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?


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 ( 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.