Tag Archives: Los Angeles Lakers

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.
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*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 …

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.

Bucks vs. Bulls: Best of times, worst of times for Andrew Bogut and the beleaguered Bucks

After getting all up in the Lakers business by blowing the champs out by 19 last week in Los Angeles, they’ve followed it up with a disappointing stinker at home against a playoff rival their fans hold no love — and now head down I-94 to play their actual rivals, the Central Division leading Chicago Bulls, without injured point guard Brandon Jennings.

These are the worst of times for the Milwaukee Bucks.  Yet there may be no better times for the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that — despite never suiting up a full squad — has not yet backed down from a challenge when it realizes they’re facing one.  Ask the Lakers, the Mavs, the Celtics, the Spurs, the Jazz and the Heat.

Unfortunately, the Bucks haven’t been good when they don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got a challenge on their hands.  They don’t respect the Hawks, so it seems, not when they’re playing them with center Andrew Bogut.  After humbling the Hawks by taking them to seven games without Bogut last April in the playoffs, the Bucks stuffed the Hawks and their new coach, Larry Drew, in Atlanta in November.

Same old mentally challenged Hawks, not used to adversity, bad on the road, flinching when the Bucks flexed their muscles.   The worst opponent for the Bucks playing at home before a Bulls game.  The 15-point loss was almost predictable — almost.  Predictability yet eludes the Bucks.

The Bulls have problems of their own — center Joakim Noah‘s broken right hand will be in a cast for at least another month.  Bogut is healthy, generally playing his best basketball since his season-ending injury last season and will be guarded by the Kurt Thomas, Bogut’s backup last season.  The Bucks will have an interesting time chasing Derrick Rose without Brandon Jennings’ rare ability to stay in front of the Bulls point guard, but these are the best of times for the Bucks in the paint against the Bulls, despite new Bull Carlos Boozer.

Bucks 6th man Corey Maggette looked more out-of-sync than his out-of-sync teammates did against the Hawks, a sign that the Bucks on-court chemistry with its new additions is still a work in progress.  The worst of times.

But Maggette’s hasn’t been the “bad porn” player for the Bucks that he’s was with the Warriors and the Clippers, when he went through the motions, selfishly got his points and didn’t seem to care who was winning the game.  He’s been determined to make this 6th man thing work in Milwaukee, he’s a tough matchup for the Bulls and he’s due for a big game.  The best of times.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Only the Dallas Mavs and the Denver Nuggets have played a tougher schedule than the Bucks, according to today’s Strength of Schedule rankings.  The best of times for now that it’s behind them.

Over the next ten days the Bucks schedule gets tougher with the Mavs, two against Lebron, D-Wade and the Heat, and the the Magic, the Hawks again and the Spurs.  The worst of times.

The Bucks are playing the Bulls, coach Scott Skiles’ old team, against whom they won three games from last season and let the fourth slip away.  The best of times.

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Hawks power forward Al Horford had an efficient and workman-like 18 pts and 12 rebs Monday against the Bucks, possibly solidifying an All-Star vote from Bucks coach Scott Skiles.  Yes, power forward Al Horford — he didn’t start the game on Bogut, who spent much of his 40+ minutes on the court guarded by 7-foot center Jason Collins.

Yet this was a startling development for Bucks broadcasters Jim Paschke and Jon McGlocklin, repeatedly hyped the Bogut-Horford matchup as a battle for the East’s backup center slot behind Dwight Howard.  When Bogut opened the game by taking Collins baseline for a layup, Paschke identified Collins as “[pause as he was about to say Horford then noticed that Horford wasn’t gaurding Bogut] um … the big man guarding [Bogut].”  The charade continued for the rest of the game, with neither Paschke or McGlocklin — who work for the Bucks — bothering to correct the “Al Horford – center” misperception.

It’s not as though an inefficient 14 points on 7-19 shots is going to get Bogut to Los Angeles in February, but is it any wonder that events in the East conspired last season to deny Bogut his first All-Star appearance?  Is anybody working in the Bucks P.R. department?

At least TNT analysts Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley (“he’s undersized;” “I still don’t think he’s a center;” “his midrange jumper has made Horford one of the better power forwards;” etc.) this season (and last) have paid attention to what position Horford actually plays.  So does Atlanta coach Drew, obviously.  One has to assume that the rest of the East coaches are doing the same.

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“The scary thing is, maybe they were trying.”

There, somebody finally said it.  “They” are the Los Angeles Lakers, losers at home to first the Bucks (by 19) on Tuesday and the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.  The scary realization from the Lakers perspective is that there was very little difference in their energy, focus and commitment last week against the Bucks and Heat.

Of course, you had to be watching the Lakers’ games against both the Bucks and the Heat to realize it.  L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke did, and wrote it. The Lakers were playing hard last week.  They were trying.  All-Star center-forward Pau Gasol was simply outplayed by Bogut and Chris Bosh.  Andrew Bynum isn’t anywhere close to 100%.  Some of the other Lakers (Derrick Fisher, Ron Artest, Steve Blake) don’t look like they’re up for a third championship run.

F.U. too, Kobe

Upon being ejected with 2:07 to play in the Bucks’ 98-79 blowout of the Lakers in L.A. Tuesday, Kobe Bryant issued the following statement:

Because there was nobody else but the Bucks Earl Boykins in the general vicinity (90 degrees to the left) toward which Kobe hurled his only post-game statement, it is believed that the statement was aimed at Boykins.  What did the 5′-5″, 135-lbs Boykins say to elicit such a succinct post-game analysis from the Lakers star?

Boykins led all scorers in the game with 22 pts, shooting 4 of 5 from 3-point-land.  That’s saying plenty.

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The Bucks (11-16) get set for the 3rd and final game of their pre-Xmas West Coast trip tonight in Sacramento against Tyreke Evans and the Kings (5-21),  the team worst record in the NBA.  With the Bucks trying to hang in there while Brandon Jennings recuperates from foot surgery, the Bucks cannot afford a let down or a loss, considering what the mean ol’ NBA schedule makers have in store for the Bucks over the next three weeks.

They Bucks have played the toughest schedule in the league this season, yet it gets even tougher between X-Mas and Jan. 12 — two games against the Heat and the Hawks; one each against the Bulls, Magic, Spurs and Mavs.  The Kings and Nets are the only bottom-feeders in the upcoming 10 games, both on the road.

The Bucks in this 10-game stretch need to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, a problem in November when nearly every Buck not named Brandon Jennings was dealing with an injury of one sort or another, physical or mental.  If they don’t, what they do head-to-head against the Bulls and Hawks may not matter.

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The KINGS: Rookie big man DeMarcus Cousins lost his starting job earlier this week when he pissed off coach Paul Westphal … etc.  Does anybody really care?  We’re talking about the 5-win Kings … and Cousins will at least play.  Bogut should dominate in this game and … wait — who’s that on the Kings roster?  It’s none other than Bogut’s old nemesis from Philly, long-armed center  Sam Dalembert.  Bogut has had some of the worst games of his career against Dalembert, worse (though not recently) even than the Monday night embarrassment in Portland.  The injury report says Sam’s in, and Westphal would be a fool not treat the Sac fans to Bogut vs. Dalembert.

Another player of interest is Donte Green, starting at small forward for the Kings.  At least Green ought to be starting at the three — he’s got one of the worst rebounding averages I’ve seen for a guy who goes almost 6’10”.   The Bucks took a good look at Donte before the 2008 draft, working him out with their top 2 choices, forwards Joe Alexander and Anthony Randolph.  Green wasn’t considered a lottery pick by anybody in 2008 (and neither was Alexander until the Bucks decided he was) mainly because, like White Thunder, Green was a ‘tweener — a lot of leaping ability but not rugged enough to play power forward or skilled enough to play the wing.

Teams basically had the same questions to varying degrees about Alexander, Green and Randolph, with the Bucks choosing Alexander because he was a lot stronger than Green or Randolph, which seemed to offer the possibility that Alexander could play some power forward.  Looks and strength tests can be deceiving, John Hammond.  For 2008 draft hindsight’s sake, it’ll be interesting to see how well Green has developed with the Kings.

And there’s Darnell Jackson to check in with, too.  The Bucks picked Jackson up off waivers from the Cavs late last season, played him in one game and left him off the 12-man playoff roster.  Hammond didn’t offer Jackson a contract in the offseason, traded Jackson and the Bucks 2011 2nd-round pick for big forward Jon Brockman.  Then Hammond opted to use the Bucks MLE on free agent big forward Drew Gooden  — a signing that’s shaping up to be a sore spot for Hammond for, well, as long as it takes to figure out how to use the good in Gooden’s game or find a team willing to take his five-year contract.   Jackson is the Kings starting power forward.  Brockman’s had his moments — but those have been few and far between.

Steve Blake should write this Earl Boykins headline

I’m pouring over my ponderous analyses into what the Bucks can and won’t and might possibly do over the next 4-6 weeks to fill the void created by Brandon Jennings‘ fractured left foot — in hopes of finding some sliver of foresight into the great and mystical Lakers-destroying powers of the Bucks’ 5-foot-5, 135-pound, 3rd-string point guard, EARL BOYKINS.

Boykins scored 22 pts in 26 mins, hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers (8-for-12 shooting overall) as the Bucks shocked the Lakers in Los Angeles 98-79, holding the defending champs to 13 points in the 4th quarter while Earl bombed away from 3-point-land.

Boykins was the difference, a game changing advantage off the Bucks bench that not Kobe, Gasol nor Artest and could overcome, much less Steve Blake, the Lakers backup point guard, who happens to be the only player ever traded for Boykins in Earl’s 12-season, 10-team NBA career.

Nope.  I’ve hardly mentioned Boykins this week in the wake of the Bucks’ announcement that Jennings would miss a month or more.  I wrote that Boykins was “too, too short to guard anybody in the NBA,” grumbled about the point guards Bucks GM John Hammond let slip away and then spilled about 500 words mulling over the Bucks point-forward possibilities. “For the most part, it’s incumbent on Keyon Dooling to step up” in the absence of Jennings, I wrote.  Brilliant stuff, wasn’t it?

In my defense, I did describe Boykins as “electrifying” — but failed to even mention in that context that the Bucks had once traded Blake to Denver for Boykins (and Julius Hodge) for Earl’s electrifying entertainment value.  The Bucks were tanking in 2007;  Blake was set to become a free agent at the end of the season and had very little interest in playing for Milwaukee.   Michael Redd wasn’t going to play, coach Terry Stotts was about to be fired and then-GM Larry Harris figured he might as well give Bucks fans a mighty mite scoring machine to watch the rest of the season.  Blake was shipped to Denver; Boykins to Milwaukee.  Harris didn’t offer Boykins a new contract in the summer.  Blake signed with the Trailblazers, the team the Bucks had acquired him from (in a 2006 off-season trade for Jamal Magliore).

When the Bucks picked the 34-year-old Boykins up off the NBA scrap heap this summer, Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova were all that was left of the 2007 Bucks, effectively making the Scott Skiles Bucks the 10th NBA team Boykins has played for in 12 seasons.

It was all too fitting last night that Blake — again, the only player ever traded for Boykins — was the Laker most often found chasing Boykins around the Staples Center.  Blake — who didn’t score in the game — didn’t fare so well, obviously, and by the time the Lakers subbed Derrick Fisher back in for the stretch, Boykins was  was on fire, shooting guard John Salmons was in a groove and the Bucks were out-strong-arming the Lakers amid a game-clinching 22-7 run.

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YAHOO’S BUCKS-LAKERS PHOTO GALLERY (from AP).  You’ll want to hit that link before yahoo moves it or zaps me for licensing no-nos.  — AP photographer Jeff Gross reveals with 44 photos the tale of a gritty, determined Bucks team refusing to back down from the Lakers, finally breaking the will of the champs in an 4th quarter.  Gross’ camera zooms in on Andrew Bogut‘s scowling matchup with Lakers’ center Pau Gasol and gives a shot-by-shot narrative of Kobe Bryan’t ejection from the game.  Content Warning: Graphic grimacing, ugly defense, sweat.

Here’s a sample — feel free to insert your own captions below.  Please.

Bogut and Gasol waged a titanic battle, the first half going to Bogut (11 points) as the Bucks successfully established AB’s post game.  Gasol struggled all night to score against the NBA’s 3rd-rated defender as Bogut effectively shut down Gasol as a Lakers first option.  But Bogut repeatedly left Gasol to help on Laker drives and Pau cleaned 7 off the offensive glass to finish with 15 pts and 11 rebs.  Bogut matched his 15  and grabbed 8 rebs, also blocking two shots and taking a late charge on Kobe Bryant that led to Kobe’s ejection.

Dancing big men: In a play that was typical of Gasol’s struggles against AB (the photo at left) Gasol dribbled into Bogut, found his path impeded, stopped, carried the ball as he kept his dribble and tried to force is way around Bogut.  No call was made and the Lakers ended the possession turning it over anyway — but it got coach Skiles off the bench barking at the officials for not whistling Gasol for the carry.

Not surprisingly, the Bucks 98-79 blowout of the Lakers’this week has been largely attributed to the Lakers lack of energy and focus, especially with ESPN pointing all eyes to the Lakers’ marquee Christmas Day showdown with the Heat.  That’s too bad, because the Lakers reported “lack of interest” wasn’t all that evident watching the game live.  They may have “gone through the motions” but isn’t that what the Lakers do until the 4th quarter?  It usually results in a win (after the requisite Kobe highlights) and it’s what they’ve done all season against the softest schedule in the NBA.

The Lakers opponent Tuesday night, the 10-and-16 Bucks, had played the league’s toughest schedule and battled the elite of the West even tougher.  A week before the Lakers game, the Bucks beat the Mavs in Dallas and came within a traveling-on-Manu no-call at the buzzer of forcing overtime in San Antonio.  There was much going into the Bucks-Lakers matchup that had nothing to do with the Lakers state of mind.  Here’s some of it.

1) The Bucks’ pride had been wounded the night before in Portland (a 106-80 loss).  Even without injured point guard Brandon Jennings, there’s talent in the Bucks core.  Center Andrew Bogut is an All-Pro, shooting guard John Salmons a proven 20-point per game scorer, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute two young, hustling, hard-nosed forwards who’ve won more than they’ve lost for coach Scott Skiles.  These days, the Bucks core is desperate to prove that last season’s 46 wins were no fluke.  They played with urgency, hunger — and it’s not as though Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and Matt Barnes off the bench, didn’t.  Media heard nothing from an angry Bryant postgame, and Gasol and Odom weren’t exactly running to the microphones and tape recorders either.

2) The Bucks D, currently rated 6th in the NBA, was solid all night, as stingy as it’s ever been in the 4th quarter as Skiles relied on his core — Bogut, Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute and Salmons — and Boykins.  Bogut had Lakers center Gasol harnessed most of the game, Ilyasova wore down ailing Lamar Odom, who was less and less a factor in the 2nd half, and Mbah a Moute and Salmons’ defense on Kobe was about as good as it gets.  Mbah a Moute, who lives in L.A. and is an off-season friend of Bryant, put on a defensive clinic against his mentor on five or six consecutive possessions in the 4th — and the refs set new Bucks-Lakers precedent by letting them play.  Unfortunately, the clinic didn’t make the highlight reel.  Derrick Fisher and Ron Artest were offensive non-factors — negatives, in fact; and  nobody on the Lakers bench cut loose for a big scoring night, as Shannon Brown did Nov. 16 in Milwaukee.

3) The foul story. The refs whistled more fouls on the Lakers (19) than on the Bucks (18).  That’s unheard of — indeed new precedent for the Skiles Bucks and Phil Jackson-Kobe-Gasol Lakers.  Not coincidentally, Skiles recorded his first win as Bucks coach against Jackson and the Lakers.

4) Bogut, Salmons and Ilyasova. Bogut was a better center than Gasol last night, no big surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention to the Bucks and Bogut since last season. His post-up offense in the first half (11 pts) set the tone — and the stage — for the Bucks upset, and while Gasol scored 15 the Lakers’ offense bogged down repeatedly when the ball went to Gasol posting up against Bogut.

Ilyasova is a rising young power forward in the league who — despite a rough start and an early-season benching by Skiles — has successfully locked horns with the likes of Paul Millsap, Kevin Garnett and now Odom, who’s off to one of his best starts in years.  Odom took it right at the Ilyasova eary in the game for six driving points but forgot to guard Ilyasova’s jumper or block Ersan off the boards.  By halftime, Ilyasova had 13 pts.  By the 4th quarter, Ersan was beating Odom to the glass.  By the final minutes, Odom was resorting to cheap shot fouls on the last of Ilyasova’s 11 rebounds.  Odom finished with 12 pts, 10 rebs. Ersan had 17 and 11.

It can’t be said that Salmons outplayed Kobe, and he had defensive help from Mbah a Moute — but Salmons won the offensive efficiency battle.  Salmons had 20 pts, 6 assists and 2 turnovers.  Kobe had 21 pts on 9-16 shooting but turned it over 4 times and dished for only 2 assists, less than half his play-making average.

At the end of the game, the box score read:  52 pts, 22 rebs, 11 assists and 9 turnovers for Bogut, Ilyasova and Salmons;  to 48 pts, 24 rebs, 10 assists and 9 tos for Gasol, Odom and Kobe.   It looks nearly dead even until you look at the shots taken board — 48 shots for the Lakers to 42 for the Bucks, adjusted for free throw attempts, of course.  That’s a ten-point advantage to Bogut, Ilyasova and Salmons even if the Bucks were shooting 35% — which they weren’t.

With Boykins (4-for-5) and starting point guard Keyon Dooling (2-for-4) shooting a combined 6-of-9 from the Land of Ray and Reggie, the Lakers needed either a Christmas stocking full of big shots from the supporting cast or help from the refs to stay in this game. They got neither.

5) The supporting casts. The Lakers bench, playing against a shorthanded Bucks crew, kept them in the game until early in the 4th quarter, then faltered when the Bucks reserves found a higher energy and intensity gear.  Blake didn’t score in the game.  Shannon Brown disappeared in the 2nd half.   Ron Artest and Derrick Fisher shot a combined 3-for-13 and basically killed the Lakers chances.   Boykins looked ten years younger dribbling circles around 36-year-old Fisher, and Fisher’s strong arm tactics, which might have deterred a younger Earl Boykins, couldn’t slow the 34-year-old Boykins.  Fisher’s usefulness to this Lakers team has got to be nearing its expiration date.

Salmons and Mbah a Moute weren’t about to be physically intimidated by Artest, though Chris Douglas-Roberts was relegated to a quiet 20 mins.  A quiet game for Ron-Ron — but not so out of the ordinary.  He’s had a lot of those in his career.  Both Fisher and Artest generally suffered from the lack of ball movement created by Kobe and Gasol.

6) John Salmons. Fish has found water.  As stupid as that metaphor sounds, it’s a huge relief for the Bucks to have Salmons back to  last season’s 20-pts-per-game form, when the Bucks finished the season 22-8.  Salmons’ shooting woes have helped sink the Bucks to their 11-16 record, and they’re still dead last in NBA shooting percentage.  Yet Salmons lit the Blazers up for 23 pts in the 2nd half Monday and scored an active 20 on 14 shots in LA Tuesday.  The Bucks 40% shooting can’t possibly endure statistical probability, and neither could Salmons’ prolonged slump.

7) The absence of Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden. Maggette, who suffered a concussion last week against the Spurs, was in street clothes on the Bucks bench, hopefully taking notes on the good ball movement and offensive flow that the Bucks had going against the Lakers.  Gooden was in Milwaukee, still suffering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot.  Chemistry has been an issue with the Bucks this season.  As harsh as it sounds, one has to wonder whether the Bucks fourth quarter would have been possible with either of the new acquisitions on the court.

Skiles has been loathe to play Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova together — yet doing so in LA helped lock the Bucks into an aggressive, attacking defense that not even Kobe Bryant could solve.  Chances are that fourth quarter defense would not have happened had Skiles had Gooden or Maggette at his disposal.  And it’s doubtful the Bucks would have exploited Boykins’ hot hand as well as they did given how much Maggette and Gooden demand the ball, sometimes for reasons apparent only to them.  Ersan and Luc played a combined 60:30 — possibly unprecedented — and the Bucks don’t win without them.

8.) The Ersanity Factor. The 11-16 Bucks are now 7-6 when Skiles plays Ersan Ilyasova half the game (24 mins) or more.  Ilyasova played 33 mins in LA.

9) The Lakers. It’s useful to remember that the Lakers were seriously challenged by the Suns in the Western Conference Finals last season, and were more than a little lucky that Artest played the game of his life in Game 7 to beat the Celtics in the Finals (Kendrick Perkins’ injury in Game 6 also duly noted).  Kobe’s Lakers are far from invincible, and never were as good as ESPN — and certainly not Lakers fans — have made them out to be.  Over time — and perhaps as soon as the Christmas Day showdown with the Heat — this loss to the Bucks will look less and less like “a trap game” in which the Lakers “went through the motions,” and more and more like a game in which an up-and-coming young team was tougher — mentally and physically — than a fading champion.

10) The Lakers “deserved to lose.” That’s a post-game quote from Fisher, and I can’t argue with it.  The underrated and shorthanded Bucks, for one night, were the better team.  And 5′-5″ Earl Boykins was better, much better than Derrick Fisher and Steve Blake.

The “Ginobili rules” of the West don’t put the Spurs in title contention

He took the ball on a bounce after a sloppy, tipped inbound.  He held it too long, allowing precious seconds tick away, robbing his team of any chance for an offensive rebound if his final shot missed.  He advanced then toward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the best defenders — if not the best defender — in basketball.  He drove hard left but Mbah a Moute was there first.  He pushed Luc off with his right arm but not far enough — Mbah a Moute stayed right on him as he planted a pivot foot.  He had no time and no choice but to jump full back, with both feet — traveling — and tossed up a 20-footer that barely lofted over Mbah a Moute’s outstretched hand.

No whistles.  The jumper poured through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Spurs a 92-90 win over the Bucks.

“He” is Manu Ginobili, Charles Barkley’s second favorite player.  How about Charles’ boy this week?

“You mean that he travelled?” – Sir Charles doth speaketh.  “… That’s a travel. In all 50 states, that’s a travel.”

Not in San Antonio, Texas, on a Wednesday night in December — and not when the 10-13 Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off a Texas sweep of the teams with the best records in the West.  Are the Spurs and Mavs truly title contenders?   Maybe.  But no, not if Boston and Miami continue playing the way they’re playing, not really.  Not if they’re struggling — and the Mavs failing — to beat the Bucks in Texas.

It’s been two-plus seasons since Ginobili, Parker and Duncan made the West Finals but the story seems to be that this summer they “banded together” for a title run in 2011. It’s an improbable story when you consider that they haven’t really been close to a title since 2007 when they last won; and it’s not a story everybody’s buying into — the Denver Nuggets certainly didn’t on Thursday night.  FoxSports “In the Paint” NBA analyst Marques Johnson this week qualified  his take on the Spurs and Mavs as “the best in the West” with a telling … “for now.” And he says it twice for emphasis.

Marques (1977-1984) was the greatest forward to ever wear a Bucks uniform, the only Buck not named Kareem or Sidney to be a 1st team All-Pro.   It’s always strange to see Junior Bridgeman‘s #2 up in the BC rafters (though they on the court together for roughly half the game, Bridgeman was Marques’ backup) while Marques’ #8 is still in circulation, worn by rookie Larry Sanders (heck, I’d wear it too if I were a Bucks rookie).  Like Barkley, Marques is more keen on the Mavs chances — probably figuring that Dirk Nowitzki is the one player whom none of his contending Bucks teams would have had a defense for.  The Spurs?  “The Spurs are the Spurs,” Johnson shrugged.

But the thing that’s going unmentioned in the NBA this week by Marques, Barkley or anybody is that neither the Spurs or Mavs looked like championship contenders against the Bucks — a concession perhaps to the idea that the Bucks have the unluckiest 10-14 record in basketball and are so-under-the-radar in terms of contention that you need sonar to track them.  The Bucks haven’t backed away from any challenges since Andrew Bogut came back into the lineup, including the Heat, but that’s not the point — nobody’s going to talk about the Bucks until they start putting the ball in the basket with more regularity, go on a winning streak and actually beat the Heat, which they’ll get two chances to do the first week of January.

The point is, the Bucks were screwed in San Antonio — no other way to put it.  The refs didn’t just eat their whistles on Ginobili’s buzzer beater, they were loathe the entire game to call fouls on the Spurs starting five.  That isn’t going to happen if and when the Spurs meet Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Here’s the foul story: One on Manu, one on Parker, one on DeJuan Blair and three on Tim Duncan, who was guarding Bogut most of the night and basically humped his arm with the score tied 90-90 and the Bucks trying to feed their All-Star center in the post.   No fouls on Richard Jefferson.  That’s six fouls in 150 minutes played by the Spurs starters — or an astounding one foul per 25 minutes played, which means the refs were not about to whistle even 5 fouls on the Spurs starters per 120 mins of available PT in a half.

Brandon Jennings was hacked all night by Tony Parker and battered to a 4-18 shooting night.  Yet the Bucks, with John Salmons and Corey Maggette all but benched for the game and Carlos Delfino still recovering from a head injury, had the ball with the score tied at 90 and 30 seconds to play.

The following night in Denver it was more of the same for the Spurs, playing at full strength against the Chauncey-less Nuggets.  Duncan fouled out two or three times by my count but was only whistled for four, even as his counterpart, Nene Hilario, was fouled out.  Parker — who fouls everybody in sight — was caught for all of one foul playing 37 minutes.  In the end it was Manu twisting for a layup to give the Spurs the lead and then saving the game by leaping into Carmelo Anthony‘s path to draw a charge as time expired — taking the winning points off the Denver scoreboard.

Was Ginobili there, planted in position in time?   It was close, too close not to question — but it was Manu.  Of course the call went his way, whether or not what he did was to jump — leap, literally, both feet in the air from the weakside — under Carmelo as Carmelo (31 pts in the game) was gathering to lift to the rim.

But hey — it was Manu.  Tough luck, Carmelo.  “Bullshit,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.  The Spurs are now 22-3, the best record in basketball and they’re playing at full strength in December. It’s the fastest start in Spurs history.  But I watched the Spurs lose twice this week, and so did you — only to see the refs award them the wins.  No, the Spurs are no title contender — they don’t have the muscle in the paint to help Duncan and truly contend, and no amount of magical refereeing will allow the Manu and Parker and RJ show to carry them to the finals.

Call the Spurs a lucky 22-3, as lucky as the Bucks 10-14 mark has been unlucky and injury riddled.  As lucky as the Bears 9-4 record atop the NFC North (oh, that’s probably stretching it).  The luck of things in the NBA have a tendency to even out over the grueling 82-game schedule — let’s not go ahead and crown their asses yet.   Remember, against the Bucks, the Spurs were posterized in the 4th quarter by, of all people, Drew Gooden.

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“I still don’t think he’s a center” — Kevin McHale on the Hawks Al Horford — who is not a center despite the Hawks insistence (under Mike Woodson anyway) that Horford is a 6’11″center.   In Boston, Horford had just hit an early 18-footer against the Celtics, and McHale noted that Horford’s improving 18-footer was the thing that “separates him from other big forwards.”  Al Horford, power forward.  Too small to start against Andrew Bogut and other centers (that task goes to Hawks big man Jason Collins), and too small at 6’9 to appear on center ranking lists.  Hopefully, commentary like McHale’s is a sign that Bogut will be making his All-Star game debut in Los Angeles in February.

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Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 4:  19.8 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.

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Speaking of centers and the Bulls, Joakim Noah will be out nursing a broken right thumb until after the All-Star break.  With the Bucks in the middle of the toughest stretch of basketball in the league this season, fate (or Bulls management) has conspired to make sure the Bulls don’t run away with the Central.  The Bulls can’t and won’t keep up their 16-8 pace (and 3rd-ranked defense) without their defensive anchor in the paint having the All-Star season he was having — but the Bucks have a six game hole to climb out of while playing the toughest December-early January schedule in the league.

The Bucks play Dec. 28 and Jan. 24 in Chicago.  Noah will miss both of those, which means the Bucks won’t get a chance to see the Rose-Noah-Boozer Bulls until Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.  That’s too bad, because a Bucks-Bulls game without Joakim Noah is like playing the Celtics without Kevin Garnett — it takes the fun out of the battle for the paint.  I wonder if Bogut will miss him.

I can’t help but wonder, though, given that 2-handed push shot that Noah throws up at the rim,  what he needs his right thumb for?

Bob Boozer, 1960 Olympic Team remembered

I was surfing around a bit today and found a Los Angeles Times piece from August about the 1960 gold medal winning Olympic Team, which was enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame this year along with the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.”

A big forward on that 1960 amateur team was none other than Bob Boozer, the top pick in the 1959 NBA draft and later the man whose retirement in 1971 is believed to have set in motion the Bucks ongoing jinx at the power forward position (not to say that the LA Times has recognized the .atter phenomenon, but give them time).

Here’s an excerpt:

Knee injuries delayed the professional basketball debuts of No. 1 NBA draft picks Greg Oden and Blake Griffin.

For Bob Boozer, it was national pride.

The top pick in 1959, he kept the Cincinnati Royals at arm’s length for more than a year to maintain his amateur status in hopes of playing for Team USA in the 1960 Olympics.

“I always had this deep desire to represent this country on its Olympic basketball squad,” Boozer says, “and at that time, you only had one go-round at it. Everyone told me, ‘Your chances are remote,’ et cetera, et cetera. Each person that tried to get me to sign on the dotted line expressed that, but I said, ‘Hey, this is something I’ve got to go for.’

“I knew I only had once chance.”

The 6-foot-8 former forward made the most of it, taking his place on a team coached by Pete Newell that tore through its Olympic competition in Rome by an average of 42.4 points a game.

Considered the greatest amateur basketball team ever assembled, it featured future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy.

“We,” Boozer says, “were the first Dream Team.”

Read the full article here.

UPDATES: Still no Andrew Bogut or John Salmons in the Bucks preseason, which hasn’t helped lend any relevance to the games, though the Bucks have won three of four.  How do they look?  That remains to be seen because I haven’t seen them, but, again, how to get a fix on a team playing without two of its top three players (Bogut and Salmons)?

Last night (Thursday) in DC, the Bucks fell behind 57-51 at half but rolled the Wizards in the second half (96-88 final) with their usual in-yer-jersey defense and a rim-attacking offense that got to the line 43 times.  A free throw advantage?  The Bucks could get used to that and should; in the absence of Bogut, they took advantage of the Wiz in the paint all night with Drew Gooden (25 pts), who started at center.

Defense in the second half, however, was the story.  Luc Mbah a Moute (35 mins) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (a team-leading 35 mins for CDR) led the defensive charge that turned the game around (the Wiz were held to just 31 pts in the second).   Carlos Delfino (28 mins) was back in the lineup after missing a couple of games with a bad toe, and coach Scott Skiles singled out Del and his defense, ball movement and spacing for praise, which along with the high minutes played for his defensive stalwarts, is a pretty strong indication of what Skiles is looking for and who’s getting it done .

Ersan Ilyasova at power forward and Keyon Dooling backing up Brandon Jennings are also seeing strong preseason minutes.  I still don’t see where defensively-challenged shooting guard Corey Maggette fits in to the rotation, not with Del and CDR battling for guard minutes behind Salmons, and Luc surely to get some minutes there too based on defensive matchups.

It’s early, I know, and it’s all too easy at this point to see Maggette as trade bait to help trigger the inevitable deal to part ways with Michael Redd.

TOUGH BREAK for Hobson: With the pending logjam on the wings, rookie Darington Hobson wasn’t going to play much, and now he won’t play at all this season.  Hobson had surgery on his left hip a week ago and the knife will go into his right hip in a couple of weeks, the Bucks announced. Hobson will miss the entire season and that doesn’t sound good for a second round pick who hasn’t had a chance to make much of an impression on his new team.

On the other hand, it’s probably not so bad for Hobson to sit out while Skiles and Hammond figure out how much they like CD-R, decide what they want to do with Maggette, gauge whether Luc can improve his outside shot and earn more minutes on the wing; and let’s not forget Delfino and the question of how committed the Bucks are to Del.  As noted above, Skiles is beginning to realize the value of having Del on the court.

That’s quite a lot to sort out, which didn’t make Milwaukee this season the best environment for a rookie wing to develop in.  A healthy Hobson next season might have a better chance of defining his game and earning some PT.

Bucks Weekend: Is Andrew Bogut the best center named Andrew drafted in 2005? Skiles dunks on Shaq!!!

What’s this? A two-game home win streak for the Bucks before flying out to Los Angeles and the Battle of the Andrews? The fans needed that. But first, a moment of NBA Weekend Zen from J.E. Skeets over at Yahoo NBA’s Ball Don’t Lie blog.

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After a well-knit, all-around team victory over the Chicago Bulls Wednesday, the Bucks face Charlotte tonight at the BC to close out their lightest week of the season and then it gets tough again. The Bucks head to Los Angeles for a Sunday night game against the Lakers, the first of three on a Sunday-Wednesday west coast swing.

The pairing of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol has delivered one of the top 3 teams in the NBA (Celtics and Cavs the other two) but another force awaits the Bucks and Andrew Bogut in LA:  The other Andrew. The other A.B. The other center in the 2005 draft.

Bogut was the #1 overall pick in the 2005, while Lakers center Andrew Bynum went #10 straight out of high school. After a slow development his first two season, Bynum brought it on last season, averaging 13 pts, 10 rebs and 2 blocks through 35 games before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. After knee surgery, Bynum’s back in the flow for the Lakers putting up the same, steady numbers. His rebounds are down a bit but Bynum’s now playing alongside Gasol, who was acquired last season after Bynum was hurt.

Bynum’s numbers are generally comparable to Bogut’s but judging these centers is not about the numbers. Watching the two Andrews battle was one of last season’s highlights as the Bucks stole an early season game from the Lakers. Both young centers played well in the matchup but it was clear that the only things Bogut did better than Bynum were pass the ball and take charges. Everything else, especially the shot-blocking and the ability to stay out of foul trouble, has gone Bynum’s way … with the exception last season of the all-important “health” quotient. Even that goes Bynum’s way this season as Bogut appears slowed by ankle problems and missed three games with a knee bruise  …  

Check out this story from earlier this week, after the Lakers beat Toronto last Sunday. Bynum had 18 and 10 and harassed All-Pro big forward Chris Bosh to his worst game of the season. How will Bogut fare?  We’ll see on Sunday. This is good test for both Andrews, and it should help answer our question: Who is the best center named Andrew drafted in the 1st round of the 2005 draft?

This vs. poor Joey Graham of the Raptors is just ugly!





The all-important health quotient: When are these Bucks going to get healthy? The win against Chicago was a strong statement that Scott Skiles has the Bucks moving in the right direction (the interior defense was SOLID) but it didn’t stop the incessant injury report questions that have nagged the Bucks all season long like a bad trick knee. Charlie Bell needs a break to rest his bum ankle. Andrew Bogut returned from his bruised knee only to get whacked in the head and retreat to the locker room with a migraine. Bogut is questionable still with the tip-off against Charlotte twenty minutes away.

Some media is so dulled by the injury stories that they just didn’t bother with the update Friday: WTMJ-TV News 4 didn’t even report Bogut’s migraine – Lance Allen! Where’s my injury report?  Skiles did all he could to keep Larry Brown and the Bobcats guessing about Bogut’s status up until a half hour before the game. But who was he kidding? No Migraine was going to keep Bogut from outmuscling Emeka Okafor in the paint for the 6th straight time. A little basketball’s probably good for a migraine anyway.

The Bobcats game Friday was not on the toob. I suppose this means that the Bucks want us to go the game. Incentive? They looked like a team moving in the right direction in beating the Bulls Wednesday, and $29 upper level seats are $10. Disincentive?  I’m off to watch the Celtics and Portland Trailblazers on ESPN, my first chance this season to see Blazers rookie center Greg Oden.

Sam MitchellSam Mitchell makes a classy exit: The Toronto Raptors fired coach Sam Mitchell Wednesday and you could see it coming. After trading T.J. Ford for Indiana Pacers’ injury-riddled center Jermaine O’Neal, the Raptors looked no better than they did last year when they finished 41-41 and were bounced out of the playoffs in the 1st round by the Orlando Magic. In fact they looked worse in their early season matchup against the Bucks, a game the Bucks would have won if not for some terrrrible decision making by a certain shooting guard in the final minute.

 

Now the Raptors are just like the Pacers of the last couple of seasons: waiting for O’Neal to be healthy. The former All-Star center hasn’t played in nearly two weeks. After losing to Kobe, the other Andrew and the Lakers Sunday, the Raptors were blown out by 39 points in Denver Tuesday and that was the end for Mitchell. The Raptors are 8-9 and still on the western road, playing tonight in Utah.

 

I never thought T.J. for O’Neal was a good trade because of questions about O’Neal health. Not that T.J. Ford is the picture of health either, but I think you can do better for a dynamic point guard than an aging, injury-prone center.

 

Marbury to be a Celtic? Apparently it’s possible according to a report on ESPN Radio, though I question whether ESPN could have got the scoop with the media that surrounds the Knicks on the case. But here I am in the blogosphere mongering another ESPN rumor. Marbury, who was first benched by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni then refused to play when the team was shorthanded, is currently banished from the team and trying to negotiate a buyout of his contract. If Marbury gets a buyout (similar to what Sam Cassell did last season), he would then be waived and could sign on with another team after clearing waivers. ESPN has reported that the Celtics, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat are interested. The New York Daily News reached Marbury by email Friday but Marbury refused to comment.

 

Packer broadcast break: “When that ball goes to the ground … wow … Satan rules at the bottom of an NFL pile. You don’t want to be there.”  — CBS color commentator Gus Johnson. The Packers had just recovered a fumbled punt by the Texans in the 4th quarter.

 

Deep Sixed in Philly?  With Elton Brand missing his second straight game as the Sixers played the Nets Saturday night, center Sam Dalembert pulled another disappearing act. Dalembert didn’t score, grabbed a few rebounds and had his shot blocked three times. Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks benched him in the loss, after playing him only 18 mins vs. Detroit the previous night. Dalembert grabbed a single, lone rebound against the Pistons. Dalembert’s had a few of these games in the last two-three weeks as the Sixers have struggled, falling to 9-12.  Sixer fans are beginning to wonder whether Sam’s injured, in the doghouse, or just out of it.

Why should Bucks fans care? Well, if Philly continues to struggle and Dalembert disappears, this is good news for the Bucks and Andrew Bogut, who’ll meet the Sixers three times this season. Dalembert has caused nothing but problems for Bogut in the past. If the Bucks are to have any hope of reaching the playoffs, Philly’s the kind of mid-level team to beat. With Detroit, Philly and Toronto struggling after big acquisitions (Brand for Philly, Allen Iverson for Detroit and Jermaine O’Neil for the Raptors) the playoff picture in the East is looking murky. This could be good for the Bucks.

 

Devin Harris playing like an All-Star: Tom Enlund leads off his NBA beat column with a look at ‘Tosa East’s own Devin Harris, who’s emerging as the best point guard in the Eastern Conference (now that Chauncey Billups is in Denver) and is 5th in the league in scoring, first in free throws made.  Richard Jefferson had this to say about his former Nets teammate, who came to New Jersey in the Jason Kidd trade last February:


“Devin is one of the best young players in this league. I’m extremely proud of him. He’s a friend of mine. I knew right away when he came over from Dallas that they had received a very, very good piece.For him, he works so hard and learned so much from so many people – (former Dallas coach) Avery Johnson and all the players there – and now he’s in a situation he’s able to show all the things he’s learned. Everybody knew he was a great player. He was on a team that went to the Finals, on a team that won almost 70 games, and now he’s in a situation where it’s his team and he’s really starting to flourish.”