Sunday, March 20, 2016

The NBA and March Madness

Against all odds, March Madness is happening.

To those who have grown up with the NCAA's Division I basketball championship as an American cultural mainstay, the event feels ordinary. Ardent sports fans, gamblers and the alumni of participating schools largely consider it the biggest sports happening of the spring season. Casual sports fans, office pool participants and culture watchers give it some degree of attention.

To cold, emotionless eyes, however, the popularity of March Madness a miracle. The players aren't very good, at least compared to NBA professionals. The refereeing is inconsistent and riddled with errors. Millions of people could choose to watch the best players in the world play the exact same sport at the exact same time, but they choose not to.

When it comes to the sport of basketball, the results indicate that the NCAA is doing something right or the NBA is doing something wrong; or both. In no other highly promoted sport to the results shake out like this. The College World Series draws eyeballs and the College Football Playoff draws more, but neither MLB nor the NFL are out-done by an event put on by their college counterpart. Even in hockey, where Canada's sports culture obsesses over the World Junior Championships once a year, the attention paid to the amateurs never reaches the level paid to the pros.

I, and many other Bucks fans, get annoyed by the whole thing. It's annoying to me when I see a crowd of people watching NCAA tournament games on TVs in the Bradley Center concourse while a Bucks game is going on. (Prepare for this if you're attending today's game against the Jazz, as the Badgers tip off right around the time the Bucks' fourth quarter will begin.) It's annoying to me when the local media prioritizes the college game. It's annoying to me that sports bars put the sound on for Marquette or Wisconsin. (Though the last two annoyances are less of a problem than in recent years.)

NCAA basketball has two intrinsic advantages that the NBA cannot match: amateurism and energy. There will always be a segment of the population that is turned off by professionalism in sports. That segment is dwindling, but it exists. College hoops also has an inherent energy because of student fans and alumni. No matter how passionate NBA fans get, they can never quite match that.

Amateurism and energy are usually not enough to overcome quality, however. Student fans and alumni exist in college football and Canadian junior hockey, yet the professionals reign supreme.

So, what is it? Why has the NBA become one of the few sports where the culture cares less when the quality of play improves?

Any reason for March Madness's primacy in the basketball world is going to be an educated guess, but there are several possible possibilities. All of them are choices. The NBA could choose to try any or all of them.

Advertising

Televised NBA games have drifted closer and closer to NASCAR, while the viewing experience during NCAA tournament games has remained relatively ad-free. The name of the arena -- usually containing a sponsor -- is plastered on the court of NBA games. While NCAA tournament courts also include the arena's name, the font stays the same as all other markings and the city, round and NCAA slogans ("March Madness" and "Road to the Final Four") get prime on-camera real estate. College basketball tournament games also have no sponsor logos on the sidelines, attached to the basket stanchion or on sideline chairs. NBA arenas have ads in many or all of those places.

Sports fans seem to be accepting of some level of advertising. We also know that excessive amounts can be a turn off. The NCAA tournament's clean on-camera look could be something for NBA arenas to consider.

Officiating

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: compared to NBA referees, college basketball refs are bad.

What NCAA officiating does possibly have going for it is the general concept of its officiating. NCAA referees call a much tighter game. Shooting fouls are rare. Continuation barely exists. Gray areas like moving screens, contact during rebounds and hand checking are forgiven less often. Flopping is a far less effective strategy.

Many NBA fans enjoy the general officiating concept of the League. The idea of the "crafty veteran" who can draw calls is an endearing concept, especially if that veteran plays for the home team.

The question is whether the NBA's officiating is a turn-off for rank and file sports fans. There is certainly evidence that it is. This blog would not be the first publication to point out that a lot of sports fans believe that star players and teams are favored by officials. Some college basketball fans feel the same way, but it's fair to say that the NBA is a more common target for complaints of favored officiating for stars.

NCAA basketball officials also are less tolerant of expressive players. NBA players are allowed to complain about calls to a degree that college basketball officials do not tolerate. Pro players also celebrate big plays in ways that come closer reaching the level of "taunting".

Player expressiveness is one area where I enjoy the NBA culture. In this case, however, I am not the target audience. I already love the NBA. But I would continue to love it if some of the more aggressive expressiveness were reigned in, and that might draw in some people who are turned off by the current state of affairs.

Scheduling

The NBA is a business and college basketball is not. When it comes to any business, it is hard to begrudge a business owner who wants to maximize business revenues. The NBA attempts to do this by scheduling lots of regular season games -- 82, compared to less than 35 per college basketball team -- and by having seven game Playoff series instead of single-elimination Playoffs.

In terms of raw dollars, things are working out for the NBA. The highest per-school television payouts in college sports are to Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams, which are approximately $34 million per year. The Lakers likely get about five times that for local games, and will get somewhere around $50 million from the NBA's national TV games. For all the talk Kentucky basketball players making money for their school, the reality is that they draw a tiny amount compared to NBA players. The fact that NBA players play so many more games is a huge part of that.

It is an open question, however, whether the NBA's "more is more" scheduling strategy is a proverbial case of stepping over dollars to pick up dimes. Yes, the teams make a lot of money by scheduling a lot of games. But at what cost? Last night's Spurs vs. Warriors game -- a primetime, nationally televised game featuring teams having two of the greatest regular seasons in League history -- was out-drawn in both the 18-49 demographic and total viewers by a semi-competitive round-of-32 NCAA tournament game between Kansas and UConn. It was only one night, but it was symptomatic of the fact that the NBA holds a place in the American sports culture that sits below the NFL, Olympics, NCAA March Madness, college football and perhaps even the FIFA World Cup.

***

Perhaps the NBA will look at the structure of their business and perhaps they won't.

Perhaps the NBA already has, and they believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps basketball is the rare case where sports fans prefer amateurs to professionals, and that is why things are the way they are. Or perhaps NBA business executives believe that violence is the reason that the NFL out-paces the NBA. Or maybe it's something else.

At some point, the NBA will thirst for growth. It is the nature of any business. When that happens, they would do well to assess their policies on advertising, officiating and scheduling.

Friday, February 5, 2016

I'm Not Here To Talk About the Past

The 2016 Milwaukee Bucks have been a disappointment.  Whether you've agreed with the moves the franchise has made since last year's trade deadline or disagreed; whether you believe they'll make the Playoffs or you don't, Bucks fans didn't expect this.  Over half the season has been played and they occupy twenty-third place in the thirty team League.

There has been plenty of talk about what has led the Bucks to this point, but that's not what this blog is about.  This blog is about the future.

The Bucks' future has been the source of heavy speculation recently.  Bucks insider Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal-Times kicked things off by asking if a major shakeup is coming.  For NBA front office executive Bobby Marks took the exact opposite point of view on The Vertical.  He said that the Bucks should stand pat and hope that their young core gets better with age.

If the Spinal Six (my name for Greek, Jabari, Middleton, Monroe, Henson and MCW) are kept together, the team will almost certainly miss the 2016 Playoffs.  That core has played almost 70% of the Bucks' minutes this season.  Here is what it has produced:  The team is seven games out of Playoff position with thirty-one to play.  They would have to surpass five teams to reach Playoff position.  Their point differential (which, by this point in the season, tends to be the best indicator of a team's true capability) is third worst in the East and fifth worst in the League.  This is a flawed crew.

The other side of the coin is that the Bucks' six core players are all young.  Every man is twenty-five years-old, or younger.  This is their first season together, and for several months of this season Jabari Parker was on a strict minutes restriction due to a past injury.  The team beat the Golden State Warriors, who are on course to be one of the best teams ever, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are the prohibitive favorites to win the East.  There is potential in this crew.

It's one of those situations where everyone wants the ability, but no one wants the responsibility.  Woelfel and Marks aren't the only two guys who believe that they have the answers.  Everyone has an idea.  But imagine if the wrong choice is made.  Nobody wants to be viewed as the guy who blew up a young team that could've contended, or the guy who fell in love with a flawed team and had to start over.

It's a tough call and it should be considered carefully.  If I were the one making the decision, here are some things I would ponder:

Every member of the Spinal Six has struggled defensively

It's not just Monroe, Jabari and Michael-Cartier.  We know that they've struggled, but it's beyond that.  Greek fouls way too much, struggles to defend inside and sometimes gets lost.  Middleton is a below average post defender (less of a problem in today's NBA, to be fair) and struggles to close out after helping.  Henson blocks shots, but is slow.

Young teams tend to struggle defensively, so this may pass.  Zaza is no faster than Henson nor stronger than Monroe, but he is a far better defender.  Dudley is hardly the athlete that Jabari is, but his defense last year was far superior to Jabari's this year.  And Michael-Cartier might follow the trajectory of his coach; learning to use his height and arm length to minimize shortcomings.

At the moment, it's tough.  We know that this is a bad defensive group and we don't know exactly how much better they can get.

Michael-Cartier has been the Bucks' best offense

The numbers show different.  Michael-Cartier is the lowest scoring member of the Spinal Six, per 36 minutes.

In reality, Michael-Cartier getting into the lane has been better than anything else the Bucks have.

Monroe?  The Monroe high post has been a big disappointment (though the lack of perimeter threats deserves some/most/all of the blame for that).  Monroe has scored on the low block, but it bogs down the offense and when Monroe doesn't score the team fails to rebound far too often.  (I swear a guy with Jabari's body and hops rebounding like he rebounds just makes me shake my head.)

Middleton?  Middleton is great on the block against small guards, but struggles when the defender is as long as him.

Greek?  Greek is a great secondary option, but his passing and decision making have held him back.

Henson?  Henson is actually a good option in spurts.  Unfortuately, he's like Andre the Giant in the '70's: effective in small doses, but exposed when left out there too long.

Jabari?  Out of respect for the young, I'll leave this one alone.

When Michael-Cartier gets in the lane it really opens the offense up.  And he's good at it!  He's deceptive and he gets low and he usually doesn't need a screener to help him.  It's no coincidence that in the Bucks' best wins (and even during their best games that ended in close losses), Michael-Cartier has shot 50% or better, gotten the Bucks into the open floor and initiated much of the offense.

The problem with Michael-Cartier, as we all know, is that he can't shoot, his passes have inconsistent accuracy and he goes through spells where he makes bad decisions.  Some players grow out of those things and some don't.

Jabari Parker has real value to a rebuilding team

Jabari has had a rough season.  His jump shot is off, he struggles to get rebounds and he has been blamed for many a defensive lapse.  And I'm not a big stats guy, but he has negative VORP.  That means that you could sign a small forward off the street and he would be expected to perform better than Jabari Parker has this season.

Jabari does, however, still have value.  He will be 20 years old for another month, he's tall, he's strong and he can jump.  He also scored like the dickens in college.  He remains attractive to any team that expects to rebuild for the next season or two, but has a veteran player who is ready to win now.  (I'm not sure that any of those types of teams exist right now, but if they do he'd be attractive.)

Khris Middleton has real value to a contending team

Khris Middleton has been a darned good player.  He's played up to his contract.  He's shown a better propensity for getting buckets than I ever gave him credit for.  He has shown in the past that he can be a part of a good defensive team.

There are lots of great reasons to want a player like Khris Middleton because, in the right situation, he will help you win now.  The open question for the Bucks is whether they're ready to win now and whether this is the right situation for Middleton.  They may not be and it may not be.  If either or both of those things are true (how 'bout them pronouns!), then the Bucks could possibly get a significant bounty in trade.  There are several teams in severe "win now" mode, and one of them might be willing to part with a player who fits a little bit better with the rest of the Spinal Six.

Greg Monroe has been a solid defender

Monroe has had bad defensive games and he looks bad at times due to his extremely slow foot speed.  Those facts have been known and publicized.

What has been less publicized is the fact that Monroe has been the Bucks' best defender.  Monroe has to deal with a lot of penetration and he has to match up against every opposing Big in the post.  He stays attentive and he makes offense difficult for the opposition.

There are reasons to look to trade Monroe.  He can be an unrestricted free agent after next season.  His passing loses a lot of its effectiveness on a team like the Bucks, where there are no knock-down shooters on the court most of the time.  He probably thinks that his post game is better than it really is.  And he could probably bring back a very good player (or a potentially high draft pick) in trade.

It's a difficult time for GM Kidd and I don't envy the responsibility he has.  Whatever he does between now and the trade deadline has major consequences.  And it will be years from now before those consequences are fully realized.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bucks vs. Bulls - What You Just Watched

The Bucks

While watching a Kings vs. Thunder game on opening night of the 2010 NBA season (this relates to the Bucks, trust me), there was a moment that stuck with me.  This was the Thunder's breakout season, so it was no surprise that the Thunder jumped out early and led wire-to-wire.  But late in the game, the Kings had an outside shot of closing the final score to within twelve points, which would have been, ahem, of interest to certain people.  The Kings put in hot-shot rookie Tyreke Evans, who was coming off a Summer League that made Sacramento look like geniuses for passing on drafting the scrawny combo guard from Davidson who "could get his shot off in a phone booth".  Anywho, the Kings decided (actually their coach, whose name won't be mentioned here because I don't like talking bad about Trojans, decided) to start running their offense through Tyreke.  Problem was he was guarded by Thabo Sefalosha, who is taller and more athletic than Tyreke.  The Thunder's TV analyst couldn't believe that Evans was trying to take Thabo on the block, and he was proven prophetic.  The Kings' offense sputtered and all of those people who were hoping for the Kings to lose by twelve points or less had their hopes dashed.

I bring up this obscure moment in NBA history because it begs the question, WHY WERE THE BUCKS LETTING MONROE TRY TO TAKE PAU ON THE BLOCK?!?!

I didn't bet on the Bucks to stay within eight points of the Bulls last night, but I really feel bad for those who did.  Just as 2010 Kings coach [name redatacted to protect a Trojan] inexplicably tried to "
exploit" a Tyreke vs. Thabo matchup, so too did Coach Joe inexplicably go to Monroe against Pau.  Only in this case, it made even less sense.  The 2010 Kings were down 17 points to the Thunder, so coach [name redacted to protect a Trojan] at least had the excuse of "we were out of it so we wanted to see what the rookie can do".  Monroe is a sixth year veteran!  This is (was?) supposed to be a Playoff team!  Milwaukee was only down six with eight-and-a-half minutes to play!  Whyyyyyy?

Of course, I'm probably making too much of this.  One could make the argument that the Bucks' defense cost them this game (and, in fact, that's an argument I'll make below).

But the fact is that the Bucks scored only ten points during the crucial seven minute stretch in the 4th where the game when from "competitive" to "over".  That seven minutes was from the time Monroe checked in to the point when the Bucks waved the white flag (after Middleton missed a three that would've made the margin eight with 1:47 to play).

Milwaukee's best player on the night was Michael-Cartier, again.  He played less-than-stellar defense in spots, but he wasn't the main defensive problem and he was by far the Bucks' most effective offensive catalyst.

The Opponent

What really made this game frustrating was WHICH Bulls were beating us.  Yes, Derrick Rose beat us in the second half and the Bucks never had a chance at Derrick Rose.  But look at the other guys who were beating us: Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis.  And the frustration isn't just that the Bucks had access to to these guys, but moreso that their guys tend to exceed expectations and our guys don't.  (Or, "haven't yet".)

Also, while I was at the bar watching the game a friend and I got into a "who'd you rather" discussion.  The LSU basketball game was on, so the subject was Ben Simmons.  I said that I'd rather have Jimmy Butler than the rights to Ben Simmons, and that wasn't the margarita talking.  Butler is a special player.

The Takeaway

The Bulls are the better team.  We know this.

Can this year's Bucks team become better than this year's Bulls team?  Probably not.  But Coach Kidd is a better coach than Fred Hoiberg, so maybe we have a chance.

The Outlook

Much of the discussion about these last two losses has revolved around the Bucks' defense.  They gave up 117 points last night after giving up 123 points the night before.

Coach Joe said something about the Bucks' defensive problems last night.  From the Journal-Sentinel:
Some of it is basic fundamentals in terms of being in a stance or getting back in transition.  Some of it is assignments; knowing tendencies, what guys want to do.  Some of it is getting in the right scheme.  Some of it is communication.  But look, it's on all of us.
That sounds like bad defense all around, and it was.

What worries me more is the attitude of Coach Joe.  I'm a big believer that things should be kept simple for a young team.

The Bucks may have problems with every part of NBA defense: stances, getting back, assignments, preparation, understanding scheme and communication.  That's what Coach Joe said.  But why mention it all?  There's no chance that the Bucks are going to walk into the Bradley Center on Friday night and get all of these things right.  Why not focus on just one?

My only coaching experience was coaching 3rd and 4th graders in an informal park department summer league.  We lost our first game 2-0 and everything was bad.  Instead of trying to fix everything, we just worked on ground ball defense until our next game.  We won that game and then worked on fly ball defense.  Then we worked on baserunning and then hitting and you get the picture.  The bottom line is that we won every game after that 2-0 loss and finished with the best record of any park in West Allis.  (For the record, it wasn't my coaching.  We had stud pitchers.)

Coaching NBA players may be marginally different than coaching little kids, but I think the same principle applies here.  I hope that Coach Joe focuses on fixing one or two things right now.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bucks vs. Spurs - What You Just Watched (Plus a short Bucks vs. Bulls - What To Watch For)

The Bucks

For a stretch in late December the Bucks did a great job of making fair-to-middlin' bucket-getters look like All-Stars.  Hollis Thompson, Terrence Ross and Cameron Payne -- to name three -- were all given windows to do damage and they did.  Last night the Bucks gave Jonathon Simmons space to do damage, and he did.

It's not like there's a single reason why the Bucks let so many mid-grade guards go off.  The Bucks are an unathletic team, at least when it comes to the things that tend to be present in star defensive guards -- lateral quickness and upper body strength, for example.  They're also a young team and a team stocked with guys who tend to lose focus on occasion.  I also wonder if the Bucks communicate well on defense.

When the Bucks give up 123 points at home there isn't much reason to talk about the offense.  I ended up missing part of the game, but during the parts I saw the offense was the same as I've been seeing recently.  When Michael-Cartier got into the lane, good things tended to happen.  When the ball moved side-to-side, good shots were few and far between.

Milwaukee had a bad performance last night.  So be it.  Bad performances happen during the NBA grind.

The Opponent

The Spurs are a ruthless machine.  Few people will be surprised if they win the NBA Championship.

The aforementioned Jonathan Simmons was a surprise to the Bucks announcers and longtime Racine Journal-Times NBA/Bucks writer Gery Woelfel, but he's been good for a while.  This season he's been a find as an athletic, active bucket-getter, and he basically played his normal game last night.  The difference was that the Bucks gave him opportunities and the Spurs kept finding him.

The Takeaway

The primary takeaway is that the Spurs are a lot better than the Bucks and the gap seems to be getting wider, not narrower.

The secondary takeaway is that this game could be the wakeup call that leads to some serious trade deadline activity.  Anytime a highly-touted team underperforms, there an expectation that they'll try to make a splashy move at the trade deadline.  (Though I suppose last year it was the exact opposite, as the Bucks were a lowly-touted team that was overperforming.)  The thought was that the Bucks had a great young group in Michael-Cartier, Middleton, Henson, Greek, Jabari and Monroe.  Not only is that group not working, but they appear to be inherently flawed.

Could the Bucks' uneven play lead to a big trade?  Possibly.  The Jabari trade rumors are already flying, but I think he's safe.  GM Kidd invested too much in Parker (including passing on presently-studly-looking big man Bobby Portis in the Draft so that Jabari's spot wouldn't be threatened) for him to give up so soon.  Michael-Cartier and Monroe should also be safe, as they've been the team's two best players.  Henson is untradeable this season because he signed a rookie extension over the summer.  That leaves Greek and Middleton, and I could see either guy being dealt if the right deal came along.

The Outlook

Bucks vs. Bulls in Chicago tonight!  That was fast!

(I was debating whether to do a "What To Watch For" or a "What You Just Watched" today.  I'll try to do separate posts more often for future back-to-backs.)

Jabari plays in his home city for the first time since becoming an NBA pro.  (I'm sure he was getting money from many an Iron Duke while in college, hence the need for the "NBA" qualifier.)  That should be fun.  It also should be fun to see Michael-Cartier wreak havoc on the Bulls' newly-average perimeter defense.  (Unless Jimmy Butler guards him, in which case Middleton will have to be relied upon to get some buckets from the block.)

Monroe, Greek and the rest of the bigs will have a tough challenge tonight.  The challenge would be a whole lot less-tough if the Bucks hadn't gifted Bobby Portis to a division rival at the Draft, but that's water under the bridge.  Hopefully the Coach Joe will get back to that Johnny O/Plumlee bench big man combo that has done good things from time to time.  They may be able to ease Monroe's burden.

The unpublicized story of Bucks vs. Bulls is that the Bucks may have the better bench.  The Bulls have had some injuries, and there's a possibility that OJ, Henson and the rest of the bench will counter whatever advantage the Bulls stars might have.

One last interesting note is that the Bulls (-8.5) are favored by less points tonight than the Spurs (-10) were last night.  My keen gambling eye tells me that bookies are expecting the Bucks to keep it relatively close, and thus have created a line low enough to draw Bulls betting action.  I think I agree with the bookies, as I think that a victory tonight is more likely than a victory over the red-hot Spurs would've been last night.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bucks vs. Spurs - What to Watch For

The Bucks 

Milwaukee returns home from a successful four game roadie.  At least, I would call it successful.  They beat the Pacers, who are good, and the Timberwolves, who Timberwolves fans thought might be getting good.  The Bucks lost to the Mavs and Thunder, who are both very good.

Returning home from a successful road trip is trouble in the NBA.  Betting against teams that are returning home from successful roadies is a longstanding betting angle in the NBA.  And with the Bucks standing as ten point underdogs, I can't give you the old, "well they could miss covering the spread and still win the game," line.

Normally I am skeptical of betting "trends", but betting against an NBA team in their return from a successful roadie makes sense.  A successful roadie usually means that the partying gets amped up, which can lead to less sleep.  Once home, the players get to sleep.  Sleep is usually a good thing, but when you're not sleeping and you're having success, usually you experience a lull during that initial period of getting sleep.  Maybe we'll get lucky and the Bucks will have stayed up late partying last night because the Packers managed to avoid playing the Seahawks.

The Opponent

What can you say about the Spurs that hasn't been said about Imperial Japan?

Kidding!

Seriously, the Spurs have been the Spurs, but moreso.  They just swept a four-game homestand and they haven't lost a game by more than four points in a month and a half.  They're on a 19-3 run and only four of those wins have been by single digits.  They've lost to a grand total of one team that has a losing record, Kawhi Leonard is in the top three of the MVP race (along with Steph and Durant) and they can play eleven guys without losing steam.  They are a vicious, methodical force of basketball destruction.

There is some good news: San Antonio is only 9-6 on the road and Tony Parker will be out tonight.

The Matchup

Now seems like a good time to mention the elephant in the room: I'm back after two months off!

I was going to ignore my lengthy sabbatical, but I bring it up because during my absence a very unexpected thing has happened to the Bucks' offense: Michael Carter-Williams has become our best option.  I literally just shook my head at what I just typed, but it's true.  There's the odd night where Monroe has a juicy matchup, but overall the Bucks work best when Michael-Cartier (as I've come to call him) pushes the ball in the open court and gets to the lane in the half court.

The Bucks need Michael-Cartier to be at his best tonight.  Monroe's matchup with Aldridge is less-than-likely to be advantageous.  The Greek works best as a helper; not as the main guy.  Middleton has become a solid option on the block, but not against Kawhi.  And Jabari... I'll just stay away from talking about Jabari for a little while longer.

When on defense, Milwaukee loves to trap.  Now, the Spurs are a veteran team and veteran teams adjust better than young teams.  Last season the pre-Michael-Cartier Bucks surprised the Spurs in San Antonio and nearly got the duke.  In the second Bucks/Spurs game last season the Spurs controlled the game, shot 50% and only had eight turnovers.  I'm not much of a stats guy, but those stats happen to tell the story of the game: trapping didn't work too well against the Spurs.

I expect the Bucks to keep the trapping to a minimum and focus on closing out the perimeter instead. Tim Duncan seems to still be recovering from a sore knee, Parker is out and Manu isn't the penetration threat he once was.  The Spurs still have plenty of shooters.  My sense is that Coach Joe & his staff will accept a layup or two if it means keeping those Spurs shooters quiet.

The Verdict

I'll be watching most, if not all, of this game.  The Spurs are a fun team and they usually play attractive basketball (read: not just a bunch of B.S. threes).  It would be a stretch for me to predict a Bucks victory against a great veteran team like this, even at home.  I will, however, be on Twitter tonight using the #Bucks hashtag.  Join the conversation and chat with me @benmiller.

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 (ben_miller@mac.com) 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.