MILWAUKEE If there is one word that most adequately describes the Milwaukee Bucks' feeling as the 2011-12 season opener approaches, it would be "uncertainty."
There is a lot yet to figure out about this edition of the Bucks, the 44th in franchise history. There are five new players on the roster. There were only two weeks of training camp. There were only two exhibition games.
And the season itself is shortened, to 66 games, and condensed with teams playing roughly four games a week with many more back-to-back games and even a back-to-back-to-back mixed in for good measure.
How will teams handle the rigors? How will teams gel with such a short time to get acclimated? How will teams define roles and sort things out in time to not find themselves by the wayside early?
That remains to be seen. So yes, uncertainty might be the buzzword of the year.
"It's a different feel this year. It's harder to judge, it really is," head coach Scott Skiles said.
General Manager John Hammond rebuilt the Bucks' roster during the offseason, parting with disappointing underachievers Corey Maggette and John Salmons in a draft day trade that brought Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih; three guards with a proven ability to score and create opportunities for their teammates.
Hammond used his draft picks on Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer, versatile forwards who nobody really knows quite what to expect.
Andrew Bogut is back and healthy for the first time in a long time. Drew Gooden, signed to a five-year contract before last season, is healthy again, too. Brandon Jennings has worked extensively on improving his game as he enters his third NBA season.
Other role players, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasove have also taken steps forward. Young players like Larry Sanders, the team's first-round pick a year ago, and Darrington Hobson are one year older and wiser.
With so many pieces, it's up to Skiles to figure out how they all go together. And again, that comes right back to a level of uncertainty.
"There's uncertainty to see how we're going to do," Bogut said. "We've worked pretty hard to this point. Every team is in the same situation as us. We don't really have any excuses, we just have to go out and try to perform and win games but we still have a long way to go."
Skiles was lucky in that he had almost his entire team in place when camp started. He wasn't, however, able to practice regularly with a full squad due to injuries and various other issues, like Mbah a Moute's visa situation which was cleared just prior to the Bucks' first exhibition game.
Those exhibition games, both losses to the Timberwolves, did little to give a clearer picture on how the Bucks will fare this season. There was only a limited amount of time to evaluate and with the season's start right around the corner, there is an added sense of urgency to get down to business.
"It's an unusual thing," Skiles said. "We had a conversation this morning as a staff that typically we would have after a regular-season game. Normally, last night on the second exhibition game, I may have given Bogut the night off or (Mike) Dunleavy the night off."
The good news for the Bucks is they're not alone. The entire league is facing the same situation, in one way or another. What will separate the successful teams from those who finish on the outside looking in will be the ability to get off to a strong start and fall into a rhythm early.
"We're watching the exhibition games that are on and there's a lot of sloppy play out there and rightfully so," Skiles said. "I'm not saying the players are sloppy, but there are a lot of teams with new personnel and things aren't going to be beautiful right now."
Avoiding injuries, a problem that plagued the Bucks for much of last season, will be crucial. To that extent, Skiles expects to take a precautionary approach with his players this season. He repeatedly expressed his pleasure with the way his team reported to camp in shape but knows the road ahead is a long one and again uncertain.
"Injuries happen every year to teams, but you've got to watch it," Skiles said. "We've got to balance it right now somehow. We're not in mid-season shape; we're not in poor shape.
"But we certainly don't want to tax guys to the point they start breaking down, either."
So what to make of the Bucks this season? The best advice might be to sit back, relax and try and enjoy the ride as the Bucks try to come together and get back on track after a disappointing 2010-2011 campaign.
"I think we can," Bogut said. "We have no choice but to. Whichever team comes out of the gate quickly and has good chemistry and camaraderie will have the best chance to win."