Friday, October 9, 2015

Box Office Bucks

The Bucks have long had the best season ticket value in big time sports.  By being a lower bowl season ticket holder, I have been entitled to free concessions, free merchandise and even access to a Justin Bieber concert pre-sale.  It's been great.

Perhaps my favorite perk is the Bucks' ticket exchange system.  I can get extra tickets for any one of twenty-four games this season by giving up my tickets to another game.  For example, since I want a couple of extra tickets to watch Brandon Knight's return on March 30, I gave up my tickets to the game against Boston on my birthday.

The ticket exchange system makes season tickets much more palatable.  One of my few complaints about holding LA Kings season tickets is that I always have exactly two seats.  If I am out of town and my season ticket split friend wants to go alone, then I might end up with a wasted ticket.  If extra friends want to go to a game then I might have to buy tickets through the box office, and often we can't sit together.  The Bucks' exchange system (and their very accommodating season ticket staff) allows me to avoid those situations.

This season, the opener against the Knicks on October 28 was made an exchange game.  "Great!", I thought.  "I'll get a group of people together, trade in some of the other games that I can't attend and we'll all be part of the welcome party for the Rashad Vaughn era of Bucks basketball.

Unfortunately, when I emailed by Bucks season ticket rep the day before ticket exchanges became available, I was snubbed.  My rep told me that the game against the Knicks has sold out in my price category, so I either have to downgrade to upper bowl seats or pay extra to exchange to a different section of the lower bowl.  (Also, "sold out" is surely a relative term.  At this time of year NBA teams don't sell their entire single game ticket allotment.  They reserve a number of seats in the hopes of selling a few more season tickets or multi-game packages.  I'm sure that some of those seats are still available in section 220, where I sit.)

At first I was ticked when I was told that I wouldn't be able to do a normal exchange.  But then I thought about it and realized why: the Bucks are hot, baby!  Missing out an exchange for the first time in my six years as a Bucks season-ticket holder is a minor annoyance, but I'll gladly accept it if it means that the energy in the arena is hot this season.

For all of the many criticisms I've levied at Bucks management over the last year and a half, I must admit that they've done a great job getting local fans back into the team.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Vaughn vs. Portis, Episode I

John Hammond is the Bucks' GM.

Jason Kidd is just the Bucks' head coach.

And if you believe that bullshit, then... you probably spend a lot of time on NBA blogs and Twitter.

This is no complaint.  I think Kidd is a great coach, and if getting him to Milwaukee took de-facto GM powers and the neutering of Hammond (along with a longtime friendship with gambling buddy Marc Lasry), then I say "awesome".

I only bring it up now because last night was the first Bucks vs. Bulls matchup of the season, and thus, the first opportunity to see Bucks first round pick Rashad Vaughn go head-to-head with woulda-been Bucks first round pick Bobby Portis.

For those who are less entranced by NBA gossip than I, the story broke over the summer that Jason Kidd overruled John Hammond's (and, likely, the Bucks' superlative Director of College Scouting Billy McKinney, who is a long time Hammond ally) decision to select Bobby Portis because Kidd was worried that Portis would hamper Jabari Parker's development.   (Bucks Wunderkind-without-the-wunder/Vice President of Strategy and Operations/Owner's Son Alex Lasry immediately refuted the story, which was effectively confirmation for those of us who are fluent in bullshit-to-English translations.)

As expected, McKinney, the man who was responsible for drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo with the FIFTEENTH selection in a garbage draft, appears to be spot on.  Portis hauled in fourteen rebounds against the interiorly-challenged Bucks, and was exactly the type of active presence in the paint that many basketball people think he could be.  (In fairness, Portis also had trouble putting the ball in the hoop.  You don't get drafted at number nineteen without at least one question mark.)

Kidd, as usual, looks spot on in his assessment.  Portis's activity likely would have endeared him to Bucks fans, and possibly would have led to the people in the seats wanting to see more of the rookie.  In a vacuum that sounds good, but the problem as Kidd sees it is that Jabari plays the same position as Portis.  It's essentially the same situation that the Washington Redskins put themselves in.  The Bucks would've been drafting a possible baller (Kirk Cousins) who plays the same position as their highly-touted young star (Robert Griffin III).  And look how that's worked out!  Imagine how much better off the Skins would be if they'd have put all their chips on RG3 and let him play without Cousins there as a safety net for the franchise.  Err.....

The good news for the Bucks is that Vaughn looks great and he fills one of many a Bucks need.  Once Brandon Knight was traded, the only guy who could get his own shot for the Bucks last season was OJ Mayo.  Mayo is in the last year of his contract, so the Bucks needed someone to both do work when Mayo rests and be the own-shot-getter if Mayo is gone next season.  Boom.  Done.  Vaughn fits perfectly.

I didn't watch the game, but from all Bucks fan/media/Twitter reports, Vaughn looked great.  Coach Kidd started him and gave him big minutes all game long.  Hopefully Vaughn emerges into an All-Rookie contributor.  (I would say, "Rookie of the Year", but honestly at this point if anyone except Stanley Johnson of the Pistons wins it then I'm going to be surprised.)

The Bucks' next exhibition game is on Saturday and I am hoping to be able to watch some of it.  Reports out of last night's game were that my pre-season worries -- rebounding, defensive attentiveness and general offense -- showed up from time to time.  Reports also were that the Greek Freak looked great, Middleton was hitting shots and Jorge Gutierrez might just be the point guard that the Bucks need.  All good things.  Let's hope there's more of that to come.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Games! Actual (Meaningless) Games!

The Bucks are back!  Monroe in Creamy Green, Giannis above the rim and Jabari... sitting this one out as he recovers from a devastating knee injury.

Bucks vs. Bulls tips off in Chicago at 8 p.m. tonight and you probably can't see it on TV because it's not on Fox Sports Wisconsin.  "What's that?", you say.  "Why would a Bucks game not air on Fox Sports Wisconsin when there is no local sporting event of note happening at the same time?"  Well, my Bucks-loving friend, you clearly forgot about "UFC Ultimate Insider", "Badger Sports Report" and a replay (yes, REPLAY) of Oklahoma's blowout of West Virginia from last weekend's college football.  Wisconsinites would surely be FORLORN were they to miss such valuable programming.  (I'm being hypocritical here.  I don't attend preseason games in any sport.  I dislike the fact that the Bucks force me to buy tickets to preseason games, and so I don't attend on principle.)  If you get Comcast Sportsnet Chicago or NBA League Pass, then you might be able to watch.

I doubt that I'll be able to watch tonight, but if I do watch the only thing I'm looking for is defense.  At this time last year the Bucks had a slew of good-to-great veterans who came together and eventually played top-notch defense.  Big Ers, Jared Dudley, Zaza and, of course, Brandon Knight were all a huge part of that (as were present Bucks OJ Mayo [who is back!; ignore my previous caterwauling over him missing media day and a couple of practices], Jerryd, Henson, Middleton [at times] and, of course, the Greek Freak).  Michael-Carter Williams and Greg Monroe aim to help the Bucks get back to their stifling defensive ways, so hopefully they'll show signs of that tonight.

Veteran NBA Reporter (choose for yourself whether that's a compliment or criticism) David Aldridge had a lengthy piece on the Bucks in his latest column and it focused on their defense.  (Scroll through the hagiographical Kobe stuff to the "Nobody Asked Me, But..." section of the article in order to read the Bucks stuff.)  Included in that column was the fact that the Bucks are LONG, and thus should be able to clog passing lanes and defend the rim and help bartenders reach the top shelf liquor.  Not included in that column was the fact that Greg Monroe doesn't defend (or, at least, hasn't defended to this point in his career, despite playing for a whole slew of coaches who purport to emphasize defense) or that the Bucks' best rim protector (John Henson) has a game that appears to conflict with Monroe's (meaning that if Monroe is healthy, then Henson should probably only be playing 12-20 minutes per game).  So, I am less optimistic than "DA" that the Bucks will be playing great D this season.

Of course, it's always hard to tell how players will fit until they play together.  I was as negative as could be when the Bucks acquired Brandon Knight because I felt that he was a point guard who had below-grade court vision and wasn't a great shooter.  I ended up being right on the former and wrong on the latter, but it didn't matter.  Good Brandon's on-ball defense was so great at disrupting point guard-heavy offenses that B.Knight became the lynchpin of one of the NBA's top defensive teams.  Maybe the fact that, thus far in his career, Monroe has been slow-footed, inattentive and overly concerned with rebounding stats won't matter in Milwaukee.  Maybe he'll be our Marc Gasol (or Zaza Pachulia, even) and the Bucks' defense will get back to the level it was at in the last 10 games or so before the 2015 trade deadline.

Whatever happens tonight, it's good to have Bucks games happening again.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Et Tu, Defense?

NBA TV offered some coverage of Bucks training camp the other day, and boy did it rally online Bucks fans.  The footage, which was mostly mundane, contained one highlight that titillated Bucks fans a great deal:

Giannis splits a PnR & dunks

That's our man Giannis playing the point on a pick-n-roll, splittin' the double like a champ and then SLAMMING it down with authority.

Whew-ee.  Sweet.  We haven't seen that type of activity since Yi Jianlian was dominating chairs.  (I kid, I kid.)

I have a checkered history with Giannis, so perhaps I'm unqualified to comment.  I loved the draft pick from the moment the Bucks made it, completely bought Larry Drew's hype that he could be a Greek Magic Johnson, forgave his inconsistent rookie play for most of his first year and then turned hard against him at the end of the 2014 season.  In fact, I even wrote a big ol' 2014 Draft preview advocating that the Bucks trade Giannis so that they could acquire Marcus Smart or Elfrid Payton (two ideas that would be incredibly dumb by today's standards).  In the past I've even Christened Giannis "Darius Miles, without the personal problems".  (Though I stand by that assessment.  Giannis and Miles have virtually matching skill sets and, believe it or not, matching potential as 20 year-olds. We just want Giannis to realize his potential.)

Today, I wouldn't trade Giannis for anybody (literally: anybody) and I love the fact that he's a Buck.  I also, however, watched the Euro Championships this summer.  Giannis played for a Greek team that pretty much mirrored the performance of Ersan Ilyasova's Turkey team at the 2009 Euros (the summer before Ersan re-joined the Bucks), and he had limitations.  The Greek coaches didn't let the offense run through Giannis a whole lot, but when it did it was ugly.  It basically looked like it did in the full footage from NBA TV: If the defense completely sucks, then Giannis can finish at the hoop like a dynamo.  If professional-grade defense is played, then all you're gonna get from Giannis is a safe skip pass that puts nobody in rhythm and bogs down the offense.

Giannis already had his 20 year-old season, so he's not gonna make another leap this year.  What we have is what we're gonna get from Giannis until right around the time the Bucks move into their new building, at which point Giannis will be 24 years-old.  Hopefully Giannis's 24 year-old leap will be something special, like Kevin Durant's.  In any case, we ain't seein' it this year.

What we might see this year -- and what inspired the title of this blog post -- is the other side of what that gif up above shows: shitty defense.  I know that it's only training camp and I know that one of the guys defending that pick-n-roll is coming off of reconstructive knee surgery, but... sheesh, what a mess.  

Normally, crappy defense during the first couple of practices of the season can be ignored.  Heck, sometimes a whole crappy preseason can be ignored.  (If you recall last preseason you may remember that the team's play throughout was garbage, and the team ended up being great up until the Brandon Knight trade.)  

This crappy defense caught my eye, however, because it featured two reasons why I expect lots of struggles from the Bucks this season: Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker.  That's your starting two and four, folks, and that ain't gonna change.  OJ Mayo may have played his last game with the Bucks and Coach Kidd has made it abundantly clear that he's riding Jabari as his power forward come hell or high water.  Hopefully those two guys find something that I haven't seen yet, because otherwise the Bucks defense will cease to be something that the team hangs its hat on.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This One's for the Non-Wisconsinites

My friend Jim Kogutkiewicz, a long-time Bucks fan of some renown (at least on Twitter, where his handle is @jimmyfk), recently returned from a trip to Kansas City to watch Sporting KC play a soccer match.  Jimmy -- or, "Camelot", as I call him due to his initials being J.F.K. -- piqued my interest because it recalled a subject I've through about before: the Bucks drawing fans outside of Wisconsin.

Milwaukee doesn't have a pro soccer team of any significance, and I'm sure that played a role in Camelot latching on to Sporting KC.  Camelot could have, however, chosen a team based on proximity (Chicago Fire play close enough for a day trip), success (America's most successful pro soccer team is the LA Galaxy) or star power (Toronto FC boasts some top players, including the biggest star on America's national team).  Yet, he didn't.  He chose Sporting KC.

The fact that Camelot roots for Sporting KC -- and is such a big Sporting KC fan that he was taking a weekend road trip to Kansas City in order to attend a match -- made me curious.  "Why Sporting KC?", I wondered.  It seemed he didn't do it for proximity or success or star-power, so why?

Camelot was nice enough to indulge my curiosity, and here's what he said:
It came down to a couple things: a player who I identified with and enjoyed his style of play, and on-field success.   The player on Sporting that pulled me in was Benny Feilhaber.  The more I followed MLS early on this year, the more I saw Sporting KC play well, with Feilhaber leading the way, and the easier it was to get to know the other players. 
Let's examine what Camelot is saying.  Camelot likes having a star player to root for, but Benny Feilhaber is far from the biggest soccer star in America.  Camelot likes the fact that Sporting KC is a good team, but he didn't feel the need to lurch for the best team.  (Sporting KC currently sits fifth in the ten-team Western Conference of MLS, with the top six teams making the Playoffs.)  Camelot also likes the way that Sporting KC plays, and has gotten to know other players on the team through Feilhaber.

In examining Camelot's words, it sure seems like a lot of this applies to the Bucks.  The Bucks have natural disadvantages in that they don't play in a city that's among the most attractive to NBA players and they are sort of land-locked by Canada, Chicago, Minnesota and even Indiana.  In short, the Bucks can't rely on proximity to draw out of state fans and they can't rely on raw star power.  They're not the Celtics, who can draw throughout New England, and they're not the Lakers, who seem to always have a superstar who is either playing for them or wants to play for them.

Look at what the Bucks do have, though.  The Bucks do have a player who is good enough to latch on to in the Greek Freak.  Just as Camelot developed an affection for Benny Feilhaber from hundreds of miles away, so too can NBA fans in St. Louis, Raleigh or Seattle come to admire Giannis Antetokoumnpo.  The Bucks also have the potential for success.  They are far from a favorite to win the NBA Championship in 2016, but they could certainly make the playoffs.  It is not out of the realm of the possible to see a person from a non-NBA city -- or, who knows?, maybe a person from an NBA city -- discovering the Bucks as a rooting interest.  It can happen.

There is one other, unsaid factor that I think played into Camelot's decision to become a Sporting KC fan.  I think that Sporting KC's public relations outreach also played a role.  The Sporting KC organization cares deeply about hot its perceived.  They dress in inoffensive colors (light blue & dark blue), but they add enough pieces of flair (this season it's a uni-color checkerboard pattern on their jerseys) to keep from looking drab.  They also run a local soccer academy, they've never had a player arrested (at least, to my recollection) and they go out of their way to create a nice environment for fans at their stadium (taxpayer-funded, naturally).  They cultivate a reputation at a team that is not going to acquire the biggest names or pay the highest salaries, but that is going to find players who play an attractive style.

I think that the Bucks are on the right track in creating a positive public perception, similar to Sporting KC's in soccer.  A new arena is coming, the new uniforms are an improvement (although the style of block lettering they chose is going to look really dated in a few years -- hopefully they can change that quickly) and the current ownership group is making a big push to really integrate the franchise with Milwaukee's culture.

Of course, success is the unknown.  If Sporting KC were a bad team that lost all of the time, then I doubt that Camelot would've become a fan from five hundred miles away.  In fact, Camelot said as much in the email he sent me:
Not ashamed in the slightest to admit following a team that played well and won games attracted me to them. That's how it works.
That is how it works.  Success is contagious.  And timing matters.  A successful Bucks season in 2016 -- with the arena deal done, the young players in place and the new uniforms still fresh -- will mean a lot more than it would in most other years, past or present.  Hopefully they will get it done, and we'll see some non-Wisconsinites making road trips in the opposite direction of Camelot's trip to Kansas City.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Do You Believe In Heat Checks? (Yes.)

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article today about the hot hand.  The article comes from my favorite current sportswriter, Ben Cohen, who is known best in some circles of the Internet as the Duke homer who claimed that Duke homer Dick Vitale is not a Duke homer.  The piece is light on the game of basketball and heavy on statistics (normally a huge no-no for the inhabitants of #BucksForest), but I found it interesting none the less.

The whole concept of the hot hand is fascinating and, for what it's worth, I am a believer in it.

The WSJ article had a counter-example, as Duke basketball legend/funder of mixed-race baby abortions JJ Redick (or, at least, his own mixed-race baby abortion - I should keep it legal here) is quoted in Cohen's article saying that he did a test where he recorded 100 shots per day along with his pre-shot emotions ("I feel hot", "I feel cold", etc.) and tabulated the results.  JJ said that he found no such thing as a "hot hand".  His shooting percentage during his test more or less stayed the same no matter his feeling of hotness.

Like much sports research (and, now that I think about it, research in general), I found JJ's methodology to be intrinsically flawed.  When you record your pre-shot emotions, it messes up any "hotness" you might have felt.  I may date myself a bit by saying this, but you know what basketball announcers used to say when a guy was hot?  He's "unconscious".  "Unconscious" is the perfect way to describe a hot hand.  The guy is so in-rhythm that he stops thinking and just keeps getting buckets. Recording one's pre-shot emotion naturally removes any "unconscious" state a person could be in because the person is required to think about his emotional state.  So, much like JJ's tenure with the Bucks and his efforts at avoiding impregnating women who he didn't want mixed-race babies with, JJ's research at Duke was a failure.

An interesting corralary to the "hot hand" is the "heat check".  A hot hand is a requirement for a heat check, but not vice-versa.  A heat check is when a hot-handed person (and, obviously, different people have different feelings on how many shots it takes for them to become "hot-handed") starts taking reckless shots, in part as a check on just how hot they are.  Klay Thompson's 37-point quarter against the Kings last season (which I happened to be watching live because I watch way too much Boogie Cousins on NBA League Pass) is the best example I've ever seen of a heat check.  The highlights didn't even include the best part of this one.  The Kings got so frustrated at one point that they fouled Klay thirty-five feet from the hoop to prevent him from hitting another three.  As Klay was being fouled he tossed the ball at the basket and it went in!  Incredible.

Anywho, when a heat check would happen in the olden days, TV announcers had a term similar to "he's unconscious" that they would say: "he has no conscience".  "He has no conscience" carries an important distinction from "he's unconscious."  The former implies consciousness, while the latter explicitly denies it.  What "he has no conscience" means is, in some cases after a shooter gets so hot that he loses consciousness, the shooter becomes a basketball sociopath who begins committing heinous crimes against the laws of good shot-selection.  It's a great way of describing the actions of Vernon Maxwell (or, to use a less dated example, JR Smith) when he gets a hot hand.

And this brings me to my point: all good basketball shots are relative.  Every time a player attempts a shot, a dynamic equation governs whether it is a good shot.  The equation considers the number of points that could be scored (two or three), potential negative outcomes (are there rebounders to clean up a miss?; are there men back to defend against a potential fast break?), the shooter's proficiency at that shot, his teammates feelings about him taking that shot (nobody likes to play with a Hondo), the potential ability of his team to create a better shot before the shot clock expires, probably another unknown factor or two and, yes, hotness.  And this is why I always defended Monta Ellis's tenure with the Bucks.  Considering all of these things, he took mostly good shots.  It's just that they only went in about 42% of the time.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

Welcome to the 2016 Milwaukee Bucks Season, Hater's Edition (Plus: OJ Skips Media Day)

Oh, does it feel good to be back.

It may be different in Milwaukee, but right now in Los Angeles we need something -- anything -- to get away from the heat.  Early autumn is always the most insufferable time of year in Los Angeles -- late Saturday morning brunch lines excepted -- because it is too dang hot.  Every day reaches the mid-80's and most of them feel hotter.  I can't take it.  I want to be reminded of anything -- air-conditioned gyms, February walks down Highland towards the Bradley Center, Jabari Parker's three-point shooting -- that will make me think of COLD right about now.

And -- with that unprovoked jab at Jabari -- the penny drops (to quote THE BEST "Mission Impossible" movie, which is the first one starring Tom Cruise).  Yes, #BucksForest inhabitants, it's true.  I am down on Jabari.  I am down on MCW, I am down on Khris Middleton and I am down on just about anything Bucks-related (aside from Monroe's passing, Coach Kidd's coaching and Greek Freak's anything).  Welcome to the 2016 Bucks, Hater's Edition.  I expect it to be a long year.

For those of you who are Bucks optimists (and, judging by Twitter and the rest of the web, that appears to be all of you), fear not: I am wrong often, especially when it comes to the Bucks.  I loved trading Ray Allen for GP (still do; Ray Allen ran Big Dog out of town), I loved drafting Bogut number one (which I continue to defend to this day), I loved signing Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons & Charlie Bell and I loved drafting Yi Jianlian.  Aside from firing Terry Stotts, I loved just about every move made during the most disastrous era in Bucks history, the Larry Harris era.  So, take my pessimism with a grain of salt (or, recall that I predicted that the Bucks' 2015 season would completely fall apart after the Brandon Knight trade and join me in fearing that this thing could get ugly).

Whether you believe -- as some prominent NBA writers do (sub req'd) -- that the Bucks will soar or whether you believe -- as I do -- that 2016's loss total will come closer to 2014's (67, for those who are new here) than anyone in the NBA media believes, #BucksForest will have content for you.  Some days may see lots of content and some days may see just a blurb (and, I'll be honest, some days I'll get lazy and there will be nothing), but overall this blog will produce.  I thank all of you for reading.


Bucks media day was today, which marks something of an unofficial kickoff for the NBA season.   For those who are fluent in bullshit, the big news of the day was OJ Mayo skipping the event.  

Oh, I'm sorry.  My mistake.  OJ Mayo had a "family situation".  That's why he was excused from media day.

Oh-kee-doh-kee, let's think about this one.  We have a coach who -- as much as I love him as a coach -- has a loooooong history of feeling A-OK about lying to the media.  We have a player who -- although he is a USC Trojan and Trojans can do no wrong in my book -- more or less quit on the Bucks during the 2014 season because he disagreed with how he was being used by the team.  Hmm. Provocative.

"But Ben," you say, "if OJ were to just skip media day there must be some kind of reason.  He wouldn't make himself look bad entering the last year of his contract."

True.  Good point.  

But, consider these counterpoints:

-All of the veterans who drove the Bucks' surprising play a year ago are gone, save Zaza and Bayless. (Ed. note: Sorry. I forgot that the Bucks shipped Zaza to Dallas.)

-OJ has almost no chance of starting now that Khris Middleton got his huge contract.

-Khris Middleton will be making 75% more money per season, with four additional years on his deal.

-OJ Mayo is a better basketball player than Khris Middleton.

Some basketball players would respond to these circumstances by playing really hard in an effort to get one last big contract in summer of 2016.  Other players would pout their way through a lackluster season, figuring that they're not going to be given a chance to prove that they are worthy of a big free agent contract.  Which of those two types of players sounds more like OJ?

Hopefully, it's nothing.  Hopefully, OJ kills it this season and nobody even remembers that he missed media day.