The Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA's no-man's land.
This team has talent, especially in the backcourt, but the ceiling isn't very high. If Milwaukee can get into the playoffs, the highest-seed possible is probably a No. 7.
If they don't make the playoffs, another trip to the lottery, where they've been the last two seasons, is on tap. Problem is, the Bucks aren't ever going to get a high pick unless they get remarkably lucky in the lottery.
So, the Bucks are probably better off going for broke this season.
"We want to be up in the top 10 - maybe even the top five - as a defensive team," said head coach Scott Skiles. "If you're a 55-game winning team and have home court every year and you're knocking on the door and your goal is to win the title, I think that's realistic.
"But we want to be in a position where we can be one of those teams that's in a position to say that going into a season. In order to do that, we have to get better defensively, and there's no reason we can't do that."
The strength is clearly in the backcourt.
Brandon Jennings had his best season as a pro last season. The left-hander averaged 19.1 points per game and 5.5 assists per game.
Monta Ellis showed up in March, and, in 21 games, averaged 17.6 PPG. That was a low figure based on Ellis' previous four seasons.
But with a full training camp together, this backcourt could average over 40 PPG.
"I played a fairly wide-open offensive game myself, so I like to give guys a lot of freedom offensively and let them use their talents and express themselves," said Skiles. "We want to execute late in games and put a priority on that, but I don't want guys feeling encumbered by too many offensive demands."
The offense certainly came around last season. After finishing dead last in the NBA in scoring in 2010-11, the Bucks came in fifth last season.
If this backcourt wasn't terrifying enough, consider that both Jennings and Ellis are in the final years of their contracts. It's doubtful both would be back next season and if things go poorly, one will most definitely be traded at the deadline.
Until then, the Bucks could be fun to watch.
2011-12 Results: 31-35, third in Central; Missed playoffs.
ADDITIONS: C Samuel Dalembert, C Joel Przybilla, F John Henson, G Doron Lamb, G/F Marquis Daniels.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Brandon Jennings SG- Monta Ellis SF- Luc Richard Mbah a Moute PF- Ersan Ilyasova C- Samuel Dalembert
KEY RESERVES: F Mike Dunleavy, F Drew Gooden, F Ekpe Udoh, C Larry Sanders, G Beno Udrih, F Tobias Harris, F John Henson, G Doron Lamb, C Joel Przybilla, G/F Marquis Daniels.
FRONTCOURT: This will be the first season without center Andrew Bogut. He went to the Golden State Warriors in the Ellis trade and Dalembert is a decent substitute. Dalembert is a good shot-blocker and decent rebounder, but he goes through lapses where it looks like he still doesn't understand all of the rules of the game.
Mbah a Moute is a spectacular defensive player. Offensively, he is limited at best.
Ilyasova had a career season in 2011-12. He averaged 13 PPG, 8.8 RPG and shot an eye-opening 45 percent from 3. Ilyasova had a 26-rebound game last season and can be a ferocious player on the floor. The question is, was last season a fluke or Ilyasova starting to reach his potential? Either way, Ilyasova is in a new tax bracket after a five-year, $40 million contract in the offseason.
BACKCOURT: Explosive. Dynamic. Offensively-enhanced.
There are a lot of adjectives one could use to describe Jennings and Ellis.
Of course they score at will and may represent the fastest starting backcourt in the league. Both are in contract years and both will be looking to get paid this summer.
But, if Jennings and Ellis are going to succeed in their time in Milwaukee, they'll need to step it up on the defensive end and that is not either player's strength.
"When it comes on the defensive end, the only thing we have to do is hold our man to four or five dribbles, and if they go to the basket, we've got the big guys back there to wipe them out," Ellis said. "The only thing we can't do is open the door for them to go to the basket and get our big men in foul trouble. Our focus on defense has to be to keep our big men out of foul trouble."
BENCH: Skiles has a ton of versatile talent off the bench.
Dunleavy, Gooden, Udrih, Daniels and Przybilla are veterans with varying strengths.
Udoh, Sanders and Harris are young and contributed in their ways to NBA teams already in their brief careers.
Henson and Lamb came via the draft and both could be steals.
Henson is thin and might have trouble handling strong power forwards. But Henson could also become a great weak-side shot-blocker and he needs to work on his offensive game.
Lamb will definitely be a steal. He was chosen in the second round and was an expert 3-point shooter in two seasons at Kentucky. Lamb has some handle and should figure into the rotation already, backing up Ellis, who has perennially been in the top 10 in minutes played.
COACHING: Skiles is known as a defensive coach and the defense struggled last season. The additions of Dalembert, Przybilla and Daniels will help on that front and scoring went up last season. He has a deep roster and can mix and match for defense and offense.
Skiles' contract expires at the end of the season. He's amassed a 146-166 in four seasons with the Bucks, so this is a huge season for Skiles. He's well- respected and if he lets Jennings and Ellis do their thing and doesn't micro- manage, this group should be strong.
OUTLOOK: The Bucks are once again in limbo. The talent is there to make the playoffs, but the East has improved, especially with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. Those were two fringe playoff teams in recent history and both look entrenched in the postseason at this point.
A quick start will be critical for the Bucks. If things turn sour, Jennings, Ellis and Skiles, all lame ducks, could be gone. If things go well, could be extensions for everyone.
It just seems the defense won't come around enough for the Bucks to make the playoffs. Dalembert is a guy who I wouldn't put a lot of faith in to anchor my team's hopes, but, to be fair, he's a good shot-blocker and goal-tender.
With all of this talent, have these players ever won anything in the NBA? They haven't. Certainly not calling them losers, but history is a real thing.
The hunch is the Bucks are outside looking in again and this team looks very different next season.