The Bucks game at the BC Saturday night against Allen Iverson, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and the Detroit Pistons was in many ways a test of Scott Skiles and the new era Bucks.
Coming into the game, the Bucks had yet to win a game against a team the caliber of the Pistons — not one with its parts relatively in place (it's rare to find a team at full strength in the NBA this time of year).
They still haven't. .
If it was a test, the 87-76 loss should quiet Bucks' playoff talk. For a few days at least. The 14-17 Bucks have beaten only three teams with winning records and two of them were missing a pair of star players (the Spurs and the Jazz).
The Pistons game went bad quickly in the 3rd quarter, so badly that Skiles pulled his starters. With the exception of rookie Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Skiles left them on the bench for the final 16 minutes of the game. The home crowd boos that descended on them in the 4th Quarter should be a loud enough local protest to trail the Bucks to Texas, where this week they play a Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back against West contenders San Antonio and Houston.
The Bucks are a team in transition to the Skiles era, a new place where tenacious, consistent D and ball movement are religion. In their most recent win against the Jazz at the BC Tuesday, the Bucks could say that the qualities of the new era overcame the lax defense and sluggish, selfish offensive tendencies of the old. The Skiles Bucks, led by point guard Luke Ridnour, took charge in the final four minutes against the Jazz with good defense and team play, and won the game. Yet the depleted Jazz, playing without All-Stars Carlos Boozer and center Mehmet Okur, played a lackluster game that Utah coach Jerry Sloan said looked to him "like streetball."
The Pistons were also missing an All-Star, leading scorer Rip Hamilton, but there wasn't anybody in a Pistons uniform handing out streetball passes Saturday. After the Bucks scored the first four points of the 2nd half to take a 48-46 lead, the Pistons D forced errant Bucks shot after shot and hustled the Bucks misses into a 21-3 run. It happened quickly, over the course of 5 minutes or so.
The only Bucks points in that run were a 3-point play by Andrew Bogut, who was productive with 17 pts and 10 rebs, but he too found himself benched toward the end of the 3rd quarter with Michael Redd (who finished with just 4 pts on 2-11 shooting) and Richard Jefferson (10 pts and one of his worst games as a Buck).
"It felt like Mbah a Moute and Ridnour were the two guys that stood out as being ready to play and to have that winning-type energy you need," Skiles said.
Ridnour had to fight off the effects of the flu to play Saturday. It must have irked Skiles to no end to watch Luke's teammates reward his perseverence by playing as if they were sick. I have a feeling this contributed to the benching of the Redd, R.J. and Bogut.
The message was clear: The Scott Skiles Bucks have not yet arrived in Milwaukee; and the coach was in no mood Saturday to pretend that his starters could mount a 20-point comeback playing anything other than Scott Skiles basketball.
So what was wrong with the Bucks Saturday? A few things, and more. But before I get to that, it's time to go out and have a smoke:
You gotta love The Rim Rockers Milwaukee's own flying basketball circus. Here's the Rockers setting a couple of world record for the Guinness Book Saturday, Dec. 20 at the BC.. Thanks go to eric for sending in this clip.
What was wrong with the Bucks Saturday? To be fair, the Iverson Pistons are a bad matchup for the Bucks. The Chauncey Billups Pistons played closer to the walk-it-up pace of the Michael Redd Bucks of the last five years. As a result, the Bucks had some past success against Detroit, even a win last season. Those days are over. Iverson plays the game in a gear known only to Iverson, and he has players like Rodney Stuckey, Prince and Hamilton (when healthy) to run with him.
The Bucks are playing a faster pace, too, part of the uptempo Skiles approach. Problem is, this team is not built for it: The feet of Redd, Bogut, and the two Charlies don't move that fast and it's something Skiles has had the team working on. Skiles addressed the tempo issue this weekend in raving about the job Ridnour has been doing at the point:
"[Ridnour]'s been good on the break. As I've said a couple times, we need to help him more by getting up the floor with a little more thrust. We've done that the last few games (before Detroit). The past six or seven games he's been very, very good."
Point being, if the Bucks need to be reminded not to fall behind Luke Ridnour pace, how can they keep up with Iverson's pace? They haven't done it yet. They've lost two games to the Pistons and neither one has been close.
Focus is another problem. The Bucks apparently lost it in the days off Skiles gave them Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They obviously lost it in the 3rd Quarter Saturday, which raises questions about the mental tenacity of this team. This is another lingering trait from the pre-Skiles Bucks, and the mentally tough Pistons exposed this on the Bucks home floor. It'll be interesting to see how the aforementioned starters – the "stars" – respond to being benched.
Personnel shortcomings: The Pistons have been the Team of the 2000's in the East, but they've been struggling since the Iverson trade, and came into the BC with a 12-11 record with the Answer. In fact, on the night the Pistons played the Bucks, an Arizona Republic writer asked in an NBA Insider column, "Pistons better off without Iverson?"
Rasheed Wallace is past his prime and the younger Pistons are still growing. Stuckey, who recently became the starting point guard, is only in his second year. Young big men Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell are still developing. Forward Antonio McDyess missed more than a month after the Iverson trade (he was traded for Iverson but obtained a buyout from Denver and returned). Former Buck Michael Curry is their 3rd coach in five years and this is his first year as a head coach.
Despite all this, the Bucks haven't gained ground on the Pistons. Bogut is still the only Buck who would start on Detroit. R.J. and Luc Mbah a Moute (eventually) would fare well in Detroit and find PT. And Sessions? But the rest of the Bucks?
Of course it's no shock to anybody that the Pistons roster is better than the Bucks. Or that the Bucks core of R.J., Redd and Bogut is simply no match for the Iverson/Hamilton, Prince and Wallace core. But the bench edge goes to Detroit too, especially when they go big in the starting lineup and bring Hamilton off the bench.
These are not the defending champion Pistons of 2005. They are the 5th-in-the-East Pistons looking up in the standings at the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks are tied for 8/9th with Chicago. This was not just "one bad game" for the Bucks. It was an illustration of how far they still have to climb to compete in the East.
The Richard Jefferson trade has improved the Bucks, yes, and so has the coaching change. And Mbah a Moute. Ramon Sessions is an improvement. Ridnour is coming along under Skiles. There's a lot to talk about. Yet STILL there is a huge talent and performance separation from the East's 5th place Pistons to where the Bucks are in 8/9th. Based on what I saw last week in the home games against the Jazz and Pistons (with three days off prior), I don't believe this Bucks roster can close the gap. It's not in all of them.
When does Bucks GM Hammond wake up and realize that there is no point in holding off on major, long-term looking moves. To do so only holds back the players who can play Skiles basketball.
…. Which brings us to another possible distraction for the Bucks on Saturday:
(read at your own risk – these are mostly rumors, which makes me a rumor mongerer, for better or worse)
The Bucks camp was rife with them through the X-mas holidays, including word that Michael Redd is back on the trading block.
On the Sports Radio WSSP AM-1250's postgame show, Racine Journal Times Bucks columnist Gery Woelfel, reported that a number of teams have contacted the Bucks to inquire about Redd, and that the Bucks are listening. Charlie Villanueva and Tyrone Lue have also come up in trade scuttlebutta within the last few days. Only one Buck is untouchable: Andrew Bogut.
Woelfel didn't say which teams have inquired about Redd, though he did mention that NY was interested last summer. (Hey Gery, why didn't you report it then?) The Knicks have made two big trades since, so a trade with the Knicks is now likely lost opportunity. (And of course, Cleveland pursued a Redd trade until settling for Mo Williams; the Cavaliers are out of the trade market for now, standing pat with their title hopes and a 26-4 record.. for now).
The Bucks took Redd off the market after acquiring Richard Jefferson in June and, as recently as November, the word around the NBA was that the Bucks were not actively working the trade market on any player. GM John Hammond's stance has apparently changed in recent weeks. The trade deadline is just seven weeks away.
It's encouraging (to say the least) that with Redd's lavish contract ($45 mil over 2.5 yrs), his recent poor play and absence the entire month of November, teams are still interested. Redd has struggled in Skiles' system and seems to have an aversion for the quick pace that is Skiles basketball (he had the same problem in the Olympics playing Team Redeem's relentless pace, and his shooting suffered … a lot).
Redd is leading the Bucks in scoring at 18.5 pts per game, but his shooting has plunged below 40% from the floor; .337 from 3-point land. If the lousy shooting persists, the other parts of his game — his poor defense and passing, along with his overall poor decision-making on the court — become pretty big liabilities to a team trying to implement a system of constant defensive pressure and up-tempo ball movement. Oh, and then there's that aversion to running the floor.
(If there are any scouts reading this, a BIG if I know, just keep moving — there's nothing to see here. Everything's fine in Milwaukee with Michael and we think he's a good candidate to make a return to the All-Star game this season).
Moving right along. The most tangible trade reported this weekend again came from Gery Woelfel, in his Woelfel World of Sports column Friday. The Lakers are looking for backup help at point guard now that Jordan Farmar's left knee will require surgery, and Woelfel says they're offering little-used center Chris Mihm for Tyrone Lue, who played for Phil Jackson on the 2000 and 2001 Laker championship teams.
The Los Angeles Times reported that, yes, Lue's agent has been in contact with the Lakers, though neither the Bucks nor Lakers have confirmed that a Mihm-for-Lue deal is on the table. Mimh is a stiff who's had two ankle surgeries in the last couple of years. No wonder Hammond won't pick this one up off the table.
The trigger for much of the speculation about a move for Lue was Damon Jones joining the Bucks over the weekend. Jones and Lue are both backup point guards specializing in 3-point gunning, and with Lue potentially gone, the good-shooting Jones would fill a role off the bench. Jones was acquired in the Mo Williams-Luke Ridnour trade last summer but he and the Bucks agreed that he wouldn't report to the team while the Bucks sought a trade. Hammond found no takers.
But Jones' addition may have more to do with necessity than Lue's future. Starting point guard Luke Ridnour (3 games lost to injury) has played hurt for much of the year and so has Redd's backup, Charlie Bell (7 games missed). That leaves Michael Redd (14 games missed, ankle) and Ramon Sessions as the only two healthy guards on the 15-man roster.
Charlie Villanueva, being a big forward with offensive versatility, generates a lot of trade interest around the league. He's the subject of rumors involving Houston forward Carl Landry and more speculation (Woelfel again) about another trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder are looking to trade at least one of their three power forwards, Chris Wilcox, ex-Buck Joe Smith and possibly Nick Collison. I still can't figure out why OK City would want another one in Charlie, or how they expect to acquire a player with Charlie's offensive skills when bringing any one of their PF contracts here would require that the Bucks send a second player. (Tyrone Lue again). If I do figure it out, that probably means the trade has already happened, somehow. Collison has a 3-year, $19m deal.
The rumored trade of Charlie to Houston for forward Carl Landry, 25, born and raised in Milwaukee and an alumnus of basketball powerhouse Vincent High, was good while it lasted but seems to have fizzled out. Neither the Journal Sentinel or the Houston Chronicle has confirmed that a deal was or is in the works, while other sources (realgm.com/bucks) believed trade to be imminent over the weekend. The Bucks and Rockets have been silent.
What I do know is that Charlie played about as poorly as Charlie can play against Detroit, and that he may be a bit sensitive about being the subject of all this trade speculation, especially over Christmas. Villanueva for the rebound-hungry (and cost effective) Landry was discussed on NBA fanboards all over the country this weekend, and may have even invaded his iPod.
The absence of a denial about the trade from either team as the Bucks head for Texas does raise questions about whether the trade is only on hold because of Rockets injuries.The Rockets rested both Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest in separate games over the weekend. The Bucks will be in Houston Wednesday.
The Bucks were rumored to also be seeking a Rockets guard in the trade. Luther Head, one of the guards mentioned, started in place of McGrady Saturday night. The Bucks would send Tyronn Lue to LA in the Mihm deal and Mihm would go to the Rockets.
However, that end of the deal is off, because the Rockets on Tuesday brought center Dikembe Mutumbo back to the team on a veteran minimum contract. The Rockets don't need Mihm, Bucks don't need him and apparently the Lakers don't either.
Landry averages 8.7pts, 5.1 rebs in 20 mpg. He has two years left on his contract after this season, and the last year is a player option.
Charlie's averaging 12.6 pts, 6.6 rebs in 22 mpg — the best rebounding year of his 4-yr career. The one rebound more per game than Landry that Charlie is grabbing is on the defensive end. CV's a restricted free agent after this season and could end up costing twice as much as Landry.
Would the Rockets do a straight up Charlie for Landry deal? It's difficult to see why they would.
Disclaimer: It's nuts to anticipate a rumored trade based on the absence of the rumor's denial; in no way am I endorsing or encouraging this sort of thinking, unless we're talking politics. Nuts.