He’s only 25 years old, and has improved with every season of his five-year NBA career, to the point where he was an obvious All-Pro selection and easy choice on the NBA All-Defensive team. In “the land of the giants” there are two: Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut. A broken hand only changes this fact of NBA life for the time beng as the Bucks center plays into his prime. Yet in reading the many great tributes to Bogut’s 2010 season written since his season-ending injuries Saturday, you’d think AB had been permanently crippled, or worse.
How good has Andrew Bogut become? Prior to the 2009-10 season, I predicted the Bucks would win 33 or 34 games, while struggling with their rookie point guard and dealing with the health and uncoachability of Michael Redd. I figured they would finish anywhere from 10th-12th in the East, better than a lot of NBA junkies had them if only because coach Scott Skiles would demand the kind of intensity and defensive commitment that would keep them in a lot of games. Playoffs? Forget it.
There were however, two big IFs that could (and would) put the Bucks in playoff contention: IF Brandon Jennings could exceed expectations and IF Bogut returned from his career-threatening lower back injury and established himself as an All-Star center. Jennings delivered and helped get the Bucks off to a good start. But by mid-January it still hadn’t quite happened for Bogut. Almost, but not every night. For many Bucks fans and even Bogut’s coach, Scott Skiles, the tendency was to focus on the tough nights: a couple of bad games vs. Big Ben Wallace, a rough night against Brendan Haywood and the Wiz, foul trouble against the monsters of Cleveland, the usual struggles vs. Sam Dalembert (why didn’t AB make the All-Star team? Four coach votes in the East right there weren’t going his way and the Bucks hadn’t played the Heat or Hawks yet; and I’m pretty sure Larry Brown voted for Al Horford). Then there were six games missed in late November with a strained/bruised left leg that raised questions about whether the Bucks would ever get into a rhythm playing with their center.
By January, Bogut finally got healthy and the big IF happened. More than anything, it happened on defense as Bogut became active in the paint night in night out. Whereas before he was tentative on the help, Bogut was rising up to challenge every shot that came through the paint. The Skiles defense is simple: 1) Apply constant pressure on the ball; 2) Show help but don’t leave your man – no switching on picks or double teams; 3) Let no shot go unchallenged. This funnels drives to the bucket but doesn’t create a great deal of rotating help for a center leaving his man to go for a block. Bogut had to learn how to play like the help didn’t matter, to challenge above the rim instead of positioning to take charges (a habit he’s had to break), and he did.
Bogut blocked 40 shots in January, 39 in February and in March 44 (in 14 games for a league-leading avg. of 3.14 bpg). Suddenly he appeared in the Top 5 of the NBA defensive ratings and stayed there. By mid-March he had separated from the pack behind Howard, and then there were two. There was Dwight all alone at the top, his Magic giving up 95.0 pts per 100 possessions when he’s in the game; and there was Bogut and the Bucks at #2, allowing 97.9 pts per 100, the only other player/team under 99 or 98. This was mirrored on the blocked shots leader board (Howard 2.8 bpg, Bogut 2.5, Haywood a distant 3rd with 2.1).
Bogut’s Bucks are the best defense in the league … when Dwight Howard is eating, resting, sleeping, playing X-box with D-Wade or Chuck, messing with his i-phone, doing anything other than stepping on an NBA court for the Magic. The stats are there: Add the steals and charges to the equation and Bogut’s been averaging more than 4+ denials per game since January. But more importantly, Bogut — like Howard — is the literal, psychological and strategic center of everything his team does defensively. They’re real NBA centers in the throwback meaning of the position; they’ve become a rare breed.
The rebounding was always there (10.2 rpg, 10th in the NBA, top 10 in rebounding percentage). The offense is improving all the time. The left-handed jump hook is softer than the right but he shoots both with ease. He’s facing up opposing centers and taking them to the hoop this season. He’s not afraid to take a 12-foot jump shot anymore (in the 2008 Olympics he was hitting 3-pointers for the Aussies, so look for his face-up shooting to become more of a weapon in seasons-to-come).
AB has always been one of the best passing big men in the NBA, with Tim Duncan being the only other center I can think of who’s good for the occasional behind-the-back bounce pass to a cutting teammate. Even the free throws are finding the bottom of the net. After a bad start at the line, Bogut has made 66% (108-158) in the new year, signs that he’s outgrowing the Dwight-Shaq liability at the line. No, his 15.9 pts per game doesn’t scream All-Pro and he’s not a particularly efficient scorer as far as big men go (his 52% shooting could be better). But his scoring line is fairly consistent — if Bogut is scoring 15 or more against you, chances are the Bucks are winning the game (in the 40 Bucks wins he played in, Bogut averaged 17.7 ppg), and they’re doing it primarily with defense.
The bottom line is that the Bucks were winning. Much has been made of the acquisition of John Salmons at the trading deadline, and true, Salmons made the Bucks complete and dangerous, a good shot to make it to the East semis before Bogut’s fall. And too much has been made (in Milwaukee, anyway) of the Jerry Stackhouse pick up. The Bucks and Bogut had turned it around in mid-January during a long, six-game road trip West and were 8-4 in the 12 games leading up to the trading deadline. The Bucks had already righted their season when Salmons joined the team, and their center, the #1 pick that the team is building its future around, was playing like an All-Pro.
It really is a shame that fans won’t get to see Bogues in the playoffs this season — and it’s a shame that the Celtics and Hawks frontlines will miss him … this time. Bogut’s only 25 years old. A broken right paw isn’t going to limit his mobility or stop his left handed hook. It’s not a knee injury or anything at all like the lower back injury that ended his 2009 season. The surgery was successful, the bones in his hand will heal, his dislocated elbow will knit, and he’ll be as good as new by late summer, probably playing for Basketball Australia in the world games. He can begin rehab in six weeks, according to Bucks doctors.
Come next fall, AB will be the same All-Pro center who was leading the Bucks into the 2010 playoffs, only better. One constant of Andrew Bogut’s career is that he has improved some aspect of his game every season of his five in the league, whether it was blocking shots in 2010, learning Skiles’ defense last season, or developing parts of his offensive game.
“Get used to this guy Bogut,” TNT analyst Kenny Smith said in March after Bogut scored 25 pts, grabbed 17 rebs and blocked 4 shots in a Bucks win over the Celtics. “He’s going to be in the league a long, long time.”
BUCKS vs. BULLS pregame: You can’t blame Joakim Noah if he’s relieved about Bogut’s absence from tonight’s game in Chicago. In three previous games against Noah and the Bulls this season, Bogut averaged 21.7 pts, 13.7 rebs, 4.3 blocks, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals. Bogut was a beast against Chicago, and the Bucks are 2-1 on the season series, the Bulls eking out a 4th quarter win in the 3rd game of the season, just days after the Michael Redd experiment fell apart once again. Noah was held to 4 pts in that N0v. 3 matchup.
But now what? The Bucks have activated backup center Dan Gadzuric, but don’t expect him to play much. Most of the post responsibilities will fall to Kurt Thomas, who’s biggest concern will be staying out of foul trouble against Noah. Bucks forwards Ersan Ilayasova and defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute will be asked to do more in the paint, and that’s not a bad thing for the Bucks. Ilyasova is a matchup problem for the Bulls.
This’ll be John Salmons’ first game against his old teammates. One hallmark of the earlier matchups was Salmons vs. Charlie Bell‘s pressure-cooker defense, which obviously can’t happen now that Salmons is in Bell’s starting spot. Now it’ll be Salmons vs. Kirk Hinrich, one of the NBA’s best defensive 2-guards and a Skiles protege. Hinrich and point guard Derrick Rose are logging heavy minutes on the Bulls desperate push for the playoffs and are coming off a 50 point game against Charlotte (Bulls won). Luol Deng is back for the Bulls after missing most of March with a thigh strain and is also playing heavy minutes, as is rookie forward Taj Gibson. Noah and Brad Miller split the center minutes.
Hak Warrick gets some PT in the rotation, but the Bulls are essentially a six-man team on their playoff drive. And Rose wants badly to be in Cleveland for Round 1. The Bucks will have a tough time keeping him out of the paint, which is where Rose’ll be headed in the absence of Bogut. The Bucks can clinch their playoffs, though not their position, with a win. This is going to be one intense game.
“Forget Gordon, I miss Skiles”: That’s the view from Chicago blogger i94 Sports, going down memory lane to two-and-a-half years ago when Skiles lost the Bulls and was fired, or they lost him and he quit, or … nobody’s quite sure what happened but the Bulls and Skiles parted ways amid talk that he had worn the team out. Luol Deng and Ben Wallace trouble? The better approach would have been to fire the players and keep Skiles, i-94 says:
“Some times, I think all the “Bulls miss Ben Gordon” stories would have been more accurately aimed at a certain former head coach. Just imagine if Derrick Rose had a coach who stressed defense for the last two seasons.”
You don’t have to Chicago – just watch Brandon Jennings.
Charlie, you’re such a dumb-twit: He’s at it again, twitting over Tweeter, tweeting on Twitter. Charlie V just can’t twit it. Apparently “something” happened at the Pistons practice yesterday and now Charlie Villanueva is very upset (apparently at coach John Kuester) and tweeted about his frustrations, and rookie forward Austin Daye has something to say on Twitter too. He’s “twisted” mad.
Remember two years ago when Larry Krystkowiak challenged Charlie to a fight in a practice and called him a wuss when he backed down? “Some powere forward you are, Charlie,” or something like that. Oh, the memories. And that great Charlie V work ethic! Such a pro, this Detroit Pistons forward is. Need4Sheed.com is all over it.
Detroit – he’s all yours now.