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Now we can talk “Best Team Ever” – Durant signing unites MVPs for the 2nd time in NBA history (no, the 1st time did not involve Lebron)

The only available precedent says that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry’s Warriors will win the 2017 title – going away.

When I saw the text that said Kevin Durant had made the big decision and was leaving his OKC Thunder to sign with Golden State — the team he couldn’t beat in the Western Conference Finals — my immediate response was two words: “Not Fair”.  As the week progressed and I read and heard the mountain of spin piling up about Durant’s move, it doesn’t strike me any differently. It’s simply not fair competition for two NBA Most Valuable Players — in the prime of their careers — to join forces on an NBA Finals team.

The last and only time this happened, the impact on the psyche of the league was devastating. Most teams rolled over in submission, with the notable exceptions of one team that became the Super Team’s nemesis and another that put up a good fight in the playoffs but still lost their series 4 games to one. It was the only loss the Super Team suffered in the playoffs.

The team in question is the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, who after losing in the 1982 NBA Finals were able to bring together free agent center Moses Malone, the Chairman of the Boards, at age 27 the baddest player in the league and the reigning MVP, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who had won the MVP one season prior (1981). Until this week’s uniting of Durant, the 2014 MVP, with Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP for two seasons, the Moses and Dr. J pairing was the only time in NBA history that a team had been able to suit up two concurrent MVPs to lay waste to the rest of the league.

The late Malone (who passed away last fall at age 60) in 1982 was the first reigning MVP to leave his team in free agency; Lebron James in 2010 was the second. Though NBA fandom and the media are wired to talk about Lebron (the Lebron context being where the league lived until Durant signed with the Warriors), the similarities between the Lebron signing and the Durant signing don’t go very far. When Lebron joined the Heat, Dwyane Wade was in his prime, had made 1st team All-Pro for the 2nd year in a row, and had been in the running for 2009 MVP (Lebron won that one, too) — but Wade’s Heat were nothing resembling title contenders until Lebron came along. And there’s the rub. The Warriors were within a Kyrie Irving 3-pointer of winning a 2nd title last month. One shot. And now they have Durant.

Indeed, let’s set aside the analytics and graphs and charts and apples to oranges comparisons and take a look at what happened the first time two concurrent MVPs suited up on the same team.

Moses leads the Sixers to the Promised Land

Moses Malone and Dr. J at the outset of the 1982-83 season.

The Sixers in the early 1980s had in many ways adopted the cool intellectualism and quiet intensity of their star, Dr. J. The ball moved freely on offense, the shot selection was smart, the Philly fast break was a work of art featuring the graceful glide of the Doctor in mid-air, and the Sixers took pride in their plus 50% shooting, which in 1982 was 2nd best in the league behind the run-and-gun Denver Nuggets. If Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins had seemed out of place as the Sixers starting center, it’s because he was. Dawkins was traded to New Jersey in the days before the Sixers signed Malone. Moses was the ultimate fit for the team’s biggest needs: Better inside scoring and rebounding, the boards having been the Sixers trouble spot for years. Moses, one of the most prolific rebounders in NBA history, quickly put an end to that problem. He also had the feet of a ballet dancer, as Bucks radio voice Eddie Doucette described them, and a dump truck-full of quick moves around the basket. Erving wisely and tacitly agreed to allow the natural flow of the offense through Malone, and the Sixers quickly found their new chemistry.

Philly won 9 of their first 10 games, then put together win streaks of 14 and 10 games, powering their way to a 50-7 record and a big lead over Larry Bird‘s Celtics in the Atlantic Division, and an even bigger lead over the Central Division champs, the Bucks. When the Sixers record reached 49-7, coach Billy Cunningham began resting his stars, beginning with All-Star, All-Defensive forward Bobby Jones and 33-year-old Dr. J, who sat out ten games during the season. While taking it easy down the stretch, the Sixers went 16-10 to finish 65-17.

At season’s end, with his team healthy and well-rested, Moses laid down his famous “Fo’ Fo’ Fo'” declaration — meaning the Sixers would sweep all three of their playoff series’ and become the only team in NBA history to romp undefeated through the playoffs. Malone wasn’t bragging when he said it, and his team came oh-so-close to accomplishing Fo’ Fo’ Fo. They went 12-1 in the playoffs, the lone loss coming in the East finals to a Milwaukee Bucks team flying high and pushing the pace after sweeping Bird’s Celtics in the semis (and making it look easy).

The Marques Johnson-led Bucks had put up a terrific fight, losing game 1 in overtime and dropping Game 2 in the final minute.  Every game in the series but Game 5 was close, every minute a bitter contest. The Finals against the “Showtime” Lakers were a different story: Moses dominated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the paint (the Lakers defensive plan relied on Magic dropping down to help on Malone), averaging 26 pts and 18 rebs a game in the series. The Sixers blew the Lakers out in Game 3, the first game played in LA,  and the sweep was on. Fo’ Fi’ Fo’.

Moses won the 1983 MVP, his 3rd in five years, and his 4th rebounding title in 5 years. Moses and Dr. J were named 1st Team All-Pro. Malone, Jones and point guard Maurice Cheeks, one of the great thieves of NBA history (No. 5 all-time steals) were voted 1st Team All-Defense.  Jones won the 6th Man of the Year award. Four Sixers — Moses, the Doctor, Cheeks and shooting guard Andrew Toney — made the 1983 All-Star team. There was no room for Jones, apparently, who had made the All-Star teams of 1981 and ’82.

Did I mention that the Sixers swept the “Showtime” Lakers in the NBA Finals? The Lakers featured four Hall of Famers (Kareem, Magic, Wilkes and McAdoo), all-star guard Norm Nixon and the great defender, Michael Cooper.

Malone shoots over Alton Lister in the 1983 Eastern Conference finals as the Bucks move in to triple-team him.

The 1983 Sixers were declared the best team in history by nearly everyone who saw them play with the exception of Celtics and Lakers fans whose DNA is engineered to deny the glory of others; and, ironically, their coach, who thought his 1967 Sixers team was better and even wrote a book about it (Season of the 76ers,  2002). The Moses – Dr. J – Bobby Jones – Cheeks – Toney five was, for one dominant season, the best five to play together since the days of the battles between Bill Russell‘s Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain‘s Sixers (1966-68).  That homage to the 1960s Glory Days said, the brilliance of the players and the rising fortunes of the league during “the renaissance” of the 1980s — yes, even before Jordan and Barkley — should not be underappreciated. The game had evolved for the better and entered its Golden Age.

The Warriors of today have a lot in common with that Sixer team. No, they don’t have Moses Malone in the prime of his career — but there’s more than enough to suggest that the extreme success of the 1983 Sixers gives NBA fans a pretty good indication of what’s in store for the league in 2016-17. The Warriors, not the champs in Cleveland, are now the team to beat.

The obvious and irresistible parallels

They seem very happy. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Durant and GM Bob Myers. 7/07/2016

Both the 1982 Sixers and the 2016 Warriors made the NBA Finals and lost. In both instances, the losing team was coming off of an intense 7-game struggle in the conference finals, while the winner of the championship series had strolled through their conference playoffs unmolested.

A tired, beat-up Sixers team faced a Lakers team that hadn’t lost a game in the West playoffs and waited an unprecedented 12 days for their opponent (still the record for longest Finals layoff). Like the 2016 Warriors, the 1982 Sixers had barely made it out of their conference playoffs. In the semi-finals they were pushed to six games by a short-handed but star-studded Bucks team. In the conference finals, the Sixers became the first team to win a Game 7 on the parquet floor of Boston Garden.

After beating the Celtics, the 1982 Finals were “anti-climactic”, Dr. J would write in his autobiography years later. In Game 1 the well-rested Lakers played just seven players and stole home court advantage from the Sixers, then ran away with the title in six games. The weary, beaten Sixers were satisfied to have had their revenge in Boston (they lost the 1981 East finals in a Game 7 in the Garden) but knew they had to make a change if Dr. J (and Bobby Jones) were ever going to win the NBA Championship that had eluded him since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Doc was running out of time, and there was an even chance the Bucks or Celtics might prevent the Sixers from reaching the Finals again. Enter Moses Malone.

It can’t be said that the 2016 NBA Finals were anti-climactic for the Warriors, but they were battered and bruised after coming back from a 3 to 1 deficit to beat Durant’s OKC Thunder in a 7-game West finals series. Riding on the energy from that series, the Warriors ran out to a 3-1 series lead against Lebron’s Cavs, which meant they had won six of seven games against the Thunder and Cavs.  A great achievement, but they were running on fumes, and it showed in games 5, 6 and 7, especially in the play of Steph Curry. Lebron James played a Finals for the ages, the Cavs swept the last three games and the title was theirs. Enter Kevin Durant.

The 4 All-Pro starting lineup

Kevin Durant isn’t Moses Malone — he’s not a player on quite that transformative Moses level.  But as some of the spin has spun this week — with an eye toward making a case that competition has not been compromised by Durant’s move — KD’s already historic achievements have been somewhat downplayed.

Durant is just the 4th small forward in the 61-year history of the MVP award to win the award. The other three are Dr. J, Larry Bird and Lebron James.

Durant in 2014 swiped the MVP crown Lebron James had worn for four out of five seasons. Steph Curry won the next two MVPs, so today’s Warriors players have held the crown three straight seasons.

Durant’s career impact and efficiency (BIER) numbers, while not as phenomenal as Bird or Lebron’s, are comparable to Dr. J’s NBA stats, and to the numbers put up by Marques Johnson, the sadly under-recognized forward who led the Bucks against the Sixers in the early 1980s. In this top shelf “box score impact” statistical context, the sixth small forward in league history worth mentioning is 1980s scoring machine Adrian Dantley. There are many others with legendary reputations and Hall of Fame recognition, but they didn’t have the statistical impact, or, (in Kawhi Leonard’s case) haven’t yet played long enough.

Kevin Durant after nine seasons in the NBA is simply one of the best small forwards ever to play the game. KD’s already accomplished Hall of Fame-worthy honors and stats. He’s got an MVP award; and he’s going to Golden State at age 27, in the prime of his career. The irresistible parallel here is that Moses Malone was 27 when he signed with the Sixers.

Durant joins Curry, the MVP, and two All-Pro teammates, big forward Draymond Green (2nd Team All-Pro) and shooting guard Klay Thompson (3rd Team). Since the ABA-NBA merger, no team has had three All-Pros in one season, so what Curry, Green and Thompson accomplished last season was unprecedented — and let’s not forget the 73 regular season wins.

Durant was 2nd Team All-Pro last season, behind Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard at forward. Green was the other forward honored on the 2nd Team. Let’s pause there.

3rd Team All-Pro honors didn’t exist until 1989, so for 40 seasons the NBA honored ten guys, which made sense when there were only 8 to 10 teams in the 1950s up through 1967. The NBA merged with the ABA in 1976, so for 31 years (1976-2016), no team has boasted 3 of the first 10 honored All-Pros. The 2016-17 Warriors will be the first.

No, it’s not fair

Lebron, Wade and Chris Bosh were All-Pros in the same year only once – in 2007, when Lebron was in Cleveland, Wade in Miami and Bosh in Toronto. Bosh was never an All-Pro during the Heat’s four-year run.

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were never All-Pros in the same season, though they would have been in 1995 had Jordan played the full season. Rodman was still a San Antonio Spur at that point. The 1996 Bulls, the 72-win team, best team ever?  The dilution of the talent due to expansion and the lack of great competition in the mid-1990s makes it impossible to say. Jordan’s Bulls were undoubtedly the NBC Network’s greatest champion.

Both the Celtics and Sixers started four All-Star players during the Bill RussellWilt Chamberlain battles 1966-1968, but because both teams played in the Eastern Conference, neither team ever got four All-Star spots in a season. Combined, there were five players from “The Great Rivalry” voted to the 1967 All-Pro team.

Bird and Magic.

3rd Team All-Pro honors did not yet exist when the 1980s Super Teams battled for supremacy, so the All-Pro teams are a poor measuring stick for the greatness of the Sixers, Lakers and Celtics teams of the Golden Age. It gets messy. No team had three in one year. Only the Sixers and Lakers had two. From 1983-1986, Larry Bird was the only Celtic to be named All-Pro (he won three MVPs in that time, and the Celtics won two titles).  But the Celtics had four All-Stars who were All-Pro at one time or another, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bill Walton) coming off the bench in 1986. The “Showtime” Lakers had similar talent — four players who made All-Star teams from 1980 through 1985, and a former MVP – future Hall of Famer (Bob McAdoo) coming off the bench.

And now we’re back to the 1983 Sixers and their four All-Stars, plus 1982 All-Star Bobby Jones, the 1983 6th Man of the Year — the team that swept the Showtime Lakers in the Finals. That’s good enough to settle the Best Team Ever debate, especially in light of Moses’ domination of Kareem and Magic in the Finals, and of the entire NBA that season.

Those Super Teams were loaded with talent almost beyond comprehension in today’s NBA — until this week. The Warriors bringing three current All-Pros together is unprecedented. Now add to the mix 3rd Team All-Pro All-Star and Olympian Klay Thompson, and veteran Sixth Man Andre Iguodala — an All-Star in 2012, All-Defensive in 2014 and the 2015 NBA Finals MVP …

As currently constructed, the Warriors are as close as the Super Teams of the 1980s were to the Sixers five-star team. It’s just not fair to the rest of the league; and It’s very small solace for the opposition that, at age 32, Iguodala’s All-Star days seem to be behind him, or that the Warriors had to let go of all four of their big men to sign Durant. They’ve already replaced two of them, and this seems like a good time to point out that Durant is listed at 6’9″ but is taller than that, and rebounds on the defensive end like the average NBA center.

And here’s the kicker: As we look to the Super Teams of the 1980s for proper perspective and precedent for the 2017 Warriors, we find that there is no record of failure in that precedence — all three of the 1980s Super Teams won the championships they set out to win, with the 1983 Sixers being the team most dominant and decorated, but sometimes forgotten in the shadow of the Magic and Bird story.

No record of failure. It wasn’t fair in 1983 when the Sixers signed Moses to win a title with 33-year-old Dr. J. It’s not fair now. Kevin Durant is just 27 years old, and signed on with the Warriors for two years. Steph Curry is 27. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are 25, and under contract for four and three years respectively. The 1983 Sixers slowed down due to age after winning the title. The 2017 Warriors won’t be slowing down any time soon.

Think about that.  It’s not fair, but enjoy this team while it lasts.

38 or Less: The worst regular season won-lost records by NBA playoff teams of the last 38 years

To mark the Milwaukee Bucks 38-win playoff season, here are the “38-wins-or-less” playoff teams from the 1975 to 2013 seasons, with an important caveat:  I’ve excluded 11 teams that won between 35 and 38 games and made the 1984-1988 playoffs, listing only the two playoff qualifiers from those five seasons who lost so much they deserve mention.  Those five “exempt” seasons were the first years of the 16-team playoff format when, suddenly, only 7 of 23 NBA teams missed the post-season.   Somebody had to lose during the regular season, and some of those losers found themselves in the playoffs.

Some of them were pretty good too, given the strength of the East and scheduling heavily weighted toward conference play — an eighth Eastern Conference seed in 1986 with 35 wins was comparable to a 44-win team a few years later after expansion, not so much to the teams listed below.  (Such dilution realities certainly put a damper on the Bulls 72-win season in 1996.)

The 1975-1983 seasons were more “apples to apples” in terms of today’s playoff format. In 1975 and 1976, ten of 18 teams made the playoffs.  After the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, 12 of 22 made it.  In 1980 the Mavs were added to the league and the conferences properly aligned; the 12 team format remained until the 1983-84 season.

League expansion began in 1988 with the addition of Miami and Charlotte, tolling the beginning of the end of the NBA’s “Golden Age.”  By 1990 there were 27 teams, 16 making the playoffs, and four expansion teams around to beat up on and puff most of the worst playoff records above our 38-44 cut-off.

Note that of the 13 teams on this list, no team other than the 1976 Pistons (led by Bob Lanier) won its first round series.

1. 1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52). Michael Jordan broke his foot in the third game of his second NBA season and missed the next 64. He would come back to have a 63-point game against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, not enough to prevent a Celtics sweep. The 1986 Celtics won 67 games, the third championship for the Bird-McHale-Parrish front court and are widely considered one of the top three or four teams in NBA history.

This Bulls team had talent other than Jordan, though great it was not. Half the players ended up in rehab of one form or another, facts reported by writers Sam Smith (The Jordan Rules) and David Halberstam (Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made) among others. Much of this centered around guard Quentin Dailey. Forwards Orlando Woolridge and Sidney Green were also in this group of early Jordan teammates, along with big Dave Corzine at center and Hall of Fame scorer George Gervin in his final season (16.2 ppg).  Charles Oakley and John Paxson are the most notable here due to Oakley’s later success with the Knicks and Paxson’s ability to cling to Jordan’s star for three titles.  In 1986 Oakley was a rookie and Paxson had yet to solidify his future as Jordan’s pal. Stan Albeck was head coach.

The Bulls had the misfortune of playing in an Eastern Conference ruled by three of the top four teams in basketball since 1980 — the Celtics, the Sixers and the Bucks — with the Pistons and Hawks rising up bit by bit each year in hopes of challenging the top.  The “Bad Boys” Pistons in 1986 were still a couple of years away from their baddest phase.

The NBA schedule in those years was more heavily weighted toward conference play than it is now, which made the 1986 Bulls schedule a prolonged nightmare.  They played the Beasts of the East six times each, winning just six of the 30 games.  The Bulls weren’t the only team in the East hammered by the schedule.  A tough, talented, Buck Williams-led New Jersey Nets team could muster only 39 wins and were swept by the Bucks in the first round. Rookie Patrick Ewing’s Knicks lost 59 games.

Throw out the five Beasts of the East and two losses against the “Showtime” Lakers, and the 1986 Bulls won 24 and lost 26 against the rest of the league, not too shabby for a hodgepodge group of guys playing most of the season without Michael Jordan.

2. 1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51).  The last season of the 23-team league as the expansion to Miami and Charlotte would occur in the summer of ’88.  Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics remained at the top, with the “Bad Boys” Pistons shoving Boston off the pinnacle to reach their first NBA final.  Some of the power balance had shifted East to West with the decline of Philly and the Bucks, along with the rise of the Dallas Mavs, creating the parity between conferences than hadn’t existed since 1980.

In the East, the Bucks played their first year under new coach Del Harris and fell to 42-40. The Pistons and Hawks and Sidney Moncrief’s ailing knees had finally caught up with our Bucks.  Ewing’s Knicks were getting better, and won 38 games.  Jordan’s Bulls had their first 50-win season.

In the West the Stockton-Malone Jazz fell short of the fifty milestone with 47 wins.  Magic and the Lakers won 62 and their fifth championship.

While most of the lower rung playoff teams of this period can’t be labelled “bad” by today’s standards, the 1988 Spurs were bad in any day.  They were swept (3-0) in the first round by the Lakers.

The Spurs best player was defensive demon Alvin Robertson, who would be traded to Milwaukee in 1989 for All-Pro (3rd Team) forward Terry Cummings.  Robertson’s teammate on the Spurs, Frank Brickowski, would join him in Milwaukee in 1990, traded for Paul Pressey.  Why all the trades with the Spurs?  By 1990 the Spurs had center David Robinson and were trying to get to the top with help from Bucks playoff veterans, while the Bucks and owner Herb Kohl, encouraged by the pending retirement of Sidney Moncrief, opted to go a cheaper route and would slide into their long rebuild in the 1990s.

3. 1995 Boston Celtics (35-47).  The Celtics were sort of rebuilding (or beginning to) after the Larry Bird era. Kevin McHale had retired in 1993. All-Star shooting guard Reggie Lewis collapsed and died of heart failure that summer (1993), and the Celtics in 1995 were still staggering under allegations that he might have been saved, had the team (and those close to Lewis) not been so eager to dismiss evidence that Lewis was at risk, to the point of avoiding tests for cocaine use (Money Players, “Puff Policy,” 1997, by Armen Keteyian and other journalists).  In an effort to fill the void left by Lewis’ death, the Celtics signed 35-year-old Dominique Wilkins, not flying as high as he did with the Hawks in the 1980s but scoring 17.8 ppg to lead the team.  Coached by Chris Ford. Dumped out of the playoffs (3-1) by Shaq’s Orlando Magic, who would go on to be swept in the Finals by Hakeem Olajawon’s Rockets.

4. 2004 Boston Celtics (36-46).    All that losing in the mid-1990s brought draft picks and an effort to build a contender around the would-be duo of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, who instead became symbols of post-Jordan NBA mediocrity.  The 2003-04 season found the Celtics tearing down again and trading Walker, one of the least scrupulous shot hogs in the game.  That left Pierce, listed as a shooting guard then, and boy did he ever.  Pierce shot nearly 19 times a game – and missed 11  – shooting less than 30% from three-point-land and averaging 23 ppg. The Celtics fired coach Jim O’Brien after 46 games and assistant John Carroll mopped up.

These were rather dark days for the NBA. The pace was at an all-time low.  Average and below average shooters bricked away at will and somehow made all-star teams. Ball movement was often non-existent, a trend that continued for years.  Assists would reach an all-time low in 2006.  Kobe and Shaq bickered in LA and guys like Walker, Pierce, Allen Houston and the Bucks’ Michael Redd gunned poorly selected shots out of isolation offenses, winning big contracts if not playoff success.  Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady was the best of this lot, yet all of it was ugly basketball.

The 2004 Celtics were a bad team in an Eastern Conference that had deteriorated rapidly in the early-aughts.  The 4th seeded Miami Heat won just 42 regular season games.  But hey – former Buck Vin Baker was on this Celtics team for a few weeks in 2003. Kendrick Perkins was a rookie.  The Celtics were swept in Round 1 by 38-year-old Reggie Miller’s second-to-last Pacers team, about seven months before the “Malice at the Palace” in Detroit.  Dark days indeed.

5. 1997 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46).  Loy Vaught (who? – I can’t even find a picture of him) led this team in scoring at 14.9 ppg.  Forwards Bo Outlaw and Eric Piatkowski led a halfway decent bench crew.  Coached by Bill Fitch, somehow still in the league.  The Western Conference was none too balanced in those days, as the Clippers were one of three teams from the west to make the playoffs with a losing record.  The T-Wolves (40-42) in Kevin Garnett’s second year and the post-Charles Barkley Suns (also 40-42) were the others.  The Clippers were swept out of the first round by the Stockton-Malone Jazz, fated to go on to lose their first of two NBA Finals to Jordan and the Bulls.

6. 1976 Detroit Pistons (36-46).  This might be getting a bit far back — the league that existed prior to the merger with the ABA — but 1975 and 1976 get our deepest historical look because the 1971-74 playoff format allowed less than half the league to qualify (8 of 17 teams, so no real losers).  This changed in 1975, with the addition of the New Orleans Jazz and the short-lived 10 of 18 format. In the 1975 and 1976 seasons, a total of four teams with losing records made the playoffs.  Another quirk was the regular season schedule, heavily weighted toward division play instead of conference play.  Midwest Division teams the Bucks, Pistons, Bulls and Kansas City Kings played each other seven times in the season, 36 games against the nine teams in the Eastern conference and 25 games against the Pacific Division. This is as equalized as the NBA schedule has ever been.  To further emphasize the importance of division play, the top two teams in each division received a playoff bid, with a 5th seed going to the team in the conference with the next best record. So a team in the Pacific division with a better record than either of the Midwest Division leaders could miss the playoffs entirely.  This happened to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers in 1976. The playoff teams with the two worst records, regardless of division standings, would then face off in a wild card mini-series, best two out of three. A pretty good system if you think divisions should matter, a belief the current NBA schedule makers clearly do not hold.

Bob Lanier’s Pistons won 40 games in the 1975 season and 36 in 1976, making them the model of mid-70s NBA mediocrity. But “mediocrity” in the mid-1970s when you had a Hall of Fame center meant that you were pretty competitive when the center was healthy.  Lanier missed 18 games in 1976 and the Pistons lost 12 of those.

Detroit in 1975 had also traded star veteran guard Dave Bing (another Hall of Famer) to the Bullets for young point guard Kevin Porter (who would lead the NBA in assists for the Pistons a few years later) but Porter was lost to injury 19 games into the season and the Pistons struggled.  Coach Ray Scott was fired and replaced by Herb Brown, and Brown found 20-year-old point guard Eric Money on his bench to fill in for Porter.  Led by Lanier, power forward Curtis Rowe and Money, the Pistons won 10 of their last 13 games and nearly caught the Bucks (38-44) atop the Midwest Division. As the playoff teams with the worst records in the West, the Bucks and Pistons squared off in a first round mini-series.

The Bucks were in their first season after “The Trade” of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and were young, hungry and very nearly a match for Lanier and the Pistons.  Lanier and Rowe dominated the Bucks inside (a familiar story for the ever-power-forward-challenged Bucks) while the Bucks guards, led by All-Star Brian Winters, bombed away from the outside (remember, no three point line yet in the NBA) and came within a shot of winning the series. Detroit won it in Milwaukee in game three, to what would become typical Bucks heart-stopping and heart-breaking effect.

The 1976 Pistons really have no business being on this list, but the 1976 Bucks do (see No. 11 below) so I included both. The Pistons went on to lose (4-2) in the second round to Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors, the defending champs.  Lanier averaged 26.1 ppg and 12.7 rebounds in nine playoff games, Hall of Fame numbers from a highly skilled center who was perhaps the strongest big man in the league for many years. Power forward Rowe added an average of 15 pts and 8 boards on the Pistons run.

7. 2011 Indiana Pacers (37-45).  Another Jim O’Brien team, this one led by Danny Granger in the role of Paul Pierce, and playing the same ugly style of 2004.  This time coach O’Brien lasted to game 44 amid a lot of grumbling from GM Larry Bird that he was refusing to play his younger players, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Paul George among them. Replacement coach Frank Vogel did more than mop up O’Brien’s mess, as the Pacers went 20-18 the rest of the way, edging out the injury-riddled Bucks (35-47) for the final spot in the East.

The Pacers were simply not a very good team until the arrival of David West and George Hill for the 2012 season, with Vogel as the coach. Dismissed in five games by Derrick Rose and the Bulls in Round 1 of the 2011 playoffs. Only made the playoffs because of the injury epidemic in Milwaukee.

8. 1979 New Jersey Nets (37-45).  From the land of the final season before the 3-point line was drawn on NBA courts comes the 1979 Nets, coached by Kevin Loughery and featuring the unstoppable mid-range post-up game of Bernard King.  King was young, in his second season, and top scoring honors went to guard John Williamson (22.2 ppg), a Net from the ABA days of Dr. J and one of the better long-range shooters of the time.

King and Williamson didn’t have much help beyond assorted journeymen like big man George Johnson (not to be confused with the George Johnson who played for the Bucks in 1978-79), the above mentioned Eric Money, acquired from Detroit, and aging zen power forward future Jordan-Shaq coach Phil Jackson in his 15th and almost-final playing season.  Jackson just didn’t want to quit (he finally would in 1980).  One has the impression that the guys on this 1979 Nets team partied down quite a bit (though not King, who was known for heavy drinking alone), and their record seems to reflects this.

Personalities noted, the Nets were a fast, fun team that locked down on defense (3rd in the league) and pushed the pace to 110 possessions a game, about 12 more than the Golden State Warriors of today. Unfortunately the Nets were the worst shooting team in the league and turned it over more than every team but Chicago. They would trade Money and guard Al Skinner to Philly in February for future shot-blocking Buck Harvey Catchings and former ABA star Ralph Simpson.

The Julius Erving-led Sixers swept the Nets out of the 1979 playoffs, 2-0, and the Nets began a full-scale rebuild. King’s knee problems began the following season, after he was traded in preseason to Utah along with rookie point guard Jim Boylan (yes, the same Jim Boylan who was Al McGuire’s favorite point guard, Scott Skiles’ favorite assistant, coach of the Bulls and Bucks and now an assistant with the Cavs) and John Gianelli for big man Rich Kelley. Gianelli had come over from the Bucks in a post-season trade for Catchings, along with a first round draft pick that would become Calvin Natt in 1979.

Confused?  Me too, especially about why Don Nelson traded that draft pick.  The Bucks had received the Pacers 1979 pick as compensation for the free agent signing of future Hall of Famer Alex English in 1978. The Pacers had a lousy season, so it turned out to be the No. 8 pick in the draft that gave the NBA Magic Johnson, Bill Cartwright, Sidney Moncrief, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Eaton, Natt and a few other notables).

Boylan would never play an NBA game.  Kelley would never develop into more than a journeyman center.  The Nets would slide to the bottom of the East, but with draft picks obtained by trading young Natt to Portland for Maurice Lucas (Lucas was the power forward Nellie and the Bucks should have targeted), they would draft Mike Gminksi (1980) and Bernard King’s brother Albert (1981).  Natt would become an All-Star in Denver of all places after being traded by Portland, along with Fat Lever and others, for Kiki Vandeweghe.  English would make the Hall of Fame in recognition of a long career scoring a mountain of points for run-and-gun coach Doug Moe in Denver. Bernard King would recover from knee trouble and alcoholism to star for the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks and eventually join English in the Hall (2013).

Catchings would be the goat in the Bucks 7-game, one point, playoff loss to Philly in 1981 (3-16 shooting, 24 fouls and 7 turnovers in 109 mins, leading to jokes that he had never left his old team, the 76ers). Yet Harvey would continue play on 13 years in the NBA and block 1226 shots, which is quite a few of those.

9.  2008 Atlanta Hawks (37-45).  The first playoff appearance for the young Al Horford-Josh Smith Hawks (featuring Joe Johnson), and it was a good one, with the Hawks pushing the “Big Three” Celtics (the 2008 champs) to seven games in the first round. Horford was 21-years-old and Smith 22, and the Hawks were on the rise, something that can’t be said about nearly all of the teams on this list, 1986 Bulls excepted. The Hawks became one of ESPN’s “it” teams.

“It” was not to be.  Although some remarkable good health eventually resulted in a 53 win season in 2010, playoff success eluded the Hawks.  After beating the Celtics three times in the 2008, they couldn’t win a playoff game against anybody but the Andrew-Bogut-less 2010 Bucks, who were in the process of bum-rushing the Hawks out of the playoffs until game six when they forgot how to shoot.  The Hawks made it to the second round in 2011, were out in the first again in 2012, let Johnson go to Brooklyn rather than overpay him like the Nets did, and now 2013 is the end of the line for Smith (and Zaza Pachulia too) as the team looks to build a better roster around Horford.  Back in 2008, the future didn’t look anywhere near as dim as it would be for Atlanta.

10. 1980 Portland Trailblazers (38-44).   This was the season after the Blazers parted bitter ways with the center Bill Walton and his fractured feet and let him sign with the Clippers of San Diego, Walton’s hometown. The Clippers compensated the Blazers with players (Kermit Washington the most compelling) and two first round picks.  Walton sued the Trailblazers for medical malpractice. By the 1980 mid-season the Blazers had broken off other key pieces of their 1977 championship roster. Power forward Maurice Lucas, the star of the 1977 finals, was traded to New Jersey, along with two first round draft picks, for rookie forward  Calvin Natt, who became the Blazers leading scorer.  Natt was drafted with the first round pick the Bucks had sent to New Jersey along with John Gianelli in the Harvey Catchings trade.

Point guard Lionel Hollins (now coach of the Grizzlies Nets himself) was traded to Philadelphia, where he joined Maurice Cheeks in the Sixers backcourt and helped spark the Sixers run to the 1980 Finals (where they lost to the Lakers, featuring Magic Johnson’s sensational game six at center and everywhere else on the court for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The Blazers were left with an interesting mix of rookies and journeyman veterans, including a redemptive Washington (notorious for throwing the punch that almost killed the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977) who played 80 games. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam would follow the team for the entire season and prologue, and publish The Breaks of the Game (1981), still considered the masterwork of pro basketball journalism, biography and history.

One of the more interesting characters was rookie forward Abdul Jeelani, a recent convert to Islam who grew up in Racine (as Gary Cole) and played college ball at UW-Parkside.  That’s right, Parkside in Kenosha, Wis., an NAIA school at the time. A long-armed 6’8″, Jeelani was precisely the type of productive, scoring bigger forward who would be a natural for an NBA roster today, earning a salary of $8 million a year or more.  But things were different in the mid-1970s. The available NBA jobs were fewer (rosters were cut to 11 players in 1977) and the money sweeter in Europe.  Jeelani had failed to make NBA rosters twice, gone on to play in Europe, and was back for a third try at age 25.  Despite the trimmed down roster, he made the team, and after a solid season in Portland with some high scoring flashes, Jeelani — much to the surprise of the Blazers, who wanted to keep him — was picked up by the Dallas Mavericks in the expansion draft.

After Dallas, expansion was halted for eight years as the NBA went to work with what it had in the new decade: 23 teams in a meaner, leaner league filled with often brilliant players, all searching for an audience in a slow economy. Attendance had fallen and TV ratings were very low; there were problems attracting advertisers, problems with national network (CBS) priorities and presentation; and a number of franchises found themselves struggling under the financial strain of the new order — free agency. But Bird and Magic had arrived, and the game itself was undergoing a creative renaissance sourced in teamwork and great passing, with a series of strong drafts growing the talent each season.  The 200-some players holding down NBA jobs coming out of the late 1970s would cut the diamond that Michael Jordan and the Dream Team marketed to the world.

Jeelani would be one of the 200 for only one season in Dallas, where he was one of only four players to remain on the team from training camp to the end of the season.  He scored the first bucket in Mavericks history, and got used to hearing chants of “Abdul” from the home fans. Gary Cole from Racine, Wis., had changed his religion and his name; encountered rejection; traveled the world; and returned to try again in the league that rejected him, making the cut during its lean recessionary times. And as a young follower of Islam, he became a fan favorite in Tom Landry and Roger Staubach’s good ol’ boy christian conservative Dallas.  That’s one heckuva story.  The only problem was Jeelani’s salary of $57,000, which was far easier to double in Europe than in the NBA. In Europe Jeelani was a star; in the NBA, he was a mid-level player who usually came off the bench, and economic times were still tough in 1981.   He would move on to play in Italy and Spain for the better part of the next decade.

The 1979 Blazers bowed out in the first round (2-1) to the Dennis Johnson-Gus Williams-Paul Silas-Jack Sikma Seattle Supersonics, the eventual champs.

11. 1976 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  First season after the Kareem trade, the young Bucks were led by All-Star forward Bobby Dandridge, great-shooting Brian Winters and center Elmore Smith, the latter two acquired in “The Trade” along with Junior Bridgeman and power forward David Meyers.  The Bucks, coached by Larry Costello, won the 1976 Midwest Division without Kareem, largely owing this to the Pistons early season injury troubles (see above). Kareem’s Lakers actually failed to make the playoffs despite having a better record (40-42) than both the Pistons and the Bucks.  In the divisional playoff format of 1976, the Lakers had to catch Phoenix to win the fifth and final seed in the West but lost four of six to the Suns in the regular season and fell two games short.

Not a good year for Kareem or the Midwest Division, obviously, but the playoffs redeemed Lanier’s Pistons.  Against Detroit in the first round, the Bucks opted to bomb away from the outside and, thanks to some phenomenal shooting, managed to steal game one and then leave fans hyperventilating in Games 2 and 3 with three point losses in each. Winters, a 1976 and 1978 All-Star, shot 63%, averaging 27.3 points per game in the series — without the aid of the 3-pointer.  Dandridge netted 22 per game on 49% shooting and guard Gary Brokaw shot 62.2% for 21 ppg. Improbably, given those shooting percentages, it wasn’t quite enough.

This was Costello’s last full season as Bucks coach. Don Nelson, who was busy helping the Celtics win the 1976 title in his final season as a player, joined Costello’s staff for the 1976-77 season, and the head coaching job fell in Nellie’s lap early on.  The Bucks kept the core of Winters, Bridgeman and Meyers, let Dandridge go to the Bullets in free agency (received cash compensation), and launched full-on into the “Green and Growing” rebuilding plan. Nellie and GM Wayne Embry traded Brokaw and Elmore Smith to Cleveland for Rowland Garrett and two first round picks, one in 1977 (Ernie Grunfeld) and one in 1978 (George Johnson).  They drafted Quinn Buckner and Alex English in 1976, then Nellie traded monster rebounding center Swen Nater (their 1973 draft pick, who had been playing in the ABA until the merger) to the Buffalo Braves for the No. 3 first round pick that would be used to draft forward Marques Johnson in 1977.  When Marques arrived the Bucks started winning and the rest, as they say, is history. those were the days to be a young Bucks fan. The Bucks became a perennial contender after drafting Sidney Moncrief in 1979 and acquiring Lanier from Detroit in 1980.

12. 1992 Miami Heat (38-44).   First playoff trip for the expansion heat. Glen Rice wasn’t a 50-40-90 shooter this season (the Bird-Dirk-Durant standard) but he wasn’t too far off at 47-39-84. Rice led the fledgling Heat with 22.3 ppg, getting help from center Rony Seikaly and rookie gunner Steve Smith. The Heat would try use those three as a base to build a winner; they would not succeed.  The Heat started winning when Pat Riley took over in 1995 and completely overhauled the roster, including the core three.  The 1992 Heat were coached by Kevin Loughery, same Loughery who coached the Nets in the 1970s and Jordan’s Bulls in 1986 (see Nos. 1 and 8 on this list). Swept in the first round by Jordan and the Bulls on their way to title No. 2.

13. 2013 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  What will history say about this Bucks team?  Their coach, Scott Skiles, quit/was let go 32 games into the season after putting his house up for sale and declining to sign a contract extension.  The interim coach, Jim Boylan (the same Jim Boylan who was included in that 1979 Bernard King trade) played his team fast and loose and continued to develop good, young big men (Larry Sanders, John Henson).  But the Bucks’ trio of guards shot too poorly overall and played too little defense down the stretch to avoid a first round series against the defending champs, the Heat.  The Bucks lost 15 of their last 21 games, and few expect Boylan back as coach (Boylan was fired after the Heat dismissed the Bucks from the playoffs in a 4-0 sweep).

There are worse teams on this “38 or less” playoffs list, to be sure (Jim O’Brien’s teams come to mind), and better teams too.  Three of them were coached by Kevin Loughery, so coaching quality is a factor.  Weirdly enough, Jim Boylan is a recurring character in this post, as is long forgotten point guard Eric Money. The common thread for these teams is that they were all in transition, most of them on the way down, not up or sideways.  Those sideways teams that stayed the course, such as the 1976 Pistons and the 1992 Heat would break up their teams within three years. It will happen this summer in Atlanta.  It may happen soon in Indiana, too, though not this season. History shows that mediocrity in the NBA plays itself out to sub-mediocrity, unless your Hall of Famer can stay healthy, and the Bucks don’t have one of those.  They don’t even have an Al Horford or a Glen Rice, not to say that Sanders can’t get better (this statement looks funny two years later).

The current situation says the Bucks won’t win in the long or short run with Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick’s disparate jump-shooting tendencies.  Whatever happens with the rest of the Bucks roster, the series against the Heat should be the last time we see the guard trio play for the Bucks.

Nellie’s Hall of Fame induction speech and the Bucks era the NBA forgot

The winningest coach in NBA history (1,335) got the lion’s share of those wins as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Marques JohnsonSidney Moncrief era.  This weekend coach Don Nelson — Nellie — was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.

With Satch Sanders (a Celtics teammate from Nellie’s playing days), Bucks center Bob Lanier and Nellie’s Warriors star Chris Mullin standing behind him, Nellie reeled off the names of his Bucks core – the best team the NBA ever forgot:  Sidney, Marques, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Paul Pressey (Terry Cummings, Marques’ eventual replacement, also got a nod).  Here’s the video of the full speech:

Nellie won 540 games (.611 winning percentage) and seven straight division titles with the Bucks, one in the Western Conference, then six straight Central Division titles in the East after the 1980 realignment that set the rivalries in the post-ABA merger Golden Age.   Oh, it made sense geographically for the Bucks and Bulls to switch conferences with the Rockets and Spurs, aligning the three Texas teams in the Midwest Division after the 1980 expansion in Dallas — but moving Marques and Lanier’s Bucks (Moncrief was coming off the bench behind Winters at the time) into the East with the Dr. J’s 76ers and Larry Bird’s Celtics grossly weighted the balance of power in the league.

Had the Bucks stayed in the West, the 1981 Finals might well have been a Milwaukee-Philly matchup.   The 1983 Finals would certainly have been a Milwaukee-Philly showdown.   Instead, Nellie’s Bucks were denied the big stage by either Philly or Boston in the East playoffs while Magic Johnson’s Lakers waltzed to the Finals eight times in 10 years.   Those great Bucks teams have faded in league memory, getting less respect now than Reggie’s Pacers and the Malone-Stockton Jazz teams, even Ewing’s Knicks, Finals losers all.

As difficult as it may be for fans who don’t remember to imagine this, Reggie Miller — inducted into the Hall this week with Nellie — would not have started on the Bucks and been a valued sharpshooter off the bench circa 1981-87, playing behind Moncrief.  The same is true of Jamal Wilkes, also inducted into the Hall this weekend.   Wilkes would have backed Marques up, just as future Hall of Famer Alex English did in the 1977-78 season.   Marques and Sidney — 5-time All-Stars both — were that good.  Yet their Bucks teams seem to slip further into unremembered time with each passing year.

Who was that the camera cut to when Nellie mention Sidney and Marques?   There in the audience sat an expressionless 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, deep in thought.  Four out of five years (1981-85), the Sixers kept the Bucks from a shot at the Finals or the Celtics, or both.   Was Cunningham remembering Game 7 in 1981 in Philly, when Caldwell Jones saved the Sixers by grabbing a loose ball under the 76er basket?   Or was he thinking of the protest Nellie filed with the league after that game?

Or was Cunningham thinking about Dr. J and Marques, a small forward showdown for the ages, one that Doc ceded to Bobby Jones on the defensive end?   If a Bucks fan could offer a guess, it was probably about “Bobby.”   Which heroic Jones defensive play was the Sixers coach remembering?   His memory on those plays (and non-calls by the refs)  can’t possibly resemble how a Bucks fan remembers them.  But at Nellie’s induction, Cunningham was there, back in time somewhere, lost in the many close shaves the Sixers had against the Bucks.

Dr. J and Bird were in the audience, but (as you’ll see in the video) the cameras didn’t find them during the Bucks portion of Nellie’s speech.   And when Nellie noted that his assistant coach (and former teammate), K.C. Jones, won two titles with Bird as Celtics head coach, Nellie politely declined to mention that Jones got the Boston job amid the fallout from the Bucks’ 1983 playoff sweep of the Celtics — four straight in the playoffs, in Bird’s prime.

Later on in the speech, when Nellie mentions that he coached Miller on “Dream Team II” in 1994, the cameras do find Bird and his “Dream Team I” teammate Michael Jordan.   While Jordan is smirking, apparently enjoying a private joke, the look on Bird’s face is none too pleasant.    It is drawn into a scowl, and there’s a dark look in his eyes, as though he wanted to revoke Nellie’s Celtics player credentials.   I like to think that Bird was still mulling the Bucks and the ’83 sweep, about the sub-par shooting series he had against Marques; and how Nellie humiliated the Celtics — Danny Ainge in particular — during the series, labeling the over-matched Ainge “a whiner,” not good enough to be on the court with Moncrief, Winters, Pressey and Bridgeman.  Things were pretty ugly for the Celtics in that series from the opening whistle to the end, when Moncrief threw in a three-pointer in the closing seconds just to add to the Celtics humiliation.   The final score wasn’t close.

The Celtics fired coach Bill Fitch shortly after the sweep and replaced him with Nellie’s assistant, Jones.  They kept Quinn Buckner on, too, as a backup point guard, probably more so to make sure Nellie didn’t bring Quinn back to Milwaukee in 1984 than because Quinn was much use to the Celtics.   Whether that’s true or not matters less than the depth of the bitterness felt in Boston after the sweep.   The next season the Celtics got their revenge, beating the Bucks in the 1984 East finals on their way to a title and Quinn, bad knees and all — the player once singled out by Nellie as the one guy he would never trade — was in kelly green, not the forest green of the Bucks.

Or maybe Bird was remembering the Celtics being down 10 to the Bucks in Boston with four minutes to go in Game 7 of the 1987 East semifinals, with only the Pistons between either team and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.   Miraculously and with it all on the line, the Bucks self-destructed and the Celtics won their fifth trip to the Finals in the Bird era, another Larry and Magic finals.   And it is Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, not Sidney Moncrief, who is in the basketball Hall of Fame.

This may change someday for Sidney, now a Bucks assistant coach, maybe next year but probably not.   Moncrief won the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the only guard in the 1980s allowed into any conversation about Magic and Michael (sorry Isaiah), yet his name did not appear on the list of potential 2013 inductees posted by NBA-TV during the induction ceremony.   Bobby Jones was listed, however, and so was Sixers point guard Maurice Cheeks.    This is how the league remembers the era that included Nellie’s Bucks, even if Larry Bird doesn’t.

For now, the Bucks coach is in the Hall, and that will have to do.   It does, if only because of Cunningham’s far away stare and that horrible scowl on Bird’s face during Nellie’s induction speech.

The Chris Kaman conspiracy: Are the Bucks in the game?

No Andrew Bogut until April at the earliest, highly speculative and tenuous playoff hopes, a Bogut-less Bucks fan base that needs those playoff hopes, no space under the salary cap next season and most of the necessary roster ingredients for a trade.

Stir it all together and you’ve got motive and opportunity for the Bucks to be party to a trade for veteran center Chris Kaman, who’s been publicly placed on the trading block by the New Orleans Hornets.   The Hornets reportedly want “draft picks, cap space and a young player” for the 29-year-old former All-Star (2010) and his expiring $14 million contract.  The Celtics have already declined.

The Bucks have young players, draft picks and the expiring contracts of Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, not enough to make the trade.  (See Bucks salaries at Shamsports.com). But Stephen Jackson’s contract could get them there, if the Hornets are willing to take on Jack’s $10 million salary next season.  Add Ilyasova, draft picks and/or the developing Darington Hobson, Larry Sanders et. al., and a trade could work.

The Hornets could do a lot worse.  Ilyasova’s become one of the better rebounding forwards in the league and would be a good addition to the Hornets undersized front court, led by Emeka Okafor.  It’s no secret that, while Ersan is a key member of the Bucks core, Bucks management hasn’t been willing to trust him with starting PF minutes.  For all the good Ersan does on the court, at the end of the day he’s still standing in the way of Jon Leuer‘s development.  Acquiring Kaman helps solve the Bucks defensive rebounding problems (yes, it’s still a problem) in the short term, and clears minutes for Leuer.

So while the Bucks are giving up the better rebounder (currently) and defender in Ilyasova, they would shore up the center position while clearing $14 million in cap space next season.  And Jackson?   The Hornets would be well under the cap next summer standing pat, and adding Jackson would still leave them Room.  They’d only have to pay Jack a year (or less if they trade him).  And, as the Bucks have discovered this season, Jack’s a good guy to have around in spite of all the angry yapping.

So why don’t the Bucks keep him?  Delfino and Mike Dunleavy, jr. play more or less the same position as Jack, and Luc Mbah a Moute needs small forward/guard minutes, too (locking down on Joe Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Lebron James, Danny Granger, Carmelo Anthony, to name a few).  Jack’s fairly expendable, and the Bucks play just fine without him.

Kaman fits in well in the Bucks scheme, and he’s a more reliable offensive player than Bogut.  Kaman helps get the Bucks to the post-season, where the Bucks would have Bogues, too (in theory) and a formidable white behemoth front court.

So would the NBA-owned Hornets sting on this trade?   With the league office involved, it’s not clear that the Bucks have the right expiring contracts for a trade, but there are a lot worse contracts out there than Jackson’s (Drew Gooden’s comes to mind).  A trade would likely depend on the young players, whether the Hornets want to keep Ilyasova, and the value of the draft picks involved.

It also depends on Bucks GM John Hammond, never one to stand pat or worry about stability or player development.

Of course, it’s also likely that I’m just talking myself into it so I can post crazy Chris Kaman photos.

Before the trip West: Five Bucks appear on NBA leader boards; Bucks re-establish Top 5 team defensive rating

Happy New Year!   And welcome to 2012 on behalf of the editorial board at The Bob Boozer Jinx, most of whom are still sleeping off last night’s hilarity, events made possible by the board’s decision to handcuff me to the steering wheel of an alcohol-detecting cab and make me drive them around all night.  They’re not responsible for any of the gunfire you might have heard at midnight.

The Bucks had this weekend to themselves, getting ready for a five-games-in-seven-days trip west, which begins Monday night with the familiar Mountain-Time, Denver-Utah back-to-back and takes them to Sacramento and L.A. (Clippers) before wrapping up in Phoenix next Sunday.  It probably doesn’t need to be said that, in this lockout-shortened season, the Bucks (2-1) need to gut out at least two wins on this rough road and come home no worse than 4-4.

There’s no time like the outset of this trip to check the NBA leader board and see where our Bucks landed after Week One.  The good news is that the Bucks are again among the league leaders in defense, led by Andrew Bogut; and that they’re rankings on the offensive end aren’t half bad.  (NBA LEADER BOARD and SUMMARY).

Consider this an early touch-point blog of sorts.  I’ll check back to measure progress (or lack thereof) after the trip.

TEAM DEFENSE:  The Bucks — so far — have maintained their 2011 Top 5 defense despite new additions Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and Beno Udrih, guys hardly known for tenacious D.  Entering Sunday’s games, the Bucks ranked 2nd, giving up just 95.2 points per 100 possessions. 

(Find the season summary here – scroll down for the “Miscellaneous Stats” where you’ll find offense and defense ratings, turnover percentages and other pace-adjusted stats).

The Bucks rank 3rd in defensive field goal percentage, holding oppenents below 40% (39.8).  In Week One, they were the 2nd-best “effective field goal percentage” defense behind the Lakers (efg% accounts for the points on made 3-pointers).

The Bucks rank 4th in forcing turnovers, getting one 16.7% of the time, which means the Bobcats, T-wolves and Wizards turned it over once every six possessions.  That’s remarkably sloppy opponent offense, but also a key element to the Skiles constant pressure, in-your-grill, man-to-man defense.  It’s designed to force mistakes, not necessarily steals.

The Bucks defensive rebounding rate is in the toilet (22nd in NBA), as the Bucks are controlling just 71.4% of available opponent misses.  We can thank the T-Wolves and Bobcats for that.  Just a bad start for a strong rebounding team or a sign of things to come?  When in doubt blame Kevin Love.

TEAM OFFENSE:  The Bucks rank 16th in offense, tied with the Raptors, scoring 103.2 points per 100 possessions.  Not half bad and a major improvement over last season when they were dead last.

Shooting:  The Bucks are 14th in shooting percentage (45%) but 19th in 3-point shooting (30.5% – ouch) for an effective field goal ranking of 16th (48.6%).

The biggest change for the Bucks is paceLast season the Bucks were 25th in the league, running less than 90 possessions per game.  After Week One they were 6th, pushing the pace to 95.3 possessions per game. Note that Denver, their next opponent, is leading the league in pace, running and gunning under George Karl.

INDIVIDUALS:  Five Bucks are on the NBA Top 20 lists, four of them for good stuff.   The “bad” is Stephen Jackson, who ranks 16th in fouls.  The four “good” are Andrew Bogut (no surprise there), Brandon Jennings (a bit of a surprise), Ersan Ilyasova (no surprise here at the Jinx) and Carlos Delfino (Del-3-no!).  Lets begin with Bogut.

ANDREW BOGUT:  The Pacers may be leading the league in team defense but the best defensive teams on the planet continue to be the Orlando Magic when Dwight Howard is on the court and the Bucks when Andrew Bogut is in the game.  Howard (84.8 estimated pts per 100 allowed) and Bogut (89.0) rank No. 1 and No. 2 in defensive rating, right where they’ve been since 2009.

Rebounding: Bogut is hauling in 11.0 rebounds per game but not on the leader board because the Bucks have played only three games.  He’s 13th in defensive rebound rate (26% of available rebounds grabbed) and 18th in overall rebounding rate.*   Expect Bogut to stake his claim to the Top 10 in these areas on this road trip.   Bogues is 18th in total rebounds, 13th in defensive rebounds.

*A 26-27% defensive rebounding rate is typically good enough for the NBA Top 10. Bogut’s career bests of over 27% were in 2009 and 2011.  For a relative comparison, Dwight Howard was in the 31% range during those seasons.  The elite rebounders of the NBA are in the 18-22% total rebounding rate (offensive and defensive rebounding rates combined), with Kevin Love somehow posting a 23.6% rate last season.

Blocked shots:  Bogut, the NBA’s leading per game shot-blocker in 2011 has yet to make an appearance on the blocked shot leader board.  His typical blocked shot rate since 2009 has been about 6.0% — it’s half that after Week One.

BRANDON JENNINGS:  The 7th leading scorer in the NBA at 22.7 per game, and doing it fairly efficiently.  My computer froze when I wrote that the first time.  BJ is shooting 46% from the floor and getting to the line in the 4th quarter when the Bucks need him to the most.

Free throws:  Jennings is 17th in made free throws and in the Top 10 in free throws per game, with 6.7.

Minutes:  Jennings is also 17th in minutes played.

ERSAN ILYASOVA:   Tenacious D is his calling card.  Ilyasova ranks 5th in Defensive Rating, leading the Bucks forwards in minutes played (27 per game) and helping Bogut lead the Bucks to their No. 2 D-rating.

CARLOS DELFINO:  Three out of five from Downtown in one game gets Carlos in the 3-point shooting top 10.   Carlos ranks 10th at 60%.

STEPHEN JACKSON:  Fouls, turnovers, wild shots — Jackson’s the wild card for the Bucks, no doubt about that, but he’s also out of shape.  He’s “that guy,” and he even looks like he’s acquired my beer gut.  Jackson’s turning it over three times a game (if not more with wild shots) and would be in the Top 20 there had the Bucks played more than three games.  He’s 16th in total fouls (with 14) and one of the few guys in that bottom 20 who’s played three games.   Here’s hoping Captain Jack finds a groove on the road.

OTHER NOTABLES:

Ray Allen:  A true shooting percentage of 79.9 percent going into Sunday’s game against the Wiz.  Let’s call it 80.   True shooting counts two free throw attempts as one shot, carves up that shot based on percentage of FT makes, and adds the extra point for made 3-pointers to “truly” account for a shooter’s scoring accuracy.  Ray’s 58% from the field, 58% from downtown (14 of 24) and, no, he hasn’t missed a free throw in 16 tries.*

The Celtics may have started 1-3 without Paul Pierce but Ray is on fire and hasn’t taken a bad shot that I’ve seen.  Ray was 11th in Week One scoring with 20.0 per game.

*Ray on Sunday missed his first free throw of the season, always a solemn occasion.

Greg Stiemsma:  The 4-year Wisconsin Badger from tiny Randolph, WI, somewhere up there between Portage and Fon du Lac, made his NBA debut this week with the Celtics, backing up Jermaine O’Neal. Stiemsma blocked seven shots in two games, good enough for No. 2 in the league behind Blake Griffith‘s Clippers running mate DeAndre Jordan (4.7 blocks per game) and ahead of Howard (3.0 blocks).

Dwight Howard:  What trade talk?  Howard hauled in a Superman-like 70 rebounds in four games for the Magic to lead all boardsmen, including a league-leading 52 defensive boards.  Howard entered week two of his season averaging 17.5 boards a game and has cleaned off an astounding 38% of all opponent missed shots.

DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings was leading offensive rebounders with 23 in four games, then demanded to be traded after the Kings were blown out by the Knicks.   That’s 5.75 boards on the offensive glass per game for Cousins.  Somebody block big man out.  Somebody trade him.  Somebody tell him to stay home.  Somebody send him a Drew Gooden headband.

Kevin Love:  Three games, 44 rebounds, 20 against the Bucks.  Love is grabbing 14.7 boards a game, six per on the offensive glass and trails only Howard.  How does he do it?   Maybe hit the glass more, Darko!

Carmelo Anthony:  Forty free throws in four games.  40!  I’ve seen some of those games, and the fouls weren’t of the ticky-tack variety.  Carmelo’s averaging 25.0 per game and is sixth in scoring, a full 2.3 pts ahead of 7th place Jennings. (Note to BJ: Don’t bother trying to keep up with him.)

Lebron James:  Leads the league in scoring (33.0 per game) but the Heat don’t look so invincible.  The Bobcats had ’em in Charlotte but let ’em off the hook with turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch.  They still don’t have a center and are reportedly after ex-Buck-Blazer-Bobcat Joel Przybilla.

The Bulls:   They’re putting the hurt on the Randolph-Gasol Memphis Grizzlies in Chicago tonight, and will probably have the league’s top-rated defense come morning.*  The Grizzlies had all of 28 points at half and finished on the wrong end of a 104-64 score.   The defensive standard has been set in the Eastern Conference.*

*Lo and behold, the Pacers and Bucks remained atop the league in team defense after the weekend.  The Bulls D-rating did drop below 100 pts per 100 possessions (98.3), better than their 2011 league-leading 100.3 pts per 100.

The Hawks, Bulls, Sixers, Magic and Celtics ran Top 10 offense in Week One, something to keep in mind when thinking of contenders for East playoff spots.  Surprised the Knicks weren’t in the Top 10?  Me too.

Ex-Badger Greg Stiemsma sets Celtics blocked shots record

I heard that Michael Redd signed a one-year deal with the Phoenix Suns late this week, but something more important happened in New Orleans Wednesday night.

Greg Stiemsma, the former Badger center and one and only NBA player from the tiny town of Randolph, WI, set a Boston Celtics franchise record by blocking six shots in his first NBA game.

According to Celtics media notes and Elias Sports bureau, Stiemsma broke the record set by Paul Pierce in his first NBA game, Feb. 5, 1999.  The all-time record for most blocks in a rookie debut is eight, set in 1993 by the Sixers’ Shawn Bradley, who was 7-foot-six and most of that was wingspan.

Stiemsma has arrived in the NBA, and they love him in Celticsland.

“We’re going to see a lot more of Greg Stiemsma this season!”  crowed Celtics broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn, who played with arguably the best shot-blocker in NBA history, Bill Russell.

Can we get a shout-out to Randolph!   Stiemsma was the bright spot in a forgettable 97-98 loss to the Hornets in New Orleans.

Dooling traded to Boston

The Celtics have taken point guard Keyon Dooling off the Bucks hands (yeah, calling Dooling a point guard is kind of a stretch at this point) clearing a roster spot for rookies Jon Leuer and Darington Hobson, who’s back in the Bucks camp after double hip surgery last season.

How’d the Celtics, who are well over the salary cap and in luxury tax land, pick up Dooling without having to give up a $2 million player?  They used a trade exception.

In addition to Dooling, the C’s will receive a protected second round pick from the Bucks — which amounts to the Bucks having to ask Celtics GM Danny Ainge, “what do we have to give you take him off our hands?”

Dooling was the Bucks biannual exception player, signed last year in GM John Hammond’s summer of disasters and will be paid $2.25 million this season.  The Bucks this summer acquired point guards Beno Udrih and Shaun Livingston, making Dooling expendable.

EDIT: “making Dooling VERY expendable.”

Official terms of NBA’s tentative agreement

Sports Illustrated has obtained a copy of the official 8-page “summary of principal deal terms” that is being circulated to NBA owners and players this weekend.  This is the deal the players will hold a ratification vote on.

Summary of principle deal terms.

It’s much the same as initially reported Saturday, with one concession to big spenders like the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs:   They get a reduced mid-level exception of $3 million to sign a free agent every year.  Previous proposals had limited the exception to $2.5 million, then $3 million, to be used every other year.

This fuels speculation that many of the new MLE rules had been constructed to level the playing field for the big spenders, not to improve competitive balance.  The owners did concede on the MLE rules for teams at the edge of the tax cliff.

The Mavs and Heat, for example, will be able to use the full MLE without paying the double penalty of  1) Losing the full MLE and having to resort to the $3m MLE, and, 2) Paying luxury tax.  Previous proposals by the owners would have treated all teams nudging into luxury tax land the same as the Lakers and Celtics, which could have cut a large share of team options and salary for middle class payers.

Under the tentative agreement, teams can use the full MLE, go into tax territory up to $4 million and be only penalized the luxury tax amount.

The new tax rates are steep.  The Lakers payroll in 2011-12 will be about $25 million above the tax theshold, making them the lone team in tax tier 4.  In this new incremental system, the Lakers would pay about $50 million in taxes above their $95-$100 million payroll.

But the Lakers get a break:  The tax rate for the next two years will be dollar-for-dollar, meaning the Lakers will pay an estimated $25-$30 million in taxes.  Even with a prorated 66-games, the Lakers will pay over $100 million in player salaries and tax to play the season.

The player payroll cost to the Bucks 2011-12 will be about $55 million.

Before the parties can vote, the players and owners will need to withdraw their respective lawsuits, and the players must reform their union.  If approved, the owners will lift the lockout, a training camp and free agency period will open and the league will play a 66-game season beginning Christmas Day.

The NBA could, of course, lift the lockout now, and could have lifted it at any point during the 149 days of negotiations that led to this point.  

Negotiating Nowhere: How the NBA players’ union unbargained itself to the edge of the abyss

First, a definition of terms.

1) Abyss:  Whereby the 2011-12 NBA season is lost and the union decertifies and/or fires union heads Billy Hunter and Derrick Fisher.

2) Negotiating/Collective bargaining:  The process in which workers, constitutionally certified as a bargaining unit and their employers hammer out a contract that stipulates wages, benefits, workplace conditions, disciplinary process, sick day and attendance policies, grievance procedure, hiring/firing rules, drug testing/substance abuse policy, seniority and severance pay rules, and other agreed upon workplace issues.

3) Unbargained or unbargaining:  The process in which workers and their employers meet, talk and talk, and fail to hammer out a contract on most of the workplace items noted above.

Now digest the following note from The New York Times report on the current status of NBA player-owner negotiations:

It is unclear whether the union could call for a full membership vote, since the deal is technically not complete; there are 30 to 40 “B-list” items – such as drug testing, player discipline and days off — that have yet to be negotiated.

That’s a troubling note, raising serious questions about what the NBA and the players union have been talking about ad nauseum for the last two months – and 23 hours this week when Commissioner David Stern let on to the media that there was a laundry list of issues to discuss other than the previously identified “A-list” issues.

Sure, there’s been a lot of posturing about those “A-list items — the all-important split of basketball related income (BRI) as well as some “system” and “competitive balance” issues that are not as important, systemic or balancing as Fisher and Hunter and the league made them out to be.*

While all parties involved were busy posturing, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone to bargain on anything else.

Whether a vote of the full membership now is possible, however, is much clearer than The NY Times suggests.  Yes, union membership can vote on an incomplete agreement, and there is often little legal recourse if items change in the final contract, according to the site UnionDemocracy.org.

It’s a trust thing.  Membership trusts its elected leaders and bargaining team leaders to do the right thing and communicate the important changes to the contract.  Other member ratification rights and voting rules are outlined in each union’s constitution, on file with the federal government.  If union leadership betrays that trust, the law says it’s not the employers problem and the contract typically stands until the next bargaining opportunity.

The problem here is that the NBA membership is not likely to appreciate voting on an incomplete agreement, especially not after Fisher and his bargaining team backed all the way down to a 50-50 split on BRI — and failed to win big concessions to trumpet to the 450-member players association.  You don’t need a Harvard Law degree to understand that more unbargained contract items mean less chance of approval, or that no meaningful concessions are a hard sell.

This was a grave miscalculation by Hunter and Fisher, who are being picked on here — instead of the owners — because Hunter and Fisher accomplished so little during negotiations.

Here we have one monumental change — players will get 50% of BRI instead of the current 57%.  Unfortunately for Fisher and Hunter, the owners refused to back down on the one free agency issue that would have benefited improving small and medium market teams — the ability to nudge into luxury tax land while using the full $5 million MLE.  According to CBS Sports, the amount available to sign a free agent would be the reduced $3 million MLE, certainly not the end of the world for smaller market teams but a nice equalizer for big spenders like the Lakers.

(See Hoopshype 2011-12 team salaries page).

This could be an immediate problem for the Miami Heat (payroll $5 million under the luxury limit), the Hawks and Trailblazers; and a problem for many teams, Milwaukee Bucks included, when the 50% cap goes into effect.

Right now, it’s a problem for Hunter and Fisher and everyone who cares whether there is an NBA season this year.  The union leadership allowed the owners to back them to the edge of the abyss, failed to get solid concessions and then allowed a woefully incomplete contract proposal to be presented to their members via player agents and the media.

“Trust us.  This was the best we could do,” they might be saying to members and their player reps.

“How quickly does Billy (Hunter) get fired after we sign this bullshit,” one veteran player texted to Yahoo NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski.

NBA player reps will decide on Monday-Tuesday whether to go to a full membership vote on Hunter and Fisher’s largely unbargained contract mess.

Bullshit better fly.
*******************

*Note:  The actual impact of the much-discussed “A-List’ system issues is debatable with the one notable exception discussed above on the MLE vs. luxury tax calculation, which does impact competitive balance and the free agent market.  Hunter and Fisher couldn’t win this concession.  Under the owners’ proposal small market teams would not be able to improvea without being treated like repeat tax offenders (Lakers, Celtics currently).  This is being referred to as a “tax cliff.”

The other “A-List” items are all fairly minor, considering that repeat tax offenders have been rare in the history of the current cap rules (since 2005).   (See Hoopshype salaries page).  Luxury tax revenue sharing doesn’t impact competitive balance on the court.  Sign and trade deals are rare.  Big spenders will still have an MLE.  Etc. etc. etc.  

Other than the 50-50 split on BRI, there’s not much new here for either the Miami’s or Milwaukee’s of the NBA.  No, the new proposal is not worse than the last one, as some agents are suggesting.  But hey — if they don’t like it, either party can opt out after six years. Not much of a selling point but the best card Fisher and Hunter managed to negotiate for their members.

To be continued …

Schedule cancellations beg critical questions of Bucks owner Herb Kohl

The cancellation of the November schedule has cost the Bucks four Saturday night home games, including games against the Bulls and Knicks.  It also increased the degree of difficulty of the 68 games still on the calendar, based on the 2011 final standings.

The Bucks would play 55.88% of their games against 2011 playoff teams, assuming no more games are lost.  Prior to the cancellation that percentage was 54.88%.  If Bucks owner Herb Kohl thinks his team is playoffs-worthy, he would do well to consider how much steeper the road to the playoffs will be if and when the lockout ends, and how much steeper it will get if December games are lost.

What’s that?  The failure of the owners and players to reach a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has caused a one percent increase in difficulty for the Milwaukee Bucks?  Boo hoo.  And isn’t that scheduling disparity partly the Bucks fault for sinking into sub-mediocrity last season and losing a playoff spot to the Pacers?

Yes, and the Pacers are part of the point — one of the games lost is a home game against the Pacers, a plum opportunity to begin righting last season’s failures.  Not-yet-cancelled are two games in Indy and a game in Milwaukee.  Ratchet up the degree of difficulty a bit more with Pacers home court advantage against the Bucks, something the Bulls will also enjoy if the games cancelled remain off the calendar.

And it only gets more weighted against the Bucks the closer one looks at what was lost and what remains.

  • The lockout has cheated Bucks fans out of a chance to see Steve Nash and the Suns at the Bradley Center Nov. 12 (another Saturday showcase). The game in Phoenix is still on the calendar. The Bucks have not won in Phoenix since February 1987, the last of the Bucks seven straight 50-win season, Don Nelson‘s last season as Bucks coach, Moncrief, Cummings, Pressey, Pierce, Sikma and John Lucas in the fold, and a rookie Scott Skiles, too.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trailblazers have proven to be a nightmare matchup for Bogut and the Bucks. A Bucks-Blazers Saturday night game was one of those cancelled.  Still on is the game in Portland, where the Bucks haven’t won since 2006.
  • No, the Bucks haven’t yet had a road game against a Western Conference team cancelled. All 15 of those are still on calendar. The Bucks were 4-11 on the road in the West last season. Ratchet that degree of Bucks difficulty to about 60%.  The road to the 2012 playoffs will be a steep uphill climb for the Bucks.

If December is cancelled, the Bucks will lose only a single road game in the West, a trip to Memphis. That’s early in the month, following a trip to New York and a Saturday marquee featuring Milwaukee’s favorite ex-Buck, Ray Allen, and the Celtics, tough games all.

Kohl and the Bucks front office have got to be eyeing that Celtics game and rueing the day more games are tossed into the shredder.  A Celtics game is one of those money-making, potential sell-outs, an easy-marketing homecoming for Ray, one of the last chances to see the current Celtics before they rebuild (Ray and Kevin Garnett will be free agents after this season).  It’s a natural for the Bucks’ 2012 home-opener, ready or not.

The Celtics are followed by a string of five matchups that should give Bucks fans a good gauge on where their team is headed this season: at home against rebuilding Detroit and Denver in flux, on the road to Washington to play John Wall and the Wizards, home for Corey Maggette and Charlotte and then on to Indiana.

Playoffs?  Not if the Bucks can’t get it together enough to win some of those games.  They cannot afford another start like last season’s 6-wins, 12-losses disaster. The first 22-games of the schedule, prior to the lockout and the cancellations, provided a solid chance for a decent start — assuming only the 2010-11 records of the opponents.

Then Dirk Nowitzki and the champion Mavs come to Milwaukee for their only appearance, Saturday, Dec. 17, another candy marketing game the Bucks front office should be loathe to lose.  A tough opponent, of course, but the loss of this game would leave the trip to Dallas still-to-come.  From a competitive standpoint, the Bucks can ill afford the cancellation of the first three weeks in December.

All of which begs the questions:  How much does pro basketball game talk matter to many NBA owners?  Specifically, how much does it matter to Bucks owner Kohl, who has yet to play more than a supporting role to the small market hardliners in these negotiations?

Unlike small market hardliners in Cleveland and Phoenix (when Nash leaves or retires) and Boston (rebuild after 2012) and San Antonio (aging San Antonio) the Bucks aren’t rebuilding or looking ahead to a near-future rebuild.  Ostensibly, they have more in common with the Bulls and Knicks — the Bucks want to play and win now with Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings, and put a forgettable, injury-plagued 2011 season behind them.

But like Portland Trailblazers owner Paul Allen, the so-called “Grim Reaper” on the owners’ side, Kohl has spent years playing and paying big under the current system, and losing in a market much smaller than New York or Chicago.  There’s talk that Allen is taking a hard line in the negotiations because he wants to clamp down on player salaries and exceptions to position the Blazers for sale.

Kohl has lost more than Allen in the current system, and paid big in recent years for the likes of Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons, Dan Gadzuric, Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, tax accounting write-offs in the flesh.  There’s been little or no recent talk of Kohl selling the Bucks, and the real politick in Milwaukee and Wisconsin says even discussions over a new arena are years away.

But rumblings of a sale could sound at any time.  Kohl isn’t getting any younger and will retire from the U.S. Senate next year at age 77, and, while Kohl has never made the Bucks books public,  it’s safe to assume his team has more in financial common financially with Allen than he does with the “play now” teams in Chicago, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami.

At some point — and we may have passed this point already — the “play now” owners are going to push hard for a resolution, to end the 50/50 or 48/52 squabbling over how much “Basketball Related Income” (BRI) the players should get.  The owners have already bettered their financial position by $200 million per year and about $1.2 billion over the next seasons.  That’s a tremendous giveback by the players at 52% BRI.

With the two sides so close on the BRI, it’s the “play now, win now” owners vs. “don’t play, write another season off” mode.

(Editor’s note: Not more than a few hours after this post went up, one of the “play now, win now” owners, Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison, was fined $500,000 by the NBA for tweeting that he wasn’t the owner fans should be upset about. “You’re barking at the wrong owner,” Arison tweeted in response to a fan who accused Arison of ruining the game.

“The response clearly fortified the belief Arison is part of a more moderate group of owners, mostly from big markets, who don’t share the opinion of the majority of hardliners who think the NBA needs to keep the players locked out to achieve financial concessions,” reported Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski.  That belief is certainly one held here.)

At what point does Kohl look at the first Saturday in December and say, “I need my team to be on the court against the Celtics” on that night?

Which kind of owner — write-it-off or play ball — is Kohl really?