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NBA Sunday: Are the Bucks Contenders?

It’s not a matter of IF the Milwaukee Bucks will win the Eastern Conference, it’s WHEN, writes Moke Hamilton.

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The calendar turns to September and NBA lifers officially begin to think about the upcoming season. As fans continue to bide time until training camp and preseason play begins, we spend copious amounts of time thinking about what transpired over this past offseason and, more importantly, what could lay ahead for this coming season.

One thing I am expecting, personally, is for the Milwaukee Bucks to emerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. This coming season, so long as health permits, the Bucks will take a significant stride forward. And if things break right for them, who knows how far they could go? After all, nobody thought that the Atlanta Hawks would have had a chance at winning 60 games entering last season, but look at what happened there.

The Bucks have everything they need to make some serious noise, and they have it at this very moment.

Fear the deer.

* * * * *

Call it a coincidence if you would like, but I’m not going that route. As I have recently said in relation to Fred Hoiberg succeeding Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Steve Kerr becoming the first rookie head coach to lead his team to the championship since Pat Riley did it in 1982, the right head coach makes all the difference in the world in the NBA.

First and foremost, a team’s featured player and the head coach need one another. They depend on one another in the same way that peanut butter needs jelly. Asking Jason Kidd to command the respect of Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was a losing proposition. Those three saw Kidd as more of a peer than an authority figure, and from what I hear, his attempts at enacting “player friendly” policies were seen as weakness on his part.

Similarly, asking a player like Derek Fisher to be taken seriously and to reprimand the likes of Carmelo Anthony—it is not a wise decision. Fisher has proven nothing as a head coach and, in Anthony’s mind, the Knicks revolve around a franchise player, not a franchise coach.

Few coaches rise to the level of being a franchise coach, especially considering that only three coaches in the entire league have been in their current job for at least five years: Gregg Popovich (20), Erik Spoelstra (eight) and Frank Vogel (six).

Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich and perhaps Spoelstra are on the short list, but the main point is this: in the NBA, requiring a player to subjugate his personal agenda and desires to a head coach who has proven less than he has, as a player, is an almost impossible task.

Coaches that are wet behind the ears need to be handed a roster full of youngsters whose potential is still untapped, and in that regard, Kidd hit the jackpot in Milwaukee. In Brooklyn, he was saddled with a roster of old veterans who were not interested in doing things his way or subscribing to his philosophies, and why would they? Everyone within Mikhail Prokhorov’s reach was paid handsomely. With multi-year contracts and millions of dollars, where was the incentive?

The youngsters that Kidd have in front of him respect him and what he has accomplished during his long and illustrious career. And since they themselves have not come close to accomplishing anything in the same category, to a man, they will run through a wall for him.

It is, after all, much easier to trust someone to lead you to a place when you have no idea how to get there.

Aside from that, the main part of the reason that the Bucks and Kidd had eyes for each other was the pre-existing relationship between Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and Kidd. Lasry and Kidd became close when Lasry was a minority owner of the then New Jersey Nets many moons ago, and it was Lasry who was the driving force behind Kidd making his way to Milwaukee—a process that began while Larry Drew was still employed by the team.

In short, expect Kidd to enjoy substantial security and loyalty from the front office in Milwaukee, especially after helping the team go from a 15-win cellar dweller to a 41-win darling. And that happened in just one season.

But as for Kidd? Yeah, I’d say he traded up.

* * * * *

Another man who traded up would be Greg Monroe.

Monroe entered the offseason as one of the most coveted free agents on the market. Since November, I had been hearing that Monroe would ultimately wind up in New York, and that was an account that was eventually echoed by the New York Daily News.

Then, surprisingly, after a source in Detroit assured me that Monroe would not be re-signing with the team, news broke that it was the Bucks who had won the bid for the 25-year-old center on a three-year maximum contract worth $50 million.

Monroe joins Kidd and an impressive array of mostly young players who, last season, managed to increase the team’s 2013-14 win total by 26 games. The core players for the Bucks may not be household names, but to a man, they are impressive, plus-contributors on the NBA level. And collectively, they form a team that plays for one another and contains complementary pieces. That is the reason why the Monroe acquisition was tremendous.

Monroe gives the Bucks a legitimate low-post threat that can both create opportunities for himself or for his teammates. With Jabari Parker returning to the lineup, Michael Carter-Williams handling the ball and the 20-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as an impressively versatile force, these four form a conglomerate that has the potential to be scary good. What’s ever scarier about these four is that the 25-year-old Monroe is the oldest of the bunch. Combined, they average just 22 years of age.

And the best part of all? We already know that they can play.

Therein lies an important distinction, though: we already know that they can play. What you should probably know about the Bucks, however, is that they have two other players who are exceptional young talents, but because of a lack of national television appearances, you probably don’t know it.

Khris Middleton started 58 games for the 41-win Bucks last season and turned in the best per-36 minute averages of his young career. In his third season, the 24-year-old gave Kidd 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals while converting about 41 percent of his three-point looks. At Kidd’s urging, the Bucks signed Middleton to a five-year, $70 million extension this past summer. Middleton was arguably the most consistent offensive force on last season’s team and is an underrated two-way player. While he may never become an All-Star, he is a surefire starting-caliber shooting guard in the NBA. Think of guys like Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo. For my money, today, I take Middleton over either of them and it’s not close.

John Henson, another 24-year-old, was a dominant force on the defensive end for the Bucks last season. While not possessing the same kind of game-changing ability as Middleton, Henson gave the Bucks 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per-36 minutes last season. Most impressively, though, were the four blocks per-36 minutes he gave his team. If there is one critique about Greg Monroe, it is that he is not exactly a defensive stalwart. Henson, in many ways, will be the perfect complement.

Sprinkle in a few veterans such as O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez and Jerryd Bayless and combine them with a few other youngsters in Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, and all of a sudden, you will find yourself looking at the 10-man rotation that Kidd will deploy during the 2015-16 season and, without a question, furrow your brow.

That is especially so when one considers that both Monroe and Parker are being added to a team that won 41 games last season, without them.

* * * * *

Andrew Wiggins is the reigning Rookie of the Year, and for good reason. But there are a great number of scouts who believe that Parker will ultimately be the better professional. Aside from the Grant Hill comparisons, after having a few conversations with Parker, I can at least attest to his positive attitude and confident demeanor.

It’s not necessary to extol his virtues here, but know this: he is every bit as legit as any other impressive 22-year-old in the NBA today.

As you look around the Eastern Conference, obviously, the Cleveland Cavaliers stand almost head and shoulders above all other challengers. Around the rest of the conference, however, there are questions.

Can Fred Hoiberg lead the Chicago Bulls to higher heights?

Have the Washington Wizards grown enough to take the next step?

How much will the Atlanta Hawks miss DeMarre Carroll?

Will the Toronto Raptors never be anything more than a first round loser?

Is Paul George going to revert to pre-injury form? How will his Indiana Pacers fare without Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson?

Does Dwyane Wade have enough left in his tank to restore the Miami HEAT as legitimate contenders?

Yes, there are questions aplenty in the Eastern Conference. So while we are here, I pose another one: why can’t the Milwaukee Bucks emerge as one of the top teams out East?

It’s not a matter of if the Milwaukee Bucks will win the Eastern Conference, it’s when.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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