Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The End of the Hammond Era (Three Years After It Actually Ended)

John Hammond is gone from the Bucks, having accepted a position as Orlando's general manager.  Good for him; "who cares?" for the Bucks.

When Jason Kidd was hired in summer of 2014, it was clear that Hammond's time as the Bucks' top personnel executive was over.  The initial reporting of Kidd's Nets-to-Bucks move cited Kidd's inability to gain control over player personnel.  Whatever bridges Kidd may have burned in Brooklyn, it was implausible that he would come to Milwaukee as Just Coach.

It is unclear exactly how much sway Hammond held since Kidd arrived, but there is plenty of evidence to support the theory that Kidd was in charge.  The Bucks seemed to acquire a lot of players who excelled when playing either for or against Kidd.  They also seemed to hire a lot of players represented by Jeff Schwartz, who is Kidd's long time agent.

Then there were the rumors.  Brandon Knight being traded for Michael Carter-Williams, rumored to be because Kidd wanted a big, pass-first point guard in his own mold.  Rashad Vaughn being drafted over Bobby Portis in 2015, rumored to be because Kidd was worried that a young, active Big like Portis could retard Jabari Parker's development.  (Kidd may have had a point.  Who knows how much the drafting of Ray Allen affected Big Dog, a fellow jump-shooting Wing.)

Whatever the level of Hammond's control, it now seems clear that he wanted out from the moment Kidd arrived.  Hammond was just turned down for Orlando's top front office position.  Now he'll be number two.  Only Hammond knows for sure, but from where this blog sits it appears that Hammond simply wanted to make sure that he maintained the G.M. title, no matter the circumstances.

If we remove the Kidd era, then Hammond's reign lasted from 2008 to 2014.  It's a checkered history. For every Giannis, there's a Larry Sanders (who, it must be said, I loved).  A Joe Alexander for every Brandon Jennings, a Charlie V for every Monta and a JJ Redick for every John Salmons.  And, heck, even the good ones end well, though we expect Giannis to.

As with any Bucks employee from the Herb Kohl era, one has to wonder how much influence The Senator had over Hammond's performance.  Kohl was noted -- perhaps notorious -- for wanting to compete every year.  Hammond alluded to this after drafting Giannis, noting that the Bucks had to find a way to procure an All-Star.  The clear implication being that Kohl would never let the team bottom out intentionally.

It all makes for a complicated calculation of the man's Bucks legacy.  We don't know exactly how much control he had.

From this blog's perspective, there is a temptation to forgive all of Hammond's mistakes because he got us Giannis.  Billy McKinney, the head of scouting, apparently was the guy who sold Hammond on Giannis, but Hammond still pulled the trigger.  The 2013 Bucks were a Playoff team -- through, granted, not a very good one -- and Hammond still had the guts to draft a complete project who had no chance of helping the 2014 Bucks be better.  That's big.

Is that enough?  Can Giannis make up for the frustrating (2009), inspiring (2010), disappointing (2011), maddening (2012), bickering (2013), awful (2014) legacy of Hammond's six seasons in charge?  Not to me.

John Hammond will always be in the Bucks Forest dog house.  He surely has reasons and regrets.  Any decision maker does.  Ultimately, too many of his decisions went wrong.  That's why he'll be second banana in Orlando instead of the man in charge.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ray Allen and the Bucks

NBA Twitter was set aflutter yesterday when Kevin Garnett hosted an informal, televised reunion of key players from the Boston Celtics 2008 title team and didn't invite Ray Allen.  Predictably, Garnett and his crew (Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Kendrick "Please Give Me One More Contract" Perkins) talked about Allen in unflattering terms.

There are many ways to define "punk move", and talking behind another man's back on television without having him there to respond is near the top of the list.  Whatever, though.  It was merely confirmation of who those five men are.

This is a Bucks blog, and the topic of Ray Allen and his alleged treachery is one that hits close to home.  Allen was a central part of the Bucks' "Big Three" era, with Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and Sam Cassell being the other two.  That time evokes pleasure and pain among long time Bucks fans.  The pleasure is from a 2001 Playoff Run that ignited local interest in the team.  The pain is from the team's quick demise; a situation in which Ray Allen may or may not have played a central role.

We know some things about Ray Allen's time in Milwaukee.  He clashed with George Karl, who frequently lectured Allen about the importance of playing "the right way".  He was sensitive about his place in the star hierarchy.  He was traded after Michael Redd emerged as Allen's younger, cheaper replacement.

Allen engaged in some back-and-forth in the press after Big Dog was traded to the Hawks in the summer of 2002.  My sense is that both men regret that episode.

They had a relationship similar to the Shaq/Kobe dynamic on the Lakers.  Kobe simply could not understand why Shaq didn't obsess about basketball.  Same with Ray Allen towards Big Dog.  Why doesn't this guy practice hard all the time?  Why doesn't he care more when we lose?  Why doesn't he take more pride in playing defense?  They are familiar conflicts when contrasting personalities team up.

Milwaukee likely stands as Ray Allen's greatest regret.  The trade to Seattle was because Redd was four years younger and $22 million cheaper (over the remaining two years on each man's contract, combined), and the Bucks wanted a point guard.  It wasn't Allen's decision.  Yet, Allen knows that the Bucks would not have made that trade if the team was winning.  The Bucks were a .500 team.  Teams led by Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson finished atop the East.  Those are All-Star guards, doing what Milwaukee's All-Star guard wasn't.

The Celtics exes blame of Ray Allen is petty.  Their jealousy of Allen's success in Miami is transparent.  But, again, this is a Bucks blog.

What about Bucks fans' feeling towards Allen?  He was their biggest star during their best run.  Yet, the team missed the postseason half the time and they only had one great Playoffs.  He ticked people off.  Instead of trading the understudy for value, the Bucks traded their star.  Few fans complained.  Attendance went up the following season.

The old saying goes, "it's not about what you do, it's about how you make people feel".  Who feels for Ray?  Basketball is gone in Seattle.  The old Celtics still hate him.  He does have Miami and Game 6.  Maybe that's the real lesson: there's always time.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Giannis Playoffs

The Gold Standard is LeBron James's 2006 Playoffs:


I don't care for stats and the stats don't tell the whole story of LeBron's version of 2017 Giannis.

But look at those stats!  LeBron played about 47 minutes per game in the first round.  The Cavs won three of their four games against the Bullets by a single point.  In four games of non-blowout basketball against the #1 Seed (Pistons), he rested for an average of about ten seconds per game.

Again, I don't care about stats.

I watched the Playoffs in 2006.  The Cavs should not have been a Playoff team.  ESPN's John Hollinger (who now runs player personnel for the Grizzlies) had the Cavs rated as the 15th best team in the NBA.  And they were.  Until the Playoffs.  Then LeBron decided to play all day, master every possession and will the defense to respectability.

We will know a lot about Giannis after this series.  He must play all day.  He must master the offense on almost every possession.

I think he will.  I think that the Raptors; a team with an honest chance of playing in June, are concerned.

The Bucks have the best Player on the court.  Moreover, he is not a Big; because Bigs can't play all day.  And he is not a Point; because Point guard is the least important position in basketball.  (A secret of the Game that few understand.)

He is a Wing.  And Wings, especially Wings who can fill in as Points and Bigs, are what matter.

Let's go, Giannis.  Let's see how you stack up to the Greats.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Predicta-Bucks

The NBA trade deadline is tomorrow at 2 p.m. Central Time.  NBA talking heads expect the Bucks to dump salary and pursue a point guard.  If past is prologue, that is exactly what will happen.

The Edens/Lasry/Dinan ownership tenure has been nothing if not predictable.  The world knew that Larry Drew was an inherited, losing coach; he was quickly dismissed.  Ownership's eye was on Jabari Parker's "NBA readiness" at the 2014 Draft, and that's who was selected.  (One spot ahead of Joel Embiid, it must be said.)  Brandon Knight was dumped for a guy on a cheaper contract, a big money center was signed in 2015 and the team's glaring 2016 weaknesses -- backup point guard and shooting -- were addressed last summer.  Each of those events were pegged by local and national NBA reporters before they happened.

There is nothing wrong with being predictable off the court.  It lessens the stress on players and fans. It can help build relationships with other teams.

Being predictable probably aided the dumping of Miles Plumlee.  The whole NBA world knew that the Bucks wanted to delete the Plumlee mistake.  When Charlotte went looking for an active bench Big, they settled on the Bucks.  That may not have happened if the Bucks were more secretive and unpredictable.

If the Bucks continue their history of predictability, we know what will happen at the trade deadline.  They will acquire a point guard.  They will not surrender a first round pick to get said point guard.  They will rid themselves of between one and three Bigs, either via trade, release or both.

The frustrating part of all of this is that it feels like the team is settling.  They have beaten good teams this season and they are in a wide open race.  The Wizards feel like a contender, for goodness sakes.  Why not the Bucks?

The Bucks had an awful stretch early in the year.  They exited San Antonio on January 10 with a 19-18 record and some impressive wins on their resume (Cavs, Grizzlies, Thunder and Bulls, in addition to the Spurs).  They exited the Bradley Center on February 10 with a 22-30 record and Jabari Parker's blown out knee.

Parker's injury may be obfuscating the truth about the Bucks' rough month: they were a broken team, and Jabari deserved a lot of the blame.  Parker was scoring every night, rebounding above his average and even posting a few blocks and steals.  The problem was that he started initiating offense and that seemed to cause Giannis to shrink.

Jabari wasn't solely to blame for Antetokounmpo's mini-funk, but he played a role.  Giannis likes being the catalyst.  He can't be when Parker runs the show.

The Greek Freak's struggles showed up in his numbers.  In the first three games after Jabari's injury, Giannis posted six, ten and six assists.  With Jabari playing, Giannis hadn't gone above six assists since New Year's Eve.

Trading Jabari Parker prior to this year's deadline is not in the cards.  Bucks management; especially Senior Vice President Alex Lasry, loves Parker and think he'll be one of the League's top stars.

Making a run at the East crown could be in the cards.  The Bucks won three in a row prior to the All Star break, and nearly made a titanic comeback against the Lakers the game before that.  Those are the four games since Jabari went down.  This Bucks team is out of its funk.  The Greek Freak is one of the NBA's best, and in the Playoffs the Coach Kidd can play him forty-five minutes a night.

Online Bucks fans seem to be content with playing the waiting game.  Hopefully make the Playoffs, probably pull an upset due to Giannis, then bow out to Cleveland, Toronto or Washington.

This blog would prefer a riskier path.  Draft picks and young players are nice, but a couple of solid vets could give the Bucks a chance.  It's the East and we have Giannis.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Poaching We Will Go

It's poaching season, Bucks fans!  And boy, do we need it.

The Bucks have a (potentially) great team.  They play in the East.  Giannis Antetokounmpo has the look of a Playoff Stud.  2017 is their year.

Unfortunately, the Bucks have not been playing great.  There are debatable reasons here and there, but ultimately it comes down to one ugly fact: the roster is full of untradeable bloat.

Monroe, Plumlee and Henson all make eight figures.  None of them feel like the starting center on a contender.

Teletovic makes eight figures.  On a great team, he is a matchup guy.  He'd play some nights and sit others.

Delly makes nearly eight figures.  On a top team with a point-forward, he's a solid third guard.

If Middleton were healthy and if things had gone according to plan, that's the rotation. Snell, Beasley, Terry and Brogdon were tabbed as benchwarmers.  Any contribution, a bonus.  Instead, they're essential.

Here's the thing: it's fine.  Roster bloat is not a killer.  Winning is about what you have, not what's being wasted.  Paying sixty million bucks to five guys who sit is annoying.  It's not debilitating, as long as they find a replacement.

Replacements can be had this time of year.  The Nets, Heat, Suns and Mavs are going nowhere.  They all have an active, aggressive Big, which is what the Bucks need.  They all appear to be interested in adding draft picks.

The question is whether the Bucks will be willing to give up a first round picks as "payment" for swapping Big men.

Tyson Chandler, Trevor Booker and Andrew Bogut don't feel like guys who deserve a first round pick.  Ideally, they're not.  Ideally, you convince a struggling team to trade for youth, and hand them Monroe, Plumlee or Henson.  But ideals don't matter in deals.  And the Bucks need to make a deal.

2017 is important for the Milwaukee Bucks.  Yes, the core is young.  Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a superstar who will be around for many years.  But this is a year with a real opportunity.  Having more years of opportunity is never assured.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Milwaukee Shuns the Bucks

The Bucks beat the Nets in Brooklyn last night, 111-93.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you already knew that.  If you're a Milwaukeean, chances are you didn't.

The online Bucks community -- typically residents of Real GM and Twitter -- is beginning to percolate with frustrations about local Bucks coverage.  Specifically, the lack thereof.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is a particularly hot target.  Every Packers game is prognosticated and autopsied as if it were the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Most Bucks games get a short preview and a nominal recap.

News organizations have to go where the readers are.  It's hard to fault the Journal-Sentinel when Wisconsinite's appetite for Packers copy is seemingly limitless.  

Are the Bucks so unworthy of feature articles?  Is, "McCarthy Breaks Traditional Play-Calling Model" -- today's thousand-word tome that meanders from David Bakthiari's footwork to anecdotal breakdowns of run/pass ratios, all as a way of saying 'the Packers do better when they pass a lot' -- necessary, while the most insightful of journalism's five W's, "Why?", is getting completely ignored in Bucks coverage?

Judging from public interest, the answer may be "Yes".  From television ratings to attendance to sports talk radio calls, the advantage the Packers hold over the Bucks is obvious.  In fact, it's not just the "Green & Yellow", as Keith Millard once infamously called it.  The Badgers, Warriors (sorry, they'll never be the Golden Eagles to me) and even high school football grabs more attention from the average Wisconsinite.

It is especially frustrating because the national media cares.  Giannis Antetokounmpo was swarmed by New York area reporters after his exquisite eviscerating of the Nets.  TNT's post-game show, Inside the NBA, ran Bucks highlights after 2:30 a.m. Eastern time without a hint of "let's get this over with".  

In some ways, Milwaukee's shunning of the Bucks is not unique.  The Warriors went through a similar period of on-court success and off-court indifference.   Out of 2.5 million Bay Area households, an average of only 71,000 tuned into Warriors games during their breakout season in 2013.  Viewership rose steadily, to 81,000 in 2014 and 93,000 in 2015, their Championship season.  It wasn't until last season, when Steph Curry became the biggest NBA star since Michael Jordan, that interest skyrocketed.  An average of 243,000 households tuned in to local Warriors games last season, a mind-blowing increase of 160%.  (For context, the second-highest local NBA viewership increase last season was just 17%.)

Anecdotal evidence told the same story for the Dubs.  Even during most of Golden State's 2015 Championship season, local interest was tepid.  Local media -- sports talk radio, newspapers and television -- were dominated by the Giants' World Series run and the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh drama.  A similar dynamic exists in Milwaukee with the Badgers' Playoff bid and the Packers' fan hysteria.  

Milwaukee doesn't love the Bucks, at least not yet.  Could they?  Sure.  The more important question is, will they?

Milwaukee's apathy towards the Bucks is part circumstance.  The city does not have the urban eruditeness of New York or Los Angeles, and it never will.  The NFL, which has become America's version of what soccer is in Europe, is close by.  Milwaukee can never be San Antonio, Sacramento or Salt Lake City, where the local pro basketball is beloved by default.  An NFL team in any one of those cities would decimate interest in the NBA.

Still, why can't Milwaukee be Portland?  College football dominates the fall and soccer dominates the summer, but the Blazers still have space.  Even in the low, 'JailBlazers' years, the team's average attendance dipped below 16,000 just once.  The Bucks have drawn less than 16,000 per game for nine straight seasons and are on pace to do it again in 2017.

Sports fans reward success and continuity.  The Blazers have had both and the Bucks haven't.  The good news is that the latter is changing.

The Bucks have put a lot of effort in to changing the image of the team.  Effort is good, but not decisive.  No company worked harder than Microsoft to gain market share in personal computing.  Apple still dominates the market for personal smartphones, laptops and tablet computers.

NBA basketball is not electronics and the Bucks are not Apple.  NBA franchise rules prohibit the Bucks from taking the type of bold, innovative steps Apple took to create the iPhone.  If Apple were an NBA franchise, they would've been told that Blackberry owns that market, just as the Bucks get told that the Bulls own Chicago.

Part of life is concerning yourself with things you can control, and to that measure the Bucks have tried.  They're allowed to promote themselves in Wisconsin, and they have.  They're allowed to use Bill Clinton's presence at Nets games to get more New York media to come, and they have.  They're allowed to lobby the League for spots on All-Star Saturday Night, and they have, successfully.  (Look for Jabari to be a Slam Dunk Contest participant this season.)

Bucks management has also turned a lot of Wisconsinites off.  They traffic in nepotism, with an owner's son now claiming the second-most powerful spot in management hierarchy, Senior Vice President.  He's 29 years-old.  They traffic in politics, with their tone and substance being approximately a left-wing counterbalance to the alt-right.  These are hurdles, especially in a state that values merit and shuns divisiveness.

Nepotism and politics can be overcome.  The San Francisco 49ers's CEO, Jed York, is the poster boy for nepotism.  The Los Angeles Kings play in a left-wing city, but are owned by a man who has a record of opposing what has become the left's most sacred issue, gay marriage.  Both teams have a large, passionate fanbase that the Bucks could envy.

The Bucks will get more attention in Milwaukee.  With a team this fun and with a star as charismatic as Giannis, it's bound to happen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Which Giannis is Real Giannis?

The 2017 Bucks season is three games old, and if I were going to write a song about it I'd probably title it "Hater's Delight".  If you're a hater of Bucks players, coaching, management or ownership, you're having a field day.  Every player on his second contract looks overpaid, the coaches can't seem to get the players united on offense or defense, there've been about a half dozen second-guessable personnel moves in the past year alone and the sight of thousands of empty seats for a game the team claims is a "sellout" doesn't exactly engender trust in the guys who write the checks.

Still, look where they are: 1-2 after playing a doormat, a stealth contender and a youthy upstart.  What can we expect?  It'd be nice to see the Bucks keep games close, I guess, but ultimately the ledger says that the Bucks have won the games they've been favored in and lost the games they haven't.

What is more concerning to this blog is the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo.  He is obviously the team's leader and best player.  At age 21, he has yet to hit the typical prime years for NBA players.  He probably will get better.  And, yet, in watching him play I can't shake the feeling that he'll never be the best player on a good team.

I can't help but think back to another tall, wiry freak, Kevin Garnett.  Like the Greek Freak, Garnett entered the League raw and, frankly, unplayable.  Due to circumstances, he played rookie minutes on a bad team, just as Giannis did on a 15-win Bucks team.  Garnett got a stud rookie partner for his second year, unexpectedly made the Playoffs and by year three was the unquestioned face of his franchise.  (So unquestioned, in fact, that Stephon Marbury, Garnett's aforementioned stud partner, left town once he realized that he'd never be top dog in Minneapolis.)  This should all sound very familiar to Bucks fans.

The accepted history of Kevin Garnett, at least in some circles, is that only won when he played on stacked teams.  That perception has some merit.  Garnett lost six consecutive first round series (amazing, but look it up) before reaching the West Finals in 2004 with Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell.  He then completely missed the Playoffs for three straight seasons, before joining Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston for their mini-dynasty of the late double-oh's.

The reality, as this blog sees it, is that Garnett was an incredible player from his third season (sorry, I still think the Soph Garnett/Rook Marbury combo of '97 was overrated) through his seventeenth season (his second-to-last last one in Boston).  There were ugly win-loss records pockmarking some of Garnett's years in Minnesota, to be sure.  Even in those seasons, Garnett was always a valuable scorer and rebounder, and his coaches could feel good about centering the defense around him.

Giannis is putting up big time stats this season, but he's comparing unfavorably with Garnett on both offense and defense.

On offense he's just not slick.  He can finish and he's getting that quasi- set shot, but he just isn't a natural at keeping the defense guessing.  The NBA is filled with great defenders, and Giannis can't frustrate any of them.  When he ballhandles on the perimeter he can't explode past anyone and his fast-twitch information processing is just a bit too slow.  He's a poor man's LeBron, basically.  Take LeBron, subtract the explosive leaping ability, add an inch or two of length, slow down his passing to defendable levels and you've got the Greek Freak.

On defense it's even worse.  Either he doesn't care or he can't keep focus.  Or maybe he's developmentally disabled.  I don't know.  But on possession after possession Giannis doesn't do what he needs to do to let the Bucks play great defense.  He rarely gets embarrassed, but that's only because Giannis's errors are the catalyst.  It's always some other poor sap whose man ends up with the easy layup or open three.

Players learn and get better.  Great players do, especially.  Ray Allen drove George Karl nuts in Milwaukee.  A trade to Seattle woke him up.  He spent the next decade playing attentive defense and being more patient with his offense.

We look at Giannis's highlights and gaudy stats and think that the Bucks have something special.  Hopefully they do.  Is Giannis the guy who is going to be taller, slightly less versatile LeBron?  Or is he going to be the guy who always puts up numbers and highlights, but whose promise always seems arm's length away?

The time is now.  These next two weeks hold some winnable games.  More importantly, they present a chance for Mr. Antetokounmpo to become more than just an empty highlight factory.