ST. FRANCIS, Wis. Life of a middling NBA franchise can be an uncertain one. It's the kind of limbo the Milwaukee Bucks have found themselves in for a while now.
With just the right amount of weapons to contend for the playoffs, but not enough to advance very far, the Bucks and other franchises like them have often found themselves locked into a conundrum without an obvious solution. This year, however, time is undoubtedly running out in Milwaukee. The middle may no longer be a stable as it's proven to be in the past five seasons.
Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles, whose job security was in question this offseason, is in the last year of his contract. General manager John Hammond has just one year remaining as well. And star point guard Brandon Jennings is likely to enter his contract year without an extension.
Those three question marks are glaring as the Bucks close in on the beginning of the 2012-13 season. If the Bucks miss the playoffs, will any of them be back? And with so much already at stake, the underlying question remains: Will the Bucks ever be able to escape the middle?
Skiles has drawn some ire in the past for his coaching and his likeability among his players. Hammond, like any other GM, would likely take the blame if it were to be deemed that the Bucks' roster just wasn't good enough to win. And Jennings, with his eyes set on being elite, will likely never achieve that tag without the ability to advance his team in the playoffs.
Those clouds will hover around the Bucks all season long. Bucks forward Drew Gooden even admitted at media day that those issues are talked about amongst the team. It's unsure, however, whether those underlying doubts and questions will affect the Bucks as the season goes on.
For now, at least, those issues are on the backburner in the minds of most Bucks' players and management.
"When it comes to pressure, we can control what we can control, and that's doing your job," Gooden said. "Everything else is going to fall into place. I think that's the only mindset as a team, as players, and as coaches and as management, that's all you can concentrate on."
Added Hammond: "If you do you're job, you should do your job the same, whether you're on year one or year five of the contract. If it changes your approach to the job, shame on you and you shouldn't be doing this."
Plenty of players agreed that that pressure was best left ignored. But one player, in particular, championed a different strategy. Milwaukee's top-flight point guard would rather embrace the pressure surrounding the Bucks' franchise.
For him, the pressure may even be a blessing.
"I mean it's pressure, but it's good pressure," Jennings said. "I think it's going to bring out the best in all of us the fact that everybody is on their last deal. Our mindset is not about, Let's try to get to the playoffs.' It's, We need to do it, and we need to do it now.'"
There's no doubt that Milwaukee has the talent to contend for one of the Eastern Conference's final three playoff spots. And with a positive start to training camp and the preseason, the Bucks certainly have high hopes.
But pressure often weighs most when all the chips are on the table. With little meaning attached to Milwaukee's early contests, there have been no crushing losses or season-ending injuries. How the Bucks respond in those situations will certainly speak to how they can handle pressure.
Since the Bucks last made the playoffs in the 2009-10 season, the response to that pressure has been sub-par at best. This season, the players have said, is their best opportunity to change that.
"This organization has always had pressure to win," forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. "It's an organization that's been wanting to win and trying everything it can to win. There's always kind of been that pressure of winning, but I think over the last few years, we all know, it hasn't been a winning atmosphere here. We didn't make the playoffs, and we want to change that."
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