MILWAUKEE (AP) In the face of last-place preseason prognostications, general manager Larry Harris boldly forecast that his Milwaukee Bucks would be in prime position for a playoff run this season.
Under a man who had no head coaching experience.
With four not-so-big-name free agents.
Without the likes of Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, Gary Payton or Glenn Robinson.
And following the biggest front office shake-up and personnel overhaul in franchise history.
Yet, not only are the Bucks in the playoff hunt a week before the All-Star break, they're jockeying for home-court advantage in the first round.
Harris is resisting the temptation to gloat. He admits there was a little bit of wishful thinking in his audacious playoffs prediction.
``We're simply on a faster track than I thought we were going to be,'' Harris said. ``But I'll take it.''
Harris, promoted after team owner Herb Kohl decided not to sell the franchise to Michael Jordan, sounded downright delusional back in October when he told anybody willing to listen that the Bucks' goal was the postseason, nothing less.
This, even though the ``Big Three'' of Robinson, Allen and Cassell were long gone _ part of the star-studded rosters that underperformed the last two seasons _ along with Ervin Johnson, Anthony Mason and Jason Caffey.
Their exodus followed the unceremonious exits of general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach George Karl, whose constant sniping at his players and mounting losses despite one of the league's highest payrolls prompted Kohl to fire him with one year and a guaranteed $7 million left on his contract.
Harris replaced Karl with Milwaukee native Terry Porter, whose coaching resume included just one year as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings last season.
Harris was convinced that Porter could coax the same style out of his team that he displayed during a stellar 17-year pro playing career, when he hustled on defense, boxed out on the boards and created fastbreak opportunities by hounding the ballhandler.
All the things the Bucks hadn't done in a long time.
Porter had the Bucks work on defense and rebounding for the first two weeks of training camp before he even bothered to install an offense.
He told his players nobody was inheriting 40 minutes a night, so they'd better show him a thing or two. That approach has produced a bench that regularly goes a dozen deep, something unheard of during Karl's tenure.
``He was a hard-nosed player and that's what he wants us to bring every night,'' newcomer Joe Smith said about Porter.
Fans have embraced the team that places fundamentals and teamwork over feuding and egos.
The Bucks already have more sellouts than they did all of last year, and the Bradley Center is abuzz for the first time since the Bucks went to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago.
``I can't compare the rejoicing because I wasn't around last year, but people tell me this brand of basketball is refreshing to see,'' Porter said. ``But for me, that's the way I played all my life.''
It's the way Michael Redd is playing, and it's landed him in the All-Star game.
The fourth-year pro and first-time starter was a sixth man the last two years who was relegated to playing the perimeter with so many plays designed for the established stars. Now, he's shown he's equally adept at taking the ball to the basket.
``He's had some nights where it's like, 'Wow! Is he ever going to miss?''' Smith said. ``Every night he's a handful for our opponents. He makes the defender work because he can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot the jumper, he can pass.
``He has a well-rounded game and every night he's getting better.''
And he's taking the Bucks along for the ride.
Harris said Redd ``has really come out of the shadows and into the limelight'' this year.
He's not alone.
Desmond Mason and Tim Thomas also are growing into bigger roles. And Smith and Brian Skinner make for a much improved frontcourt over Johnson and Mason.
Free agent Damon Jones has been splitting the point guard duties with rookie T.J. Ford, the fifth pick in the draft. This is Jones' eighth team in six years but it's the first time he's been allowed to run an offense for 25 minutes.
``This is a coming out party for me,'' Jones said.
And also for Ford, who has quickly shown he can play in the NBA despite his small size.
``I have to give Terry Porter all the credit in the world because he's established a good system,'' Cleveland coach Paul Silas said. ``Everybody's believing in it. They're exploiting defenses. But the main thing is that they are playing together, they're believing in one another and they're believing in Terry.''
Even Karl is impressed.
``The moves have been big-time and have worked out well for them,'' said Karl, now an analyst for ESPN. ``Am I surprised they're contending for a playoff spot? Not really. Right now, in the Eastern Conference, if things go the right way, 30 to 40 wins is easy to get _ if you play hard every night and play together, which was kind of a problem we always had.''