Eastern Conference Dichotomy Dooms Bucks

They’re a team that entered the season with high hopes but ended the year limping toward a .500 finish. No, I’m not talking about last year’s Milwaukee Brewers — or the Minnesota Vikings of the last three years — I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks.

Heading into Wednesday’s home game against the Washington Wizards, the Bucks are 37-40, needing four wins out of their last five games to reach .500. Fortunately for the Bucks and their fans, a .500 or even slightly below .500 record in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association is good enough to secure one of eight playoff spots. Depending on what happens in the last week of the regular season, the Bucks could finish as high as fifth in the Conference or as low as ninth. A ninth place would eliminate the Bucks from playoff contention for the second straight season.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, there are two types of Eastern Conference teams heading into the postseason — contenders and pretenders. The teams that have already locked up the top four spots — Detroit, Miami, New Jersey, and Cleveland — could all compete for the Eastern Conference title, with Detroit being the clear favorite. Of those four, only Miami has shown signs of struggling, but their struggles didn’t prevent them from a convincing 26-point victory over the Bucks just a week ago. Of the teams that could make up the lower half of the playoff picture in the East — Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando, and Boston — only the Wizards (for now) have a winning record and only the Magic seem capable of turning late-season momentum (they’ve won nine of their last ten) into a postseason upset.

So what that means for the Bucks is their best-case scenario puts them in a series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. King James’s presence might help the Bucks sell playoff tickets and get higher TV ratings, but it doesn’t help them if they want to advance to the second round. The worst-case scenario — besides them missing the playoffs entirely, which is a real possibility — pits them in a series against the Pistons juggernaut, in which case the Bucks have to hope that Flip Saunders’s well-documented playoff troubles with the Timberwolves follow him to Detroit. But given that the Pistons have lost only fifteen games all season, does anyone expect them to lose four of seven to the Bucks?

Regardless of when the Bucks end their season, this does not deserve to be the final season for first-year head coach Terry Stotts. Stotts has engineered what could amount to be a twelve-game win-loss improvement over last season, and the Bucks starters — particularly Michael Redd and rookie Andrew Bogut — are young and improving. And the recent Charlie Bell / T.J. Ford controversy at point guard is the type of “problem” NBA teams love to have.

If this year’s Bucks are a disappointment, it’s due more to unrealistic preseason hopes than the actual play of the team. Often teams are a season or two late in fulfilling fans’ increased expectations. Expect bigger things from the Bucks over the next couple of years. As for the 2005-2006 season, the Bucks, Wizards, Pacers, and 76ers just aren’t in the same league as the Pistons, Heat, Nets, and Cavs.

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