ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – "Fear the Deer" became the popular rallying cry for the Milwaukee Bucks as they surprisingly advanced to the playoffs last season. Brandon Jennings(notes) has never been a big fan of the slogan, but he also thinks the words still ring true some five months after the Bucks lost in the first round.
"If we can get our chemistry together and get on the same page, then, yes, everybody should be worried about us," Jennings said.
Jennings and the Bucks have reason to feel good about their chances entering the new season. Not content to simply build upon last season's success, the Bucks reshaped their roster during the summer. They acquired swingman Corey Maggette(notes), guard Chris Douglas-Roberts(notes) and forward Jon Brockman(notes) in trades, and signed forward Drew Gooden(notes), guards Keyon Dooling(notes) and Earl Boykins(notes) as free agents. Rookie power forward Larry Sanders(notes) is expected to make an impact off the bench immediately. Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova(notes) and Carlos Delfino(notes) make the Bucks deep at small forward and give the team some tradable commodities. Most important, Milwaukee re-signed guard John Salmons(notes), who helped the team go 22-8 and reach the playoffs after he was acquired from the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline.
Give the small-market Bucks credit. They weren't reluctant to spend. In addition to giving Salmons and Gooden contracts potentially worth $39 million and $32 million, respectively, Milwaukee also took on the remaining three years and $31 million of Maggette's deal. The Bucks' moves didn't draw nearly the attention as those of the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics, but Jennings thinks Milwaukee's hefty investment will pay off.
"We can win the Central Division, to tell you the truth," Jennings said. "I'm gonna thank LeBron for leaving the Central Division. I would think it's between us and Chicago, but I still think we are deeper right now."
The Bucks will need to stay healthy if they hope to contend with the Eastern Conference's elite. When Michael Redd(notes) will return from a left-knee injury that limited him to 18 games last season is anyone's guess, but the more pressing concern is Andrew Bogut(notes). Bogut had developed into one of the league's best centers while anchoring the Bucks' defense before he went down with a gruesome right arm injury on April 3. After his hands slipped off the rim during a dunk attempt, he hit the court hard, breaking his index finger and dislocating his elbow.
"As soon as I came down, I looked down at my arm and saw it facing the other way," Bogut said. "That's when I let out the scream. It was probably the worst pain I ever felt in my life."
Bogut needed two surgeries to repair the injuries, and there was initial concern he might not be ready for the start of the season. He allayed those fears last week after scrimmaging five-on-five at the Bucks' practice facility. He wore an arm sleeve with a protective elbow pad, but his teammates didn't hesitate to test him.
"I had to foul him on a fast break and I actually threw him on the ground," Gooden said. "I forgot his elbow was messed up. He was playing pretty well out here, so you kind of forget that."
Bogut has yet to regain a full range of motion in the arm and also is working to get his confidence back, but the Bucks are pleased he's returned to the court two weeks before the start of camp.
"I definitely didn't expect to be back this quick," Bogut said. "I still have to be careful … but I'm going to just monitor it and make sure the swelling stays minimal.
"When I shoot the ball with my right hand, it's going all over the place. I can't get that direction yet that I think I need, but that will come."
Even without Bogut, the Bucks still took the Atlanta Hawks to seven games before losing their first-round series. Jennings was a big reason for the team's surprising success. The 20-year-old point guard stunned the league with a 55-point performance against the Golden State Warriors early in the season, then went on to average a respectable 15.5 points, 5.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds while finishing third in Rookie of the Year balloting.
"Once the season was over, I took a day to think about it and I wrote down everything that I did that was great," Jennings said. "I thought I had a hell of a season for a team where nobody expected us to win, to winning 46 games, being like a sixth seed in the East and getting Atlanta to a seventh game. What more could you ask for?"
The Bucks will ask for more this season. With nine new players, the team will need time to develop chemistry in coach Scott Skiles's system. A lot of the responsibility for developing that chemistry will fall upon Jennings' shoulders. Dooling has already told Jennings the team is looking to him to help lead.
"I don't think I'm too young at all to hold guys accountable," Jennings said. "Now that I'm not a rookie, I'm going to speak up to say how I feel and say what I think is right because I went through a lot my first year as an NBA player."
If all goes well for Jennings and the Bucks, the NBA may once again have reason to fear the deer.
"Don't take us lightly now," Jennings warned. "We brought in a lot of talent. We're deep this year. That's fine if they talk about everyone else. We'll just sneak up in there.
"We're going to be all right."
- the Bucks