Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gone ’Til December: Four Things Bucks Fans Should Watch For in November

Bucks Forest is going on a thirty day sabbatical for the month of November.  I enjoy writing about the Bucks, but analyzing (some might say, “criticizing”) the Bucks is far from the only type of writing that I enjoy.  I have long been fascinated by the art of screenwriting, which means writing the script that actors, directors and others use as a blueprint when making movies.  

Scott Myers, who teaches online screenwriting classes and is very active on Twitter, is promoting November, 2015 as “Zero Draft Thirty” month (#ZeroDraftThirty on Twitter).  He is challenging writers to set some time aside and really focus on completing one draft of a screenplay during the thirty days of November.  The draft can be a first draft (which is what it will be in my case) or a revision of a previous draft, but it has to be completed in November.  

I am going to take a sabbatical from blogging about the Bucks in order to give myself a better chance at having a successful Zero Draft Thirty.  Most likely that means that the Bucks Forest blog will be idle during November.  It should be noted, however, that I have always considered BucksForest to be an open blog.  If you’re a Bucks fan and you find that there is an interesting Bucks storyline that the Bucks/NBA media is missing, then I encourage you to email me ( and write something up for this blog.


Here are four things I’ll be watching when the Bucks play in November.  I chose the number four to honor Sidney Moncrief, a should-be basketball Hall of Famer and the best television announcer the Bucks have had since I started watching thirty years ago.

The Greek Freak

Giannis has been the best thing about the Bucks thus far.  While Greg Monroe has put up nice numbers and given a decent effort on defense, Giannis’s offensive growth and his overall presence as an athletic freak gives him the nod.  He will be a joy to watch in November.

It has been a vertical improvement for Giannis: he’s taken the things that he was already doing well and become even better at them.  He finished at the rim well last season and in the game against Washington he was downright uncoverable from certain spots.  He handled simple passes and cuts quite well during the 2015 season and he looked improved in that area as well.

I have been skeptical that Giannis could develop into an offensive dynamo.  His jump shot was inconsistent, he turned the ball over and he struggled to make great passes when the defense kept its discipline.  Those issues are still present, but to lessor degrees.  So lessor, in fact, that I now think that Giannis’s limitations, while permanent, will be only a minor drag on his game.

The problem area to keep an eye on is Giannis’s defense.  It appears that he could be headed down the James Harden path.  Harden was never considered a defensive liability in college, but as his offensive game became increasingly successful he seemed to lose the desire to defend attentively.  Giannis had an ugly +/- rating in his first game.  While +/- on its own is largely an irrelevant stat, in this case it was indicative of the way that Giannis struggled to be part of an effective defensive unit.

The Bench

The Bucks may have the worst bench in the League right now.  Vasquez, O’Bryant, Inglis and Bayless comprise the bench rotation.  Plumlee and Vaughn have also played for stretches.  The young Big men & Vaughn should not be playing regular NBA minutes at this point in their careers.  The way the veteran guards are playing, both men would be toss-ups to make an NBA roster if they did not already have guaranteed contracts.  Depth is a huge problem right now.

Fortunately, the current Bucks bench is not expected to be part of the rotation long-term.  By the end of November, OJ Mayo, John Henson and Jabari Parker are expected to return from injury.  If the rotation ends up being nine men, that would probably leave Henson, Copeland, Mayo and Vasquez as the bench group.  That will be a huge improvement.

Even with a healthy roster, the Bucks’ bench may be a problem throughout November.  The Bucks’ starting lineup is light on interior toughness.  Henson and Copeland offer no reprieve.  The Bucks have lumbering ballhandlers who struggle to keep opposing guards in front of them.  Mayo and Vazquez aren’t going to cure that.  All of these bench players are either too short to defend Big men or too slow to defend Wing players.  (It is at this point that I must mention that trading Brandon Knight and giving away Zaza & Jared Dudley would have solved just about all of these problems.  But, I’m not here to dwell on the past.  This is about the future.)

The next month may tell us a lot about just how much of a problem the Bucks’ bench is.  Is this like the 2013 Trailblazers, where a weak bench effectively sabotaged a solid young team’s Playoff chances?  Or is this like the 2015 Raptors, where an inconsistent bench turned an East contender into first round Playoff refuse?

The Big Offseason Contracts

Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton were richly rewarded in July.  Neither man has played to the level of his contract thus far.

Khris Middleton’s play has been the more worrying of the two.  Middleton’s contract was that of a top line scorer or an elite Three-and-D Wing player.  He looks like neither.  He hasn’t been able to create his own offense, he has been taken advantage of on defense repeatedly and he was never expected to be top catch-and-release guy like Ben Gordon or Kyle Korver.

Part of the problem for Middleton is that opposing players are going after him, ostensibly because they believe he is overpaid.  It reminds me of when Jeremy Lin got overpaid by the Rockets.  Brad Beal, Carmelo and others delighted in going right at Middleton and either getting or creating bucket after bucket.  If that continues throughout November, Coach Kidd may have no choice but to start finishing games with OJ Mayo on the court in Middleton’s place.

Greg Monroe has been a lot better than Middleton has and he should be.  Monroe received a max contract from the Bucks.  (According to Monroe’s agent there were other teams presenting max offers to Monroe.  According to the other teams who met with Monroe’s agent, nobody else offered a max contract.  You can draw your own conclusion on who’s being more straightforward.)

Monroe’s problem is the same problem Monroe had in Detroit: leaden feet.  The guy simply does not elevate quickly and cannot shuffle and step fast enough to close defensive holes and chase down tough rebounds.

Overall, Monroe has been one of the Bucks’ better defenders because he has been attentive and he has put forth a good effort.  But the Bucks need more than attentiveness and effort.  They need great defense, like they has last season.  Monroe might be incapable of being the Big man at the center of a great defense.  November will tell us a lot about whether he can ditch his defensive rep and overcome his slow-footedness.

His Guys

One conclusion that we can make from Coach Kidd’s tenure is that he will fiercely protect players who he sees as “his guys”.  The formula for a Bucks player becoming one of “his guys” is for GM Jason Kidd to acquire him and for some person on the outside (maybe even Bucks Forest!) to heavily criticize that acquisition.  When that happens, Coach Kidd seems to dig in and really try to prove the outside critics wrong.  He will protect “his guys” to a far greater degree than he will protect players who were acquired by a different GM (like Giannis) or players who were not subject to significant outside criticism (like Greg Monroe).

The two players who qualify as “his guys” are Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams.  While Parker was touted as a great draft pick and a Rookie of the Year favorite by many people outside the Bucks’ organization, he was also criticized as a “low ceiling” guy.  Once Parker began to play, a small but potentially influential group of NBA observers also criticized Parker’s defense, rebounding, toughness and ball-stopping.  Michael Carter-Williams was even more harshly criticized after Kidd acquired him, with many people outside the Bucks organization questioning whether Carter-Williams should be a starting NBA Point guard.

In response to criticisms of Jabari and MCW, Jason Kidd has dug in deeper.  GM-in-name-only John Hammond wanted to draft Bobby Portis in an effort to shore up the Bucks’ defense, rebounding and toughness, but GM Jason Kidd reportedly vetoed the choice because he worried that having an active young Big might stunt Jabari’s growth.  The Bucks could have acquired a quick Point guard who plays quality defense to compete with Michael Carter-Williams, but instead the Bucks brought in Grievis Vasquez.  (At the time, I thought that Vasquez might have been acquired to compete with MCW, but now it seems clear that Vasquez was targeted because he is the same type of tall, pass-first, defensively-challenged point guard, only worse.)  Those moves were clear signs that Jason Kidd is riding Jabari and MCW.  If they fail, then the Bucks fail.

November will be an interesting month for both Carter-Williams and Parker.

Carter-Williams simply must play better.  If he keeps getting beat by good, average and below-average point guards, as he has during key sequences in the first two games, then this could be a long month.  If Carter-Williams has what it takes to play an NBA starters’ minutes, then he must show it now.

Parker will play sparingly in November, if at all.  Hopefully he will play and when he does, I am hoping for baby steps.  I would like to see him get at least one tough rebound per game.  I would like to see him guard a scoring Big man without needing a double-team.  I would like to see him make quicker decisions; to limit his time with the ball to a couple of seconds at a time.

It is no secret that I have been pessimistic about the Bucks’ potential this season, but I still expect to see some positive signs.  The four things mentioned here are all things that could improve this season, hopefully starting in November.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Official #BucksForest 2016 NBA Preview

Last year, I picked the Warriors to miss the Playoffs.  The eventual 2015 NBA Champions -- the team whose young talent carried it to inspiring Playoff runs the previous two years -- picked to be sitting my the pool in Vegas come late April.  It's there in the Official #BucksForest 2015 NBA Preview, right along with the Clippers being the eighth-worst team in the League and the Thunder finishing with the best record in basketball.

Keep that in mind, Bucks fans, as you read The Official #BucksForest 2016 NBA Preview: I am often wrong, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

(Of course, I am often right.  I hit every single 2015 Playoff team in the East, except the Bucks.  I had the Heat and Hornets missing the Playoffs, which few people had.  I had the Rockets as the second best team in the West, which almost nobody had.  And I had the Spurs as a seventh seed in the West [they finished sixth].)

As always, the #BucksForest NBA Preview begins with a recap of the previous year:

30: Some team decimated by injuries/Lakers (actual: some team decimated by injuries/Minnesota)

29: The Bucks (Knicks) - Yikes.  Sorry, #BucksForest.  And this may make it two seasons in a row that I badly underestimate my beloved team.
28. Sixers (Sixers) - bingo!
27. Magic (Lakers)
26. Kings (Magic)
25. Knicks (Kings) - I'm feeling pretty good so far, I must say.  I blew it on the Bucks & Wolves, but otherwise I'm solid on these bottom feeders.
24. Celtics (Nuggets) - Here's where things get shaky.  I just did not believe in Brad Stevens as an NBA coach.  It looks like I may be wrong on that.
23. Clippers (Pistons) - ugly
22. Pelicans (Hornets) - I underestimated how well they'd play during the dozen or so games Anthony Davis is assured of missing each season.
21. Hornets (Heat) 
20. Jazz (Jazz) - bingo!
19. Heat (Pacers)
18. Pacers (Nets)
17. Nets (Suns)
16. Warriors (Celtics) - a poor prediction by any measure
15. Suns (Bucks) - underestimated my own favorite team by fourteen friggin' spots.  So poor.
14. T-Wolves (Thunder) - I don't feel terrible about the T-Wolves here because they were crushed by injuries
13. Wizards (P-cans) 
12. Pistons (Wizards) - so close on the Wiz, but I badly overestimated what Van Gundy could do
11. Spurs (Raptors) - OK, so I misled you earlier.  I did have Spurs very close to sixth in the West, but I actually underestimated them significantly in my overall predictions
10. Bulls (Bulls) - bingo!
9. Nuggets (Mavericks) - Nugs had injuries and I didn't realize that Ty Lawson was un-rosterworthy, but this was still a big ol' miss
8. Hawks (Cavs) - very proud of this one
7. Mavericks (Blazers)
6. Blazers (Spurs)
5. Raptors (Grizzlies) - I was way too high on the Raps.  That won't happen again.
4. Grizzlies (Clippers) - almost a bingo
3. Rockets (Rockets) - bingo! 
2. Cavs (Hawks)
1. Thunder (Warriors) - another injury excuse

As always, a few ugly ones, a few good ones and a lot of close ones.

And now, without any further ado, the order of finish for the 2016 NBA season.

30) Some team decimated by injuries

Maybe I should just stop making this prediction.  Anyone who has followed the NBA closely knows that the worst team in basketball will be some team that gets hit by crippling injuries.  I should just get to who I think that'll be.

30) Los Angeles Lakers

Two years in a row!  

Byron Scott is such a bad coach.  Kobe is not a bad player yet, but he's getting close.  Their rookies look bad and their bench will probably be bad again.  

The fact that the Lakers got younger gives them a better chance of avoiding the 30th seed, but I just can't find any team that looks worse right now.  I hate to do it because the Lakers are such a big part of the League, but that's what I forsee: 30th place.

29) Not the Bucks

I still feel bad about that prediction last season.  I knew that I liked Coach Kidd and I knew that the Bucks had some solid vets (I picked them to be the sixth seed the season before, even!).  I picked them at 29 because I thought that they'd be on orders to tank.  I was wrong.  I'm sorry.

29) Philadephia 76ers

This one is so easy that I don't actually believe in it.  Their roster still looks too young and too untalented, but they will probably rise up a few spots.


29) New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis is fragile as hell and the rest of the roster is already banged up.  If they start losing I wouldn't be surprised to see P-cans management start to get visions of Ben Simmons fluttering through their minds.  

28) Minnesota Timberwolves

What a difficult situation this is.  I feel so bad for the whole group up there.  I am hoping that the T-Wolves have a great season.  I hope they beat this ranking by a wide margin.  

27) Philadelphia 76ers

I like the tradition of picking the Sixers a spot or two higher than everyone else, so I'm going to keep that up.

26) Orlando Magic

I like Scott Skiles and I think that it was a mistake to choose John Hammond over him in 2013.  I think he is a top notch NBA coach, but I just hate this roster.  I liked Elfrid Payton at times last season, but the shine is off even him at this point.  Vucevic is the only real winner I see on this roster. 

25) Utah Jazz

The Jazz are a trendy pick to make the Playoffs and I can see why.  Gordon Heyward is an absolute stud, the frontcourt has toughness (Favors) & tallness (Gobert) and their guards are talented.  I am not convinced, though.  I also have serious doubts about Quin Snyder as coach.  

24) Miami Heat

I didn't believe the hype last year and I'm not gonna believe it this year.  

This looks like a bad team.  Wade, though he is the Last College Basketball Legend, is a shell of his former self.  We don't know what Bosh can do.  Whiteside appears to be legit, but I doubt that he can be the man the offense runs through.  And Goran Dragic turned back into a pumpkin last season after his surprising 2014 campaign.

Many, many people expect the Heat to be part of the group just below the Bulls and the Cavs, but I am not one of them.  

23) Toronto Raptors

Have you heard?  Kyle Lowry is skinny!  He's lighting it up in the pre-season!  They acquired DeMarre Carroll!  They have new uniforms!  And I expect them to suck!  

DeMarre Carroll's contract was a huge mistake.  Conventional wisdom is that contracts are "mistakes" for Salary Cap reasons.  I find that to be hogwash.  Contracts are "mistakes" when they upset team chemistry.  Chander Parsons's contract was a mistake because it pissed off Monta Ellis and ruined what could have been a Championship contender (remember, the Mavs were more competitive than anyone against the 2014 NBA Champion Spurs).  

Kyle Lowry is going to see DeMarre Carroll's contract and have the exact same reaction.  He may not be pissed off now, but he will be at some point.  I like Carroll a lot, but he does not get his own buckets.  Getting one's own buckets is a key part of the NBA salary hierarchy (with some exceptions, of course).  I think that the Raptors will struggle all season because Carroll's bucket-getting ability does not match his salary.

22) Milwaukee Bucks

Speaking of teams paying non-bucket-getters too much money, it's time to talk Milwaukee Bucks!

I kid, I kid.  Khris Middleton is a does not get buckets and he is paid too much money, but that's not the problem here.  The problem is they're soooo young.  Sometimes young teams meet expectations, but that usually only happens when Kevin Durant is on the roster.  There's no Kevin Durant here, folks.  I've looked.

I hope that the Bucks finish well above 22nd and there is a decent chance that they will.  In fact, at various times I had the Bucks pegged as high as 10th on this list.  In the end, though, I just couldn't overlook the youth of this team.  The NBA is an old man's game, no matter what certain people say.  Once the Greek Freak and a could of other key guys get older, the Bucks will be a force to be reckoned with.  Today, I see them as a mid-Lottery team in the East.

21) It doesn't matter

I know that I am being too negative on the Bucks.  I know that ranking the Pistons, Hornets, Knicks, Nets and Celtics ahea--

Wait a minute...

22) Boston Celtics

You know what, the Celtics stink.  They have looked good in preseason and they finished last season strong, but look at their roster.  Isaiah Thomas's all time best finish is a seventh seed in the East, and he's their best player.  They have a slew of big men, but everyone except Zeller and Sullinger probably should be benchwarmers.  Their guards and wings are a collection of guys who are all missing something from their game.

If Brad Stevens is the coach that a lot of people think he is, then the Celtics will probably beat this ranking.  I think he's overrated, though, and so I'm keeping the Celtics at 22.

21) Milwaukee Bucks

--d of the Bucks in the East.  And I know that supposed West doormats Portland and Denver (and maybe Dallas, in some people's eyes) haven't been mentioned yet.  Hopefully I'll be way off again and the Bucks will beat expectations by fourteen spots in these rankings.

20) Denver Nuggets

I really do not want to pick this team this low.  Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Ken Faried and Randy Foye are darned good basketball players.  Emmanuel Mudiay may win Rookie of the Year and they have quite a few young big men.

I think that the Nuggets are better than the average pundit gives them credit for, but ultimately I had to rank them low due to coaching.  I just do not see Michael Malone as a top echelon coach.  (Which begs the question, "then why are the Bucks, who are coached by top echelon coach Jason Kidd, ranked so low?"  Good question.  "Too much youth" is my answer.)

19) Hmm....

I'm really starting to realize that I like too many teams this season.  The Bucks and Nuggets could both be playoff teams.  That means that I view a whopping twenty-one teams as legit Playoff contenders, even after poo-pooing the prospects of so-called Playoff aspirants Miami, New Orleans, Toronto and Utah.  It's a tough League to predict, I tell ya.

I must move forward, however.  

19) New York Knicks

If I were a betting man (and I am, but I don't bet against the Bucks), then I would bet that the Knicks will beat the Bucks on opening night.  They have a lot of solid veterans, Carmelo is still a great scorer and their bench is underappreciated.  

Ultimately, though, the Knicks are coached by Derek Fisher.  I think Derek Fisher stinks as a coach.  I think that it is possible to be a great coach under the Triangle offense (Brian Shaw, who I think will be the next coach of the Knicks, would likely lead the Knicks to a solid Playoff seed if he were their coach, for example), but Derek Fisher is not that coach.  From reports, it appears that Phil Jackson is committed to Fisher as coach, and so I think that the 2016 season will be sacrificed in order to give Fish a chance to prove himself.

18) Dallas Mavericks

We go from a good team led by a bad coach to a kinda bad team led by a great coach.  Rick Carlisle is a great coach.  In fact, I fear predicting that the Mavs will miss the Playoffs in any year because I consider Carlisle to be one of the very top coaches in the game.  

The problem that I see with the Mavs is that same problem that everyone sees: not enough talent and too many injuries.  I don't see Carlisle letting the team get bad enough that they would be tempted to tank, but...

Wait a minute.  I remember writing that about someone else two years ago...  That's right: Rondo.

Change of plans...

18) Sacramento Kings

Rick Carlisle will not let his team finish worse than Rajon Rondo's.  I just don't see it happening.  So the Kings get put in 18th, even though I like DeMarcus Cousins.

17) Dallas Mavericks

OK, that's better.

In some ways it makes no sense to rank the Mavs ahead of the Kings.  The Kings have Boogie and Rondo may be back and Willie Cauley-Stein may be exactly what they need on defense.  Ultimately, though, I think that this team will find a way to lose more games than they should.  And Boogie is probably the modern day Kevin Love: a great Big who will need to leave town in order to make the Playoffs.

16) Detroit Pistons

We've reached the Playoff teams!  Congratulate yourself for getting this far.

I really want to rank the Pistons higher.  They have my favorite rookie (Stanley Johnson), an imposing Big man (Andre Drummond) and some real weapons on offense (Reggie Jackson probably tops among them).

Last season hurt, though.  I thought that Van Gundy was a slam-dunk Playoff coach, and he just wasn't.  I still think that Van Gundy is solid, but I am only giving them an 8th seed.

15) Annoucement

At this point I should emphasize an overarching prediction I have for the 2016 NBA Season: the East will be better.  Last season, the Thunder finished with the 14th best record in the NBA and they missed the Playoffs.  In 2014, the Suns were 11th and they missed out.

I am predicting that the East and West will split the top 16 best records.  It's a big ask for some of these East teams, like...

15) Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are pegged by some to be a bottom feeder, but I see a big, veteran team.  Jarrett Jack is an obvious concern, but Point guards are the easiest position to fill in the League.  (For example, I think that Brandon Jennings might be shipped to Brooklyn in exchange for Bogdanovic.  Jennings has never made any secret of his desire to star in New York or Los Angeles, and the Nets seem like a perfect fit.)

And in addition to the Nets, a lot of people would be surprised to see big things from the...

14) Charlotte Hornets

I think that Jeremy Lin is more than an October mirage here.  And if Lin is solid, then the Bugs' scorers (Kemba, Big Al), defenders (Batum) and big guys (Hansbrough, Zeller) will be able to do their things.  Plus they have Frank the Tank!

13) Houston Rockets

I almost had the Rockets out.

The mojo just feels off for the Rockets this season.  Last season I thought that the Rockets would be fueled by all of the media attention showered on Chandler Parsons.  That is gone.  I thought that Harden and Howard were a Wing/Big combo that the rest of the League wasn't ready for.  The League has now seen what they can do.  And I thought that their bench was one of the best in the League.  It may not be anymore.

The Rockets were on my list of surprise Playoff misses, but then I reconsidered at the last minute.  I like their combination of vets and youngsters, I like McHale and I think that Harden will pick up where he left off.  I am way lower on them this season than I was last season, but they're in.

12) Washington Wizards

John Wall and Bradley Beal are superstars.  If that statement is true, then the Wizards will not miss Paul Pierce and they will overcome whatever bench shortcomings (both coach and player) that exist.  If that statement is not true, then the should-be-Bullets are stuck in non-contender limbo for a while.

I like John Wall and I especially like Bradley Beal, but last year was a disappointment to me.  They seem to be closer to Jason Kidd & Jim Jackson than to Baron Davis & Jason Richardson (who were awesome!  I promise!).  I forsee the Wizards being a non-contender again.

11) San Antonio Spurs

Every summer my friend Nickrob and I "book the territory", which is old pro wrestling slang for when wrestlers have a few drinks and talk about how things aught to be.  Our "book the territory" sessions primarily involve choosing which teams we view as Playoff teams, then posting a picture of those selections on Instagram.  I booked the Spurs as a sixth seed, and to nobody's surprise I almost immediately heard complaints from Spurs fans.  Well, guess what Spurs fans: now I have the Spurs as a seventh seed.

I see age finally catching up with the Spurs.  (I also saw age catching up with the Spurs last year, but even though they were a sixth seed I think an honest assessment would say that age did not catch up with them.)  Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge are great players who are less aged, but I don't think it will be enough if Parker, Ginobili and Duncan fall off to the extent I expect them to.  Seventh seed.  That's my prediction and I'll stand by it.

10) Phoenix Suns

Let's make a deal: how about we agree to not look back and judge this choice at the end of the season?

I am probably overrating the Suns.  They have a lot of talent, their top guys are in the right age range and Jeff Hornacek is a superb coach, but they probably will post a worse record than the Rockets and Spurs.

So, why not just pick the Suns to be 13th or 14th?  I don't know.  I like Brandon Knight.  I believe that they have the right number of rotation-ready guys.  I think that they will compete hard every night and win more than 50 games.  But, again, let's not focus too hard on the unearned adoration I'm showering the Suns with.

9) Portland Trailblazers

Speaking of too high...  The Blazers are my sleeper team.

Is a five seed too high for my sleeper team?  Perhaps when that team loses four of its starting five, it is.  Perhaps when it replaces those four with internal bench players and role-player free agents, it is.  Perhaps when that team is in the West, it is.

My case for the Blazers is the following:  They have one of the top coaches in the League.  (Terry Stotts was the Bucks' coach for perhaps the 2007 Bucks, and his firing was probably the worst decision in a series of bad decisions that brought down a really fun Bucks group.)  They have a lethal backcourt and they acquired one of the best Wing defenders in the game (Al-Farouq Aminu).  They have a lot of young, athletic Bigs, which will allow them to play the type of active defense that the Blazers played while they were peaking early in the 2014 season.

In essence, I think that the 2016 Blazers will be the "2015 Bucks, done right".  Last season's Bucks were a surprise Playoff team on a likely path to the fifth seed (which is the seed I'm picking for the Blazers in the West).  The 2015 Bucks had a great -- though underrated at the time -- coach who got his team to play active defense.  And the 2015 Bucks had a superb Point guard who was the engine of the team on both offense and defense.  I believe that the Blazers won't trade their superb Point guard, thus sending the team into a tailspin that they still may not have recovered from.  So, fifth seed it is.

***WARNING: Entering the Contender Zone***

Eight contenders is an awful lot.  I know this.  Most NBA observers will probably choose three or four -- maybe even two -- and see the NBA Champion come from that group.  I, on the other hand, could see any of these eight take home the Best Championship Trophy In Sports come June.

8) Los Angeles Clippers

This team could be really tough in the regular season.  In fact...

8) Atlanta Hawks

Let's hold off on the Clippers for a while, as this is a regular season ranking.  I'll go with the Hawks in eighth place (fourth seed in the East).

People are disrespecting the Hawks this offseason.  The team won 60 games!  They acquired a solid Big (Splitter), which was what they needed.  They let DeMarre Carroll walk, which averted the locker room turmoil that I described for the Raptors.  They still have Teague and Horford and Milsap and Korver.  And a great bench.  Led by a great coach.  They could win 60 games again.

I have the Hawks in the Contender Zone, which means that they could win the NBA Championship.  Do I actually think they will?  You know what, I wouldn't be surprised.  I could see the Hawks learning from Cleveland last year and poaching a good Big man if it looks like that's needed.  Don't sleep on the Hawks.  I did in last season's Preview, but I've learned my lesson.

7) Golden State Warriors

Ah man, I am going to get crap about this one if they win 60+ games again.

The mojo feels off to me.  I could see the Dubs winning the Title, but during the regular season I expect them to fall to a four seed.  You know the team and you know what they do and you know that they will win a lot of games.  I just see three teams winning more games.

6) Chicago Bulls

Having the Bulls as a three seed in the East...

Wait a minute.  Just because the Bulls will be a three seed doesn't mean that they'll win more games than the West's four seed.

6) Golden State Warriors

7) Chicago Bulls

Warriors go up one and Bulls go down one.

I thought that the Bulls would have come out of the East last season if not for internal discontent.  I don't know why Tom Thibodeau lost his team, but from the outside it looked like he did.  The Bulls could have -- should have, really -- beaten the Cavs in the Playoffs last season and they might have been favored to progress past the Hawks and on to the Finals.

More or less the same Bulls team is back, and they even got a good rookie to boot.  Bobby Portis will be an active Big off the bench and any team likes having that.  The Bulls also poached the college basketball coach who observers felt coached a style that most closely mirrors pro basketball.  (I don't watch college basketball, so I have no strong opinion on Fred Hoiberg's coaching acumen.)  The Bulls are a contender, and they may even exceed this ranking.

5) Indiana Pacers

I can't hold out any longer.  I love what I see from the Pacers, but I just can't put them into the top four.

Here's my case: Frank Vogel is a great coach.  Monta Ellis will get to play the way he likes to play, and with good teammates to boot.  Paul George will be a very tough cover as a slim Big man.  Myles Turner could very well be rookie of the year.  Their bench and rotation guys are all solid NBA players who can play a role.  I envision this team coming together and winning a lot of regular season games.  I am less excited about their Playoff prospects, but if they make a move or two they could play for a long time come spring.

4) Oklahoma City Thunder

What is there to say that hasn't been said?

Actually, there is something to say: Kevin Durant's "keeping it real" personality is AWESOME.  I have come to love that guy.  Being prickly with the press -- especially those in the press who don't know what they're talking about -- is so endearing to me.  I worked as a media member for several UFC events in the past and you could see why athletes get annoyed.  I was part of the problem!  I would ask questions trying to get myself over, I would focus on stupid crap that had little to do with the competition I was supposedly covering and I would always gravitate towards the big stars, even if the lesser known guys deserved attention.  Everyone in the press does it and I love the fact that Durant just isn't gonna take it any more.  Plus I think that he will be impossible to handle this season on the court.

3) Cleveland Cavaliers

They are three only because they don't care about being one or two.  This is a stacked team.

In fact, being too stacked is the only thing that might sabotage this team.  No matter how much money one makes, athletes want to play.  And with LeBron getting older and developing into the type of guy who should be in the paint more, they have four athletes to fit into two Big man spots on the court.

I think Coach Blatt will work it out and I think that the Cavs will have a great regular season.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks, Pacers or Bulls beat them in the Playoffs, but I see them entering the postseason with the best record in the East.

1.5) Los Angeles Clippers

1.5) Memphis Grizzlies

How can I choose between these two?  I love them both.

There are so many similarities and so many polarities.  One plays in a large city and one plays in a relatively tiny city, but both struggle amidst larger sports forces (the Lakers and SEC football, respectively).  One has a big name coach and one has a coach that most NBA fans couldn't pick out of a police lineup, but both employ a physical style that wears down opponents (especially the Bucks, who have struggled against both teams over the last half-decade).  One team does a lot of talking while the other stays mostly silent, but they both are pissed off.  They both feel that they were better than the Dubs.  They both feel that injuries and/or circumstance robbed them of the chance to prove it.  They both feel that they were here before the Dubs, and thus that they should've gotten their crown before the Dubs.

The Clippers and Grizzlies have also had a great rivalry for years, mostly stemming from Zach Randolph's antipathy for Blake Griffin.  ZBo played great for the Clippers after many NBA folks had written him off during his forgettable Knicks run.  Coach/GM Mike Dunleavy, Sr. was all set to build around Baron Davis & ZBo when the franchise shockingly won the 2009 Lottery.  Like most people, Dunleavy, Sr. thought that Blake Griffin was the type of sure-fire star that a team cannot pass up on.  So Dunleavy, Sr. dumped ZBo on the Grizzlies for a song.  ZBo has never taken kindly to that slight and he has always appeared to take special pleasure in leaning on Blake Griffin whenever these teams match up.  The Griffin/ZBo rivalry has expanded beyond those two men as both teams have ascended to positions as perennial Contenders.

I just love watching it.  I love it every time Memphis and the Clips play each other and I especially love the war between Griffin and ZBo.  Neither man and neither team has his Championship, but I think that ends this season.  I don't know which team will ultimately raise the trophy, but I know that it will be fun as hell to watch the latest chapter in this story -- and the whole 2016 NBA Season -- unfold.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rashad Vaughn Watch; Preseason TV Night!

Bucks vs. Timberwolves preseason happens tonight in Madison.  It's the first Bucks preseason game in Madison in my memory, thought admittedly I haven't paid too much attention to the preseason slate over the years.

The match is fascinating to me because it features two similar teams who carry widely different perceptions around the League.  The Bucks are perceived to be full of young talent and a ready to content in the East.  The Wolves are perceived to be full of young talent and destined for a long season of ugly losses in the West.  The Bucks are led by Jason Kidd who led the team to a surprisingly good season in his second season as a young head coach.  The Wolves are led by Sam Mitchell, who led the Raptors to a surprisingly good season is his third season as a young head coach.    The Bucks are young and the Wolves are young.  The Bucks have a few solid veterans to guide the youngsters, as to the Wolves.  Both teams even have a pair of supposed superstars-in-waiting, though in both cases there's a lot left to prove.

If you're not offended by that last paragraph, then chances are you're not an online Bucks fan.  For those who are online Bucks fans, I don't feel like arguing with you today.  Instead, I'll add the following in big, bold type since my assumption is that you do a lot more skimming than reading.

The Bucks are where the Wolves hope to be in a year or two: ready to contend with one of the best young cores in the NBA.

This feels like the type of preseason game where the home team really wants to send the fans home happy, so if you're a betting man then I'd recommend picking the Bucks, who are -3 1/2 points (meaning the Bucks would have to win by at least four points for you to win your bet) at one of the sportsbooks mentioned in the New York Times' ongoing exposé of "offshore" gambling.  (You'll realize why offshore is in quotes if you read the Times' article.)


Rashad Vaughn has been a focus of my attention ever since the Preseason started.  He was the Bucks' first round draft pick and he felt like a home run from the moment his hame was called.  I was so, so happy that the Bucks didn't follow conventional wisdom and pick a spot-up shooter.  Then longtime hoops expert Ross Kreines tweeted about how much he liked Vaughn's game and I got even more happy.

Vaughn looked good in Summer League and, from what I gather, has been strong in Preseason.  He has a natural awareness for the game (an underrated attribute, I tell ya) and he can get his own shot.  OJ Mayo was the only real shot-getter on the Bucks' roster at the end of last season, which is why I was so happy when the Bucks' drafted Vaughn.

The Bucks look good for drafting Vaughn, but since #BucksForest is the headquarters for the 2016 Milwaukee Bucks Season, Hater's Edition, I would be remiss if I didn't mention two possible draftees that the Bucks passed on: Bobby Portis and RJ Hunter.  The Vaughn vs. Portis issue was covered recently in this space, but Hunter's play on the Celtics has added a new wrinkle.

Rashad Vaughn and RJ Hunter were both expected to be selected in the mid-to-late first round, but on draft night the Bucks plucked Vaughn early while Hunter fell to the Celtics near the end of the round. Hunter is more of a shooter and appears to be more seasoned, while Vaughn has bucket-getting and youth on his side.  Hunter has looked just plain great this preseason (though he did have a middling game last night against the Nets' reserves).  The guy has a nice stroke and you can tell that he loves to get steals.  I would be very surprised if we aren't looking back in a few years thinking that the Celts got a steal near the end of the first round (using the pick they acquired when Doc Rivers left, no less!).

I'm a Bucks fan (believe it or not) and Vaughn is a promising Bucks rookie.  I love the guy and I think he'll be great.  The Vaughn/Hunter comparison isn't so much rueing who the Bucks selected, it's moreso another log on the fire of my antipathy towards the Celtics.  Vaughn is my guy and I want to see him outperform Hunter every step of the way.  I'm looking forward to seeing what our guy can do once the games start to count.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What If Herb Kohl Chose Skiles Instead Of Hammond?

There are a lot of moments in Bucks history that make me wistful.  I've followed the team for a long time and I've accepted a lot of ridicule for the team being a laughingstock for most of the last twenty-five years.

The fundamental disconnect is that the world around me often views the Bucks has a genetic loser, but I view the Bucks as a franchise that just can't catch a break.  Where they see a long Playoff series win during the Wimbledon colors (purple & green) era, I see a 2000 team that took the Pacers to the limit, a 2002 team that would've been scary in round one and a rash decision to trade Big Dog as the thread that unraveled what could have been a successful run.  It's similar for the mid-00's Bucks (for example, I loved the 2007 team even though almost nobody else thought they were good) and the Bogut/Jennings-era Bucks as well.

My friend Camelot tweeted something about the 2013 Bucks today, and it swept in a whole bunch of memories that followed that same theme: the public at large saw little promise in the Bucks, but I felt that they could have been great had they caught a lucky break or two.  I wrote about the 2013 Bucks two years ago, but here's a quick recap:

The 2013 Bucks existed in the short-lived Ellis-Jennings era.  Andrew Bogut was traded for Monta Ellis at the 2012 trade deadline and the Bucks began playing fabulous, attractive basketball towards the end of the 2012 season.  In the summer of 2012, the Bucks added Sam Dalembert via trade (giving up no rotation players) and drafted John Henson, thus filling their lone missing piece: tall, long-armed Big men.  Plus Larry Sanders was a year older, Tobias Harris was a year more mature (Tobias started the 2013 season opener) and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. had developed a bench chemistry with Ekpe Udoh (also acquired in the Bogut trade).  In short, things looked good.

When the early-season 2013 Bucks were on, few teams gave them trouble.  Even more talented teams like the Celtics (this was the last season of the Pierce-Garnett era) and Heat were not mismatches.  The Bucks struggled with the three teams that had tough, strong front lines (Grizzlies, Clippers and Thunder), but they poached wins from every East contender save the Knicks.

It became clear in December, 2012, however, that something wasn't right.  Players would talk about their squad being the most talented Bucks team since the Wimbledon colors era, but they kept losing games.  A 6-2 start became 7-7 by the time Pekovic & Love roughed them up in Minneapolis (maybe I should've added the T-Wolves to the tough, strong front lines that gave the Bucks trouble).  A 14-11 Bucks team returned home from a big win in Boston with five of their next six at the Bradley Center. Two weeks later, they were 16-15.  It was turning into a frustrating season.

Both Scott Skiles and GM John Hammond were in the last year of their contracts in 2013, and the situation came to a head after the Bucks took a drubbing at the hands of the Pacers to fall to 16-16.  The exact sequence of events has never been leaked to the public, but we know this much: John Hammond was given a contract extension and Scott Skiles tendered his resignation.

From the outside looking in, it looked like Skiles lost a power struggle.  And he probably did.  He probably told Hammond that he was losing the team because they know he could be released after the season, Hammond probably told Skiles that no extension was coming and Skiles probably went to Herb Kohl saying, "him or me".

We know the history after the choice was made to side with Hammond.  The team fell apart shortly after the 2013 trade deadline, almost the entire roster was turned over, the 2014 season featured more losses than any other in team history and Kohl ended up selling the franchise to Edens, Lasry & Dinan.

What I've always wondered is, "would the Bucks have been better off keeping Skiles?"  Skiles was known as a coach who runs hot (thus limiting his longevity) and he's been out of the League since being fired by the Bucks (though the Magic just hired him as Head Coach this summer), which would seem to indicate that the Bucks made the right choice.  On the other hand, there is absolutely no way on earth that a Skiles-coached team would punk out in the Playoffs the way the 2013 team did under Jim Boylan, or lose sixty-seven games in one season the way the 2014 team did under Larry Drew.

If Skiles were chosen over Hammond, we would probably still have Coach Kidd today.  Kidd's presence on the Bucks is due to his friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry, and I doubt that Lasry would have had any second thoughts about dumping Skiles in the same way Larry Drew was dumped.

The Bucks would almost certainly not have Jabari Parker or the Greek Freak if Skiles had been chosen over Hammond.  Greek Freak was a Billy McKinney special (McKinney is the Bucks' scouting director, and he is a Hammond guy through and through) and the 2014 team would probably have been too good under Skiles to fall to a position where Jabari could be drafted.  (Though maybe the Bucks would've ended up picking Parker number one.  It is certainly possible that the Bucks would have finished with the ninth-worst record in the League and taken Cleveland's place in the 2014 Lottery.)

There are more what-ifs concerning the Skiles vs. Hammond question.  Would Jennings have been traded for Knight & Middleton?  (Probably not.  Supposedly Hammond's prior relationship with Joe Dumars played a role in that trade.)  Would Larry Sanders have been given an extension?  (Hell.  No.)  Would the JJ Redick bullet have been dodged?  (Tough call.)

It may seem like a pointless exercise to ponder questions about Hammond vs. Skiles, but if it's done for the right reasons then I think it's OK.  If the goal is to learn from history, then mulling hypotheticals can be worthwhile.  And in some ways, that's the greatest lesson to come from admitting that Skiles should have been chosen over Hammond.  Choosing Skiles would have meant choosing to trust a Coach with additional powers.  Whatever might have happened with Skiles owning that level of power, we know that a great part of the Bucks' resurgence has been the decision to bestow great power on Coach Kidd.  Having a great coach beats having a great GM, which is one of the many pearls of wisdom that always seemed to elude Herb Kohl.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An October Win Led by Johnny O

Twenty years ago, we used to joke that Charles Smith was Mr. October.  Smith was actually a pretty good NBA power forward, but the 1993 Bulls-Knicks Playoff series saddled him with a reputation as a choker.  The next fall he came out guns-blazing in the Preseason, but his regular season performance was back at the same old Charles Smith level.  The following Preseason saw more scintillating Charles Smith basketball, and, thus, the joke was born.  (Authored first by then-SportsCenter anchor Craig Kilborn, if I recall correctly.)

The moral of the story is to remember that October basketball can produce some Charles Smiths, for better or for worse.  No matter how good or bad players and teams look, it really doesn't matter until the calendar turns to November (or, October 28, now that the NBA has stretched the season to ungodly lengths.

Last night the Bucks beat the Cavs, and in the process they might have found a solid young Big -- or maybe another Charles Smith.  Johnny O'Bryant came off the bench and -- along with fellow reserves Jerryd, Juice Mayo, Henson & Ricky Rashad Vaughn -- led the Bucks to a very good fourth quarter and a victory over the Cavs' reserves & benchwarmers in the Cleveland.

O'Bryant was a guy that I really liked coming out of Louisiana State.  He was the focus of LSU's offense, and he led LSU to one win and one competitive loss against Kentucky during his final college season.  I was hoping that the Bucks would trade into the latter part of the first round to get him.  (The Bucks were the worst team in the NBA and I knew that drafting O'Bryant in the first four picks would be a reach.)  O'Bryant ended up dropping to the second round and the Bucks picked him with a Lakers pick they acquired from the T-Wolves in a Luke Ridnour salary dump.

Last season, O'Bryant ranged between a non-factor and a liability.  He was slow and inattentive on D (the latter a common condition for young players, but the former a real worry) and the post game that fueled his success at LSU (typical college hoops power moves and fadeaways) appeared to be one of those things in basketball that disappears once people start playing for real money.  Also disappeared was his rebounding.  O'Bryant wasn't exactly the second coming of Kurt Thomas at LSU, but he was a dependable presence in the paint.  With the Bucks in 2015, O'Bryant's rebounding was more in-line with Bill Walton's favorite former pin cushion, Maurice Taylor.  

Against the Cavs, O'Bryant looked like a new man.  He rebounded with intensity and his offense was far more disciplined.  He basically stayed in the paint and attacked the hoop with floaters.  He has the touch and feel to make floaters a part of his offense, like Memphis Grizzly/#BucksForest favorite Zach Randolph.

The Bucks' Big man rotation looks crowded entering the season.  Though Big Ers and Zaza were jettisoned, Jabari, Greek, Monroe and Henson appear to be entrenched up front.  That's not even to mention Damien Inglis, who may or may not be a rotation player.  (I know that I praised him yesterday, but his poor play yesterday made me wonder if my initial impression of him being a bum wasn't spot on.)

The good news for O'Bryant is that he will get an opportunity to play Big man minutes early in the season.  Coach Kidd appears to be stuck on the idea of having Giannis play some Wing (and maybe even some Point guard), which could free up some minutes for O'Bryant.  Jabari will also probably be limited or sit out entirely as he recovers from injury.  

I would like to see some serious minutes with a Henson/O'Bryant frontcourt when the regular season begins.  Those are two tall glasses of water and they can both score inside.  I'm not sure that they would be able to handle a front line of bruisers like the ones in LA (with the Clippers), Memphis or OKC (good thing the Bucks are in the East, huh?), but I think that they could end up being effective.

Whatever happens, I'm happy to see O'Bryant playing with confidence.  Hopefully that good October play translates in other months.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Inglis Looks Like the Kind of Goofball I Like

Day off yesterday for #BucksForest, but we're back (albeit late in the day).  Most of the reason for the day off is because I was lazy.  A small part of the reason for the day off was the Bucks' ugly home loss to the Pistons.

The Bucks lost by twenty-nine points, which disturbed me on two fronts.  Getting blown out is always disturbing, but getting run off the floor in the first half and then losing the second half is doubly disturbing.  Let's hope it was just a bad night.

I did watch the highlights of the Pistons game and my brother was there live.  From the highlights, it looked like ball security, rebounding, defense and offensive flow were major problems.  Duh.  I expect those things to be problems all year.  Three of those are areas where Greg Monroe is known to struggle (actually, Monroe can be part of a flowing offense, but he has more history as a ball-stopper than as an offensively flow-catalyst).  The other area, rebounding, is an area where Monroe is thought to excel ("getting buckets inside" and "interior passing" are two others).  Unfortunately, Monroe was not exactly a world-class rebounder.  It's only preseason, though, so I think it's fair to forget about it and move on.

The one positive was that Bucks rookie Damien Inglis looked good again.  (In fact, he's looking good against the Cavs as I'm typing this.)

Inglis is a tall, lanky guy who seems to be expected to play up front.  That makes sense, because he appears to be an athlete and he appears to have touch inside.  Inglis may not be particularly strong and he definitely is particularly prone to ball-watching on D, but he's young.  Lack of strength and love of ball-watching are two common traits in young ballers.

The Bucks will probably get next-to-nothing from Inglis this season (that is, unless they start slow, go into the tank and start making up injuries in order to secure more ping-pong balls in the Lottery), but I hope that he becomes a viable guy once spring rolls around.  He definitely is emotional and he seems to be a little goofy, but I wonder if he has some Boris Diaw in him.  Maybe the idea that Inglis will reach Diaw's level of passing is a stretch, but he does seem to have a similar natural feel for the game.  I'll definitely be hoping to see number 77 enter the game once the regular season rolls around.