Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is It 2007 All Over Again? (I Hope So!)

Things looked great halfway through the third quarter.  The Bucks led by eighteen (it would grow to twenty-four shortly on two sweet threes by Good Brandon), Jabari had just scored on a run-out dunk and the lineup of The Colonel, Jabari, Dudley, Khris Swish (new #BucksForest nickname; feels right, we'll see if it sticks) & Good Brandon looked like a real NBA lineup.  A five that can finish games and carry this team to the playoff berth that they are shooting for.  (Presently ignoring the irony of fresh owners recycling the "at-least-the-eighth-seed" goal that caused so many online Bucks followers to ridicule previous management.)

Shortly after the Bugs finally made a shot (it had been three and a half minutes since their previous field goal), the lineup was changed.  The Grecian Formula replaced Dudley is the game still in hand (up by twenty-one with five to play in the third).  Two minutes later, the lead was down to fifteen and the Bucks were in timeout.  On came Juice Mayo (who was shooting lights-out) for Khris Swish.  On came Zaza and Big Ers for The Colonel and Jabari.  This is the Bucks rotation.  Maybe Dudley or Big Ers will fall out (or get traded).  Maybe Henson will get some more minutes.  And it looks like Bayless will spell Brandon for ten to fifteen minutes per game.  But mainly, it's the nine men involved in that spell from the middle to the end of the third quarter.

We all know what happened after the third quarter.  The lead fell from fifteen to no lead.  First it was Big Ers & Zaza being unable to grab a rebound and the Grecian Formula struggling (the Bucks played the last eleven minutes of the game sans Giannis).  The killer run happened with the studs on the floor.  First against Good Brandon, Khris Swish, Jabari, Juice Mayo and Henson.  Then with The Colonel and Dudley in place of the latter two.  They couldn't grab a rebound, they fouled too much, they turned the ball over and they kept having to take tough shots.

One bad stretch does not a season make.  The refs made some dicey calls that gave Charlotte a lifeline.  The Bucks were leading or tied for all but five seconds of overtime.  Even in that last five seconds, the Bucks nearly executed a super slick inbounds play to win the game on a shot that Khris Swish hits most of the time.  Most teams do not have the rebounding wings that Charlotte has, or a ball handler who can create his own shot in crunch time, as Kemba Walker did twice to devastating effect.

There are some causes for concern.  Big Ers and The Colonel look like last year's Big Ers & Colonel, not the 2012 (Ers) or 2013 (Colonel) versions that the Bucks need.  Jabari Parker wants to be a Big and feels more comfortable as a Big, but he doesn't rebound like a Big.  Last night he looked a lot more like a young Tobias Harris than a young Carmelo Anthony.  The Grecian Formula is not active enough or a good enough defender to be a non-shooting wing who plays big minutes (like his counterpart last night, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), but he wants big minutes.  Today he is surely unhappy that he sat during crunch time, and we don't know yet whether an unhappy Greek Freak will be a distraction.

The Bucks open their home schedule on Friday against an infamous Sixers squad, and they will be favored.  Then they will be underdogs for a while.  Maybe until the Knicks come to town on November 18th.  Maybe for the rest of 2014.  The Bucks were favored a grand total of five times last season.  It doesn't make the Halloween opener must-win, but people will start to worry if they don't.  In the author's brief gleaning of other games the last two nights, only the Jazz (oy, what a mistake to pick them ahead of the P-Cans and Clips in the West), Magic, Lakers and Knicks looked like doormats.  The Bucks are no doormat, but they may be only one level above.  That's not a playoff level and that's certainly not what the new management is expecting.

Perhaps it is better to look at things optimistically.  They went on the road against a 2014 playoff team and they took them to overtime.  Good Brandon will have a great year, Juice Mayo is back, Khris Swish has the makings of a serious wing and the team played very good defense throughout (notwithstanding The Colonel's mental error on Kemba Walker's tying three at the end of regulation).

It would be great to see this team become a reincarnation of that fun 2007 team.  Michael Redd, Charlie Bell and Mo Williams were a three guard combo that played a lot of minutes together.  The team got off to a shaky start under Terry Stotts, but once they started clicking they were great.  I vividly remember them running the eventual World Champion Spurs off the court in San Antonio.  That win got the Bucks to .500, and they were also in the midst of a home winning streak that would span the entire month of December.  (Things eventually went south.  A few games later Michael Redd got hurt on a garbage time dunk and Mo Williams got hurt one or two games after that.  A horrid stretch followed, peaking [or cratering?] with a road loss to the Clippers [attended by yours truly] in which Ruben Patterson was the best Buck on the court, a supposedly 19 year-old Big Ers jacked up numerous wild threes [though he hit a couple] and Andrew Bogut was so dominated by Chris Kaman and Elton Brand that he was barely on the floor, yet still managed to foul out with eight minutes remaining in the game.  It was the Bucks' ninth loss in ten games to start the calendar year; early on in a 7-26 stretch that would cost a great coach [Terry Stotts] his job and lead to the hiring of the worst coach to helm an entire Bucks season since I began following the team in the mid-80's [Larry Krystkowiak].)  Knight, Mayo and Middleton could be an explosive, complimentary trio.  If The Colonel returns to his top defensive form and someone steps up as a rebounder (Zaza? Henson? Big Ers? Jabari? Greek Freak, even?), then the 2015 Bucks could be the type of exciting team that they had for a moment in 2007.





Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Official #BucksForest 2015 NBA Preview

NBA fans, we begin the 2015 season on the precipice.  The NFL is dominant; analogous to soccer in England or Cricket in Pakistan.  The NBA players, riled up from reading headlines instead of details, are steeling themselves for a union action.  The owners, in an effort to maximize short term franchise values, are increasing League exposure to unsustainable levels.  The Bucks, long an underachieving, yet stable, franchise, have begun pushing to find something that may not be there in Milwaukee.  These are scary times.

But what is life without conflict?  Nothing, that's what.  Life IS conflict.  And the Bucks are ready for 82 knock down, drag out fights that we all can enjoy.  So, forget the arena.  Forget the Kidd controversy.  Forget Frank Gimbel and forget Common Ground.  (And don't forget to substitute in a different F word for "forget".)  I want Good Brandon.  I want Jabari.  I want the Fortress on Fourth to be rocking on Halloween.

It's time to watch, talk about, write and read about the game of NBA basketball again.  Ain't it great?

2014 was probably the worst season in Bucks franchise history, but it actually ended up pretty good for #BucksForest predictions.  Here are the author's from last season, followed by the actual order of finish in parenthesis.  Predictions are based on regular season record, which the exception of spots 1 and 2.  Those are reserved for conference champions.

30. Some team decimated by injuries/Orlando (actual: Some team decimated by injuries - the Bucks!)
29. Phoenix (Philly) - didn't believe enough in Hornacek.
28. Philly (Orlando)
27. Hawks (Boston) - ranking them below Utah because they played in the East.
26. Cavs (Utah)
25. Boston (Lakers)
24. Blazers (Kings) - maybe my worst example of underrating.
23. Bobcats (Pistons)
22. T-Wolves (Cavs) - still proud that I predicted a playoff miss.
21. Pistons (Pels) - another proud playoff miss prediction.
20. Kings (Nugs)
19. Wizards (Knicks) - proud I had the Wiz in the playoffs.
18. Raptors (Hawks) - proud I had the Raps in.
17. Jazz (T-Wolves)
16. Bucks (Bobcats)
15. Warriors (Nets) - they almost missed, which would have been a great call.
14. Clippers (Wizards) - ugly prediction to have the Clips out.
13. Pelicans (Bulls)
12. Pacers (Raps) - way too low.
11. Nets (Suns)
10. Grizzlies (Mavs)
9. Lakers (Grizz) - maybe my worst overrating.
8. Thunder (Warriors)
7. Nuggets (Pacers) - I'll defend this because I thought Gallinari would play.
6. Mavs (Blazers)
5. Rockets (Rockets)
4. Heat (Clips)
3. Bulls (Thunder)
2. Knicks (Heat) - actually, this is my worst overrating.
1. Spurs (Spurs) - got the Champs, which I think was rare last season.

Some ugly stuff there, huh?  Some good stuff, too.  I knew that the 30th team would be decimated by injuries and I knew that the Spurs would win the championship.

Now, without any further ado, let's see how the NBA is going to go in 2015.

30) Some team decimated by injuries

Yes, I say the same thing every season, but this season it's actually a bold prediction.  Consensus is that Philly will be the worst team.  Even if Blake Griffin gets hurt and Chris Paul misses his usual 20 games and the Clippers' wings get old, the Sixers are expected to be worse than any team no matter what happens.

I say that Philly won't be the worst team.  I say that some team will finish below the Sixers because of injuries, internal strife or something else that is not readily apparent today.

So, who?

30) Los Angeles Lakers

Bad coach + bad role players + (recently) injury-plagued superstar = 30th place.

Admittedly, the Lakers' atrocious preseason is playing into this ranking.  I know that preseason is a time for experimentation and I know that many teams have followed up garbage preseasons with non-garbage regular seasons, but this team is bad.

One thing that gives me confidence in placing the Lakers below the Sixers is the presence of Byron Scott.  He should not be an NBA head coach.  It still mystifies me that he beat out Mike Dunleavy -- who I think got an unfair shake with towards the end with the Clippers -- for the Lakers' head coaching job.  Even though he has more established veterans than he had in Cleveland, the man seems so stuck in the past that a last place finish is quite possible.

29) Milwaukee Bucks

Sorry.  I just think they want to stink.

Why, you ask, would this team want to stink?  A team with new owners?  A team that has trouble selling tickets?  A team with a coach who is used to winning?  Because I have a feeling that the new owners think that they've outsmarted the game.  I think that Edens & Lasry think that losing is better than winning in 2015.  I think that they think that they need a third young "stud" to team with The Grecian Formula and Jabari.  I think that they think that the only place worth being in the NBA is in the top tier.  And I think that they think that the only way to get there is to have high draft picks.

What I wanted to write is that The Colonel and Big Ers will become a solid frontcourt again.  And that Juice Mayo can still be a great 3-and-D guy.  And that the franchise believes in Good Brandon.  But I can't.  At least not in a predictions column.  My feeling is that Jason Kidd is in cahoots with the new owners in wanting another ugly record.  I hope that I'm wrong (actually I hate it when people say that; they never mean it) and that the Bucks will try to put together a playoff run in 2015.

We will be able to tell early whether the Bucks want to win or not.  Teams that set aside big minutes for young players, keep able vets on the bench and trade away good players for future draft picks are not interested in having a winning season.  I expect to see all of those things from the 2015 Bucks.

28) Philadelphia 76ers

The first strike against conventional wisdom.

First of all, I think they are not trying to lose.  I think it is different from being willing to lose.  This is a roster put together by men who are willing to lose.  But I think the team will play hard and I think management would be very happy if this roster of players won this season.

People may not recognize a lot of these guys, but they have some players.  Tony Wroten is my 2015 fantasy basketball sleeper.  I think he is better than Michael-Carter Williams.  The frontcourt is bad (Mason Plumlee looked like Shaq against them in preseason), but they are young and they will learn the tricks of playing under the basket.  Most of their young players were not top prospects, but that doesn't mean they can't fill a role.  Maybe Henry Sims can bang, Hollis Thompson can shoot the three and Nerlens Noel can protect the rim.  They will finish better than expected.

27) Orlando Magic

Jacque Vaughn is coaching an NBA basketball team.  There are some possibilities here.  Perhaps Vaughn is willing to work for cheap.  Perhaps management wants a coach who won't do too well, so that another high draft pick can be gleaned.  Perhaps Magic GM Rob Hennigan is a full time dunce.  These are all logical.

If the Magic are attempting to be the modern Thunder, then Orlando's 2015 will probably be like the Thunder's 2009.  Some young pieces were in place (Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic, in this case), an inept head coach was at the helm and after a slow start (1-12!!!), the inept coach was fired.  I expect Vaughn to last longer than PJ Carlisimo did during the 2009 season, but I expect the 2015 Magic to post a record similar to 2009 OKC's (23-59).

26) Minnesota Timberwolves

Oh, Kevin Love.  You left a fan base that loved you.  You left them with a starting five of Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Young and Pekovic.  (Wait a minute.)  A crew of rotation reserves featuring the likes of Dieng, Cunningham, Wiggins and Mo Williams.  (Actually, that's pretty good.)

Hold on.  They're not that bad.

26) Sacramento Kings

Ahh.  There we go.  Bad owner.  Bad coach.  Disjointed roster.  Now, this is a bad team.

Much has been made of DeMarcus Cousins's play at the Worlds over the summer.  And I like Boogie Cousins.  But two weeks with Coach K is very different than six months with Mike Malone.  Not many teams would trade Kyrie Irving for Darren Collison or James Harden for Ben McLemore, either.

As an aside, it is striking just how inept the Vivek-led Kings seem to be.  If the mini-doc of the team's draft was an accurate indicator, then that franchise is in trouble.  The franchise hierarchy appears to be:

Boogie
...Vivek
......Front office stooges
.........Malone
............Other players

I can't see what else would compel the team to dump its best player (Isaiah Thomas) and replace him with an aging penetrator and a guy coming off a fluke season.

Rudy Gay could end up making the author's prediction look silly.  He shot 48% for the Kings last season, which was in the neighborhood of how he shot before his infamous max contract extension.  He still turned the ball over too much and he still forgot how to play defense from time to time, but if he focuses he could help carry this team into playoff contention.

25) New York Knicks

Ah, yes.  Another team that I rated way too highly last season, and am possibly rating way too low this season.

The Carmelo phenomenon fascinates me.  Lots and lots of people regard him as a good, or even great player.  For media types and bloggers, that's understandable.  What mystifies me is basketball people.  Why do they like him?  He's a chucker.  When motivated he'll rebound, but he's unmotivated way too often.

Then there's Derek Fisher.  He always seemed like a trickster rather than a cerebral player.  It's possible that he'll be able to coach, but I'm expecting another Kurt Rambis situation.

24) Boston Celtics

Just like last season, this is all Rondo.  I just think the guy is great and that he won't accept being on a team that is truly scraping the bottom.  Last season it didn't work out.  His injury kept him out longer than I expected.  This season I expect him to play all year and play well.

The team around Rondo is kind of hard to figure.  My gut feeling is that Sullinger might be good, but I also wonder if he's a guy who can't thrive against good big men.  I loved Marcus Smart before the draft, but now I'm wondering if he's a scoring point guard without touch at the rim or a jump shot.  Jeff Green and Evan Turner are two guys who just seem like they don't get it, but they both have obvious skills.

I feel good about the Celtics at 24.  On the other hand...

23) New Orleans Pelicans

Throughout the entire offseason I thought I'd have the P-Cans higher.  Everyone loves Anthony Davis.  Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon can be a hot backcourt duo.  Ryan Anderson looks like he's back and Omer Asik may be in a perfect situation.

Actually...

23) Los Angeles Clippers

There we go.  This is where I wanted the Clips, but I almost chickened out.

In some ways it's fun to have a supposed title contender listed three quarters of the way down the league, but it is a little bit scary.  I predicted a playoff miss for the Clips last season, so if I'm wrong this season I'll have to start wondering if it's becoming outright haterism.

The reasons for the low Clippers prediction (weak backup to the oft-injured Chris Paul; overrated bench wings; DeAndre Jordan being unreliable) are all still there.  Spencer Hawes was brought in to back up Jordan.  That is a solid move.  The problem is that they lucked into Darren Collison last season, and I don't see Jordan Farmar replicating that high level of play.  JJ Redick was solid when he played, but now I think he's getting old.  Matt Barnes was excellent, but it seems that he's lost his shot and ability to play top defense.

Blake Griffin is still there, and he is a superb player.  But so is Kevin Love.  So is Boogie Cousins and so is LaMarcus Aldridge.  There are a lot of superb players in the West and every year a couple of them miss the playoffs.  I think this is Blake's year to miss.

22) New Orleans Pelicans

In the end it's a numbers game.  Too many good teams in the West and not enough playoff spots.

21) Charlotte Hornets

Here's some classic NBA Algebra:

Charlotte Playoffs 2014 + All-Star Guard = Charlotte Playoffs 2015

Unfortunately for the Bugs, that's not how things work.  They made the playoffs last season, but a lot had to go right.  McBobs (now gone to Miami) had to be an active big man.  Al Jefferson had to play the best defense of his life.  The Knicks had to take an unexpected tumble.  Kemba Walker had to play better than I ever expected him to.

This feels like a year to go backwards.  I love Lance, but I don't love Lance here.  Lance is best with the ball, but I doubt that Kemba and Al will let him have it.  Lance tends to ride highs and lows, and I don't know if the team has the guns to stop things from getting too low.  It reminds me a little bit of the unfortunate Anthony Mason era with the Bucks.  I never blamed Mase alone, but for whatever reason his addition set the team back.

20) Utah Jazz

I really want to rank them higher.  I like Favors and Hayward.  I think Burks and Exum are fine guards who will get finer.  I think Rudy Gobert will be excellent for them on defense.

The West is just too tough.  Nine of the remaining ten West teams all expect to play in the postseason.  Most of them think they have a shot at winning it all.  Utah may be thinking postseason as well, but until Exum has a couple of years under his belt I can't trust the guards here.

19) Miami Heat

Maybe their putrid preseason shouldn't matter.  Maybe Chris Bosh can be a top offensive option again.  Maybe Luol Deng is not who Dan Gilbert (or whoever the Cavs person was who leaked the "African" dig to Danny Ferry was) thinks he is.  Maybe Spoelstra is too good a coach to miss the playoffs.  (That last one is the one I'm closest to believing.)  But this smells bad.  It smells like a long, frustrating season that could go even further south than a near playoff miss.

18) Brooklyn Nets

At last!  We're in the Playoffs!  (Actually, we still have two more non-playoff teams to go in the West.  And I know that everyone says that the East is better this year, but I just can't trust it.)

I don't see the Nets contending for the Championship.  And when Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team several years ago, he promised that they'd be a championship contender by this point.  It's not so much that they lost too many good players (in fact, I think losing Pierce will be a net positive) or that Hollins is a big downgrade from Kidd (though I do think that Kidd is better).  I just think that they'll have trouble with Lopez, one way or another.  In fact, that rumor of a Larry Sanders-for-Brook Lopez trade sounded like a winner for both sides.  Too bad it was reportedly Jason Kidd who wanted The Colonel.

17) Indiana Pacers

Yes, the roster looks bad.  Yes, David West is done.  Yes, Hibbert looked like a head case.  Yes, George Hill would have to score a lot more than he is likely to in order for this 7th seed to happen.

I just like Vogel.  I think he makes great adjustments and I was so impressed that he got that mess of a group to the conference finals last season.  I also think that Paul George is overrated (less than two years after he was clearly underrated).  They can cobble together 95 points per game and win with defense.  And remember, great big men tends to carry the day in this league.  If Hibbert is great again (and I think he will be), then I just can't see this team missing the playoffs.

16) Golden State Warriors

Here we go again.  Last season, I picked the Clippers and Warriors to miss the playoffs.  While Golden State undoubtedly missed expectations, the Clippers did not.  And both made it in (and had an epic series, with yours truly attending game 7).  I already picked the Clippers to have a mess of a season, and I am expecting the same from Golden State.

I don't trust Steve Kerr.  I doubt that he is a great strategic coach and I don't buy that he will be able to inspire his players when the going gets tough.  The West is a tough place.  Every team expects to make the playoffs (even the Jazz and T-Wolves, I'm telling you) and the Dubs will not get any nights off.  I think that trading Steve Blake's shooting and defense for Shawn Livingston's vision and flow may end up being the wrong fit.  It's a pessimistic view, but I have them out.

15) Phoenix Suns

This one is tough.  9th place again after that wonderful run in 2014.  I think Hornacek is a super coach and I love Dragic's fire and versatility.  I think Bledsoe is a rare commodity as an on the ball defender.  I want to see them in.

I have to go back to what I wrote about the Suns a year ago: big men matter more than guards.  Their best players are guards.  They almost won 50 games last year riding those guards, but their big men played great.  So great, in fact, that I think their big men will regress.  I don't see the Morris twins playing so well again and I think that the Nets have the better Plumlee.  Things will be different in a few years when TJ Warren gets good.  For now, however, I have them out.

14) Minnesota Timberwolves

I didn't forget about these guys.  I just reconsidered.

Conventional wisdom is that this team will struggle without Kevin Love.  And they might.  I am not going to go on and on about Kevin Love here, because I've already made clear on twitter (@benmiller) and elsewhere that Kevin Love has holes in his game.  But this team will be able to rebound without him (I love the Pek/Dieng combo down low) and score without him (even though I don't expect much from Wiggins or LaVine).

I also like Flip.  He has all of the well known cases of falling short when he has great teams, but this is not a great team.  It's a borderline team that needs to play together.  I think that they will.

13) Washington Wizards

Here's another one that falls outside of the typical range.  The Wiz were a 5 seed last year, retained all of their top players, brought in Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries, and now I'm expecting them to get worse.

The big worry for me is Bradley Beal's injury.  I think Bradley Beal is great.  I think that he's going to be the best off guard in the league pretty soon and I think the former Bullets were wise to keep him instead of dealing him for James Harden.  Beal was injured last season as well.  I'm not ready to call him injury prone, but I am willing to drop the team below my East sleeper.

12) Detroit Pistons

I just like Van Gundy.  I think back to all of those games when Dwight Howard make Andrew Bogut and a host of other Bucks big men look inept.  Howard is a fantastic player (more on that later), but in hindsight I think that Van Gundy was using him in the absolute best way possible.

Van Gundy will find a way to make Detroit's awkward frontcourt work.  If he has to bench or trade someone, he'll do it.  But he will find the right combination to make this team a terror on the boards and at the rim.

The guards are a worry, but part of this high prediction is based on me expecting something from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.  He is going to get a ton of opportunities playing with Monroe and Jennings.  I expect him to post solid numbers (fantasy alert) and help this team get to the playoffs.  They also have salary flexibility, especially if they can find a taker for Josh Smith's talents.

11) San Antonio Spurs

Eleven ain't so bad.  When you're coming off a championship, it may look bad.  When there are six other West teams ahead of you, it looks bad.  When you're used to winning with your stars and playing well with your scrubs and bringing every player into just the right role, eleven feels low.

This prediction is basically that the Spurs get old.  Like the 1964 Yankees or the 1978 Celtics, I think we are at the end of a great run.  They got their revenge on the Heat.  Duncan has as many as Kobe.  They surely want to have that fire but I think their bodies will not keep up.

I actually could see a full-on tank job coming.  If the West ends up being tough and if the best possible scenario starts looking like a 7 or 8 seed, I wouldn't be shocked to see Duncan shut it down.  The franchise did an instant rebuild when it unexpectedly had a bad season in 1997.  It could happen again.

10) Chicago Bulls

People seem to really like the Bulls this season.  I don't get it.  Derrick Rose is back, but even optimists don't expect him to be close to his former (robbing Dwight Howard of the) MVP level.  Pau was the big offseason pickup, but he stunk last season.  He played great in the World Championships (I think that calling it the World Cup is so silly), but then Rudy Gobert iced him.  I also think that Boozer's departure will hurt more than most people think.

Thibs doesn't do the lottery.  In fact, he doesn't even come close.  So I think that the Bulls will stay close to the top of the East.  I just don't see them as a real contender.

9) Denver Nuggets

They're still my boys.  Last season I went against the grain and predicted that Denver would continue the hot play that they showed in 2013.  They didn't.  But I have excuses!  Gallinari's absence hurt a heck of a lot.  They made a mistake in counting on JaVale McGee.  Andre Miller should have been let go earlier.

This is the year that I think Brian Shaw shines as a coach.  I think they can score, I think that Hickson, Mozgov and Faried make a great frontcourt and I think that rookie Gary Harris (aka Dwyane Wade Without The Steroids) will become a factor by March or April.  There is almost always a surprise playoff team in the West, and this is my pick for 2015.

8) Atlanta Hawks

One thing that has irked me in recent years is inaccurate grading of trades.  For example, conventional wisdom is that the Celtics won the KG/Pierce trade to the Nets.  I say, "look at their records".  We have only had one year since that trade, and the Nets (despite a first year coach and an injury to their starting center) were 5 wins worse than the previous season.  The Celtics were 16 wins worse!  One can argue that the Celtics were rebuilding or tanking or whatever, but a win is a win.  I want the Bucks to lead the league in Championships over the next decade, but I also want them to have more wins than anyone.  And the Nets have a big lead on the Celtics after one year, with this year likely to shake out similarly.

The famous (or infamous) Joe Johnson trade is another example of inaccurate trade grading.  Johnson has now played two seasons for the Nets.  The Nets only won 51 combined games in the two seasons prior to the Johnson trade (and that's with extrapolating out the win percentage in the 66 game lockout season of 2012) and have won 93 games in the two seasons since.  The Hawks won 94 games in the two years prior to the Johnson trade (again, extrapolating out for the lockout in 2012) and only 82 in the two seasons after.  So, it's Nets +42 wins, Hawks -12 wins so far.  So, the Nets didn't necessarily lose that Joe Johnson trade.  At least, not yet.  Because...

I like this Hawks team.  A lot.  I think that Horford will be the best center in the East.  I think that matching the Bucks' offer for Jeff Teague turned out to be a fantastic move.  I think that if the players around those two guys play their roles to their capabilities, this team will play attractive basketball, win lots of games and finally excite the city of Atlanta.

I'm in on the Hawks like I was in on the Wizards last spring.  I predicted an NBA Finals appearance for the Wiz, but they fell well short.  I am expecting a top four seed for the Hawks.

7) Dallas Mavericks

In my first draft, they were low.  I figured that Dirk will finally start slipping.  I figured that Tyson Chandler is no longer a defensive force.  I figured that Chandler Parsons is a role player and nothing more.

And you know what?  I still think those things.  But they also have Rick Carlisle, Monta Ellis, more help on the wings, better bigs and the strong desire to not be the third team in Texas.  I say they have a renaissance in the regular season (followed by a likely spanking in the first or second round of the playoffs).

6) Memphis Grizzlies

I just love these guys.  I've loved Z-Bo since that time the Blazers almost came back from down 0-3 on the Mavs.  I've loved Marc Gasol since I first watched him make a one-handed pass.  I love John Hollinger, the ex-ESPN writer who is now a personnel guy in Memphis.

This feels like a dangerous team.  They acquired just what they needed in Vince Carter.  They have a full season with Beno Udrih as the backup to Mike Conley.  They have a full year under their belts with the new coach.  They are primed.  They want the gold.  They will be ready.

I have the Grizzlies as the fourth best team in the west for reasons that are unclear.  Actually...

6) Portland Trailblazers

There.  I like the Blazers and I think that last year wasn't a fluke, but I'm putting them behind my guys in Memphis.

5) Toronto Raptors

In fact, I'm moving Memphis up again.  DeRozan is a Trojan and I think the Valanciunas/Amir frontcourt is one of the toughest in the East, but Memphis is better.  I even like Lou Williams, but not enough to put the Raps above the four seed in the West.  (And actually, I know I'm covering my rear end here, but I would not be shocked if Toronto had a bad year.  Lowry doesn't feel like the guy you want to pay long term.)

4) Memphis Grizzlies

There.

3) Houston Rockets

Now for the two scoundrels that I can't pick above Memphis, and my East champion.

The Rockets are set up to kill.  Harden and Howard like each other, and they are great.  They want to kill people who think they needed Chandler Parsons.

Patrick Beverly, Isaiah Canaan and Troy Daniels are all very good, underrated guards.  Terrence Jones is a better big man than he gets credit for.  I don't necessarily like Ariza (he's a Bruin), but he will probably be an apt replacement for Parsons.

The one potential sticking point is Kevin McHale.  Is he a great coach?  A bootlick?  A guy who struggles to make adjustments?  A guy who just got unlucky against the Blazers last season?  All of those things?

I think McHale will get the job done.  I am unsure if the Rockets will make the West finals, the NBA finals or get ousted early again.  But my gut feeling is that they have a great season.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers

When I did a rough draft of my playoff picks over the summer, I didn't even have the Cavs in.  The playoffs, that is.  I felt that protecting the rim is more important than ever.  That preventing guard penetration is more important than ever.  And that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have never shown interest in doing either of those things.

Then I saw preseason.  And I know I'm not supposed to overreact to preseason and I know that the last half decade is littered with examples of Kevin Love exterminating the Bucks in October and playing golf in April, but they looked great.  That offense just looks too good.  LeBron may have lost a step and Waiters may be a little selfish and Love may shrink when he has to handle widebody bigs, but I don't care.  I think they will tear people apart on offense to the point that their defense won't matter.

They probably should be the Championship pick.  The East will be an easier path and the Cavs will be hungry.  I just can't quite do it ahead of...

1) Oklahoma City Thunder

I have been telling friends since the moment last season ended (which was really the moment the Thunder lost, because picking the Spurs to beat the Heat was the easiest choice since picking the NFC in a 90's Super Bowl) that 2015 will be the Thunder's year.  Durant and Westbrook are just so awesome.  I've doubted Durant since college.  He got smoked by USC in the second round of the NCAAs.  As a rookie he couldn't get to the rim.  He's not quite quick enough to keep most wings in front of him.  Who cares?  He's a killer and he wants it.  I think he's going to get it.

The one worry, of course, is that Durant's injury could be just the start of his decline.  I hate to end this fine preview on a bad note for Wizards fans (because, let's face it, they are all expecting Mr. Business Tats to go home when his contract is up), but I worry.  Durant has a body like mine (tall, super thin lower legs and arms with a slightly wider torso and core), and my body is not that of an athlete.  I am 37 and I can still play tennis and basketball semi-regularly, but I had to slow down long ago.  By age 27 (Durant is 26 now), I had to start playing almost an old man's game.  My body type just can't handle the pounding on the lower body.  I worry that his also can't.

I think that Durant will get through this season.  I think that he will be great, that the Thunder will make any moves necessary to have the best team in the spring and I think that Clay Bennett will accept the Championship Trophy (I can't in good conscience call a trophy by the name of a man who did his job at a level that was so obviously below the level of the commissioner who followed him) with a big ol' Okie smile on his face.

It's going to be a fun season no matter what happens, and I can't wait to watch it, read about it, and write about the Bucks.

Monday, October 20, 2014

It Has Always Been a Shakedown

Common Ground, the group of Milwaukee area religious organizations with an ostensible goal of improving recreation facilities, revealed itself as a group of shakedown artists over the last several days.  After initially offering for a new Bucks arena if it were paired with $150 in tax money for Common Ground, the organization announced yesterday that it will be opposing tax money for a new arena.  

Details were fuzzy, but it appears that the change was due to the fact that Common Ground realized that there was no earthly chance that Milwaukee was going to waste spend invest $150 million in recreation facilities.  

Common Ground's attack on the Bucks and their new owners was predictable, but the force with which they changed their tact was jarring nonetheless.  They are now in attack mode.  Yours truly isn't all that familiar with Common Ground, so I can't say whether they are worrisome, or a mere nuisance.  

Hopefully, all of the complaints about new taxes for a Bucks arena will be moot.  If Milwaukee politicians can find the political will to tear down the old MECCA Arena and Milwaukee Theater, then the tax money being eaten up by those buildings will likely be enough to cover whatever tax kickbacks are needed for the Alvin Robertson Center (or whatever a new arena is called).

***

The Bucks are in New York city for an exhibition game against the Knicks.  With Brandon Knight still out I would expect that The Grecian Formula will be handling point guard duties again.  More on that tomorrow.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Economists" Are Just Economics Professors (and Other Bucks Arena News)

The Bucks play the Timberwolves in Iowa tonight, which means it's the first of (probably) many Wiggins vs. Parker matchups.  There's no major news that I'm aware of coming into the game.  I would expect Brandon Knight to sit as he recovers from his groin injury and it seems likely that Jason Kidd will tinker with floor combinations again.

The bigger notes of the day come from off the court.  The New York Times ran an article decrying Milwaukee's arena push while parks & recreation facilities need repair and Urban Milwaukee ran an article floating the idea of building a new arena on the North Side instead of downtown.  The author is much more sympathetic to the second notion than the first.

#BucksForest is all for building an arena on the downtrodden North Side.  The Chicago Bulls' arena is located in the Near West Side neighborhood of Chicago, which is a similar distance from Chicago's downtown as the old A.O. Smith site proposed by Reverend Willie Brisco.  While the Bulls' arena certainly has not turned the Chicago ghettos into a utopian paradise, the arena has brought economic activity to the area.  Chicago's arena placement is also nice because parking is easy.  Some of the proposed locations for a new Bucks' arena would require parking in structures, which would be enough of a hassle that I would likely cancel my season tickets.  A new Bucks arena on 27th & Capitol Drive would allow for street level parking within a short walk of the arena.

Even in the Urban Milwaukee article that discusses the idea of an arena on the North Side, Rev. Brisco is pessimistic.  He and the author of the article mentioned that the Bucks have not shown and are unlikely to show any interest in building an arena outside of downtown.  And there is something to that.  In the mid-00's the arena's location was cited as one reason that the Blackhawks were unable to draw fans in Chicago (boy, how things have changed) and the city of Miami famously built the old Miami Arena in a downtrodden area when the Heat started up in 1988, only to see the team leave for the much tonier locale of the Biscayne Bay area of the city only eleven years later.  Still, the author is all for both retaining the Bucks and improving the North Side, so I'd love to see the Bucks give Rev Brisco's idea a look.

The New York Times article on the Bucks arena was mainly a recycling of anti-arena tropes, but it did come from a big time paper.  The Times pointed out the fact that the city seems content to let play spaces for poor citizens become unkempt, while giving plenty of attention to the complaints that a couple of hedge fund billionaires (or, at least a hundred millionaire in Marc Lasry's case) have about a pretty well-appointed arena.  Economics professors (the majority of whom are both politically left-wing and fond of calling themselves "economists") were also cited in the article; playing their typical role of casting doubt upon the wisdom of using tax money for big time sports arenas.

Yours truly is sympathetic to the Times' case that a new Bucks arena isn't really necessary.  The design of the seating bowl is the only significant thing that can't be solved with an extensive renovation of the Bradley Center.  Even with the current seating bowl, the franchise could be viable if the team was a consistent winner.

None of this is to say that the author is against kicking back tax money to a new arena.  Milwaukee already collects $25 million per year in tourist taxes (hotels, rental car and downtown bars/restaurants) and it's a good idea to stop using a large amount of that money to prop up the MECCA Arena (now UWM Arena) & Milwaukee Theater, and instead kick it back towards a new arena.  Though the Bradley Center is adequate, it was built on the cheap.  From the size of the seats to the layout of the concourses, it has always been clear that the original goal was to open a building in 1988 that could crap as many people into as inexpensive a place as possible.  Having a building built for fan comfort would be nice.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Too Many Players Spoils the Rotation (Again)

It's October, so 'tis the season for Bill and Jalen's NBA Preview on Grantland.  Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose's 2015 Bucks preview was released today (along with the Celtics'), and they have the Bucks ranked 28th in the League.  The number is low, but when you finish dead last in 2014, that's what you get for 2015.

The #BucksForest 2015 NBA Preview is forthcoming, so the author will hold off his more expansive thoughts until then, but the Bill & Jalen preview was especially notable in one way: Bill Simmons bringing up that the Bucks have too many players who believe they are rotation guys.

It has been a hallmark of the John Hammond era to have too many guys who need minutes.  It happened the summer after the Fear the Deer season of 2010 when John Salmons was re-signed after Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts were brought in.  It happened in summer of 2012 when Drew Gooden was left without minutes in a crowded frontcourt.  It happened last summer when OJ Mayo and Gary Neal became disenchanted at the glut of wing players.

This year's glut is at multiple positions.  At point guard who sits: Nasty Nate or Kendall Marshall?  On the wing, two players out of the Bayless/Dudley/Mayo crew could be stuck to the bench.  And someone, be it Big Ers, Henson, Zaza or The Colonel, is going to be an unhappy, benched big man.

At this point nothing is going to be done about this overpopulation.  The team would be better with three or four more rookies or near-retirees who won't demand minutes.  But what is the front office going to do?  Only Brandon Knight, Giannis and Jabari Parker have tradable contracts, and none of them are likely to move.  For anyone else to move, they'd have to be cut.  The new owners are all about cost cutting at this point, so it's hard to imagine them paying a released player's salary just to make the team better.

The next few preseason games should provide some clarity as to who Jason Kidd wants in his rotation.  Most of the possible rotation players have sat out at least one game as the coaching staff tinkers with lineups.  Hopefully when a decision on a rotation is made, the staff can keep the more talented benchwarmers from spoiling the team's overall attitude.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I'm Worried That I Was Right

It's hard not to overreact to last night's preseason loss to the Cavs.  Yes, the Bucks' two best players were held out.  Yes, the Grecian Formula at point guard was an experiment by design.  Yes, it was against longstanding Bucks preseason nemesis Kevin Love.  But, still.  That fourth quarter where the Cavs' scrubs pulled away from a crew of Bucks' rotation players was ugly.

Jason Kidd couldn't have been happy, and his comments at practice today indicating that every starting spot is up for grabs is evidence of that.  Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight and Jabari Parker have to be the three main targets of that message.  It almost leads one to the conclusion that the exclusion of The Colonel and Good Brandon from last night's game was more than just the coach tinkering with lineups.

Far beyond any other worries was the play of Jabari Parker.  Giannis struggled to the tune of 0 field goals and 0 assists in 23 minutes, but that was predictable.  Jabari Parker's inability to hit contested shots or create space, on the other hand, was disconcerting.  Yours truly was critical of the Jabari Parker pick before and after the draft, but in the months since that opinion had changed.  Parker showed flashes of being a versatile offensive force somewhere in the Larry Bird genealogy.  Last night, Parker showed the lack of elite athletic ability (something that Bird, Paul Pierce, Big Dog and others were able to overcome to great success), but little of the craftiness, touch or decision making that the best talents of his type use to become elite players.

The worrisome stretch of play came in the last half of the fourth quarter.  The Cavs' unit of likely benchwarmers/non-roster players (AJ Price, Chris Crawford, Alex Kirk, Shane Edwards and Joe Harris) tore through five Bucks rotation/possible rotation players (Parker, Greek, Nate Wolters, Middleton and John Henson) in turning an 89-91 deficit into a 106-97 lead.  It was a five minute stretch where the Cavs' scrubs outscored the Bucks' contributors 17-6.

Again, it's only preseason.  And, to be fair, Wolters is a likely benchwarmer, the Greek belongs on the bench and Middleton & Henson are on the borderline between the rotation and the bench.

But, Parker.  Parker is the one that worries me.  It is unfair to expect a rookie to be a great player right away and blah, blah, blah.  But he needs to be great.  He needs to be great to get Milwaukee excited about the NBA again and he needs to be great to justify picking him in a draft where Joel Embiid and Elfrid Payton (among others) were still on the board.  Hopefully this was just an off game that everyone will eventually forget.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The #BucksForest Plan for a Healthier NBA Schedule (with Math!!)

The author has been critical of the NBA since Adam Silver became commissioner.  The new TV contract looks like a recipe for overexposure, Donald Sterling was branded a racist unfairly and Silver has yet to make a compelling case to the Milwaukee public on why a new arena is necessary.

Today brought some good news: the NBA is getting concerned about the health of its players.  For as long as the league has had an eighty-two game season, players and coaches have complained that there are too many games.  The NBA has yet to float the idea of shortening the schedule, but they are trying out a forty-four minute game.  That's good!  More healthy players and fewer burned out coaches is good for everyone.

As usual, the author thinks that this change could be pushed further.  Specifically, that the NBA schedule could be shorter without losing significant revenue.

Here is the #BucksForest idea for a healthier NBA schedule:

-58 game schedule

-Home-and-home vs. each team

-Best 14 teams make the playoffs

-Bottom 16 teams enter Bill Simmons's "Entertaining as Hell Tournament" for the last two playoff spots

-Season starts in early October; three to four weeks earlier

-Two games per week, either Thursday/Saturday or Friday/Sunday

-Either two home games or two road games in a given week (no home/road splits)

-No games Monday through Wednesday

-No games the week of the All-Star game

-Season ends in mid-April, same as now

-Eliminate divisions and conferences

How is that possible, asks the reader?  How can the NBA go from the current 82 game schedule to the #BucksForest proposed 58 game schedule ?  Watch and learn, he says:

A 58 game schedule would not affect the current or upcoming national TV contract.  58 games per team would be more than enough games to fill the League's commitments to ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV.  In fact, the goal would be to allow the 58 game season to catalyze ratings growth.  The national TV contract that would start in 2025 would be closer to the NFL's rather than MLB's, as it is now.

A 58 game schedule would affect local TV contracts and gate revenue.  NBA teams average between $500,000 (our beloved, downtrodden Bucks) and $3,000,000 (the similarly downtrodden Knicks) per game at the gate.  A 58 game schedule would mean that between $6 million and $36 million per team would be lost, assuming that ticket prices and attendance stay the same (which they wouldn't, but we're trying to have conservative projections here).  Local TV contracts could also see a monetary loss, but it's unclear if it would be on a direct ratio of 58 to 82 games, like gate revenue would.  Current local TV contracts for NBA teams may have provisions built in allowing the team to have a shorter season.  Even if teams don't have those provisions, local sports cable channels (where almost all local telecasts originate nowadays) would likely continue to be willing to pay huge amounts with the guarantee of more weekend games.  (Television ad rates are highest on Thursdays and Sundays, and both would be protected under the #BucksForest proposed schedule.)

Those are the negatives of the shortened season: $6 million to $36 million in lost gate revenue per team (again, assuming that ticket prices stay the same and attendance stays flat) and a possible drop in local TV revenues.

Now, for the positives.

Gate revenue per game would almost assuredly climb with a 58 game season.  Many season ticket holders budget based on the full season price.  When I sent the Bucks my electronic signature last spring, the number on my mind is $2,756 per season, not $33 per ticket.  If the Bucks charged, say, $40 per ticket, I would feel like I'm getting a deal at $2,460 per season.  For people who only attend a few games per season, there would be less overall ticket inventory.  Less supply usually means higher prices to match demand.

I project that gate revenue would climb around 10-20% per game if the NBA went to a 58 game season.  That would mean a loss of $3 million to $27 million per team instead of $6 million to $36 million per team.  So, still a loss, but less of one.  (And my honest opinion is that gate revenue would climb more than 20% per game, but I want to keep projections more in line with mainstream thinking here.)

An increase in merchandise sales is another potential positive, and it is huge.  Merchandise sales -- especially jersey sales -- tend to be driven by the passionate embrace of the athlete or team.  It's the reason why Washington Redskins jersey sales have fallen so dramatically since RGIII's injury.  The player went from superstar to marginally employable and the team went from a division champion to one of the worst in the NFL.  The NBA offers more proof of this phenomenon.  Superstar players tend to grab a higher percentage of non-local jersey sales in the NBA than in other sports.  For example, LeBron sold Heat jerseys all over the place, but Russell Wilson basically just sells to Pacific Northwest residents and expats.

A 58 game schedule is designed to make fans more passionate by making following the team easier.  Monday through Wednesday would be the time to talk Bucks.  Fans wouldn't have to check the daily schedule to see if there was a game on.  Anticipation would be built for the weekend.  With increased anticipation comes increased passion, which would lead to more merchandise being sold.

The more structured nature of a 58 game schedule would have other benefits as well.  Hardcore fans would know that Thursdays are for TNT, Fridays are for ESPN, Saturdays are for NBA TV and Sundays are for ABC.  That regular scheduling would likely lead to more hardcore fans, higher ratings and, ultimately a larger national TV contract in 2025.  And that's the big argument for a 58 game season.  The League could lose up to $300 million or so in combined local TV and gate revenue initially, but the boost it could give to television viewership could see the national TV contract make up for it and then some.  The NFL receives $1.9 billion/year for 16 exclusive regular season game windows on cable/satellite television.  The NBA is getting about the same amount or less (and probably significantly less, as the per-year average for regular season + Playoffs + NBA TV + streaming is $2.66 billion) for 164 exclusive regular season game windows on cable/satellite.  So, an NBA regular season game is worth less than 10% the value of an NFL game to cable/satellite channels.  If a 58 game schedule would deliver a bump to even just 15% of the value of an NFL regular season game, it would mean about a $900 million per season bump; easily making up for $300 million in lost local TV and gate revenue.

And that's the ultimate #BucksForest argument for a 58 game NBA season: $900 million is more than $300 million.  Or, more broadly, the number one thing the NBA can do to grow the League is to increase how much regular season games mean to national television viewers.