Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let's Get (At Least) Two

Brandon Jennings returns to the Bradley Center again tonight as the 3-10 Pistons take on the 7-7 Bucks.  For whatever reason Jennings still has a place in my heart.  His rookie season was the first season I got Bucks season tickets and I always felt that he had the potential to be a gem.  He has been heavily criticized in recent years, but he's actually been pretty good over the last couple of weeks.

Jennings has been so good, in fact, that I've been wishing for a return to Milwaukee.  It seems that he does not get along very well with Stan Van Gundy.  Jennings had a bad game last time out, getting pulled with almost five minutes left in the THIRD quarter and not playing the rest of the game.  The Pistons were down almost 20 points when Jennings was pulled, but this was the very next game after Jennings was the Pistons' best player on the floor in a barnburner against Phoenix.  My hope is that Van Gundy would be amenable to taking back a couple of the Bucks' benchwarmers in return.  For example, John Henson and Nate Wolters for Jennings would work under the NBA salary cap.

From the Pistons' point of view, a Brandon Jennings for Wolters/Henson trade would give the Pistons some protection if/when Greg Monroe leaves, and would allow Stan Van Gundy's beloved DJ Augustin to assume full starting point guard duties.

For the Bucks, the benefits of a Jennings return are obvious.  Brandon Knight, while the Bucks' best player and an underrated asset, is not a great point guard.  Jennings operates with the vision and passing ability that Knight lacks.  The two could be a devastating guard combo; sort of like Dragic and Bledsoe in Phoenix.

The problem with the Bucks re-aqcuiring Brandon Jennings is that it would almost certainly cost the team money.  Jennings makes about $5.2 million more this season than the combination of Henson and Wolters.  The Bucks are last in the League in attendance and have resorted to 2-for-1 tickets for last Saturday's game and tonight's game.  (The ticket deal still left the team with fewer than 15,000 in the building against a playoff team on a Saturday night.)  This is after the new owners went on a hiring spree and moved into a nicer office space.  It is possible that the new ownership will want to see some evidence that Milwaukeeans will buy NBA tickets in large quantities before they decide to up the player payroll by another five million bucks.

As for the actual game tonight, this will be a tough one.  The Pistons have been the anti-Bucks so far. The Bucks have been getting teams that are injured or in bad spots on the schedule while the Pistons have been facing teams at full strength for the most part.  The matchup is also hard.  The Bucks still do not have an answer for tough rebounding teams.

Two years ago Sanders and Big Ers controlled the boards well against just about any team (Memphis, the Clippers, OKC and long time Bucks-killer Dwight Howard were the notable exceptions).  This year Ers and Larry haven't gotten it done.  Some of it is the system (Ers noted during media time yesterday that Coach Kidd's defensive system requires so much help and switching that the wings and guards need to contribute on the glass) and some of it is minutes (Jabari, Giannis and Zaza has all been getting lots of time as bigs), but it is possible that both men just aren't playing like they did at their peaks.  Whatever the reason for their inconsistencies, Big Ers and Larry will be needed in the paint tonight.

After the Bucks play tonight, they'll play another three games in the next four days.  The old four-in-five-nights is always a stressful part of the NBA schedule, but this particular stretch is especially worrisome.  The Pistons are featured a second time (Friday night in Detroit) and Houston comes to the Bradley Center on Saturday.  So that's three of the four games against teams that give the Bucks problems inside.  (The other game is against Minnesota, and they are a wildcard.  They have one of the worst records in the NBA, but they have played a killer schedule and they might be a good team.) If the Bucks are going to make the playoff run that we all hope for, getting a win or two from stretches like this four-in-five will be essential.

One last thing that should be noted before yours truly begins preparing to head to the game (if you are going tonight, email me or send me a message on Twitter so that I can say hello) is that Jabari has been playing better lately.  I've criticized the rook on this blog a few times and I'm not ready to anoint him as the savior just yet, but he has settled down.  He has a knack for getting buckets and he has shown much better toughness over the last several games.  He has yet to make a leap at the level that the Greek Freak has this season, but Parker deserves praise.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Attendance Down; Hopes Up

Almost everything is better this season for the Bucks.  Bucks "fans" are no longer openly rooting for the team to lose.  The franchise player is not playing and acting like a knucklehead.  The team is not 2-10 through twelve games.

The one fly in the ointment remains attendance.  Attendance is down 5.9% compared to the first five games of the 2014 season.  The 2014 season had three weekend home games by this point while 2015 has seen only two, but it still is disappointing.  Not altogether unexpected after posting the worst record in the League and being expected to lose a lot in 2015, but still disappointing.  This is a new era with new owners, and there was hope that it would translate to a better arena experience.  The energy from the crowd is certainly more positive, but it's still the same twenty five year-old building, same ugly court and same game day presentation.

Things will get better.  Last season, the Bucks' fell to 13,487 per game after drawing 14,921 through their first five.  This season the Bucks are almost certain to climb from their current 14,047 average.  The team is winning, but more than that it feels like they're on their way to big things.  As much as the author liked a lot of the teams during the Michael Redd and Brandon Jennings eras, many Bucks fans believed that the team was a hamster wheel of mediocrity.  Many of those same fans believe that the same 6th-to-8th seed this season would be a stepping stone towards title contention.

Tonight, the Bucks play a 2015 contender -- the Toronto Raptors.  Thought before the season to be a step below the Bulls and Cavs, the Raps have been elevated in part by their own success and in part by the struggles of the preseason favorites.  Derrick Rose can't seem to stay healthy for the Bulls and the Cavs appear to be a team that is less than the sum of its parts.  That has left the Raps at the top of the East, and in a position to stay there throughout the season.

The young Bucks certainly have a chance against this Toronto team.  It's a road game and the Raps have the type of Bigs that can give the Bucks trouble, but this is a new era.  Ever since Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing inside, the team has done a much better job of handling skilled, tough big men.

The game may come down to the guards and wings' ability to handle Lowry, DeRozan and Terrence Ross.  Those guys can score, and it may be tough for Jabari and Dudley to stay with the Raps' trio on defense.  I'm hoping to see some three guard lineups from the group of Middleton, Bayless, Knight and Mayo.  Those guys -- especially Middleton and Bayless -- can sometimes get lost against a good offensive team.  Coach Kidd may instinctually want to play Middleton and Bayless a little bit less, especially if the Raps get a few extra baskets against them.  I hope that he stays with the guards, though.  I think that is the Bucks' best chance of leaving T.dot with another win.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'll Take It

Before getting to the Bucks' invigorating victory in Miami on Sunday, let's get the pessimist's items out of the way:

-Three of the Bucks' five wins have come against teams with major injuries (Pacers without George Hill or David West, Thunder without Russell Westbrook and Heat without Dwyane Wade).

-One of the Bucks' five wins came against the winless 76ers.

-The other Bucks win came against a Memphis team that was playing its third road game in four nights.

(There are extenuating circumstances for the Bucks' losses as well.  Two of them were in a three-in-four-nights situation, one was on the ass end of a back-to-back and the opener in Charlotte featured some questionable officiating.  This is the NBA.  A win is a win and they all have value.)

-Twelve players got minutes, including three for Henson and ten for Dudley.  The rotation continues to be ad-hoc, which usually bodes poorly for a successful season.

-Brandon Knight struggles with court vision continue.

-Jabari Parker -- though his effort was better -- continues to struggle with rebounding.

-Zaza Pachulia continues to be the Bucks' best big man.  (Which is good for Zaza, but bad for Larry and Big Ers.

-Giannis can't shoot.

All of these things were evident.  All of them are worrying.

But, enough with the pessimist's view.

The Bucks won in Miami!

The Greek Freak continues to improve.  It's beyond the point of making the author look bad for advocating that the Bucks trade Giannis for a top draft pick.  It's beyond wondering what this guy's ceiling is.  He's a menace.  He has a scary competitive streak.  He is starting to realize what he's good at and what he should stay away from.  He is a disruptor on defense.  It's great.

In the past yours truly has compared the Greek Freak to Darius Miles.  The comparison was part criticism and part compliment.  Miles was an incredible athlete at a thin, sinewy 6' 9".  He could run the floor, finish and be disruptive on defense.  He could not shoot a lick.  Giannis has all of those traits, with an extra inch or two.

Darius Miles (along with Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Quentin Richardson) made the Clippers the young, hot team in 2001.  I vividly remember them blowing out the eventual World Champion Lakers in the middle of the season; Odom was nearly in tears of joy during his postgame interview.

Darius Miles's stat line as a 19 year old rookie was:

-9.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 50.5% shooting in 26.3 minutes

Giannis Antetokounmpo's stat line so far as a 19 year old sophomore is:

-11.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.4 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 52.2% shooting in 25.3 minutes

Giannis is better than Darius Miles was as a rookie.  Though the defensive stats favor a 19 year old Miles, Giannis's awareness and ability to defend with a team is better.  On offense Giannis and Miles are almost identical with the exception of Giannis being a better free throw shooter.  Neither can make jumpers, both have a knack for finishing inside and both show flashes of great court vision and passing.

Ultimately, Darius Miles wasted his considerable talent.  He, unlike Giannis, did not improve in year two.  He was traded prior to year three and in year four a Cavs team featuring a rookie named LeBron James dumped Miles on the Blazers for journeyman point guard Jeff McInnis.  He was essentially out of basketball after two more seasons.

The Bucks have a checkered history of developing talented young players, but with a new regime in place things are changing.  Giannis, along with Brandon Knight, was the Bucks' best player on the floor in Miami, and might need to be again tomorrow if the Bucks are going to beat an improving Knicks team at the Bradley Center.

Khris Middleton was the other notable item in Miami.  After receiving the dreaded DNP-CD in three of the last four games, Middleton finally got out of Coach Kidd's doghouse and played well in twenty minutes.  There were even a few minutes that Middleton played on the wing with two other guards, which made for one of those three guard lineups that I believe best supports this year's team.

The Bucks surely know that a difficult December schedule awaits them.  They are 5-5 right now, which is a good enough winning percentage to contend for a Playoff spot.  If they play defense and get timely buckets like they did in Miami, then their game in March against the Heat may mean even more than this nice win in November.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Did We Just Tank For Tobias?

Sometimes, I miss Scott Skiles.  Maybe more than some times.  Scott Skiles probably ran too hot and likely wore on his players and definitely clashed with management, but he won some games that he probably shouldn't have won.  (And he also relished beating the Bulls.)

Take last night.  Chicago was visiting Milwaukee.  The crowd was majority Bulls fans.  The rebuilding Bucks were neck and neck with the contending Bulls early in the fourth quarter.  And the Bucks were playing well.  They (probably coincidentally) were playing The Grecian Formula as a Big, as yours truly suggested yesterday.  Zaza was up front with him, and they were joined by Jerryd Bayless, Juice Mayo and Khris Swish.  Mayo was having an off night and Middleton's defense was a bit scattered, but they were playing well.  And so were Zaza and Bayless.  In fact, the latter two were definitely playing better than their starter counterparts, The Colonel and Good Brandon.  The Skiles thing to do was to ride the hot hands.  Knight, Sanders and Parker may be considered franchise cornerstones at the moment, but all three struggled earlier in the game.  Skiles didn't care about franchise cornerstones, and he would have likely continued with the hot lineup.

Coach Kidd, for better or for worse, is not Scott Skiles.  Even with the team down only two points to the Bulls and the offense flowing (and granted, 76 points with nine minutes to play is not spectacular against most teams, but against the Bulls it's flowing enough), Kidd made his normal fourth quarter substitutions.  First Zaza and Mayo hit the bench for Knight and Sanders.  A few minutes later Mayo came back in the game for Bayless after a ill-advised drive ended in a charge.  Then with five minutes to play, Parker was in for Middleton.  Four of the five players who were flowing and playing well against the Bulls were on the bench, and the finishing five of Knight, Mayo, Parker, Antetokounmpo and Sanders were on the floor.

The last five minutes were a loss.  A lineup that is supposed to be able to defend kept giving up fouls, and a lineup with three tall players couldn't get a big rebound.  They lost another game that felt winnable.


For the second straight day, it must be said that a three guard lineup seems to work best for this Bucks team.  Lineups featuring any three man combination of Knight, Mayo, Bayless and Middleton as the Guard and two Wings worked well for the most part.  Things got stagnant whenever a bigger wing -- Dudley or Parker -- were added to the mix.

The Bucks have essentially had an eleven man rotation thus far, and it seems like it's time for that to change.  Nine or nine-and-a-half men would be better.  Dudley and Big Ers should be relegated to benchwarmer status.  I realize that Dudley and Ilyasova can shoot (at least theoretically) and I realize that they are two prime targets to be traded to contenders in exchange for a prospect or draft pick.  But this team seems to function better with three quick guys handling most of the scoring and two bigs doing the dirty work inside.  At this point Big Ers seems to be the less effective at dirty work than Henson, Larry, Zaza or Giannis.  Dudley, as a tall, bulky shooting Wing, just seems like a bad fit.


The Bucks have another tall, bulky shooting Wing besides Jared Dudley.  His name is Jabari Parker and, at least to this point, he doesn't fit either.  Jabari may well end up being a very good pro, but right now he should not be playing significant minutes or finishing games.  You can just tell that those four guards -- Brandon, OJ, Bayless and Middleton -- enjoy playing with each other.  Jabari is a natural ball stopper and he doesn't play well enough inside to play as a Big.

Jabari could be the 1/2 in a darned good 8 1/2 man rotation.  That would be normal minutes (20 to 35 per game) for Bayless & Knight at Guard, Mayo & Middleton on the Wing and Henson, Zaza, Antetokounmpo & Sanders up front.  Jabari could get 12 to 18 minutes on a normal night, and perhaps more on certain nights.

The black cloud hanging over all of this is Jabari Parker's long term prospects.  He just might not be an All-Star.  The same flaws that he showed in college (slow release on his jumper, lack of rebounding tenacity, soft defense for his size, not quite fast enough to penetrate) are still there.  Kevin Durant became a better rebounder and defender.  Paul Pierce used deception to penetrate.  But the history of the NBA says that those guys are rare and the guys who can't fix it are common.  It's still only five games, but the phone call today to offer Jabari in trade for Wiggins, Exum, Embiid or Elfrid Payton would end in a short and impolite "no".  In short, he may end up being less the modern Larry Legend (as I so rashly predicted a month ago) and more the midwestern Tobias Harris.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Some Good, Some Bad

The Bucks grabbed a narrow, low scoring win in Indiana last night, and that's good.  It is clear that yours truly was wrong when predicting that the Bucks would be OK with another losing season, and it is clear that Coach Kidd is going to play his best players, not just the guys who online Bucks fans want to see.

There were troubling signs.  The Bucks were badly out-rebounded again.  Coach Kidd went bigger; moving Jabari to the wing (or, "small forward", if you want to use old timey basketball terms) in the starting lineup and down the stretch.  It didn't help.  Big Ers, who started as a Big with The Colonel) finished with only three rebounds and Jabari had the same.  Even when Jabari got a huge rebound in the last minute of the game, it was a fluke.  Big Ers shot a near-airball and Jabari's man happened to misjudge it.

Scoring was also an issue.  The Pacers have a great coach who makes sure they play great defense and tends to get the game to a slow pace.  Finishing with 87 points against that type of coach is no reason to doubt.  But there are problems.  The Colonel is a non-factor on offense, but that's fine.  He can play a role for the Bucks like Andrew Bogut is playing for the Warriors.  Rim protection & rebounding on defense and getting the heck out of the way on offense.  But the rest of the frontcourt needs to help a little.

What matters is the reaction to a win like last night's.  The Bucks go to Chicago tonight to play another stout defensive team.  Can they get a few more rebounds?  Can they score enough to win?  Against a depleted Pacers team, they answered the latter question and escaped successfully.  Against a contender, they may need more.


It may have just been the matchup, but one thing missing in Indianapolis was a three guard lineup.  Good Brandon, Juice Mayo, Khris Swish and Jerryd Bayless have all played well this season, but we rarely have seen three of them together on the court.  Surely that is a reaction to the Bucks' rebounding woes.  But I would like to see three of those men on the court with two active Bigs.

The author's idea is to match three of those guards with The Grecian Formula and The Colonel.  A frontcourt of Giannis and Sanders would be a place that offense goes to die, but I think that it could work.  The Greek's rebounding feels like an untapped resource and he is certainly more comfortable scoring at the rim than he is taking jump shots.  Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol would certainly try to take advantage of Giannis or Larry on the block, but that's why double-teams were invented.  All four of the Bucks' rotation guards are active, and if they work together they should be able to cover the ball after a double team.  Here's hoping that Coach Kidd gives that unorthodox lineup some run.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Question, Answered

Will the Bucks stay in Milwaukee?

For quite some time, that has been the prevailing question for Bucks fans.  We don't have an answer yet, but there have been many lessor questions that have come up while we wait for an answer.

Why didn't Herb Kohl sign a 30 year lease?

The Senator signed a six year lease in Milwaukee a few years ago, thus securing the team's short term presence in the city.  He chose not to sign a 30 year lease, which would have alleviated a lot of stress on a lot of people.

Herb Kohl would tell you that the NBA would only allow the lease signed a few years ago to be for six years.  Ostensibly, that is true.  The League did want Kohl to extend for six years or less.  But he could have signed for 30 years, or more.  The League cannot stop an owner from signing a lease.  The League can try, but they would lose in court if push came to shove.

So why, then, did The Senator sign a lease that would put the team in peril?  For more money, of course.  The Bucks with three years remaining on their lease were worth $550 million (actually $350 million or $450 million, I suspect) in spring of 2014.  With 27 years left on their lease, they'd have been worth about $250 million (or less).  Herb Kohl put the Bucks' future in Milwaukee in doubt in order to pocket an additional $200 million or so from their sale.

Why did Kohl and the new owners pledge $200 million towards a new arena?

They didn't.  They demanded $200 million (or more) for a new arena.

Milwaukee is a difficult market for the NBA.  When the NBA sees a difficult market, they (and/or the local team) demand tax money from that market in order to make up for it.  The Bucks can't charge Los Angeles (or San Francisco, or even Portland) ticket prices, they can't draw fifty thousand TV viewers per game and they can't get corporations to pour money into advertising at the arena.

To make up the difference between what the Bucks would be worth in a replacement market (Las Vegas, St. Louis, Seattle, etc.) and what they are worth in Milwaukee, the NBA and the new owners want tax money.  It is politically difficult (though not impossible) to just ask a city for tax money so that an NBA team will stay.  It is far easier to ask for tax money towards a new arena, because the NBA team can claim that a new arena will be used for other things or will stimulate economic growth.

Here is how the math works: $100 million (the new owners' contribution) is equal to about $5 million per year over thirty years, after accounting for the time-value of money.  The Bucks only need to draw an extra $120,000 extra per home game per season to reach that amount.  They hope that higher ticket prices, increased attendance and better advertising possibilities will draw well over $120,000 per game, thus making the arena worth it to the new owners.

The famed $200 million pledge was not a terrible sign for the NBA's future in Milwaukee, but it was hardly reassuring.

Why was Jabari Parker drafted?

This was a worrying sign about the owners' commitment to Milwaukee.

The optimist's view is that Bucks' management felt that Jabari Parker was the best player in the draft, and that drafting Jabari Parker was the best basketball decision.

The pessimist's view is that if out-of-town owners aren't entirely committed to Milwaukee, then the prudent thing to do is draft the player who will generate the greatest immediate returns (rookie of the year hype, ticket sales bump, etc.) rather than the player with the greatest potential who has to sit out for at least several months (Joel Embiid).

Drafting Jabari may have been all about basketball, but it would also be a bread-and-butter part of the playbook for a team with an eye on leaving Milwaukee.

Why did the Bucks hire Peter Feigin as team president?

Peter Feigin is has a great resume and is by all accounts a very personable businessman.  He did amazing work with NetJets.  But he was brought in for one overriding reason: to secure tax money for a new Bucks arena.  Feigin is a relationships guy, not a nuts-and-bolts operator.  He is there to befriend Milwaukee businessmen and politicians so that they are more likely to contribute (either private money or tax money) towards a new Bucks arena.

Teams that are serious about their long term prospects in a city tend to hire an operator as team president.  The Brewers, for example, have had Rick Schlesinger in an equivalent role for years.  He is not out in public all of the time talking to the media and glad-handing local leaders.  He is trying to maintain a stable sports franchise.

Peter Feigin may end up being a great team president for the Bucks, but his hiring was another sign that the new owners want to pump up the franchise in the short term, but are only committed long term if they are given tax money.


Here we are.  New owners who have talked a lot about staying, but always with the caveat that someone must give them a lot of tax money.  A new player who is expected to win rookie of the year, but who may not grow to have the best NBA career.  A new president with a track record of growing businesses, but without a background in running a large, stable organization over a long period of time.  It all makes the author worry.

But then we get back to the overriding question: Will the Bucks stay in Milwaukee?

Amid all of the doubts and the demographic shortcomings and the worrying signs, this week brought a reassuring report: the Bucks want to build their new arena where the Milwaukee Theatre and MECCA (technically, "UWM Panther") Arena stand.  At last!  A true, reassuring sign that the new Bucks' owners are serious about staying in Milwaukee.

The $200 million pledge and Jabari and new team president didn't cause yours truly to believe that the new owners were serious about Milwaukee, but the reported site for a new arena does.  Why?  Because building a new arena on the site of the Theatre and Arena means that the new Bucks owners are taking a pragmatic approach.

Building a new arena at any site besides the site of the Arena and Theatre is not the most pragmatic option because it would require new taxes.  To economics professors, new taxes towards an arena may not be any more objectionable than existing taxes, but to the public, new taxes are worse.  New taxes don't have inertia and the public is naturally fearful of local and immediate change.  Existing taxes are already there.  The public is already paying them.  The public tends to be more approving of repurposing them.

The Theatre and Arena are already part of a district (along with the convention center) that receives around $25 million per year in tourist taxes (rental cars, hotels, downtown restaurants & bars, etc.).  Around $17 million per year of that goes to pay off construction and renovation debt on the convention center and Theatre, respectively.   The other $8 million or so per year goes towards administration and maintenance of those three buildings.  Take away two of those buildings, and much of that $8 million per year gets freed up for a Bucks arena.

$8 million per year may not sound like much when modern NBA arenas cost over $400 million, but it is worth around $120 million over an arena's 30 year life.  Add that $120 million to the $200 million that has already been pledged towards a new Bucks arena, and we're close.  Close enough that a new arena may be possible without having to create a new tax or extend the Miller Park tax (which are both political poison at the moment).  Close enough that the new owners may volunteer to cover the additional $80 million or so to prevent the NBA from buying back the team for $575 million in 2017 (as the NBA has the right to do if no arena is built by then).

So, let's celebrate Bucks fans!  The team is 1-2, but they look far better than they did throughout most of last season.  The first game had around 16,000 people in the building; all into supporting the Bucks.  And the reported new arena site is a big time confirmation that the new owners are serious about staying in town.

Will the Bucks stay in Milwaukee?  It looks like the answer is an emphatic, Yes!