The departure of King James will end the Cavaliers' two-year reign, and the Bucks—with their recovering center, Andrew Bogut—are poised to ascend
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue
The video is gut-churning, grisly enough to warrant the shielding of children's eyes—you must be 18 to watch certain versions of it on YouTube—and it trailed Andrew Bogut into summer like a shadow. There it was on the Internet. And ESPN. And local television in Wisconsin. And Australian talk shows, especially, where hosts invariably replayed the clip before interviewing the Melbourne native. Bogut, needless to say, never required anything resembling a reminder. "From the night it happened to even six weeks after, the pain was absolutely excruciating," he says. "I couldn't type on the computer. I couldn't even turn on my cellphone. To tell you the truth, I didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Back on the night of April 3, as a stunned 16,400 fans gazed down at the floor of Milwaukee's Bradley Center, who could? It was the second quarter of the red-hot Bucks' seventh-to-last regular-season game—they had won 17 of 23 going into the matchup with Phoenix—and the 7-foot, 260-pound Bogut found himself reeling in a long outlet pass from forward Carlos Delfino. In one move he leaped, threw down a dunk with two hands and was nudged in the lower back by Suns big man Amar'e Stoudemire.
Bogut fell backward onto his right arm. His right hand and index finger were fractured; his right wrist shattered; and his right elbow twisted and pushed out against his skin, visibly dislocated. As the Fox Sports announcers keened into their headsets (Oh, no! Oh, no! No! Oh, no! No, no! It's broken!), the frenzied home crowd abruptly hushed, as if a microphone had been cut off. "The worst fall I've ever seen in a basketball game," Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles says now. "My first thought was, Andrew's done." Adds second-year point guard Brandon Jennings, who was on the court when it happened, "I could never watch that again."
And yet the protagonist of the most gruesome scene in recent NBA history would. Over, and over, and over again. "I've seen it a million times," Bogut says. "I'm not one of those guys who squirms."
The Central Division is the NBA's premier power vacuum, a domain where only one team—really, one person—had, before Bogut's accident, shown the ability to make the rest of the league squirm. Over the past two years LeBron James's Cavaliers went a staggering 127--37 and made the Eastern Conference finals and semifinals (their fourth and fifth straight playoff appearances since 2005); in that same two-year span no other Central team had a winning record or made it out of the first round. Which is not to say that a team didn't come surprisingly, painfully close.
"I had friends in the Eastern Conference coming up to me [before the playoffs] and saying, We don't want to play you guys in the first round," recalls Milwaukee general manager John Hammond, the 2009--10 Executive of the Year (and the franchise's first-ever recipient of the award). "We were one of those teams you could just see coming. Then, when Andrew went down, the perspective changed."
Skiles's reformed Bucks, third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, struggled to find consistency on offense after Bogut's injury; they fell to the Hawks in the first round, scoring just 69 points in Game 6 and 74 in Game 7. Such an unfortunate exit, however, had a way of underscoring another, larger revelation: that Bogut, frequently regarded as another No. 1 pick who had failed to live up to the hype, had evolved as radically as newly fearsome Milwaukee. During Bogut's 69 games last year, prefall, he led the team in points (a career-high 15.9 per game on 52.0% shooting), rebounds (10.2) and blocks (2.5). No one other than the current gold standard at center, the Magic's Dwight Howard, could match those statistical levels. "[Bogut] is so versatile, so difficult to prepare for," Bulls general manager Gar Forman says. "He's got such great hands and instincts. He can score around the basket with either hand. And he's also one of the best passing big men in the league."
But what should be most terrifying to Chicago—a close second in the division (and only a fool's third)—is that the surgically repaired Bogut, despite so many injuries, has looked even more formidable in training camp. Says Hammond, "Scott [Skiles] and I actually turned to each other and said, 'He's better than he was last year.' "
How? Hampered by a back injury in 2008--09 (he played only 36 games), Bogut didn't enter last season "in the best physical shape," Skiles takes care to note. Today, though soreness in Bogut's right arm lingers and the full range of motion in his elbow has yet to return (he's about 10 degrees away), the center is more nimble than ever. The arm injury forced him to concentrate on footwork all summer; on top of all the physical rehabilitation he ran ladder drills and skipped rope every day to hone agility and quickness. "He's a top five center in the league," says Jennings, who's sworn to feed Bogut down low and make him an All-Star this season. "Maybe in the top three."
Before last season's 46--36 finish, the Bucks hadn't cracked .500 since 2002--03 and had found themselves in the division's basement for five years running. "Given the recent past and our franchise, you could say that winning 46 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs was a good year," Skiles says. "But for the Lakers? That's a terrible year. Now we want everything."
Standing squarely in the way of everything, of course, is another former No. 1 pick: star point guard Derrick Rose and his big-market Bulls, just 90 miles down I-94. "Chicago," Bogut says, "is kind of like the big bully." (No pun intended.) It is no small source of irony that Hammond had rounded out the best Bucks roster in almost a decade with a virtual hand-me-down from Forman, who sent over guard John Salmons last February for two expiring contracts (Joe Alexander and Hakim Warrick), freeing up cap space in the Bulls' futile chase for LeBron. Instead, in Salmons's 30 games under Skiles—another Bulls castoff—a different kind of chase was sparked: Salmons took the team lead in scoring (19.9 points per game) as the Bucks took off on a 22--8 run to end the regular season.
Chicago, notably, didn't shed many tears over a former role player. Though the Bulls whiffed on both James and Chris Bosh, they inked power forward Carlos Boozer for five years and $75 million, bringing in a sizable offensive presence to space the floor under new coach Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics assistant who developed a reputation as a defensive whiz. "That was one of our big needs," Forman says. "Not only a guy who can score in the post, but a guy you can play through in the post."
The Bucks' strategy involved turning over the piggy bank and the depth chart to find more modest complements to Bogut and the precocious Jennings, who last November scored 55 points in just his seventh game as a pro. In June, Hammond traded for Warriors forward Corey Maggette ($31 million owed over three years), a free throw machine who's averaged at least 7.9 attempts every year since '01--02. ("We were the only team in the shot-clock era whose opponents made more free throws than we attempted," Skiles points out.) In July, Milwaukee successfully lured Salmons back into the fold (five years, $40 million) and then went on to sign nomadic forward Drew Gooden (five years, $32 million) to add inches to the frontcourt. ("My goal," the 6' 10" Gooden pledged in camp, "is to get more rebounds than points.") When the dust settled, six new faces had been acquired through trade or free agency, and Bogut, only 25, was suddenly left as the longest-tenured active Buck. "We were so restricted with the cap," Bogut admits, "that I didn't think we were going to make any moves that'd help us immediately this summer. But we did."
Now it is the rest of the division that finds itself several moves behind. New Cleveland coach Byron Scott's first problem is a bombed-out roster on which the biggest off-season addition is point guard Ramon Sessions (at least partially justifying 27-year-old guard Mo Williams's professed desire to retire after James's exit). The Pistons, still under the direction of Hammond's old boss, G.M. Joe Dumars, have three fifths of the starters from their 2004 title team—but they also have all five from last year's team, which finished in the Central cellar. At least the Pacers traded for some upside: They swapped the plodding Troy Murphy (albeit their most productive all-around player) for athletic second-year point guard Darren Collison in an attempt to ratchet up the tempo.
But they're not fooling anyone this year, least of all Jennings. As the Bucks' de facto id cheerily proclaims, "Thanks to LeBron for leaving the division, and leaving us to win it." The goal is to make opponents squirm for 82 games—and well beyond.