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The Big Trade: Notes on Eric Bledsoe, a guy named Moose, bad knees and luxury taxes, and Jason Kidd

Eric Bledsoe made his debut with the Milwaukee Bucks last weekend, after being traded from the Phoenix Suns for Greg “Moose” Monroe. Licences: Standard non-commercial use.

With Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt, the Bucks have a legitimate No. 2 scoring option at guard to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo, three wins under their belt already and are poised to take the next to step to become contenders in the East. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It was good national story spin for the Bucks last week when the trade of Bledsoe for Greg Monroe (and two draft picks) went down. And why not? It’s nice to see the NBA media paying attention to the pro basketball team from Milwaukee.

But the trade didn’t sit quite right during the week, like that feeling you had after trying the “secret sake” at Jerry’s Sushi Hut on ’80s Flashback Night. The feeling didn’t go away after watching Bledsoe’s first two games with the Bucks over the weekend. Maybe it was the Lakers game on Saturday, a rough night for the Bucks starting guards and Khris Middleton. They shot 7 for 28 on the night, Bledsoe going 0 for 6 from 3-point-land and 4 of 12 for the game). In the mix of misses were a bunch of “bad” shots — bad form for the Bucks, usually a very good shot selection team. Malcolm Brogdon, who gave up his starting point guard job in the Bledsoe trade, played smart off the bench and Giannis was Giannis the MVP with 33 pts and 15 rebounds.

But the Lakers game was one game, a sloppy win on the 2nd night of a back-to-back (only 12 more of those left boys) against a young team. Monday against Memphis, the Bucks and their coach showed that not much had changed in Milwaukee from the week before. When Kidd went to his bench in the 3rd quarter, the offense stalled, scoring just 7 points in six minutes. Still, the Bucks built an 80-72 lead with 3:02 left in the quarter, but were outscored 22-9 over the next 7:23 to fall behind by five, 89-94. The shots weren’t falling, the Grizzlies had control of the game, and Bucks coach Jason Kidd had managed to rest Antetokounmpo for only a quick breather before the quarter change.

These were precisely the minutes that were Monroe’s. The Moose came off the bench to provide a steady supply of easy offense in the post, good rebounding and slick passing to open teammates as the Bucks played inside-out, a rare thing in the NBA these days, but as effective as ever. After the trade, one idea was that some of these minutes would go to Bledsoe, who could lead the offense while Kidd rested Giannis a few minutes. But Kidd has yet to play Bledsoe without Giannis in the game. Bledsoe sat on the bench through the entire Memphis run, watching his new teammates fall apart in his Milwaukee debut.

Enter Bledsoe and starters Tony Snell and Khris Middleton after a Bucks timeout inside of 8 minutes to go. The Bucks suddenly went on a 14-3 run, then closed out the game with solid defense. Bledsoe was everything advertised — the quickest man on the court. He drew fouls, eventually fouling Mario Chalmers out of the game. He grabbed rebounds (4), he turned the ball over (1), he had a nice assist to John Henson (1), the Bucks center by default. He caught the Grizzlies sleeping by bolting to the hoop for a layup while they were setting up on D. The Grizz promptly called time out, victims of an 11-2 Bucks run in the space of 2:41. Bledsoe had capped it with a show of speed, quickness, basketball savvy and ability to get to the hoop and finish. And he showed, to anyone who cared — why the Bucks made the trade.

If the Lakers game was one game, so too was the Memphis game.

Bad knees

It wasn’t too long ago, just a few months, that the Phoenix Suns shut Bledsoe down for the final month of their 2016-17 schedule, reporting that “Bled” had been playing through knee soreness. It was his left knee, the one surgically repaired in Dec. of 2015, the third major knee surgery of his career. A meniscus tear in his right knee, the other knee, was surgically repaired in Oct. 2011, and then the cartilage removed altogether in 2014.

Three major knee surgeries in four years and a sore knee last season. But you wouldn’t know it from the coverage of this trade — no mention in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel coverage by Matt Velazquez, nor many other places. The story in The Sporting News was the only one that focused on Bledsoe’s injury history, deciding that Kidd was taking a risk to win now, without risking too much. Bledsoe’s tweeted request to be anywhere but Phoenix can be viewed as a form of self-preservation. What player wants to grind away what’s left of their knees and career on a team just now adopting Philly’s “trust the process” motto?

Suddenly he’s a Buck, and being a Buck is great for Bledsoe. Milwaukee wants to win now, make the playoffs and win in the playoffs, all the while touting 22-year-old Giannis as the first or (depending how you describe Lebron) second coming of Wilt Chamberlain meets Michael Jordan. The superstar needs a quick point guard who can help him destroy NBA defenses. It’ll be a good match.

It’s not so bad either for the Suns, who cleared out Bledsoe’s $15 million salary next season to stay about $12-$15 million under the salary cap while they develop as many as three 1st Round draft picks. One of those could be the Bucks pick, but the Suns will only get the pick next season if it’s in the range of 11th to 16th. Based on team expectations and the unique way the pick is protected, the Bucks probably won’t convey the pick to Phoenix until 2020. Phoenix also gets the Bucks 2018 2nd round pick if 48th or lower.

Added bonus for Suns fans: They get to do the MOOOOOSE call for a few months if Monroe plays in Phoenix (looks like he might not).

Greg Monroe and P.J. Tucker grapple during the Bucks playoffs series last April against the Toronto Raptors. License: Standard non-commercial use.

The Bucks in this trade lost their most reliable scorer off the bench, Monroe, whose inspired play last March when his playing time increased helped drive the Bucks strong finish. The Bucks run to the playoffs featured an 18 wins – 6 losses streak where Monroe played 25.5 mins per game, the most he had all season, and scored 13.9 pts per game on 55.3% shooting, and hauled in 6.8 rebs and dished 3 assists per game.

Monroe’s production went up in the playoffs to 15.5 pts and 8.8 rebs per game through the first 4 games, the message wasn’t lost on coach Kidd. He had all but benched current starting-center-by-default Henson — until the fateful and still controversial game 6, when Kidd pulled Monroe for Henson after Moose was hit with a 2nd foul in the first half. The Raptors didn’t look back until the 4th quarter when the Bucks were dominating the game and it looked like a Game 7 in Toronto was inevitable. It wasn’t.

So naturally, when the 2017-18 season opened with Matthew Dellavedova — who lost the starting point guard job to Brogdon — and Henson getting more playing time than Monroe, there were rumblings all over town about “same old Kidd, still can’t manage a game”; and the Bucks were “playing the bad contracts they’re stuck with”. No coach in their right mind would play “Delly” the minutes Kidd gives him, and why was Kidd bothering people with Henson after benching him last year? Where was Monroe?

Giannis was making headlines, scoring 208 points in the first six and the Bucks had a 4-2 record, not bad for a bunch of guys who weren’t really playing well. But something wasn’t right in the Bucks camp, possibly very wrong as they lost four straight with Moose on the sidelines with a calf muscle injury. The Bucks looked like a team that would again have to fight to get into the playoffs, not the East contender they imagined themselves to be.

And then the trade went down. Coach Kidd hadn’t lost his mind after all — he didn’t want to be stuck playing Delly and Henson. Maybe one, but not both. He decided to roll the dice on Henson being able to play his best basketball; and I guess this means that Kidd really has been on the lookout for a better point guard all this time. And here is Bledsoe, a super-quick, attacking point guard who rebounds, too. The simple math looks something like this:

Bledsoe + Henson + Brogdon > Monroe + Brogdon + Delly

… and if not, Monroe’s $17.9 million contract was expiring at the end of this season anyway, and there was no evidence to say that Kidd was ever going to stop tinkering with Moose’s minutes and match-ups. In making the trade, Kidd eliminated a personal negative the fans were ready to gnaw on like a hambone, potentially a savage mess for the coach, the players, everyone involved.

In case of some unforeseen calamity or if Bledsoe’s knees don’t hold up, the Bucks still have Brogdon and Delly and the pit bull defense of super-sub DeAndre Liggins, plus a few million dollars created by the trade to find a big man to help out during the playoff push, if it comes to that (and it should). They’ve got $3.44 million to be exact, a rather big deal for the Bucks, whose noses were right up to the luxury tax line before they made the trade.

And let’s not forget that the Bucks expect the return of their injured 20.1 points per game forward, Jabari Parker, in February.

Luxury taxes and Jabari Parker

The Bucks in this trade lost the expiring $17.9 million contract of Monroe, which was expected to come in handy next summer when the Bucks hoped to resign Parker. Bledsoe’s $15 million contract next season will eat all but $2.9 million of the Monroe clearance, leaving their player payroll at $105 million. See Bucks contracts here.

The current luxury tax gate, where teams pay $2 for each dollar spent on the “over” side of the gate, is at $119.266 million. Assuming a 3 to 5% increase in the salary cap next season, the luxury tax gate would move to $123-$125 million (estimated). The Bucks have $105 million committed to the 11 players currently under contract for 2018-19, which includes Bledsoe and the $3.9 million to be paid to Larry Sanders and Spencer Hawes.

The math says this leaves $18-$20 million to pay Parker and two new players to make the required 14-man roster. Supposedly Parker turned down an offer from the Bucks to play for more than that, but sources also said Parker recently held up a bank in Saginaw, Mich., and was believed to be holed up at Michael Redd‘s house in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Redd is said to be an expert X-Box baller.

What really happened is that Parker talked to NBA.com writer Steve Aschburner (who used to work in Milwaukee for the old Sentinel) and Aschurner wrote an  in-depth update on Parker last week. It’s another fine article from Aschburner, featuring interviews with Parker, Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and knee surgery rehab expert Derrick Rose.

When Aschburner asked Parker about whether the Bucks coaches had given him any work “to draw him close” to the team to prepare for his return, Parker had this to say: 

“Next question.”

In other words, the Bucks offered less, probably much less than the going rate — the maximum $148 million contract signed by Parker’s “top 3 pick” 2014 draft-mates, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Parker, of course, turned them down.

And what Kidd wanted more than anything was not Parker but one of those “real point guards” basketball nuts in Milwaukee have heard so much about ever since the previous owners’ Bucks traded Sam Cassell to Minnesota in 2003. So the Bucks jumped to it when Bledsoe became available, and now they have more than just a point guard — they’ve got a guy who can beat Parker in any sanctioned knee surgery scar showdown.

Now that Kidd has Bledsoe and Giannis, the Bucks would sooner trade Parker than hand him anything resembling $148 for five years. Yes, Parker is on the trading block, more likely than not, and it’s a safe bet that every Buck not named Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker or Eric Bledsoe are right there with him.

Shouldn’t have had that “secret sake” at Jerry’s Sushi Hut.

Bledsoe vs. the Bucks guards,

… or the start of a very long stat analysis of Bledsoe and the Bucks 2016-17 guards that will be in the next post down, but below is a chart made at basketball-reference.com which illustrates some major topics to be addressed during what I’m sure will be an amazing journey into the Valley of Sensory Deprivation by NBA statistical analysis. (ed. note)

“Dynamic” was the word of the week at Bucks headquarters when describing Bledsoe. The new Bucks GM, Jon Horst, used it a couple of times in announcing the deal, and NBA-TV analysts Greg Anthony and Dennis Scott both picked up on it. Scott even added “dynamism” to the vocabulary.

Dynamic is defined by “constant change, activity or progress” Dynamic is a good thing, and Bledsoe’s numbers reflect a player who is active in all facets of the game, has a nose for the ball, likes contact, beats defenders off the dribble, gets to the rim and the free throw line, and moves the ball around better than the average NBA point guard.

There’s no question about whether or not Bledsoe is an instant upgrade to the Bucks backcourt. He can create his own shots and draw fouls by getting into the D past the first defender, something the Bucks guards struggle to do almost every game.

  • Bledsoe goes to the free throw line more often than all three of the Bucks guard starters from last season COMBINED.
  • He was nearly a 20-5-5 player in Phoenix during his four+ seasons there, averaging 18.8 points, 6.0 assists and 4.8 rebs.
  • He turns the ball over a lot – 4th in the NBA among starting point guards last season.

Here’s that chart: “Per 36 minutes” stats for Bledsoe and former starting point guards Brogdon and Dellavedova, plus starting shooting guard Tony Snell.

Per 36 Minutes Table
Player From G BIER FG FGA FG% 3P% FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Eric Bledsoe 2010 421 7.40 6.1 13.7 .444 .334 5.2 .800 5.0 6.1 1.9 0.7 3.6 2.6 17.5
Malcolm Brogdon 2016 84 6.80 5.4 11.7 .464 .419 2.3 .856 3.7 5.7 1.5 0.2 2.0 2.6 14.4
Matthew Dellavedova 2013 301 2.81 3.6 9.1 .392 .388 1.4 .834 3.1 6.0 0.8 0.1 2.1 3.3 9.9
Tony Snell 2013 303 2.34 3.8 9.0 .422 .380 1.0 .818 4.2 1.7 0.8 0.3 1.1 2.3 10.3
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/9/2017.

 

BIER = Basketball Impact and Efficiency Rating (also means “beer” in German).

Also Note: “Turnovers in basketball games” though not found in any dictionary definition of “dynamic” may be considered part of its noun variation, “dynamism”, which, thanks to Dennis Scott, was included with Bledsoe in “the big trade.”

Source-erole

  • Sporting News was the only media about the trade interested in Bledsoe’s injury history: http://www.sportingnews.com/nba/news/nba-trade-rumors-eric-bledsoe-news-bucks-suns-giannis-antetokounmpo-jason-kidd-coach/e4bgwqo5bf4o10g44n7o94ckj
  • ESPN and NBA.com on Bledsoe’s past injuries: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/18920619/phoenix-suns-shut-pg-eric-bledsoe-remainder-season –
  • http://www.nba.com/2015/news/12/29/suns-eric-bledsoe-out-for-season.ap/
  • http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/14459203/eric-bledsoe-phoenix-suns-miss-rest-season
  • NBA.com news on the trade: http://www.nba.com/article/2017/11/07/report-milwaukee-bucks-nearing-deal-eric-bledsoe-phoenix-suns#/
  • NBA contract numbers: https://www.basketball-reference.com/contracts/PHO.html
    • for the Bucks: contracts/MIL.html
  • NBA.com – Steve Aschburner’s really really good feature on Jabari Parker: http://www.nba.com/article/2017/11/08/milwaukee-bucks-jabari-parker-finds-bright-side-rehabbing-acl-injury#/
  • Deadspin on Bledsoe’s tweet: “One of the best athlete tweets ever” – https://deadspin.com/well-thats-probably-it-for-eric-bledsoe-in-phoenix-1819774495
  • Gamebooks at NBA.com, Bucks-Lakers, Bucks Memphis, Bucks-Cavs
    • https://data.nba.net/10s/prod/v1/20171113/0021700194_Book.pdf
    • https://data.nba.net/10s/prod/v1/20171111/0021700182_Book.pdf
    • https://data.nba.net/10s/prod/v1/20171107/0021700149_Book.pdf
  • Basketball-reference.com for all basic stats, tables, per 36 stats, player info linker, etc.

Giannis and Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard (or how this blog is not about referee Marc Davis)

In the 2nd quarter of their home opener Friday (Oct. 20), the Charlotte Hornets found themselves down 40-20 to the visiting Atlanta Hawks and looking for answers. And then Frank Kaminsky happened.

Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky by unknown artist. License: Standard non-commercial use.

For a stretch that went on for 8:30, Buzz City in Charlotte looked a lot like how the Kohl Center in Madison used to look when Frank the Tank was rolling and spinning to the rim, old school footwork confounding defenders, shooting touch getting every roll, Frank playing with the supreme confidence and determination that made him the college player-of-the-year in 2015.

By the time Kaminsky was done, the Hawks lead was down to seven, 56-49 at half and the Hornets had their mojo back. Frank had 15 pts in the quarter, nine of them on 3-point plays: two from downtown and one on a classic Frank spin move to the basket going to his left hand for a layup — and one. He found Kemba Walker with a pass for an open 3 that helped get the Hornets going. He grabbed three rebounds. He did it all, put his team on his back and led them and the home crowd back into the game. The Hawks folded in the 2nd half (with some help from a crew of very unsympathetic referees) and Charlotte won going away, 109-91.

Nights like this haven’t happened too often for Kaminsky in his two-plus years in the NBA. More often than not, he has struggled to make shots. In his rookie year he hit just 23.8% of his mid-range shots, and 30% in his second season. Overall he shot a very un-Frank-like 41% from the floor and was even worse in his 2nd season – not even 40% (39.9). His three-point shooting was no compensation, as he barely made a high enough % to justify shooting them – 34% his rookie year and 33% last season. Frank Kaminsky a 47% effective shooter in the NBA? Say it ain’t so. The league averages were 50% his rookie year and 51.4% last season — the all-time high.

Frank’s troubles, from what I could tell, stemmed from a lack of definition to what position he was playing on the court. He could no longer play post-up center like he did in college, but he had always roamed out to the 3-point line at Wisconsin, anyway; it’s what made him such an obvious pro player. But for whatever reason — the quicker, bigger NBA defenders or poor conditioning or plain old bad luck — the shots were not falling for Frank; and, unlike in college, he couldn’t dictate when and where he was going to get the ball on any given possession. Kemba Walker, not Frank Kaminsky, dictates the offense in Charlotte. So forgive the rookie and 2nd-year-player-learning-the-ropes stuff or not — Frank was not much of a factor for the Hornets in his first two seasons.

Dwight Howard looks very happy in Charlotte. The Hawks actually had Ersan guarding Howard at times during Friday’s game. It didn’t work. License: Standard non-commercial use.

But things are different in Charlotte this season. The Hornets now have Dwight Howard manning the paint, and, no matter how maligned Dwight has been during his five years of team-hopping, he is still a top 5 rebounding defender in the game, still the best of his generation. Dwight’s defensive rebounding %, total rebounding % and defensive rating are No. 1 among active players. The rebounding % is 3rd All-Time, a hair higher than %-haul by the late great rebounding legend, Moses Malone. Dwight’s not the shot-blocker he once was, but few teams challenge him inside anymore. Dwight Howard is a beast, how quickly NBA fans and media have forgotten, and he’s only 31 years old (32 in December). His Atlanta Hawks were on pace to win 48 last season before the injury bug hit the team after the All-Star break.

Ahh, there’s the rub — nobody likes to make excuses for “Superman”. And as the game has moved out beyond the 3-point line in the new, faster paced, bombs-away NBA, post-centric big men like Howard are viewed as dinosaurs. The new NBA center is Nikola Jokic, agile and versatile with a “European” shooting touch. Dwight Howard — though still a great athlete who can outrun most other bigs — has no shooting touch. But in Charlotte, Dwight doesn’t have to shoot; he has Frank. And while Frank the Tank is no quick-footed sprinter, he shoots with a feathery touch around the rim and has a crazy toolkit of moves that make him a versatile, creative scorer who can get almost any shot he wants if he works the defense.

Frank Kaminsky is everything Dwight Howard is not; and Dwight is one of the best in the NBA at all things Frank the Tank struggles to do well in the NBA — rebounding, defense, rim protection. If Dwight can’t make his free throws, Frank shoots 90% from the line. Together, they’re a monster combo.

BUCKS-HORNETS 10/23/2017

Giannis led the Bucks to victory, Monday, but Dwight and the short-handed Hornets made it tough, tying the score at 94 with 2 mins to play. License: Standard non-commercial use.

If the early games are any indication (and there have only been three for the Hornets as of this writing) , Dwight is easily the best thing that ever happened to Frank in the NBA. Though he, himself is a limited offensive player, Dwight’s ability to set granite stone screens and move people around in the paint has instilled a sense of clarity to the Hornet’s approach, and opened the game up for Frank, whose confidence over the weekend returned to a Bucky-on-a-Final-Four-run level.

It appears Hornets coach Steve Clifford will keep Frank and Dwight on the floor a lot. Dwight is averaging 33 mins per game and Frank is getting 30 mpg. Combined, they’re averaging 27.0 pts and 22.3 rebs per game. Frank didn’t play well in the opener in Detroit, but he came alive against the Hawks on Friday with 17 pts, 6 boards and 3 assists for the game. On Monday in Milwaukee, Howard and Kaminsky took only 14 shots but scored 26 points (18 from Frank, who led the Hornets in scoring) and hauled in 27 rebounds (22 by Dwight).

Okay, Dwight missed all nine of his free throws in Milwaukee, and perhaps the outcome would have been different had he made four or five of those — but Dwight shot 53% from the line last season, and has made nearly 4 out of 7 for his career (56.5%), better than Wilt, Shaq, DeAndre and Drummond. He won’t shoot 0 for 9 often, but the Bucks were glad to have it in Milwaukee.

The Hornets not named Dwight and Frank shot just 36% for the game, and were 5 of 20 in the 4th Quarter, yet somehow managed to tie the score at 94 inside of two minutes (thanks to a big three by Frank). Most teams would have stolen this game from the Bucks, but not the short-handed Hornets. They were missing two starters, injured guard Nic Batum and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who hasn’t played since pre-season due to a death in the family. Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NBA draft (Anthony Davis draft; John Henson for the Bucks) has missed 40% of his career so far due to injuries, but played in 81 games last season.

The Hornets were also missing Cody Zeller, who bruised a knee against Atlanta. They’re down to Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb and former Buck Johnny O’Bryant off their bench, plus rookie Malik Monk — yet the Bucks needed a big three and defensive heroics from Khris Middleton, another MVP performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dwight’s missed free throws to ice the game. How do the Bucks match up against Charlotte at full strength? Not so great, outside of Antetokounmpo, and maybe Middleton when he’s on, though Kidd-Gilchrist’s scrappy defense might have some effect on Khris. The Bucks were lucky to catch the Hornets when they did.

The Hornets are a big reason why I didn’t listen much to the off-season talk about how weak the East was going to be after four All-Stars — Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — went West to win more on national TV. The Bucks were 9-3 last season against Chicago, Indiana and New York, so New York and Chicago committing to rebuilding and Indiana clearing out George, Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis isn’t going to change much in the East for the Bucks or Wizards, two teams that stood pat and watched these stars and lesser stars move around.

The moves that mattered more were Cleveland trading Kyrie Irving to Boston, obviously; Boston signing Gordon Hayward, obviously again; Toronto foolishly resigning Kyle Lowry for 3 yrs/$93 million; and then this interesting business between Atlanta and Charlotte involving Dwight Howard. Charlotte in the Dwight trade gave up only streaky shooting gun Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee (remember him?) and a 2nd round draft pick. “Superman” for next to nothing, to a team that won 48 games in 2016 but lost a step last season and missed the playoffs. It seems that Hornets owner-GM Michael Jordan had a plan in mind when he made that out-of-nowhere trade for Plumlee last season.

With Irving and Hayward in Boston, Dwight in Charlotte and the Cavs adding Derrick Rose  and Jae Crowder, the top six of the East looked to be tougher than last season, even if Toronto is prolonging the inevitable. (Raptors broadcasters in week 1 were hyping C.J. Miles as the new secret weapon off the bench who will make a big difference this season. Really. C.J. Miles who played for the Pacers last season, and I had to look it up to be able to write that. A Snell-avedova moment in Toronto? NBA Free League pass preview is a beautiful thing.)

Then Hayward got hurt in the season opener against Cleveland. Joel Embiid took a health game in Philly. Rose is hurt again (only a sprained ankle this time) and Isaiah Thomas won’t be available until maybe January. In Milwaukee, coach Jason Kidd has played John Henson as much Greg Monroe, and has had to play Dellavedova more than Brogdon (sprained ankle) so far; it’s as though last season never happened. Middleton is off to another poor start shooting (47.1 efg), shades of two years ago.  In just a week, the East went back to being the East.

Or did it? The Wizards are the only undefeated team in the conference, which makes a lot of John Wall sense. Giannis is so good that nothing his coach or teammates have done (or not done) has kept the Bucks from winning 3 of 4. The Magic jumped Cleveland in Florida the day after the Cavs humbled the Bucks in Milwaukee, handing the Cavs their first loss. The Magic have three wins!! Brooklyn has two, and doesn’t appear to be a joke this season!! So does Boston after the Hayward injury! And Dwight and Frank have a buzz going in Buzz City.

Did the East get worse in the off-season? I’m not sure that was possible, and it really is too early to tell. What I do know from gorging on NBA League Pass free preview all weekend, is that Aaron Gordon down in Orlando (41 pts, 12 rebs in the Magic’s third win last night) looks a lot more like an All-Star/All-Pro than Carmelo Anthony or Paul George or Paul Millsap.

Come to think of it, none of those three “stars” made the All-Pro teams last season, did they? Maybe ESPN or some other media has some old shoe commercial footage to remind us all what the fuss is about. Perhaps Russell Westbrook will be able to figure it out. Not so far — the Thunder lost two out of three to open the season, including a loss at home to the Timberwolves, led by Jimmy Butler, one team-changer who did make the All-Pro teams last season.

Referee Marc Davis, more than a slap on the wrist

Many Bucks fans may have noticed (how could you not?) that Marc Davis refereed the Bucks home opener against the Cavs last week. I don’t know whether or not this should be considered a response to the “More than a Slap on the Wrist” series during last season’s playoffs. But it sure felt like a slap in the face when the officiating in the first half was atrociously pro-Cleveland, confirmed by the official scorers’ report. For the game, a 17 to 10 fouls called disparity against the Bucks. Yes, the refs saw fit to call only ten fouls on the Cavs all game long.

The Kevin Love at center experiment will work wonderfully well if the referees refuse to call a foul on him when he tries to rebound and play D against much bigger, longer-armed players. The Bucks lost their cool on offense and chucked 21 threes in the first half, immature basketball at best. Kyle Korver had no such problems in the 3rd quarter, and hit a barrage of threes that drained the life out of all Bucks but Giannis, a lone star on a mission. The Bucks roster has a long way to go if they’re going to matter in the playoffs. On the bright side, Korver was cold in Orlando the next night, and the Magic handed the Cavs their first loss. There is hope.

I stopped writing about the NBA refs last season for a very good reason: I wanted to enjoy the NBA finals, the basketball part of it. And NBA Official wasn’t responding to my calls or emails for comment. Maybe they’ve responded now, by scheduling Davis to work the Bucks home opener, though I’m sure they wouldn’t characterize it as a response to anything. And so it goes.

In any case, this business reminds of a funny story about retired ref Joey Crawford, whose rottenness became so legendary that players had fun with it, and “Joey” became part of the show. I think there’s a message therein about the “legendary” refs in NBA history and how their legends were won. Coming soon to a Bob Boozer Jinx near you.

Happy start of the 2017-18 NBA season, all!!! It’s been a long summer.

Source-erole and other notes:

  • Bucks-Hornets 10/23/17 gamebook and more at NBA.com: https://data.nba.net/10s/prod/v1/20171023/0021700044_Book.pdf
  • Hawks-Hornets gamebook and more at NBA.Com: http://www.nba.com/games/20171023/CHAMIL#/video
  • Also, links boxscores, roster info at (as always) basketball-reference.com – What would bloggers do with BBR?

NBA Trade Deadline: A survival guide

It’s that time of year when nothing is true and everything is permitted in the NBA rumor mill. Fake news abounds, the rumors mostly click bait, yet somehow, someway, the craziest out-of-nowhere trades happen. Who saw either Plumlee trade (Miles to Charlotte and Mason to Denver) happening?

Who saw DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi (an underrated forward) headed for New Orleans for a 6’4″ rookie shooting guard (Buddy Hield), another shooting guard who won the Rookie of the Year with the Kings (Tyreke Evans) but doesn’t play much these days, a backup point guard who bombed out with the Knicks last year (Langston Galloway), and a first and second round draft pick.

Even Rolling Stone hates this deal for the Kings. Since when does Rolling Stone write about sports? And what does this have to do with the Bucks, or surviving the phantasmagoria of internet non-reality at the #NBATradeDeadline ???

Everything and nothing. Let’s get started, then.

Rule No. 1: Trust no one, but especially not the Bucks reporter in Racine. Gery Woelfel long ago got into the habit of citing unnamed sources for trades that he truly believed in but never happened. Woelfel’s “news” is mostly click-bait for the Journal Times and gets ignored around Milwaukee, but is picked up by Hoopshype, Hoops Habit, Hoops Rumors and other NBA nooks online, who then serve it up to people who follow those nooks, people you may know, and pretty soon you’re talking about the very Woelfel rumor you ignored the day before.

Woelfel’s trying to trade Matthew Dellavedova and Roy Hibbert for Ricky Rubio and a walleye sandwich right now. Past attempts to get Rubio ended when the T-Wolves demanded that Khris Middleton be included in the deal. Everybody loves Khris, but so do the Bucks.

Rubio doesn’t know about Woelfel, apparently, and sounds a little like he might be traded. Yesterday he tweeted: “Never stress over what you can’t control.” @rickyrubio9 on twitter.

Rule No. 1a: Revisit that twitter account you rarely use.

Rule No. 2: Trust no one, but check out The Vertical with Woj. I became a fan of Adrian Wojnarowski’s feature writing for yahoo a few years ago, and he and his gang of Vertical writers are a heads up crew around trade deadline. They’re saying most teams aren’t looking to do anything major right now, there’s “no traction” to much of the talk, and swaps involving big money centers are the most unlikely of things (killing the Monroe rumors they helped fuel last year). The Cousins trade really did come out of nowhere.

Rule No.  3: The most trade-able player in the NBA is Ersan Ilyasova, and it’s getting pretty funny (that’s him in the photo above, don’t send him money!). Ersan and his highly trade-able, expiring $8.4 million contract were shipped to the Hawks last night, his 5th trade since playing for the Bucks in 2015. This is good for Ersan, as he’ll get a chance to play in the playoffs on a team with Dwight Howard, who’s back near the top of the NBA center rankings (No. 2 behind Denver’s Jokic). The Hawks have the fifth seed in the East and would play Toronto if the playoffs started today.

Rule No. 4: Don’t click on anything that has a question mark in the header or offers a list of things, unless it’s a really funny list. People that sit up all night trolling for trade rumors are very tired people who are not usually funny. People who put questions marks in headlines (ESPN does this a lot) don’t usually have any news.

Rule No. 5: If you think your team has bad contracts, chances are the other teams also recognize those contracts to be bad and don’t want them either. The Bucks overpaid Dellavedova, John Henson, Mirza Teletovic and Miles Plumlee and were lucky to dump Plumlee on the Hornets. The remaining three are not “helpers” in the sense that a playoff contender might really want any of them and they are all heavy – $83 million left to be paid AFTER this season. Henson and Delly contracts go through 2020. The Mirza deal is for two more years after this one. Lebron wants Delly back in Cleveland, but the Bucks made it nearly (edit: the CBA says no, Cavs can’t do it) impossible for the Cavs to do anything about it, given how much the luxury tax they’re already paying.

Let’s review those salaries:

Delly – 3 more years, $28.8 million.

Henson – 3 more years, $32.5 million

Mirza – 2 more years, $21 million, the most trade-able contract, the least impactful player this season.

Rule No. 6: Think of all the reasons a team won’t do the trade, and keep in mind that those reasons are probably more important than your team’s reasons for wanting to do the trade.

Rule No. 7: You need movable pieces to make a trade. The Bucks have a couple of those, most notably expiring Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes, who has a player option for $6 million this summer. They offer salary relief, cap space, and, like Ilyasova, are highly trade-able. Unfortunately, you need the cap space too, and to make the trade happen, you probably have to take on a contract for next season that will eat up just as much if not more of your cap space than the contract you’re trading.

Rule No. 8:  A case of Pabst Blue Ribbon sweetens any deal. In the past, we’ve used Milwaukee’s cheap-o hipster beer to improve fantastic Michael Redd trades, a deadline trade for Josh Smith‘s favorite headband, and one involving this great looking parka that Wally Szczerbiak had, which was a much better deal than Raef Lafrentz’s “Curious George” hat, which was also pretty cool.  I’m not exactly sure whether that last one happened or not.

Rule No. 9: Stay off of the Sports Illustrated fan sites. The Bucks site is Behind the Buck Pass (don’t click on that link, unless you really want to run all those ads!). which started out Trade Deadline Day working up a deal for Kings backup point guard Darren Collison. This fire was quickly doused by Brewhoop, which had found a tweet from Bucks beat reporter Charles Gardner of the Journal Sentinel that said the Bucks haven’t talked to the Kings as the deadline approaches.

Rule No.10: Trust no one, but know that Magic Johnson is now the Lakers GM, and is able to make trades with Larry Bird, the GM in Indiana. They talked about Paul George this week, but, hey, nothing happened. Bird’s probably figured out that Paul George isn’t the impact player people thought he was, but also figures most of the league hasn’t figured this out yet. The deadline has passed, and Danny Ainge still hasn’t made a trade for Boston despite a cacophony of chatter about what Danny Ainge and the Celtics want.

Rule No. 11: Just start a list like this one, make up some trades of your own, and suddenly the deadline has passed and we can get back to basketball.

Rule No. 12: Don’t trust your own list, but here’s one to check out. SB Nation’s “Every Trade” list. Oh, look, Andrew Bogut‘s a Sixer for a couple of months, and Taj Gibson‘s out of the Central Division (to OKC).

But hold on, the Sixers will likely buy Bogut out, freeing him up to be signed as playoff help, San Jose Mercury News is reporting (alert: real  newspaper!). The Warriors can’t resign their championship center until after the new NBA fiscal year starts, July 1, but the Cavs are reportedly interested in Bogut. The Celtics couldn’t make a move at the deadline, so they’ll be interested.

And if the Raptors (acquired P.J. Tucker from the Suns, Serge Ibaka from Orlando), the Wizards (acquired Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets, not to be confused with Serbian Bogdan Bogdanovic) and the Hawks (Ilyasova from the Sixers) are gearing up for the playoff dogfight in the East by adding solid veterans, real basketball players all, why can’t the Pacers and the Bucks? Bogut would be everything coach Kidd has wanted in a tough, intimidating defensive center to start games. There’s no harm done in trying to compete, nor in having a little fun while your doing it. The Bucks have been in the NBA’s bottom 5 in defensive rebounding % ever since Bogut was traded to the Warriors in 2012.

Tyler Ennis has been traded again, this time from Houston to the Lakers, who will trying to lose lose lose to protect their top 3 draft pick. Ennis reminds us that NBA Trade Deadline is often about players like Tyler Ennis.

Meanwhile, the Bucks handed Roy Hibbert’s expiring contract Denver for a super protected 2nd round pick in 2019 that the Bucks won’t get unless the Nuggets are one of the top 5 teams in the league. But at least the Bucks have an open roster spot to sign a player (Bogut!), and as of right now they are $453,951 under the salary cap.

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.

Most missed shots last season, final 4:00 of the 4th: James Harden, D. Lillard, Reg Jackson and Paul George led the league in errant gunning

Basketball-reference.com posted the always interesting 2015-16 clutch shooting stats via their twitter feed Saturday. The top 10 list below answers the question:  What do NBA stat geeks do on the weekend?  But it also tells an illuminating story about the state of most of the current NBA, where the pace is picking up but scoring is not; and where the most 3-pointers in league history were shot while offensive rebounding hit an all-time low.

Curious who missed the most shots in the last 4:00 of the 4Q? Find out in the Play Index

Note that there are no Warriors, Cavaliers or Spurs on the list (no Bucks either) — and no big surprises. Not one of these ten players was in the top 20 in 3-point % last season, yet five were in the top 20 in 3-point attempts (Harden, Lillard, George, Walker and Thomas). All of them were in the Top 15 in field goals missed, with the guy with the best shooting % in the final 4:00, Reggie Jackson, ranking 15th.

Seven of these guys were All-Stars last season (Lillard, Jackson and Walker were not). Eight were on playoff teams last year (Wall and Anthony were not), making for some nearly unwatchable basketball in the early rounds. Six are point guards plus Harden, who tries to play three positions simultaneously. Two are wildly inconsistent Kobe-formula All-Stars (George and DeRozan).  And there’s Carmelo. Every player on this list is on a team that would likely win more if the player shot less, passed more and took better shots.  Meet the marksmen of mediocrity, the top 10 gunners who shouldn’t in the final 4:00.

Harden called a reporter a “weirdo” for questioning his 29% shooting in the 2014 playoffs vs. Portland. The Rockets lost the series.

1) James Harden was 2nd in the league in scoring (29.0 pts/gm) but got off to a horrendous start 2015-16, dug his team into a hole early on, and led the NBA in missed shots and turnovers.  He posted his lowest 3-point shooting % in the last 5 seasons yet shot more threes than anybody but Stephen Curry. Harden’s stat sheet is filled with such absurdities, his Rockets were next to unwatchable, and the center, Dwight Howard, opted out for bigger green and greener pastures. (Edit: Howard signed with the Atlanta Hawks).

D. Lillard. When you’re this wide open, you should definitely shoot it.

2) Portland wasn’t supposed to do anything last season, so Damian Lillard shot more than he ever had in his career, missed more than anybody but Harden, shot less than 42%, and was snubbed for the All-Star game. Thanks to some Allen Iverson-type heroics from Lillard, however, and teammates that hustled for the missed shots and won 50/50 plays (much like Iverson’s Sixers), the Trailblazers had a surprising season. They even won a playoff series.

3) Reggie Jackson went from OKC to Detroit in 2015 after Brandon Jennings went down with a snapped Achilles tendon, and Jackson helped lead the Pistons to the playoffs for the first time since the Allen Iverson experiment. Having paid a fair amount of attention to the Pistons last season, I can say they lost a bunch of close games (hack-a-Drummond played a role there) and that Jackson and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot their team out of a few of those.

However, note that Jackson’s 45% shooting in the final 4 minutes is tied for tops on this list, and that 7 of the ten guys on the list played in the East. This means that the competition usually shot worse than Reggie, yet, somehow the Pistons were unable to catch the Pacers in the standings and were stuck playing Lebron and the Cavs in Round 1 of the playoffs (they were swept).

Paul George shooting, I think. This is not good form, kids.

4) Paul George shot less than 42% last season and missed more than anybody but Harden and Lillard. Despite the Pacers 3rd-best team defensive rating, George’s inefficient offensive play, along with Monta Ellis‘ usual madness and poor outside shooting, exiled the Pacers to mediocre-ville, prompting the firing of coach Frank Vogel.  Will new coach Nate McMillan be able to bring sanity to the Pacers’ offense?  We shall see, but note that George shoots below 40% outside of three feet from the basket, and under 40% in the final four minutes (see above chart).  That’s worse than mediocre, though his 3-point % is not. The Pacers crash to mediocrity was predicted here three years ago, and, well, we know what happens to most mediocre NBA teams. They don’t win, nor do they remain mediocre.  Let’s see how long GM Larry Bird waits before overhauling the roster. And look, I finally spelled Monta right.

5) Russell Westbrook would be near unstoppable if he played smarter and remembered more often that he plays with Kevin Durant (who’s not on this list of failure, you’ll note). The Thunder finished ahead of only the lowly Sixers in 4th quarter scoreboard differential last season, and a lot of it had to do with the hero ball that Westbrook and Durant like to play down the stretch (and that the OKC bench had a habit of losing big leads.) It’s scary to think that OKC has so much room for improvement, but they do.  The Thunder upgraded their roster last week with the trade of Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. (This was written before Durant bolted for Golden State, obviously).

This is not a good shot. Kemba Walker underwent successful surgery on his left knee in May.

6) Hard to believe Kemba Walker missed so much in the final 4:00 last season, given his uncanny success killing the Bucks in close games. Walker shot 46% (12 of 26) from three vs. the Bucks last season.  Thanks in part to the Bucks, he led the league in clutch scoring, according to the Hornets, narrowing it down to the final 2:00 of games decided by 4 points or less. His Hornets moved up in the East and won 48 games, but Hornets fans shouldn’t get too happy. The success had as much to do with the competition in the East than the Hornets’ competence — Charlotte was 20 wins, 3 losses against the Bucks (3-1), Magic (3-1), Knicks (3-1), Pacers (3-0), Nets (4-0) and Sixers (4-0).  But maybe they should get happy — all of those teams are still in the East.

7) Surprised John Wall is on this list?  I am too.  The Wizards were limping around for most of last season, and Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal seemed at times exhausted by it all — when they both played.  Wall had to take on added responsibilities due to the injuries, and, obviously, this resulted in more shots and fewer of the surgical passes he’s known for.

DeRozan and George battled it out in the playoffs, and it wasn’t pretty. DeRozan shot 32% from the field in the series, with George hacking him every step of the way.

8) DeMar DeRozan shot so poorly (39% including 15% on threes) during the playoffs that he should have been fined. Yet somehow he made another All-Star team and Toronto had its most successful season in history, losing to the Cavs in the East Finals — but only because Miami center Hassan Whiteside‘s knee gave out during the series with the Raptors.  They were nearly unwatchable in the playoffs. In the Pacers series, DeRozan’s eFG% was 33%, but, in all fairness, the refs kinda let George push him all over the court. Double D had a “Kobe formula”  stat line on the season, and, well, being on this list is part of having a Kobe formula stat line.

9) Isaiah Thomas is an electrifying young point guard, but he’s so small at 5’9″ that he gets worn down by the 4th quarter. Boston GM Danny Ainge desperately tried to trade the No. 3 pick in the draft for an established No. 1 scoring option at shooting guard/small forward but the Bucks (Khris Middleton), the Bulls (Jimmy Butler) and the Jazz (Gordon Hayward) all rejected the offer.  This may be an actual case where Thomas needs better-shooting teammates to stay off lists like this one.  But note that he did tie with Jackson for best shooting % on the list. Boston won 48 games, so it follows that opponents were usually shooting worse Thomas in the 4th.

Still Carmelo after all these years.

10)  A study a few years ago showed that Carmelo Anthony was the best clutch-shooter among the big names in the league, going all the way back to the early 2000s when Kobe and Shaq were winning titles and McGrady seemed unstoppable.  Carmelo has slipped, but then his 2016 Knicks were in a holding pattern, firing another coach and waiting for the free agents of this summer.  Carmelo laid back last season, played some good team ball, and enjoyed the surprise development of teammate Kristaps Porzingis.  I was actually surprised to see him on this list, but then, scorers will try to be scorers, whether they’ve lost a step or not.

What have we learned from this list?

High volume – low efficiency scorers may find their way onto All-Star teams and ESPN’s Sportcenter … if they shoot enough and don’t play in Portland or Charlotte (or Milwaukee).  But they’ll eventually drive their teams to mediocre-ville and take up residency there, where the fishing is always good in May and June.

Trade deadline anxiety: Why the Bucks resisted the urge to make changes

Khris Middleton lines up a shot in the Foot Locker 3-point shootout at NBA All-Star weekend 2016 in Toronto (2/13/2016).

“No one knows who he is, so he doesn’t get in the paper,” said TNT analyst Kenny Smith as Bucks guard Khris Middleton began his round last Saturday in Toronto at the Foot Locker NBA All-Star 3-point shootout.

“Who does he play for, Kenny?” wondered Charles Barkley, as though he didn’t already know.

Milwaukee Bucks, baby,” Smith fired back, probably wondering why Barkley (and everyone else at the analyst table) had let Smith’s use of a great Yogi Berra quote go by without comment.

Yogi-ism noted, this exchange spoke volumes about the Bucks and where they find themselves three years after the end of the coach Scott Skiles era, that five-year plan to build a competitive, relevant team in ruin. Three years later and they are struggling in the standings, still working to grow a fan base, a reputation; to develop young players into something resembling NBA stars. To establish an identity. Charles Barkley may actually know that Middleton plays for the Bucks, but it isn’t locked in his mind as a sure thing.

Such is the Bucks roster story of the last few years — just when you think you know who they are, team management gets restless and begins making changes, and not necessarily the right changes (Corey Maggette, Drew Gooden, Keyon Dooling, Stephen Jackson; trading Andrew Bogut for Monte Ellis and Ekpe Udoh; passing on Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard to dump Maggette and trade down for Tobias Harris, later traded for J.J. Reddick …). Nobody knew who they were, so not only did the Bucks not get in the paper, coach Skiles refused to sign the contract extension he was offered in 2012 and was asked to leave.

A lot has happened since then, most of it very good, beginning with the pick of the 2013 draft, 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. New ownership came in, hired new management and coaching, accomplished the near-impossible by negotiating a new arena deal, and set out to establish a new identity for the Bucks.  Trading a point guard (Brandon Knight) who shot too much and had trouble running the pick-and-roll was part of this identity thing. The Bucks and coach Jason Kidd wanted a tall, young, pass-first point guard with good court vision and they got one last February at the trade deadline — Michael Carter-Williams.

Greg Monroe and the Milwaukee Bucks were all smiles last summer when Monroe was signed, yet unfounded trade rumors persisted only a few months later.

Acquiring free agent center Greg “Moose” Monroe last summer was considered a great surprise catch at the time. Monroe was and is the kind of skilled big man who could give the Bucks reliable offense and presence inside, a borderline All-Star who, in the right setting could become a genuine NBA star. But while Monroe has played well (17 points, 10 rebs per game, team-leading 5.4 Win Shares at the All-Star break), the Bucks have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league and they’re currently out of playoff position. The obvious thing to do, of course, is to say “thanks for the excitement last summer and the five months of work, Moose” and trade him elsewhere. Right?

Monroe and Carter-Williams have allegedly been been on the trading block for a couple of months now, according to the rumor mill, and it’s been disappointing to see the speculation get as much play as it has.  Same old Bucks, some bloggers and reporters in Milwaukee and much of the NBA media seem to think — they’re losing, management is restless and they’ll entertain trade talk on everybody but Antetokounmpo, Middleton and 20-year-old forward Jabari Parker (Parker turns 21 on March 15).  The speculation died when real news reporting took over this week: It turned out that there was very little substance to the Monroe trade talk. Teams that inquired about his availability were rebuffed. The Carter-Williams talk is all but dead as the trade deadline approaches, and it has slowly dawned on most observers that there was no realistic trade available. All’s quiet with 15 minutes to go before the deadline.  Even the Miles Plumlee trade talk has died down.

The Bucks stood pat, win or lose, with their young, developing roster because it was the only sensible thing to do.  “There’re no change to be made. Continuity is something we’re trying for,” said coach Jason Kidd, also the guy most believe is calling the player personnel shots. Monroe and Carter-Williams need time. Parker, despite his obvious defensive and rebounding shortcomings and lack of court sense, needs time.

In the 1990s, Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Vin Baker were given a full season (1996-97) before it was decided that Baker (the Black Hole) was not a good fit. Carter-Williams has barely had that, Parker has not yet played a full season, and Monroe’s been a Buck for 54 games; the idea that the Bucks would trade him so soon after signing him was, from the start, ridiculous. This season was not the season for trades, and it’s a relief to write that as the deadline has passed and Carter-Williams, Monroe and Plumlee are still Milwaukee Bucks.  Plumlee had only recently begun to play well, filling in for injured John Henson, so it was good to see the Bucks decline on whatever offers were out there (the Wizards were reportedly interested).

Trade speculation around the deadline is an annual February ritual for NBA fans, complete with its own sense of non-reality. It’s not always a good thing, especially for a team struggling to establish an identity in the league. So far that identity is rooted in the sometimes brilliant play of Antetokounmpo and Middleton, when that happens, though both have been inconsistent this season. Inconsistency is the norm for most Bucks players (Monroe excepted) and this has been disappointing after making the playoffs last season. Middleton looks like an All-Star some nights. Michael Carter-Williams can be a shutdown defender, some nights. Antetokounmpo is nowhere to be found some nights. The bench players were unhealthy, almost every night.

Like it or not, the Bucks are still a development team and have been from the moment they started 18-year-old Giannis at small forward in 2013. This season was designed by the Bucks to be a development tableau for Jabari Parker, who may never become the front line star everyone thought he would be on draft day 2014. The shoe contract came first before the stardom in Parker’s case, and his future is a bit cloudy right now. Trading other players is not the fix for Parker, not this year, with the player himself still a work in progress.

Nobody yet knows who Parker and the Bucks are, so they don’t get in the papers. That’s OK. We don’t have anything definitive to write just yet, and nobody reads the papers anymore, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why +/- can’t be trusted for basketball analysis

When Ersan Ilyasova entered Sunday night’s game in Detroit, the Bucks were down 2-0 and Luc Mbah a Moute was headed for the locker room for some stitch work.  (See play-by-play log at NBA.com).

When Ilyasova left the game ten minutes later after picking up his second foul, the Bucks were down 29-21.   That’s a -6 in the world of box score +/- calculation. Pretty simply, right?

The Bucks were down 12 (70-58) when Ilyasova entered the game for Moute in the 3rd quarter and began a 13-6 run to end the quarter, whittling the Pistons lead down to eight (86-78) with 8:28 to go in the game.  That’s a +4 for Ilyasova in that stretch.

Negative 6 and +4 = -2 for Ersan (he had 17 pts at this point).  Yet when I looked at the boxscore online, the Yahoo-NBA boxscore from the Associated Press had Ilyasova at a whopping MINUS 21!

Even if you were just following along with the play-by-play online, you’d know that the +/- numbers for this game were off.   When Ilyasova’s was “corrected” with just under eight minutes left in the game, the box had Ersan at minus 3.  Better, but still wrong.

Then — somehow — as the Bucks fell down by 10 points, Ersan’s +/- actually improved to -1.

A few minutes later, the Bucks cut the lead to 3 (92-89) with Ersan still on the floor and his +/- had miraculously plunged again to -10.  What’s going on here?

All statisticians agree that Ilyasova had 21 points at that point.

The official NBA box, by the way, was even further off.  With the score tied at 94, they had Ilyasova at minus 17.   The correct number was +6.

We may be getting some idea how Ekpe Udoh was among the league leaders in adjusted +/- for Golden State last season.   (There was even some speculation that the trade of Andrew Bogut for Monte Ellis and Ekpe Udoh was inspired by young Udoh’s seemingly awesome +/- and his potential to do even greater things as he matured.  In fact, Bucks GM John Hammond even said words to this effect. Brewhoop addressed the phenomena in October 2012, almost three years ago as of this revision. The explanation for Udoh’s freakishly good +/- turned out to be that in Golden State he played a significant portion of his minutes with Steph Curry, and that those minutes added up to a small sample size.  Here, I’m obviously annoyed that the +/- numbers aren’t even correct some of the time). 

The final tape of our Bucks-Detroit game, despite a good game from Ersan, read Detroit 96, Bucks 94 as  Monta Ellis missing a jumper and a runner in the final 32 seconds.

Ilyasova finished with 24 points, 17 of those coming as he led the Bucks back from a 12-point 3rd quarter deficit.   The official box score at last read Ilyasvoa +3.   The correct +/- number for Ersan in this game +4.

And Ekpe Udoh?  He played 11:39, did not take a shot or grab a rebound, was largely invisible yet was credited with two steals I’m not sure he actually had.   His +/- for those invisible minutes read +7.  This +7 is the number that some will use to show how important Udoh was to the Bucks in this game, citing invisible and unmeasured basketball activities like setting good screens and not getting in the way of others.

It’s nice to have teammates.

Dwyane Wade is freezing and Ray Allen is shooting

Twitter highlights from the Miami Heat’s visit to Milwaukee for tonights game:

This from Dwyane Wade:

Back in Milwaukee. I can’t believe it’s been 10yrs since my days playing here. WoW..it’s still freezing tho. http://instagr.am/p/T1nNrglCFO/ 

 

And it appears that Heat gunner James Jones is now joining Ray Allen’s pregame shooting rituals.  This cannot be good for the Bucks tonight, or the rest of the NBA.   A tweet from Bucks p.r. …

Ray Allen and James Jones warm up before#MILvMIA @ BMO Harris Bradley Centerhttp://instagr.am/p/T1tbwnDdcf/

 

“Not finished product” and “still trying to figure it out” – The existentialist polarities of Bucks coach Scott Skiles

Sometimes Bucks fans just have to scratch their collective heads about the existentialism of Scott Skiles.  Here are the latest “still searching” musings from the man in charge of making Bucks playing time decisions:

”We’re 15-12. I don’t think we’re a finished product yet. We’re still trying to figure out some things.”  — Skiles this past Thursday in the AP story “Bucks in thick of Central race for now.”

27 games into the season and the coach is still trying to figure out some things, still trying to find his team — or find himself within the context of this Bucks team:  The Brandon Jennings-Monta Ellis show with an overstock of power forwards and centers.

In many ways comments like these are self-serving on Skiles part.  The players didn’t start the D-League-level forward tandem of Tobias Harris and rookie John Henson, three Bucks losses until the Bucks bench reversed a laugher in Chicago to bury the Bulls.   Scott Skiles filled out those Frankenstein lineups that sometimes included Ekbe Udoh, sometimes Sam Dalembert, and finally Marques Daniels in place of the very limited Harris.   Sure, the coach was searching, but for what?

The Bucks lost seven out of nine during that forgettable stretch, and there wasn’t a Bucks analyst alive who could figure out what Skiles was doing, other than scape-goating Ersan Ilyasova in full view of Bucks fandom while waiting for the return of Luc Mbah a Moute, the great defender who, more than any other player, has made sense of things for Skiles since he took the Bucks job in 2008.   Moute’s also the only player left from Skiles’ first team.

This last fact, in other ways, shows Skiles’ comments to be veiled criticism (perhaps) of the Bucks front office — which hasn’t agreed with Skiles’ conception of Moute as a starting power forward, and has larded the Bucks with the likes of Drew Gooden, Jon Brockman and Ekbe Udoh at the position, even as Ilyasova has played his way, time and again, into a prominent rotation spot as the Bucks power forward.

And this is precisely where the Bucks and Skiles have found themselves again:  starting Moute at power forward while Ilyasova plays the majority of the PF minutes off the bench and finishes games, with Moute shifting over to small forward and platooning in and out for defensive purposes.

With 2013 days away, the Bucks are the same as they ever were circa 2009-10:

Mike Dunleavy is Carlos Delfino;

Beno Udrih is Luke Ridnour;

Sanders-Udoh-Przybilla-Dalembert are a weird, four-headed version of Andrew Bogut that plays with only two heads and has watched the Bucks plunge to 26th in the NBA in defensive rebounding (coinciding with the benching of Dalembert);

Marquis Daniels is Keith Bogans, Jerry Stackhouse and Charlie Bell, and sometimes Delfino;

Monta Ellis the wild card;

And Jennings and Moute — and often Ilyasova — managing at times, when they can, to make sense of it all for Skiles and the fans, regardless of what the front office does with the players around them.

When it does, it’s not always clear Skiles knows why it works, beyond knowing that Bucks wins are usually predicated on defense and that they match up well with the Boston Celtics (a 3-wins out of four surprise for the Bucks).

When it doesn’t work, the product isn’t finished (still) and more mad tinkering may be in store from Skiles, the front office or both.

Ridiculous Stat of the Day:  There’s always something that jumps out about these Bucks when one looks at the sort-able season summary stats at basketball-reference, the ritual with which the Bob Boozer Jinx editorial board starts its day.  With the Miami Heat in Milwaukee to play our deer tonight, the board decided it was time to check the Strength of Schedule rankings.

Lo and behold, our 15-12 Bucks have played the 28th easiest schedule in the league.  With the Celtics, Pacers and Bulls (Bucks are 6-2 against their rivals) more average than good so far this season, that’s how it goes.   Playing the Heat tonight will change this stat, but the Bucks head for Detroit on Sunday, back down it’ll go, leaving the Bucks with a hard road ahead in 2013.  Ridiculous.

Ridiculous Stat of the Day II:   As mentioned above, the Bucks are currently the 5th worst in the NBA at rebounding their opponents’ misses.  Ridiculous.

Ridiculous Stat of the Day III:  The career defensive rebounding percentage of little-used Bucks center Sam Dalembert is 25.4% — 10th best in NBA history.  The Bucks with Dalembert starting at center began the season leading the league in defensive rebounding.  Do we think there’s a connection between Bucks rebounding and Dalembert’s playing time?  Absolutely.  Ridiculous.

Ridiculous Stat of the Day IV:  The Golden State Warriors are 20-wins, 10 losses and are tied for 4th in the West with Memphis.   How good will the Warriors be when Andrew Bogut is healthy enough to anchor the defense?   Ridiculous.