes together -- and that should happen as Thomas, Kukoc, Redd and Ollie adjust to new roles. Right now, the Bucks turn the ball over too frequently -- almost 17 times a game.

The offense will also improve when Allen and Cassell get back their scoring touches. Cassell, shooting only 37 percent from the field, has never shot under 40 percent in his career. His 9-for-19 shooting against the Knicks on Monday may be a step in that direction. I'd be surprised if Allen doesn't average 20 points a game for the season -- he has all the offensive tools -- and I expect Thomas to get his average up to 15 points, which, as Karl said, would be good enough. Offensively, the Bucks should be all right.

Once again, Milwaukee's key to a successful season -- one in which they not only make the playoffs but advance past the first round -- hinges on its ability to defend well as a team and to match opponents on the boards. For the former to happen, Karl must arrive at an effective scheme of quick, consistent help from the weakside and a method of double-teaming opposing high scorers. Every good team in the NBA has at least one player who can go on scoring binges. Teams that win don't allow those players to beat them.

Rebounding must come from all positions since the Bucks don't have an individual volume boardman. If Mason and Caffey combine for 12 rebounds at big forward, the centers (Gadzuric, Johnson and Przybilla) pull down another 12, the small forwards (Thomas and Kukoc) grab 10 and the guards (Cassell, Allen, Redd and Ollie) get 10 more, the team accumulates an average of 44 boards a game -- enough to keep them above the middle of the pack. Those appear to be modest goals, but anything better would put the Bucks in the upper echelon of rebounding teams in the NBA.

The Bucks need to bounce back from last season's disappointing finish. Karl said that a win against the Nets tonight would be a huge step forward.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, who is an NBA analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Legendary coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dr. Jack Ramsay served as lead game analyst for The NBA on ESPN Radio. He also contributed to ESPN.com and ESPN The Mag.