Tag Archives: Lebron James

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.

Scott Skiles’ starting rotation shooting the Bucks in the foot

Coming off a big overtime win in Boston and facing the 5-23 Cavaliers at the Bradley Center BMO Harris BMO Harris Bradley Center, a 15-11 record heading into the three-day X-mas break looked pretty good for the Bucks.   But not after the starters shot less than 38% and repeatedly dumped the Bucks into a 10-then-20 point hole that the bench couldn’t dig out of.

If the opening tip five against Cleveland are to be coach Scott Skiles’ starters the rest of the way, get used to nights like Saturday.   As a group they are one of the worst — if not the worst — shooting group currently starting in the NBA.

Skiles’ current starting lineup — Brandon Jennings and Monte Ellis, with forwards Marquis Daniels and Luc Mbah a Moute, and center Larry Sanders — would be dead last in the NBA in shooting, were the 7 wins-20 losses Charlotte Bobcats not shooting worse.  (See NBA season summary).

The Bucks starters combined are shooting an effective 45.3% on the season (587.5 out of 1297), adjusting up for three-pointers made.  (The Bucks by the way are 28th in the league from downtown, hitting just 31.9%.)

The rest of the team is misfiring too, though not so much since Ersan Ilyasova has resurrected to find his jumper.  They’re at 47.4% effectively, slightly better than the team % of the Memphis Grizzlies.  Ilyasova’s percentage has climbed out of the 25% range and is heading toward 50%.

The dud Saturday against Cleveland was actually accomplished with cold-shooting Monta Ellis on a good night, going 15 of 27 and shooting an effective 59.3% – only the second time this season Ellis has hit that mark.

Ellis shoots more than anybody in the league with the exception of Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook, while posting career-lows in field goal and 3-point-%.   Monta’s never been good from 3-point-land, but the 20.9% he’s shooting this season is horrific. And those latest stats include two good shooting games by Ellis against the Celtics and Cavs.

There is no “shooting guard” in the NBA playing more than 30 mins per game who shoots worse than Monta  (See HoopData sorted stats by position).

Point guard shooting percentages being what they are (generally lower), only the Knicks J.R. Smith joins Ellis as a “shooting guard” in the bottom ten.  And remember, Ellis is firing away at a rate topped only Kobe and Russell Westbrook.

But this isn’t all about Monta Ellis or Jennings.   Compounding matters is that Skiles starts Ellis with forwards Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels, two defensive minded players not known for sticking shots.  Moute and Daniels are both below 48% career eFG%, under the league average of 48.8% this year.

Skiles has done this, he says, because he wants to start games with stronger D — defying the expectations of Bucks fans that Ilyasova and Moute would finally get a chance to start together and bring some chemistry to Skiles’ ever-changing rotations — and  it’s not as though Ilyasova’s a slouch on defense.

One could argue — I suppose — that with good-shooting Beno Udrih still out with a right ankle injury, Skiles is looking for some balance off the bench, where Mike Dunleavy could use Ersan’s scoring help.

But if this is an attempt at balance by Skiles, it’s being lost brick by brick with a starting lineup that isn’t supposed to shoot well because they never have.   The  tip-off five needs a shooter, and Ilyasova’s shot is coming back around to where it was last season.

So the obvious answer is to move Ilyasova back into the starting lineup and see if the Bucks can ween themselves off their dependency on Ellis, who shoots too much for the team’s good — but will keep on shooting unless there is a reliable alternative on the court.   Right now, there’s just no such alternative in the Bucks starting 5, and the Bucks might as well make some effort to get a payoff out of the $7.9 million a year investment they made in Ersan.

A Bucks-Celtics note:  Skiles has played Ilyasova starters’ minutes (29.4 per game) in the four games against the Celtics, three of them victories.  Good matchups for Ersan?  Or a trend?  We shall see.  

Thieves:  Brandon Jennings trails only Chris Paul and Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in steals per game.  The Bucks continue to be a Top 5 team in forcing turnovers while being 6th in the league at not turning the ball over.  They’re getting two more possessions per game than their opponents.

Larry!  Larry!:  Larry Sanders is leading the NBA in blocked shots per game (3.1) and is No. 1 in defensive rating, a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions that a player is on the floor.   Larry’s 93.4 points allowed per 100 is one point better than Tim Duncan’s and 1.3 better than Pacers center Roy Hibbert.

Ray in Miami:  There’s still mucho love for Ray Allen in Milwaukee, but they surely like him more in Miami these days.   Ray’s staking his claim to “The Best Shooter in Basketball” crown, leading all guards and forwards in Effective Shooting percentage (eFG%).  Ray’s  a 61 percent shooter, behind only Knicks center Tyson Chandler.   Ray’s the only non- center in the top 5.

Lebron James, meanwhile, is a surprising 6th in the NBA with a 58.1% effective shooting, as the MVP is having a career shooting year inside and outside the 3-point arc.   The extra room and better spacing James gets with Ray on the floor is certainly partly responsible for this — as are the added offensive smarts a team gets with Ray — but most of the credit goes to James himself.  He’s playing more post-up than in the past, he’s hitting his threes and his shot selection is the best its ever been.

James is also having a career rebounding year, grabbing 8.5 boards per game.

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.

Shaq retires … for now, and with him goes the good humor he brought to the humorless, post-Jordan days of the NBA

It’s really true, and as a part-time Celtics fan I can’t help but be disappointed.  Shaquille O’Neal, when healthy (which wasn’t often this season) made the Celtics better, more formidable in the paint.

The Celtics were surprised by Shaq’s Twitter announcement and maybe we should be, too.

More than anything, Shaq changed the C’s demeanor.  No more were they the team of Kendrick Perkins‘ scowl and Kevin Garnett‘s gesticulations.  They were big as a Diesel, no doubt about it, and the Diesel delivered on the court — leading the Celtics in defensive impact (a 2.84 ezPM score) while snatching 4.8 rebs per game and scoring 9.2 points per game in just 20 minutes.

And he may return once the league’s labor dispute is settled, when the race for the 2012 playoffs is on — when we most need an old star to tweak Lebron James’ all-business, all-defense, “all-me”-this-ain’t-funny-even-if-we-win, facade.  Shaq’s got some game in him left, and a little Brett Favre in him, too — evidenced by this Twitter announcement during the NBA Finals, moments that belong to Lebron and Dirk, and that’s not a criticism of Favre or Shaq.  Jordan or Bird or Magic might have done something similar.

Shaq’s NBA in the post-Jordan dark days was not as competitive as the current league, and the Lakers three-pete (2000-2002) was often controversial and marred by questionable refereeing — yet Shaq was the face that managed to win over new converts even as so many fouled on it all.

No, Shaq’s era was not filled with the league’s finer moments, and if there were fine moments, those belonged to Jordan or Hakeem or Duncan and Robinson, even Sam Cassell (with the Rockets, Bucks and T-Wolves).  Through it all, however, the largess of Shaq and his steadily improving post game remained the point of departure for many fans.  Like it, be awed by it, shrug it off as freak of nature performance that made NBA hardwoods less than level, even the casual NBA fan had to consider all that was Shaq as he joked his way through press conferences.

Shaq’s Lakers set the NBA mark for best record in the playoffs (15-1) but, due to one of the most crookedly refereed series’ in NBA history (Sixers-Bucks 2001), they never had to face in the Finals the team they couldn’t beat that season:  The Sam Cassell, Glen “Big Dog” Robinson, Ray Allen “Big Three” Bucks coached by George Karl.

The following season, the 2002 seven-game Western conference Final between the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings was nearly as crooked as the 2001 Bucks-Sixers series, only more of the public was watching.  The smugness of Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson emerged as sorry emblems for a league that seemed to have lost its way under the influence of its Emperor Palpatine-like commissioner, David Stern.  They let the big fella down.  So the big fella walked away.

(Edit addition:  In his new book, Shaq Uncut: My Story, Shaq divulges some detail behind his longstanding fued with Kobe. Deadspin has some excerpts.)

Shaq’s rebellion won over many of us NBA fans in flyover midlands country, and as he turned his back on them, he nagged Kobe’s self-centered game, defying Jackson and Stern, foiling the L.A. dynasty.  The  championship he won in 2006 with Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning stands as Shaq’s emphatic signature on a Hall of Fame career — four-time champion, MVP, good teammate, joker, prankster, plentiful tipper of bellhops, barmaids, waitresses and food delivery workers all over America

We the people liked him for it in the end, a difficult and unlikely achievement considering the general bad mood of the casual NBA fan.

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For Bucks fans, Shaq and his Lakers will primarily be a “what if” — an opportunity and great NBA Finals series denied in 2001.  But there is another connection (which was the original intent of this post about a thousand words ago) that involves one of Shaq’s favorite teammates and longtime friend, Bucks coach Scott Skiles; and Skiles’ longtime friend, former Orlando Magic teammate and former Bucks head coach Larry Krystkowiak.

Yes, this is the fight documentary, one of the better NBA practice brawl stories you’ll ever hear, involving two scrappy old-school player wanna-bes and their young superstar.  Yes, the best Shaq stories were told before Twitter and Youtube and Facebook …

The year: 1994

The stage: Magic practice floor on the road in Los Angeles.

Our narrator: Larry Krystkowiak, Magic reserve power forward.

The combatants: A young Shaquille O’Neal, Magic center; Krsytkowiak; Scott Skiles, Magic point guard.

The action: “Haymakers” thrown, Skiles “sorta” in a headlock, wrapped around Shaq, mayhem.

The instigator: Scott Skiles, of course.

The result: One of the wildest NBA practice fights on record, and mutual admiration society between Skiles and Shaq.  Continued friendship between Skiles and Krystkowiak. Shaq and Krystkowiak?  No hard feelings, respect. The Magic went on to win 50 games that season, Shaq’s second in the NBA.

Krystkowiak tells it far better than anybody. Here’s the LINK to Krystkowiak’s account, by ESPN writer Chris Sheridan.

Imagine Krystkowiak’s surprise when, in the 2007-08 season, Bucks power forward Charlie Villanueva backed down from a fight challenge — from Krystkowiak — during a Bucks practice.  The NBA had changed.  Yet it’s a better game today because players like Shaq and Skiles and Krystkowiak simply never bothered to.

NBA Playoffs 2011 Notes: Joakim Noah’s defense may have killed the Bulls title hopes — but don’t tell Charles Barkley

Beginning of the 3rd quarter, Game 5 in Chicago, Bulls with their season on the line down three games to one to the Heat, leading by seven points at halftime. …

On the Heat’s first possession of the second half, as Dwyane Wade stunted toward the lane, Bulls center Joakim Noah, as he has so often this series, sagged deep into the lane to close the gap, this time leaving Chris Bosh all alone at the right elbow.  Wade flipped a pass to Bosh, who was already bending his legs to shoot as Noah planted, lunged

… and went sailing past Bosh as Bosh drove to the hoop for an easy layup.

“There wasn’t anything Boozer (Carlos, the nearest available help defender) could do about that,” Marv Albert noted in his play-by-play.  And there wasn’t.   Three Heat possession later and Bosh had another bucket on a midrange jumper and Noah had committed a foul, and the Heat had cut the lead to five.

Coming into the game, Bosh was averaging 24.5 points per game in the series, including a 30 point Game 1 and a 34 point Game 3.  No, despite Noah’s hyper-activity and the lunging-for-the-ball tip and block efforts, the Bulls center had blocked just six shots through four games (his season average) and had a miserable time guarding Bosh, who found Noah an all-too-willing sucker for the pump fake, and all-too eager to leave him to help out on the driving Heat, even when help wasn’t needed.

It wasn’t anything resembling the play of a 2nd-team All-Defensive forward-center, the honor bestowed upon Noah by the NBA coaches in 2011.  To compound matters, Noah had shot 29 percent from the field entering Game 4.

Yet  few — if any — Heat-Bulls observers (Noah’s biggest fan, Charles Barkley, included) seem to have noticed.  “On the court and off, Noah not your typical NBA player,” gushed the Chicago Tribune headline above a long feature on Noah before Game 5.

Yeah, the Tribune story set out to tell the human interest story behind a basketball player fined for a vulgar, homophobic slur toward a fan in Miami. But this story aims to talk about Noah the basketball player, the guy who is not making plays on the court, not with the regularity that his fans seem to think he is.

What gives?  Were these games against the Heat an aberration, a tough matchup (Bosh, Wade and Lebron) that belied Noah’s All-Defensive status?

Hardly.  Noah’s defense in the Heat series was exemplary of how the Bulls center plays defense, and has played it that way since he entered the league in 2007, the season Scott Skiles was let go by the Bulls.  Noah rushes to help, lunges after  shot attempts, goes for ball fakes, and, as a result of this activity, tends to leave his man wide open or in weak side rebound position.  Generally, he tries to be everywhere at once on the defensive end.

While his style surely reflects Noah’s confidence in his athleticism and relative inexperience, it’s also impossible, often foolish, and is a dangerous way to play Chris Bosh — hey !  It’s not good defense.

We actually have statistical evidence of Noah’s folly. Using a newly developed measure of defensive play, ezPM, when counterpart scoring is taken into account (that seems obvious) Noah’s marginal score for individual defense takes one of the biggest dives in the league.

EZPM is a rather basic yet complex and comprehensive metric extended from box score stats developed by Warriors-centric blogger EvanZ at “The City.”  For a full explanation on the “ezPM” metric, CLICK HERE. For the opponent scoring (Defense) calculations and rankings, CLICK HERE.

For the record, the ezPM results verify what the eye is telling the NBA fan:  Noah is often playing active but poor defense, and the man he’s guarding reaps the benefits.  Despite making about 3.0 defensive plays per game (1.5 blocks, 1.0 steals and taking charges) and playing on the NBA’s top-rated defense, Noah finished well behind the top rated big men in the league (see below), and out of the top 25.  The Bulls may have clamped down on opponents as they so often did this season, but their center was too often losing track of his man.

In 2010-11, Joakim Noah was not 2nd-team All-NBA Defensive material.  In the end, his poor defense on Bosh — and the absence of any offensive game to speak of — may have cost his team a trip to the NBA Finals.

As the Bulls-Heat series played to its conclusion in the 4th quarter of Game 5, backup center Kurt Thomas was the big man on the floor for the Bulls, helping to build a 12-point lead that Dwyane Wade and Lebron James extinguished down the stretch.  Noah remained on the bench the entire 4th quarter.

I wonder if anybody in Chicago (or Charles Barkley) noticed.

More later on ezPM, which was fully implemented for the first time this season.  Suffice it to say that there were no surprises about the NBA’s top-ranked big men.  Noah posted a 1.702 defensive mark — above the margins but behind the Bucks backups, Larry Sanders (2.792) and Jon Brockman (1.767, and even his own backup, Omer Asik (2.214).  For now here’s a snapshot of the ezPM defensive scores Top 5:

1. Dwight Howard 5.08
2. Ronnie Brewer 4.98
3 Andrew Bogut 3.403
4 LeBron James 3.326
5 Tim Duncan 3.212

Michael Redd set to return to the Bucks on Monday

Michael Redd will return to the Bucks Monday, after All-Star weekend.  By all accounts, he won’t play right away, but will work to get himself “in a position” where he could possibly play.

Redd’s in the final year of a contract that pays him $18.3 million this season, more than Carmelo Anthony, more than anybody on the Celtics not named Kevin Garnett, more than anybody on the Lakers not named Kobe Bryant.

This makes Redd very valuable to any team looking to cut costs next season, including the Bucks, who could use some payroll breathing room after last summer’s flurry of contract activity (Drew Gooden, John Salmons, Keyon Dooling).

Nobody in Milwaukee media has bothered to ask GM John Hammond, with the trade deadline eight days away, whether a trade is a possibility.  Those questions will surely arise once Redd is back in camp.

Currently, the Bucks insurance is reimbursing the team 80 percent of the cost of the contract, due to Redd’s long rehabilitation from a second knee surgery.

$18.3 million! For Michael Redd?  It’s insane, but there was very little the Bucks could do to avoid it back in 2005 when the deal was struck.  Such are the NBA economics that spun out of control in the last decade, as teams wrote ridiculous agreements with All-Star players such as Redd, Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas, not so much because they were forced to, but because the ethos of the league and the setup of the league’s collective bargaining agreement said that superstars bring in the fans, and that every team should have one — a superstar, that is, not a fan (even the Clippers had a fan or two before Blake Griffin).  Even very good, borderline All-Star players such as Richard Jefferson got similar deals (RJ’s still working off his final year down in San Antonio).

The justification for Redd’s contract points most directly to the five-year, $85 million contract that Ray Allen signed with the SuperSonics in the summer of 2005.  Redd, of course, was effectively replacing Allen as the Bucks star shooting guard and had been an All-Star in 2004.  The Bucks:

1) Didn’t want to lose Redd in free agency. He had courted some interest (about 5-yr/$70 million) from the Cavaliers, on the hunt for a second scoring option after Lebron James; and

2) Wanted to reward Redd with a contract comparable to Allen’s $17 million per season deal.  The market dictated that Redd should not be paid quite at Allen’s level, so the Bucks basically made a 5-year, $14.5 million per year offer (exceeding what the Cavs were able to offer over five years) and tacked on the outrageous sixth year “player option” to exceed the total of Allen’s contract.

Was the sixth year necessary?  Probably not, but five-six year agreements with the final year an option for players were in vogue back then, and, well, nobody in the Bucks organization wanted to see Redd suit up alongside Lebron James, unless it was for an All-Star game.

So here we are, the 2011 trade deadline fast approaching, the Bucks needing a shot in the arm and Redd (probably) nowhere near playing shape.

This may be little more than an insurance check to upgrade Redd’s status and handle the legalities of his sunsetting disability status.  It may mean the Bucks have brought him back into the news to draw trade interest.  It may mean that Redd has rehabbed his way into shape to play.  It almost certainly means that Redd doesn’t want his career to end, and wants to show the NBA that he can play next season.

On Monday, the elephant returns to the Bucks locker room.

(Special thanks to Bucks fan Sidney Lanier, the originator of the altered New Yorker artwork above).

Strength of Schedule II: Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bogut

For three quarters, the Bucks went toe-to-toe with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat, then folded under a hale of referee whistles and bad offense and generally poor shooting.  The missed Bucks layups that might have made this a game down to the final buzzer had already been missed, five of them in the third quarter when it was still a game and the Heat erased the Bucks 4-point halftime lead.

Andrew Bogut (16 pts, 8 rebs) and John Salmons (18 pts, 6 assists) led the Bucks, but they weren’t good enough, efficient enough offensively and in the end didn’t have enough help to keep up with the Heat.  Wade led all scorers with 34 pts while LeBron and Bosh chipped in a combined 44.  Here’s the box score.

In all, the Bucks put up a fairly decent fight, which ought to make tonight’s matchup with the Orlando Magic all the more interesting, considering that there’s no D-Wade or LeBron on hand to make winning a game an insurmountable task.  The centers — the Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Bucks’ Andrew Bogut are the best players in the building.

They oughta be in any case, which is to say that Bogut’s All-Star qualifications are on trial tonight in Orlando.

Bogut leads the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.8) but has struggled with his offense since missing five games in Nov. and early December with a lower back strain.  How much is the broken hand/mangled arm Bogut suffered at the end of last season affecting him?

He’s 94 out of 185 (50.8%) from the floor in the 14 games since he returned Dec. 4 against the Magic, a game that Howard missed due to a team-wide stomach virus that streaked through Orlando.   Bogut dominated the game with 31 points, setting up tonight’s game as a chance for Howard to erase that glitch on the Magic schedule.  Howard’s 3rd in blocks (2.4 per game) and hauls down 13.2 rebounds a game, which would probably lead the league if Kevin Love’s teammates in Minnesota were more interested in helping him on the glass.

Fifty percent shooting is not bad — but hardly great for a center who rarely strays more than 10 feet from the basket; and his free throw shooting continues to be an indescribable adventure (26 of 63 for 41.3%).  15.3 pts per game is slightly above his average from last season, but the Bucks need more out of Bogut this season, especially now with point guard Brandon Jennings out for another two weeks with a bone fracture in his foot.

Bogut’s had some monstrous rebounding games and has averaged 11.6 per game since the back injury.  The rebounding is always there.  The defense, too.  But right now, the Bucks need more.

Strength of Schedule: The good news for the Bucks is that their strength of schedule continues to go through the roof.  The bad news is that the Knicks beat the Spurs last night in New York, yet another indication that — all hype aside — the Knicks may be tough to catch once the schedules begin to even out.  The Bucks (13-19) fell to six games behind the Knicks (20-14) in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Bucks have easily played the most difficult schedule in the league based on opponent record, with a +1.24 rating.  The Knicks have played a relatively soft schedule (-0.59).  It should be noted that the 23-and-14 Hawks (-1.07) have played the softest schedule in the East.   This stuff bears repeating if only to keep Bucks fans from freaking out about the team’s lousy record.

Bucks release Skinner: There are now more 2010 Bucks (Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and John Salmons) on Scott Skiles’ available roster than 2001 Los Angeles Clippers (Corey Maggette, Keyon Dooling and Earl Boykins).

The Bucks released little used big forward Brian Skinner today, a nod to the fact that coach Skiles wasn’t likely to use him in Orlando tonight and an indication that the plantar fasciitis in Drew Gooden’s left foot has cleared up enough for the Bucks to try once again to integrate him into the rotation.  They might’ve waited a few days, as Skinner’s contract for the remainder of the season didn’t become guaranteed until Monday, but, obviously, no reason to continue practicing with Skinner if he wasn’t going to play or be around next week.

The Bucks signed Skinner after Gooden went down with the foot problem while Andrew Bogut was still recovering from a lower back strain.  Skinner was in the Bucks training camp in September but didn’t make the final roster.

Feeling sorry for the Knicks because … they’re still the Knicks

I’m watching the Heat destroy the Knicks in New York in the second half and find myself feeling sorry for the Knicks.  This game was tied at 59 in the 3rd quarter.  A few minutes later it was a blowout as the Heat clamped down and the Knicks offered little more than token defensive resistance to Lebron, D-Wade, Bosh and Arroyo.  Even Joel Anthony got into the act as the Heat outscored the Knicks 54-32 from the 3rd quarter tie on.

Why feel sorry for Amar’e Stoudemire and his coach, Mike D’Antoni, who came into the game with a 16-10 record, 5th in the East, just a half game behind the 4th place Magic?

Because the Knicks just made it too easy for the Heat — something the Bucks refused to do two weeks ago at the Bradley Center, the last time I saw the Bucks play live.   Where the Bucks clawed at Lebron every time he touched the ball, the Knicks gave him a yard to survey the floor and decide how he was going to make them pay for it.  Where the Bucks scrambled for loose balls, the Knicks lost the 50-50 battles every time.  Where the Bucks made D-Wade fight for his game-leading 25 points, the Knicks let him waltz through their defense unattended.

After one long Knicks miss, Lebron broke out leading a three-on-three break and Chris Bosh cut to the basket, open for an instant but with two Knick defenders in the vicinity.  Lebron held the dribble top right, looked away, paused … and fired a no-look bullet pass to Bosh for a layup.  Bosh hadn’t moved from his spot — yet none of the Knicks near the hoop had bothered to pick him up. (Thinking back, James’ look-away fake seems gracious – he assumed — wrongly — that the Knicks were interested in defending Bosh.)

I felt sorry for the Knicks because, despite their 16-11 record, they’re still hapless and there’s little they’ll be able to do about it.  They can’t win in the East playing the porous, disinterested D that D’Antoni seems to encourage.  Oh, they’ll score alright, especially against the lesser teams.  But the top 5 defensive teams in the NBA are the competition in the East, and they rebound the basketball, too.  The Knicks don’t play D, and they don’t box out well either.

Where the Bucks were able to challenge the Heat and hold Lebron to 14 pts, he disgraced the Knicks with a triple double – 32 pts, 11 rebs and 10 assists and left the Knicks in his wake as though they were the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ patsy.

Where the Bucks are 10-14 and playing the toughest schedule in the league, the Knicks have played a soft one.   Despite their record, the Knicks have a negative SRS number (a complicated thingy that ranks teams success against their schedule).  (After losing in Cleveland on Saturday, the 16-12 Knicks are actually BEHIND the 10-15 Bucks, who took a tough loss to the Jazz at home, in SRS ranking.  The Bucks schedule has been that tough, the Knicks schedule that weak.)

I felt sorry for the Knicks because there no amount of hype can make them more competitive than a slow-starting, injury plagued 10-and-14 team from Milwaukee.  I felt sorry for the Knicks because, despite the Amar’e highlights, they’re still the Knicks and they can’t help it.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 419.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.

Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

The Bulls, it should be noted, won’t have their center for 8-10 weeks.  I don’t, however, feel sorry for the Bulls.  This, I suppose, is just one more reason to feel sorry for the Knicks.

Note: The Knicks on Saturday lost to Cleveland in OT, 109-102, in the kind of game Mo Williams loves — No defense required. Mo led all scorers with 23.  New York fell to 16-12.

All Star Voting: The four Celtics and Dwight Howard blog

I’ll get back to Ray and D-Wade and the Heat … First …

The beleaguered-yet-determined Bucks — what’s left of them — are out west, headed for Denver where who-does-what-now should decide how the lineup shakes up when Bogut is ready to come back to work.   The early returns suggest that Ersan Ilyasova has taken Drew Gooden’s starting power forward job and John Salmons may end up taking a seat soon so that he and the Bucks can figure out what ails him.

The better-than-expected arrival of Chris Douglas-Roberts Saturday and the pending return of Corey Maggette gives the Bucks some options with the Fish, who’s sluggish game thus far has made me miss Charlie Bell.  CD-R in two games has been just what the Bucks have needed — an NBA guard who can hit a shot.   (15 pts per game on excellent 61.1% eff-shooting.)

Ersan Ilyasova in Utah (18 pts on 10 shots, six tough-to-get-in-Utah rebs and three steals) continued to show that when he gets minutes, he produces.  In the 7 games that Ersan has played 25+ minutes, he’s averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg, shooting an e-fg rate of 53.2% — that’ll win a few games for the Bucks if he keeps it up. He’s also managed 13 steals, pretty impressive for a power forward.

And no, Ersan’s not riding a six steal game or getting a bump from a 27 pt break-out — he has consistently scored and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses in each of the seven games that Skiles has given him 25+ the minutes.   All evidence suggests that Ersan has recovered from leading Turkey to a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, and has likewise recovered from the early season benching-by-Skiles that his Turkish heroics earned him back in Milwaukee.

ALL STAR VOTING: This apparent rebooting of the Bucks has given me time to think about the All-Star ballot and mull over what’s been what in the first one-fifth of the season.  Have Lebron and D-Wade really earned a trip to the All-Star game?   Why do the Spurs and Lakers refuse to allow their centers to be listed as centers?   And who’s to stop me from voting four Celtics as the East starters?

On this last question: Nobody.  So I did.  And I probably will again until Lebron James does something truly impressive, like listen to his coach, Erik Spoelstra.  Rajon Rondo is an obvious choice to be the east starter at point guard.  I’ve seen enough Paul Pierce this season to know that he’s still knocking ’em down with clockwork regularity and leading the Celtics in scoring.  Those two selections were easy.

At power forward I would consider voting for Lebron, because the Heat don’t have one now that Udonis Haslem is hurt (note: this wasn’t intended as a knock on Chris Bosh but the word “power” just doesn’t connote the word “Bosh” in my mind.)  And I would consider voting for the Hawks Al Horford if only he were not listed as a center. Anybody who saw Dwight Howard and the Magic pummel the Hawks in four straight in the East semi-finals knows that Al Horford is not a center.  Anybody who watched the Bucks take the Hawks apart earlier this season knows the same — the Hawks don’t let Horford guard Andrew Bogut, instead starting Jason Collins at center against the Bucks.  Horford’s not big enough to tangle with Bogut, Howard, Noah, Lopez, the real centers of the East.

Dwight Howard is the All-Star starter at center, and it’s too bad Bogut hasn’t given Bucks fans a reason to vote for him … yet.  Let’s hope that changes.  Right now, Joakim Noah has the edge to be the backup center to Howard.

That leaves me with Kevin Garnett at power forward.  Sure, he backs away when confronted by guys like Bogut, but he’s still KG — love him, loathe him, he’s at least that — and his Celtics are still the team to beat in the East.  Done.  That’s three Celtics and a maybe for Lebron.  Maybe, but not now.  Did I forget Amar’e Stoudemire?  I forgot Amar””e, though he may be listed as a center, which makes him not only forgettable but irrelevant here.  I seem to have forgotten Chris Bosh, too.  Imagine that.  Bosh has not played like an All-Star in 2010, going back to last season.  (If you watched him in Toronto at the end of last season, you’d have wondered who was leading the Raptors in their bid for the playoffs.)

My shooting guard should be Dwyane Wade, shouldn’t it?  This is usually automatic.  But after two losses to the Celtics in which Ray Allen scored 55 points on him and shot 20 for 36 — see highlight reel above — it’s time to reconsider.  On the season, Ray’s shooting better than any long range gunner has a right to — 56.8% effectively, which takes into account his 44% shooting from Downtown.  Ray’s a weapon, pure and simple.  D-Wade is scoring 21.3 pts per game but it’s been a struggle to get those, and with the weapons the Heat have, his assists shouldn’t be down.  In Atlanta, Joe Jonson has also struggled to be the triple-threat that he was last season.  In Boston, Ray just lets the game come to him.  Easy, nothing but net.

One-fifth of the season done, the Celtics and Magic are leading the East at 12-4.  Punch it in: Four Celtics and Dwight to the 2011 All-Star game.

THE WEST: This is much tougher since I don’t watch the West as much as the East.  But these teams/the NBA (whoever makes the call on the ballot) don’t make it easy to pick a forward, do they?  Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan — two big men who mostly play center — are listed as forwards.  Dirk, West, Carmelo Anthony, what’s the voting fan to do?   At this point in the season, I’m punching in Gasol and New Orleans Bucks-assassin David West but that could change.  Dirk, carrying the Mavs and dropping the occasional 4o — deserve a vote.

The West guards: Kobe, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant … After Deron Williams‘ shredding of the Bucks last night, I went with Deron.  This brought to mind CP3’s expert game management in the Hornets two wins over the Bucks, so I gave the nod to Chris Paul, in recognition that the NBA is a better place with CP3 in it.   I then immediately thought of Kobe’s 30-point game in Milwaukee and how Brandon Roy’s Blazers handed the Bucks arses to them, also in Milwaukee.  Good thing Durant missed his game in Brewtown.  I may have to vote again.

Yao doesn’t need my vote at center, but he’s the only center on the ballot for the West.  There’s Haywood in Dallas, but he doesn’t start.  Tyson Chandler anyone?  Didn’t see him on the ballot.  Yao, even in his part time role, is out indefinitely with a bone spur.  Nene Hilario?

C’mon. Don’t make me vote for Chris Kaman.  At last check, Kaman says he doesn’t want “to be a hindrance” to the young Clippers. The West has not All-Star worthy center on the ballot, so I picked Yao, figuring it was the fair thing to do because he won’t play anyway and that’ll open up a spot for a deserving forward who plays center  — which will then open up a forward spot, which will help ensure that somebody like David West isn’t snubbed.  See how this works — or does it?

I’ll probably have to vote again tomorrow to see how all this settles.

Waiting for those pre-season browwnz to clear

Years ago, in what seems now like another lifetime, I was sitting on the steps of my neighbors porch on Thalia Street in New Orleans, eating a plateful of beans and rice, when my neighbor let out a sigh and looked wistfully at some point of nowhere and away, down toward St. Charles. “What’s the matter,” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know … nothin’ really,” she said, and maybe sighed again (she probably did but, remember, this was so long ago that it may never have happened at all). “I just got a case of the browns.”

I got the feeling she wasn’t talking about the beans and rice. “The browns? What are those?”

“They’re kinda like the blues but, no, not so bad as the blues. They’re, you know, just … the browwnz.”

I haven’t found since better words to describe what the browns are than those: “just … the browwnz.”  The browwnz can be difficult to pin down, I do know that. And I’ve also come to know when I’ve got ’em.

I’ve got em now, thanks to an NBA pre-season that has seemed without end, the Bucks not healthy enough to field their starting roster even once.  The Bucks aren’t healthy yet, 27 hours before their season opener in the very place where the browwnz were identified — New Orleans.  And, no, at last check of the clock, the NBA pre-season hasn’t ended.

The Celtics and Heat tip the 2010-11 season off tonight at 6:35 pm, give or take a minute or two (yes, I’m counting the minutes).  I’m expecting Lebron to find KG, Rondo, Ray and #34 just as smart and clutch-and-grab aggressive as they were in dominating last season’s eastern conference playoffs.  For now, KG is healthy. NBA fans should know by now, after three seasons in Boston, that (sorry D-Wade and Bosh, and Dwight) a healthy KG is the most valuable asset in the conference.

It’s also worth noting that the Celtics have Lebron’s second most valuable Cavs asset, Delonte West, coming off the bench behind Ray Allen (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mr. Cav, being Lebron’s most valuable teammate in Cleveland). The addition of West (loaded guns aside) to play with Ray, Rajon Rondo and Nate “the gnat” Robinson gives the Celtics, hands down, the best guard rotation on the planet.  Inside, KG, Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq are more than Bosh and Big Z (and Anthony) can handle, whether the Heat jell or not.   If this game is an early season sneak preview of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, no complaints here, unless the Bucks fail to give one of these top two in the East some playoff hell.

The Bucks and Hornets get going at 7:05 pm Wednesday. Brandon Jennings vs. Chris Paul, CP3 finally healthy after missing half of last season … that’s plenty of fun to watch in a season opener, and Andrew Bogut seems to be doing fine, though he’s not yet in 35-minute playing shape.   John Salmons will play — but beyond that, most everything else to do with the Bucks is open to question, given that the rotation hasn’t played together in a game.  Hence, the browwnz, and a preseason that has seemed without end.

And I know enough about the browwnz to realize that trying to answer those many Bucks questions now is hubris.

We don’t know how or whether Skiles will be able to manage his wing rotation with Fish, Carlos Delfino, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Corey Maggette all vying for PT. (This just in: Chris Douglas-Roberts is reporting on his twitter that he had eye surgery today and can’t play ball for a month.)

We don’t know whether Maggette can play tough enough D to warrant solid PT.  We don’t know whether Drew Gooden, Luc Mbah a Moute (hobbled by an ankle sprain) or Ersan Ilyasova will start at power forward. We don’t whether or not Keyon Dooling will be as effective as Luke Ridnour was backing up Jennings. We’ll have to wait and see.

We do know that this is the first season in ten years that the Bucks will go into the season without Michael Redd in a Bucks uniform.  Redd’s nowhere to be found in Bucks camp, and likely will not join his team on the bench in street clothes while GM John Hammond searches for a deal to unload Redd and his ridiculously absurd $18.3 million contract.

And knowing this with the tip-off of the Bucks season 27 hours away, I can feel those NBA pre-season browwnz beginning to clear away.