Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Nineteen in Thon Years

Take a look at the man in the middle of this picture.

Nick Brancaccio/Windsor Star
The picture was taken on a Canadian high school basketball court, a place that he does not belong.

The man is Jonathon Nicola, and according to the birth date he gave when applying for an American visitor visa, he was 29 years-old at the time.  He may or may not have been 29.  He now says that he doesn't know his true age.

His age in that picture is most certainly not 17.  That news was broken by the Windsor Star three months after that picture was taken.  Nicola was arrested by the Canada Border Services Agencyafter the ruse was revealed.

In the bubble of basketball and media, this is a big story.  "17 year-old with NBA dreams is actually 29 year-old running age-old scam."

Outside of the bubble, the picture reveals all.  Nicola's furrowed brow, receded hairline, adult musculature and face that has seen the smooth puffiness of youth escape tell the story.  That is not a 17 year-old.  Not even close.

Now look at this man.

Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images
If we are to believe Milwaukee Bucks management, that is the picture, from one year ago, is of an 18 year-old boy, not a 23 year-old man.

If we are to believe Bucks management, this picture, from Thon Maker's first Australian passport, is that of a 12 year-old child, not a 17 year-old teen.


Look at the pictures.  Block out everything you've heard and read about Thon Maker's age, and look at these pictures.

Maybe pictures lie.  Maybe Thon Maker has an aging disease, or maybe those were just bad angles.

***

There are two stories, and only one can be true.

Story 1: Thon Maker emigrates to Australia at the age of 6, waits until he's 12 to get a passport, is discovered by American expat Ed Smith in Perth at the age of 14 and makes his way west to become the Bucks' first round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Story 2: Thon Maker is an ordinary Sudanese kid living in Australia when he's discovered by Ed Smith, who has set up something of a basketball pipeline from Sudan to Australia to America.  Smith trims five years off Thon's age when getting him his first passport, knowing that NBA people won't care about a rail thin seventeen year-old with no basketball skills.  Maker and Smith keep up the ruse, and now he's the newest hope for the Bucks.

***

It matters.  It matters because basketball players have a development curve, and it's known.  They are raw until age 20, then they learn what the game is.  At age 24 comes The Leap, as famed sports personality Bill Simmons likes to call it.  The final part of the curve is age 31, give or take a year, when the player reaches peak awareness as his athletic ability begins to wane.

If the pictures tell the truth, then what we've seen is what we've got.  Thon is in his prime, and this Thon is the best Thon.  And for a team that's had a hard time winning, that may not be enough.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bucks Lottery Memories

It's NBA Draft Lottery Day!!

Oh, do Bucks fans long for the day when Lottery Day no longer matters.  

But that's not today!  Today is the highlight of the Spring for Bucks fans.  It's the day that We Might Win The Chance To Draft A Guy Who Really Doesn't Fit.

Yes, yes.  Bucks Forest should not be a pessimistic place on Lottery Day.  It should be a place where we rejoice in the fact that the Bucks already have a better version of Ben Simmons, in the Greek Freak.  Or that the Bucks don't need Brandon Ingram because Jabari Parker is the team's active, athletic Big.  

It is weird, though.  The Bucks already had the misfortune of a DOUBLE tiebreaker loss, getting assigned the 10th best Lottery odds (and, therefore, the 10th pick if no long-shots move up) after tying the Kings and Nuggets for the 8th worst record in the NBA.  And even if the Bucks DO win, the far-and-away top two prospects are just about EXACT carbon copies of the Bucks' two young studs.  (And, yes, I am far from being a believer that Jabari Parker is ACTUALLY a stud, but that doesn't matter right now.  The Bucks believe it, and they're going to give Parker a chance to be a stud.)

Still, Lottery Day is a fun day and so Bucks Forest wants to share a few Bucks Lottery memories.  

And if you have some fun Bucks Lottery memories, leave them in the comments below.

1994

Bucks Forest wouldn't be Bucks Forest if it wasn't stuck in the 90's.  

The Bucks ended the 1994 season tied with Detroit and Minnesota for the second-worst record in the NBA.  They won the Lottery, and it was EXCITING.  Sports Illustrated was touting Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson as the best college basketball player since Larry Bird, and the Bucks won the right to draft him.

The reality of the situation ended up getting a shade complicated because Jason Kidd declared for the Draft after his sophomore season (it was a different time, kids) and Grant Hill had an excellent senior season, nearly leading overmatched Duke to an upset of a stacked Arkansas team (again, different time) in the 1994 National Championship game at the olde Charlotte Coliseum (which sat 23,000 people IN REGULAR SEATS, no luxury boxes, for basketball!  PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON SAT IN A REGULAR SEAT to watch that title game).  The Bucks stuck to their guns and drafted Big Dog, but there was a lot consternation about the choice.  

Interesting 'after the fact' note about the 1994 offseason: When former Bucks coach Mike Dunleavy, Sr. started a Twitter account years ago, I asked him whether it was true that he decided to draft Big Dog over Hill or Kidd after Kidd and Hill couldn't beat him (THE COACH OF THE TEAM) one-on-one, but Big Dog could.  He said drafting Kidd was a real consideration, but that the Bucks were stuck under the contract of Sherman Douglas and didn't want a second, highly paid point guard.  

Sherman Douglas was actually not with the Bucks during the 1994 offseason, but I'm guessing that Dunleavy, Sr. simply wrote that name "Sherman Douglas" when he meant to write Eric Murdock, who was ANOTHER highly paid/ineffective point guard for the Bucks in the mid-90s.  

Now, here's the interesting part: Mike Dunleavy, Sr. traded FOR Murdock in one of his first big moves after being hired in 1992, even though he KNEW that Murdock was under a long term, multi-million dollar contract (which was considered a relatively high-priced contract at the time; again, different time).  

So, essentially Dunleavy, Sr.'s stance appears to be, "if I drafted the better player (Kidd), I'd make myself look bad because I was the one who chose the guy that Kidd would be be replacing".  (In Dunleavy's defense, Eric Murdock was a solid player.  It was a shame to see that he may have attempted to blackmail Rutgers before releasing that ugly Mike Rice video back in 2013.)

2007

Oh, if there's one thing Bucks Forest loves more than re-living the 90's, it's re-living 2007.  

The 2007 Bucks finished 28-54.  Ugly, sure, but not that ugly.  Lots of teams win fewer than 28 games in any given year an-- OOHHH, wait a minute.  2007 was an odd year in the NBA because NOBODY tanked and there were TWO 'generational' stars expected to be taken at the top of the 2007 Draft.  With only 28 wins, the Bucks still ended up having the THIRD worst record in the League.  Third!!!  To put that in context, the year before that 28 wins would've been good for 6th worst and the year after it would've been good for 8th worst.  

Somehow, the Bucks got incredibly lucky to be bad-but-not-awful, but still end up with the third-best Lottery odds in a year where Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were expected to be dead-bolt lock awesome players at the top of the Draft.  (And Al Horford was supposed to be a darned good Big man at number three, too.)

Like everything else promising about the year 2007, the Bucks' Draft Lottery experience ended in a combination of bad luck and self-inflicted disaster.  The bad luck was falling THREE spots (which RARELY happens in the NBA Draft Lottery) and the self-inflicted disaster was drafting Yi Jianlian (which I LOVED at the time).

It was all so bad.  The Blazers got the first pick, and you knew they'd screw it up because they're the Blazers.  (They did.  They listened to conventional wisdom and drafted Greg Oden.)  The Sonics leaped to number two despite having a lackluster fanbase and local politicians intent on driving the franchise out of town.  And the only big-city franchise with a more lackluster fanbase than Seattle's -- the Atlanta Hawks -- jumped ahead to claim the third spot.  

Aack.  Nasty.  2007 was a memorable Bucks Lottery, but for all the wrong reasons.

1992

Get ready, Bucks Forest.  This one's going to be painful.  Unless you're in your late-thirties, or older, you may not remember just how bad the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery was.

Let's set the table:

FADE IN

INT. BEN'S LIVING ROOM IN WEST ALLIS - DAY

BEN (15) lies on his parents' white sectional, hoping to not be asked to do chores.  He wears a Los Angeles Rams jersey with 'MILLER' and the number '83' on the back.

INT. DINING ROOM - CONTINUOUS

Ben walks in from the adjacent living room and sits at the dining room table.  He leafs through the Milwaukee Journal, finding a sports section that has already been rummaged through by BEN'S DAD.

Ben peers out the front window to see Ben's Dad mowing the lawn.  Ben hurries to find the Sports section before the inevitable call to chores.

BEN (V.O.)
Man, I can't believe the Bucks are in the Lottery today.

Ben folds the paper over, having found what he's looking for.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT'D)
Twelve straight years of Playoffs.  Every season since 1980.
(beat)
Only the Lakers had a longer streak.

Ben rises, takes the paper with him.

INT. LIVING ROOM - CONTINUOUS

Ben plops down on the couch.

BEN (V.O.)
I wonder if the Bucks won the coin flip with Charlotte.

Ben sits up, examining the newspaper.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT'D)
What a weird thing.  The Bucks finished with the same record as Charlotte, but if we won the coin flip we get five lottery balls instead of four.  And there's only 66 balls!

Ben looks up, calculating in his head.

BEN (V.O.) (CONT'D)
That's a big difference.  7.6% chance if we won; only a 6.1% chance if we lost.

Ben fingers through the newspaper.

BEN
Yeah!

Ben, startled at his audible exclamation, snaps his head towards the front window.

Dad stares back.  

BEN
Dang.  Time for chores.

Ben wriggles his sock'd feet into knockoff Teva sandals.

He stands and walks towards the front door.

BEN (V.O.)
Ah, I guess it's not so bad.  I'll finish the lawn and then watch the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery, where the Charlotte Hornets have the four ping pong balls that the Milwaukee Bucks would have had, if Milwaukee had lost that coin flip.

FADE OUT

And if you don't remember how the 1992 NBA Draft shook itself out, take a gander.  Had the Bucks held the Hornets' ping pong balls, they would've won the second Lottery slot.  Alonzo Mourning was the prize at number two that year.  

So... 

Scenario One was the Bucks winning the coin flip with Charlotte, losing the Lottery, Mike Dunleavy, Sr. using his first draft pick on Todd Day and the team floundering for most of the next two-and-a-half decades.

Scenario Two was the Bucks losing the coin flip, grabbing Alonzo Mourning in recent Coach of the Year Mike Dunleavy Sr.'s first season, extending the twelve-year Playoff streak (Mourning was immediately one of the best Big men in the League and the Hornets made the Playoffs in his rookie year) and thenprobablyleavingforMiamijustlikehedidfromcharlotteBUTSTILL.

The Bucks got Scenario Two, and the end result is that most modern NBA fans have no idea what a great franchise the Bucks once were.

Hopefully, that is all changing.  And that's really what the Lottery is all about, right: Hope in a circumstance that you have no control over.  Ain't it great?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Last Chance for Arena Suggestions, and I Have Two

The City of Milwaukee Neighborhoods and Development Committee is meeting tomorrow (May 17, 2016) at City Hall, Room 301-B to discuss the design and architecture of the new Bucks arena.  It is a public hearing that anyone can attend.

In most ways, the arena discussions on the meeting agenda appear to be all show and no dough.  I expect that the Committee and the Bucks will let the public have their say and then ignore any comments that contradict what the Bucks already have planned.

The Bucks are paying for most of the arena's construction cost and are planning to pay for maintenance and upkeep.  (At least, for now.  When the Pacers' arena was build the team promised to pay for maintenance, but when the economy crashed the team threatened to leave if Indianapolis didn't take over those costs.  Indy now pays the Pacers $9 million/year to "operate" the Pacers' arena.)  It stands to reason that the Bucks should be allowed to decide what they want to do with their money.

Most publicly known aspects of the Bucks' arena design plans hit that sweet spot where 'team-friendly' overlaps with 'fan-friendly'.  The exterior looks cool, the concourses will have more space and the seating bowl will put more fans below the luxury suites.

There are just two things I wish the Bucks would reconsider: the grade of the building and the steepness of the seating bowl.

Present plans call for the entire building to be above grade, which means that fans would enter from the street at the same level where the basketball court sits.  Building an arena above grade saves excavation costs and, in a place like downtown Milwaukee where the land sits below the water table, saves the Bucks from having to an install an expensive system to prevent water intrusions.

The Bradley Center sits above grade, so if you've been to a Bucks game (and, since this is Bucks blog, I'm guessing you have) the new arena will have a similar entrance.  You'll walk in from the street, have your ticket scanned and then proceed up stairs or an escalator to the Concourse level.

Milwaukee's new arena will hardly be the first to be built above grade, but it is likely to share the inconveniences of that design.  In addition to forcing fans to use stairs or an escalator to get to or from the Concourse level, above-grade arenas rob fans of that feeling of walking through the turnstyles (or, in modern stadiums, through the metal detectors and past the barcode scanners) and being there.  When I walk into Staples Center, I see the tunnels to the seats.  When I walk into the Bradley Center, I'm in a lobby.  There's a big psychological difference there.

Les Alexander, the Houston Rockets owner, decided late in the planning process to build the Toyota Center below grade.  He spent $12 million of the team's money on excavation so that fans would enter at the Concourse level.  I hope that the Bucks owners reconsider their current plans, and re-design the arena so that fans enter at the Concourse level.

My other request is more controversial: I want the seating bowl to be less steep.

Steep seating bowls are adored in some circles.  A steep bowl can make fans feel like they're "on top of the action".  Short people may be better able to see over tall people.  And a steep bowl means that the back office space underneath the bowl might have more vertical space.

My counter argument is a simple one: shallow bowls are better for viewing basketball games.

Basketball is my favorite sport in large part because of the athleticism involved.  The players' size, speed, explosiveness and every other athletic quality is simply incredible.  I believe that the players' athleticism has more impact when fans are lower and closer to the floor.

A shallow bowl slope means that each row's seats are lower.  I notice the difference any time I attend a basketball game at Staples Center, where the lower bowl has the shallowest grade of any arena in the League.  Row 16 at Staples Center (where my Clippers season tickets used to be) is at approximately the same height as row 12 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (I could be off by one row).  The shallow lower bowl slope of Staples Center allows the arena to have a whopping thirty-two rows below the luxury suites without making the suites feel too far away.

Admittedly, I don't feel "on top of the action" when watching a basketball game at Staples Center.  And maybe for sports like football or hockey I would care.  Those are sports where, in my opinion, the live experience is about viewing formations and alignments as much as feeling the power of the athletes.  Steep seating bowls help with that.

Basketball is different.  I want to feel the power of these amazing athletes.  I worry that the Bucks' arena design will allow fewer fans to feel that power because the bowl will be too steep.

Steep seating bowls also create the problem of pushing the upper bowl too high.  The Bucks' arena designers made the excellent decision to have only one row of luxury suites ringing the court.  Great job; well done.  I hope that the Bucks also decide to push the slope of the lower bowl downward so that it's a little less steep and so that upper level fans can be less removed from the action.

The suggestions I have for the new Bucks arena are minor quibbles.  Whether the arena is built above grade or not, I'll enjoy being in a more modern building.  Whether the slope of the seating bowl is steep or shallow, the energy of a live NBA game will be there.

But there's still time and there's a public meeting coming up, so here's hoping that the Bucks consider building the main concourse at street level and lessening the steepness of the seating bowl.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The NBA and March Madness

Against all odds, March Madness is happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertising

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

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

Officiating

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scheduling

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Friday, February 5, 2016

I'm Not Here To Talk About the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every member of the Spinal Six has struggled defensively

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

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

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

Michael-Cartier has been the Bucks' best offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jabari Parker has real value to a rebuilding team

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

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

Khris Middleton has real value to a contending team

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

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

Greg Monroe has been a solid defender

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bucks vs. Bulls - What You Just Watched

The Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opponent

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

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

The Takeaway

The Bulls are the better team.  We know this.

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

The Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

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

The Bucks

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

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

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

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

The Opponent

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

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

The Takeaway

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

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

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

The Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

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