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.