Friday, December 2, 2016

Milwaukee Shuns the Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

Which Giannis is Real Giannis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 27, 2016

It's Early and I'm Tired

To give up on a Bucks season after one game would be rash.

We've seen turnarounds before.  The 2010 Bucks -- the team of Brandon Jennings' rookie year -- looked woeful on offense and overmatched down low when they lost their first game in Philly.  That was the Fear the Deer team, and the city was inspired by Playoff time.

It's just that they looked so bad, and in all the ways I worried they might.  They have a star, but not a top star.  They have athletes, but not athletes who look smooth.  They have vets, but the vets aren't their best players.  They have size, but their Bigs aren't tough.  And they don't play as a team.

Beyond the fake sellout (there were thousands of empty seats), the boo birds (I was one of them) and the antagonism towards their own fans (at one point Novak, in full Cubs Fans At Miller Park mode, defiantly stood an clapped for Plumlee as the crowd booed him), that was the worst part: the teamwork.  It felt like the Hornets loved playing with each other.  They looked the part of Contender. The Bucks looked like they just wanted to justify their place on the court.

I could run down a list of puzzling personnel moves made by this regime, or perplexing philosophies that appear to have been instilled by the coaches, or players who lost their spark the moment they got paid.  But what's the point?  It's 5:45 a.m. on a Wednesday.  I'm awake because I wanted to watch the Bucks game when there was work to be done.  I'm tired of giving this franchise attention that it doesn't deserve.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Dreams of Jabari

The Bucks won their annual (maybe?) Madison pre-season game on Saturday.  They beat the Dallas Mavericks 88-74.

It's always nice to beat a Playoff team, even if it is pre-season.  Pre-season is not the time to mention that the opposing team was without their All-Star, or that the opposing team missed a metric ton of open jump shots.  No, pre-season is a time for optimism, and a decisive victory for a likely 2017 West Playoff team is something good.

Reaction from online Bucks fans focused on the play of Jabari Parker, and for good reason.  He led all scorers with twenty-one points, he shot an "efficient" (GOSH, do I hate that word) nine-for-fourteen and he even grabbed six rebounds.  (His plus/minus was plus-sixteen; tops amongst either team, for those looking for stats even more worthless than typical NBA stats.)

It was impossible not to notice Jabari while watching the game.  He was active, he was athletic and he was finishing.  It was great to see teammates reward him for his activity.  Six of Jabari's nine baskets came off assists.

Just as noticeable, at least for those of us accustomed to watching young players develop, was Jabari's coordination.  Or, more precisely, his lack of coordination.  This is not a smooth dude.  He's an incredible athlete in terms of explosiveness, but when it comes to touch and feel, he's no Chris Paul.  He may not even have the motor skills of Ron Paul.  He's just a naturally herky-jerky guy.  It happens.

Bucks fans who dreamt of Jabari turning into the next Paul Pierce or Carmelo aught to treat those ideas like a Larry Sanders practicing a hook shot: think about it occasionally, toss it up just in case it hits, pout for a while after it doesn't and get over it using your preferred stash of drugs and alcohol.

None of this is to say that Jabari is a waste.  He can undoubtedly contribute.  But for him to contribute the same thing's going to have to happen that happens with every valuable NBA player: he's going to have to be used right.

For Jabouncy (new nickname; we'll see if it sticks), being used right means being used like another athletic phenom with suspect motor skills: Blake Griffin.

When Blake debuted during the 2011 season, he took the League by storm.  He was just flying all over the place; dunking on people seemingly at will.  Clippers games turned into an event.

(In fact, I trace my own ticket-buying addiction not to the decision to sign up for Bucks season tickets in 2009, but to my decision to plunk down some cash for a late season five-pack of Clippers tickets the next season.  It morphed me from a guy who just attends sporting events to root for his team to a guy willing to buy a ticket to be a part of a hot crowd.)

Jabouncy may not quite be the athlete Blake is.  Few are.  He may be close enough.  Blake was measured to be six feet, ten inches tall, with a thirty-five and a half inch vertical leap.  Jabari is an inch shorter and his vertical leap has never been independently measured, but the way he propels off the floor certainly makes it look like he could approach Blake's number.

2017 is Jabouncy's age twenty-one season, which happens to be the same age Blake was as a rookie.  Blake's results: twenty-two points and twelve rebounds (!) per game, while shooting over fifty percent and getting to the line eight times per game.

Can Jabouncy do twenty-two and twelve?  Oh goodness.  The Bucks will be a handful this season if he does.

The key -- as Bucks Forest sees it, at least -- is for both Coach Kidd and Jabouncy to embrace who he is.  A little work on the jump shot or the post moves is fine; surely Blake Griffin worked on both of those things when he was Jabouncy's age.  The more important thing is for Jabouncy to play like an animal.  He has to be bowling people over and punishing opponents on the glass.

Jabari is an ambitious fellow -- he clearly thinks that he'll end up being one of the greats -- but ambition without discipline just makes you a dreamer.  The NBA is not a kind place to dreamers.  Hopefully Jabari and Coach Kidd do the right work and leave the dreaming to Bucks fans.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The NBA Sucks This Year or: Bucks Forest's 2017 League Pass Rankings

As the patina of Wisconsin begins to turn a lovely reddish-brown, so too does Zach Lowe of ESPN release his 2017 NBA League Pass rankings.  It's an autumn tradition on par with warm apple pie and my trying to fit into the Flipper Anderson replica jersey that my grandma bought me in 1989.

Also an annual tradition is me rolling my eyes and shouting ineffectually into cyberspace about the order of Zach Lowe's rankings.  But it's a new season, I'm trying to grow and it's just tacky to pick apart the words of those with larger followings than you.

So, instead of rambling on about his annoying affection for the Celtics uniforms or his indefensible aggrandizement of Anthony "Heir to 'Out of Service' Pervis" Davis, I'll take the high road.  I'll simply post a list of teams that Bucks fans might want to watch on NBA League Pass, or some other legitimate, super-legal streaming service for out-of-market NBA games.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

Duh.

But there is a reason why I want to mention Bucks fans watching the Bucks.  The NBA has become a provincial League in many ways.  Like with baseball, fans like to watch their own team play.  Unlike with football, NBA fans are becoming less and less interested in games that don't involve their team (unless the team on TV features Steph Curry).

Which brings us to number two:

2. Golden State Warriors

Another "Duh".

The Dubs are an absolute lead pipe cinch to win the Title.  They are the greatest basketball team ever assembled; better than the 1992 Dream Team.  They would have pants'd the Dream Team.  Space Jam may never have happened if Steph & Company were born in 1966.

This may sound like trolling or exaggeration or whatever, but it's 100% Shoot, brother (that's a pro wrestling term).  They are too talented, too smart and they enjoy playing with each other (*ahem*) too much.

I know I said I wouldn't talk about Mr. Lowe because he writes to a bigger audience than I do and it's taken when small aud writers attack big aud writers and all of that, but I have to.  He compared the Cavs -- the 'Luckiest NBA Champion in NBA History, Possibly' Cavs --  to this Warriors team.

Now, I realize that the Cavs were the recipients of an NBA Title in which they "beat" the Dubs in the Finals last season.  And I realize that LeBron James is a media infatuation non-pareil.  But come on.  They play a bunch of iso-ball, they clutch and grab instead of playing defense and they don't even seem like they're having fun together.  They suck.  I'd be fine never watching them again.  Bucks fans can feel free to ignore them.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

KATs!!

KATs, KATs, KATs!

Man, I love KATs (Karl-Anthony Towns).  The guy has a great nickname, he seems like a cool dude and he is a freaking freak of nature on the basketball court.

Oh, my gosh you should watch more KATs.  He is so slick on O, so savvy on D (like, Larry Sanders 2012-13 savvy) and he has taken the worst trend in nicknames (the lazy, "let's just use this guy's initials" nicknames) and turned it COOL.

KATs.  It just so cool.

There's also Rudio, who's nice.  And Thibs, who's a maniac.  And a bunch of overrated young bums, many of whom played college basketball for the scandal-ridden program called the UCLA Bruins.

But tune in for KATs.  He's a baller and he'll be around for a long time.

4. Brooklyn Nets

Ah hah!  The reason that I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Lowe.

He had the Nets 30th.  Last!!  How dare he.

The 2017 Brooklyn Nets are the NBA's sleeper team.  Kenny Atkinson will win Coach of the Year (because media members give coach of the year to the coach of the team that media members were most wrong about at the start of the season), Brook Lopez or Jeremy Lin will win Most Improved (because media members give most improves to the player that media members were more wrong about at the start of the season) and Sean Marks will win Executive of the Year (because media members blahblahblah you get the point).  This team is actually good.  And they'll play an attractive style.

But, still: Why the Nets?  Other teams are good.  Other teams play an attractive style.  Why should Bucks fans watch the Nets when there are 26 over teams (including the bum Cavs) available on NBA League Pass?

One: The Nets will compete for a Playoff spot.

The Bucks are also competing for a Playoff spot, so that's makes the Nets a natural rival.  Cross off the Western Conference from your League Pass list, because none of those teams compete with the Bucks for a Playoff spot.

Two: The Nets don't have any overrated, has-been "stars".

Overrated, has-been stars are only fun when they play for your team.  I absolutely LOVED watching Robin Yount pursue 3,000 hits.  It was fantastic.  However, I have a hard time believing that, say, a Twins fan enjoyed watching "The Kid" plink and plunk opposite field singles over the second baseman's head.  Those types of guys are ANNOYING.

D-Wade, you're out.  Carmelo, you're out.  LeBron (even though you amazingly made up for your slightly diminished athletic ability by becoming a superlatively accurate passer last year), you're out.  Even guys like Paul George, who stretch the definition of "star", are not particularly fun to watch.

Three: The Nets have my favorite announce team.

Ever wonder what happened to "The Czar of the Telestrator" Mike Fratello?  He's alive and well on Nets broadcasts!  And he's paired with Ian Eagle, who is arguably my favorite play-by-play man in any sport today.  (Why would a personal preference like "my favorite" require the adverb "arguably"?  I don't know.  It reminds me of Ric Flair's WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which was INARGUABLY one of my favorite live events I've ever been to.)

Hell is sitting through a telecast captained by Boston's broadcast team.  Or Orlando's.  Or Philly's or DC's or Detroit's.  The NBA season is long and monotonous, and by the end you're glad it's over.  Same with those teams' (and others') local broadcasts.

Being the fair and forthcoming broadcast journalist that I am, I will give special notice to the broadcast teams of the Raptors, Knicks and Bugs.  They are all quite good.

5. Houston Rockets

I could give a crap about the team.  They'll probably be better without Dwight.  D'Antoni is probably the perfect coach for Harden.  Capela is probably the most underrated center in the League.

But this is all about their hilariously bad broadcast team of Bill Worrell, Matt Bullard and Clyde Drexler.

Bill Worrell is a classic local sports homer.  He gets frustrated with bad play and he thinks refs are unfair to the local star, James Harden (of all people).  He's excited when the team wins and he usually takes a glass-half-full approach.

The comedy comes from Clyde and Bullard.  Bullard takes his job seriously.  He does his research and it feels like he would like to get a shot at national broadcasts some day.  Clyde, on the other hand, is all about having fun.  He's an all time great Houston basketball player (three Final Four appearances [yes, THREE] for the Houston Cougars and an NBA Championship with the Houston Rockets) and he comes off as a jovial, good natured guy.  He clearly has no intention whatsoever of improving as a broadcaster, however.  And the dynamic of the ambitious former journeyman looking to make a name for himself and the satiated local legend often leads to the type of unintentional comedy rarely seen from modern sports broadcasting.

Sadly, last season may have been the peak for unintentional Rockets broadcast comedy.  The season was a massive disappointment, the coach was fired early, the interim coach was in over his head and the team had obvious, major chemistry issues.  It was as beautiful for lovers of unintentional NBA broadcast comedy as this season's Warriors team will be for lovers of blowout victories.  This season the Rockets aught to be good, and if that happens the team's NBA League Pass ranking will plummet.

6. Nobody

Who else is worth watching?  They all do the same crap: lots of PnR and three chuckin'.  None of them have interesting stars.  Westbrook's a ball hog.  Kawhi is great on D, which is only fun during the Playoffs, Kristaps plays outside too much. Chris Paul is an annoying ass and Blake lost his smile. Dirk?  Old.  Lillard?  I'm sick of PnR.  Boogie?  I like him but the Kings are probably bad again.  DeRozan & Lowry?  I like DeRozan because he's a Trojan, I guess.

It's a bad League this season.  We know who the Champion's going to be, most of the other teams aren't all that interesting, and the Young Prime generation of stars (John Wall, Anthony Davis, Kyrie, Drummond) all are personality-free AAU types.  They can do their own thing, but none of them play a good team game.

So, enjoy the Bucks and their underdog Playoff run (hopefully), enjoy the Warriors ruthless march to the Championship (unfortunately) and enjoy watching re-runs of The Larry Sanders Show on HBOGo.  It'll be a whole heck of a lot better than this NBA season.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Everything's Going According to Plan

NBA exhibition games are hardly a reliable barometer of success, but some information can be gleaned from them.

This blog occasionally harkens back to the 2009 Bucks' first exhibition game as an example of what can and can't be culled from October.

The Bucks were dominated in that game by the T-Wolves, with Al Jefferson and Kevin Love appearing to be an indomitable force in the paint.  What's more, the Bucks' 2009-10 regular season schedule began with three games against 2009 Playoff teams, followed by a game in Minnesota.  Given that the Bucks were predicted to be one of the worst teams in the League, the odds of the Bucks getting off to a good start appeared grim.

Long time Bucks fans know how that story played out: Kevin Love broke his hand "doing knuckle push-ups" (many people, incredibly, still believe that Love's broken hand wasn't the result of a fist fight) before the season began, the Bucks made the Playoffs as the underdog "Fear the Deer" crew and the T-Wolves finished with the worst record in the League.  So much for preseason results.

Except the T-Wolves' decimation of the 2009-10 Bucks' front line in October did end up being prescient.  The Bucks went a combined 1-7 against the three 2009-10 teams with bullying front lines (Orlando, Boston and the Lakers).  Then in the Playoffs, Atlanta out-rebounded them badly in games 6 and 7 to advance past the first round.

The Bucks' 93-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls last night means little, as does the starter-on-starter dominance exhibited by the Bulls in the opening minutes.  (The Bulls jumped out to a 14-3 lead before Coach Kidd began substituting.)  Regular season games will feature lineups and adjustments that were not present last night.

Some things, on the other hand, do mean something.  Giannis's inability to run a smooth half-court offense was obvious, as was the team's improvement when Carter-Williams initiated things.  Jabari's limited offensive game was as glaring as Monroe's Marc Gasol-style earthbound defensive anchoring.  Plumlee's inability to be anything more than an end-of-the-bench "warm body" Big man was clear, as was Teletovic's ability to hit jump shots.  And Rashad Vaughn continued to look like a guy who is not long for this League, while at the same time Dellavedova's game felt like the type that will keep him employed into his 30's.  These are all things that follow recent history, and there is little reason to believe that any of them will change dramatically in 2016-17.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Like(d) My Saturdays

The Bucks schedule was released today, and if nothing else it reinforced the notion that the Herb Kohl era is over.

The Herb Kohl era was reviled by online Bucks fans, but season ticket holders (including the editor of this blog) had it pretty good. The perks were the best in big time sports with huge arena concession credits and an eager customer service corps setting the franchise apart. The on court product was often less than stellar, but that had the happy side effect of keeping ticket prices down.

Lasry & company seem to have other idea. The arena concession perk was cancelled after last season (in fairness, Bucks merchandise coupons were offered in its place) and season tickets have been bumped up 20% or more despite a conspicuous lack of on-court success. (Unless "triple-double in a losing effort" is the new measure of success.)

The Herb Kohl era was notable for a few things, schedule wise, most notably an affection for Saturday home games. Thirteen were scheduled in Kohl's final year of ownership, with previous seasons always notching double digits.

#BucksForest loves Saturday home games. A Saturday morning flight to MKE, followed by an evening Bucks game and Sunday brunch with family made for a great weekend. Throw in the occasional Monday home game and it became even better. The moment that produced this blog's favorite sports photograph of all time happened during the back half of one of those Saturday/Monday doubles.

The current Bucks owners do not love Saturday home games. Only eight of them have been scheduled for the 2017 season, with five happening within the first six Saturdays of the season.

The reason is concerts. The Bucks owners had no qualms about booking Saturdays in October and November because popular touring acts already have their schedules set for those months. 2017 concert schedules (along with UFC, WWE and other tours) are less certain. So, the Bucks owners -- who are entitled to 37.5% of arena revenues for non-Bucks events -- want to keep the Bradley Center available on the most popular concert night of the week.

Surely the Bucks owners would spin this another way. They might say that they are contributing to the culture of the city by leaving Saturdays for something besides basketball. Perhaps they'd point out that Friday night/Sunday afternoon doubles allow families to attend two games without compromising school nights.

Whatever. I liked my Saturdays.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Jabari Curse

Jabari Parker is in the news again.  A highlight video of his was making the Twitter rounds and he garnered some praise from Jimmy Butler.

That makes this as good a time as any to re-state a long held #BucksForest position: we are skeptical.

Jabari Parker has explosive athletic ability and NBA size and a willingness to work.  He was the second pick in the Draft for the reason.

Here's the problem: he's a ball-stopper and he always will be.

Playing basketball, like so many things in life, is a combination of one's Being and Becoming.  Being is who you are.  Becoming is what you're learning.  You are what you are, and then you learn (and, hopefully, improve) as much as you can on top of that.

I have full faith in Jabari's Becoming.  I think he wants to be great.  I think he will work like mad at it.

The problem is Jabari's Being.  On the basketball court he is within himself.

Some of the greatest basketball players of all time were within themselves.  Heck, the greatest was: Michael Jordan.

When Jordan won the MVP in 1988, there were many skeptics (including myself) who thought that Jordan was not a team player.  We thought the same thing in '89 and '90, even as Jordan advanced to the Conference Finals.

Even on June 6, 1991, the morning after Michael Jordan did "The Move" against the Lakers in Game 2, I said the same thing: this guy does spectacular things, but he's not a team player.

And here's the thing: I'm right.  Jordan wasn't a team player.  He might have been the most successful athlete of all time in a team sport, but his game was always a selfish one.

That's why, out of Jordan's twenty-four NBA Finals wins (still an amazing number), only four came when an opponent scored 100 points or more.  Jordan won ugly.  He scored one-on-one baskets, used every trick in the book on defense and reigned through an era where heat was more important than light.

So, Jabari can be successful.  Possessing the Being of a selfish player doesn't disqualify him from that.

But you know what, I don't care.  I didn't become a Bucks fan to watch a crew of talented, selfish players slug harder than the other guy.  I'm a Bucks fan because I love Milwaukee and I love NBA basketball.  And, to me, basketball is best when it's played by unselfish players.

The afterglow of the 2016 Warriors is too bright to conduct a forensic investigation.  But when we, as the basketball-loving public, do, we are going to find a few things.  We are going to find that Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are not elite athletes.  We will find that none of them would have added as much had they not been lucky enough to play with each other.  And we will see that adding a talented, selfish player to their stew would ruin the taste.

I want the Bucks to be the 2016 Warriors.  I wanted that when I started this blog in March, 2013.  At that time, both the Bucks and Warriors were contending for a bottom Playoff spot.  (In fact, one week after this blog started the Jennings/Ellis/Sanders Bucks ran the Curry/Klay/Draymond Warriors off the floor in Oakland.)  But the Warriors valued that low Playoff position and tried to add to it.  The Bucks -- perhaps kowtowing to pro-tanking calls by online Bucks fans -- were frustrated with their low Playoff position and tried to blow things up.

Today, the Warriors are the biggest thing since Jordan's Bulls and the Bucks are the home of Jabari and Giannis.  And that's no accident.  The Warriors could never have drafted Jabari.  They don't pick up the Carmelos and Rudy Gays of this world.  They are not interested in talented players who are cursed with the selfish gene.  And Jabari Parker, for all his good qualities, carries that curse.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Facts & Truth: Giannis at the Point

Some facts about the Bucks' point guard situation:

-Michael Carter-Williams played his last game on February 27 against the Pistons, in Milwaukee.

-The Bucks lost that game to fall to 24-35 on the season.

-The Bucks finished the season 33-49, which means that they went 9-14 over their last 23 games.

-9-14 extrapolates to 32-50 over the course of an 82 game season.

-While going 9-14, the Bucks beat three Playoff teams, all at home.

-One of those Playoff teams was Memphis, who were decimated by injuries.

-The Bucks gave up less than 100 points in 6 of those 23 games (26%).

-The Bucks gave up less than 90 points in 1 of those 23 games (4%), the aforementioned win against Memphis.

-Prior to Carter-Williams's injury, the Bucks gave up less than 100 points twenty times (34%), and under 90 nine times (15%) over the course of 59 games.

And some truths:

-Past performance is no guarantee of future results, small sample sizes often do not extrapolate and the Greek Freak enjoys playing with the ball in his hand, but...

-When focused, Giannis has been the Bucks' best Wing defender.

-When focused, Giannis has shown the potential to be the Bucks' best interior defender.

-From game number two, you could tell that the Bucks were no longer a Playoff team.

-Giannis doesn't focus on defense when he plays with the ball in his hands. 

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.