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


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



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.