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Been a long time since I wrote anything here, but I haven’t forgotten my roots.

Over at my Brew Hoop, Frank Madden has been sharing some discussions he had with Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge regarding a hypothetical trade proposal (purely hypothetical, people, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet). Here’s the deal, in all its beautiful simplicity:

Bucks Receive: SG Wesley Matthews, 2012 First-Round Draft Pick (#11)
Blazers Receive: G Monta Ellis

Let me say first that in John Hammond’s place, I’d go REALLY hard after #6 before sliding back to #11. That’s partially driven by my own value assessment, but there’s also hope you could get the deal sweetened a bit.

The Blazers happen to be one of the few teams where Ellis could conceivably slot in without too much trouble. LaMarcus Aldridge is the only other player who really needs significant offensive touches, and it’s probably easier to accommodate a high-usage G/F combo than G/G. With Matthews’ less-than-friendly contract going to Milwaukee, Portland’s cap situation wouldn’t be at risk. Even if Monta represents an expensive re-sign in the first year of harsher luxury tax penalties, they should have plenty of room to do so without worrying about the financial implications (the wonders of a truly loaded owner). A core of Ellis/LMA/lottery pick/FA would give Portland a good shot at competing in the West for the next few years, especially with the Lakers re-tooling and the Spurs another year older (it has to catch up to them eventually, right?).

For the Bucks, it’s a decent cash-in on Ellis’ value when looked at in context. I’d still say in a pure value sense that Ellis is more valuable than Matthews/#11, but the latter pieces could potentially make the Bucks a better team. The oft-repeated truth is that no team is likely to find a player with the same abilities as Monta Ellis with the #11 pick. Ellis has his flaws, but so does every guard in every draft. You hope those guys can accommodate their weaknesses enough to produce like Ellis can. Most don’t.

That’s where context comes in. While Portland can work around Ellis’ flaws and highlight his strengths, there was a certain level of redundancy in Milwaukee. Not enough size, too many three-point attempts at a low percentage, questionable defense. There’s only so much room for the small and the quick on an NBA team. The second lottery pick might seem like the real prize in this deal, but Wesley Matthews actually accounts for all of those weaknesses.

He’s not a star, but Matthews fits well at the two next to Brandon Jennings. In his Milwaukee stint, SGs opposite Ellis put up a PER of 17.4. Matthews, a solid defender by reputation, gave up a PER of 12.6 to opposing SGs last season. His size alone should keep the Bucks from being abused by bigger backcourts. He’s also a career 39.3% shooter from deep, giving the Bucks much better floor spacing.

There’s obviously going to be some drop-off in athleticism and pure explosiveness should Ellis and Matthews switch places, but a closer look at Matthews’ career reveals some promising facts. In his first two seasons combined, Matthews shot 61.7% at the rim. Then last season, his FG% at the basket plummeted to 49.5%. A drop that significant seems unlikely without some mitigating factors, and a quick look at HoopData’s shot location data reveals a similarly precipitous drop: his assisted-percentage at the rim. Suddenly, Matthews was relying on his own ability to get to the rim and finish, instead of letting his teammates set him up. The Bucks acquired Ellis because he could do what Matthews apparently struggled to do: create his own shot and attack the basket. Would Milwaukee miss that ability if they swap him out?

Not necessarily. If Jennings continues to improve his shooting at the rim and Matthews rebounds to his previous ability, the Bucks will have two serviceable finishers at the guard spots. The Bucks were fourth in the NBA in assisted-percentage at the rim last year, which bodes well for the latter. Combined with better interior scoring, whether acquired through the draft or free-agency, the Bucks could come out of this trade with a more balanced, versatile offense, better equipped for the half-court game that gave them trouble last year. It doesn’t necessarily give you a “core” to work with, but it potentially makes you a better team without too much money tied up in veterans. That allows Kohl and Co. to fulfill their playoff aspirations in the near future while also leaving room for a more thorough rebuilding project.

The financial aspect of the deal is a little trickier for Milwaukee. While getting a young player under team control for the long-term sounds good, Matthews is owed over $20 million in the next three years. Not unreasonable for a good starter, but probably more than Matthews would earn on the open market right now. However, when you factor in the addition of another lottery pick on a cost-controlled deal, it’s easier to reconcile. What’s more, Matthews’ Milwaukee ties make him an easy sell to the fanbase, useful for drumming up interest and ticket sales.

The Bucks might not be ready to cut ties with Ellis; it’s unlikely they traded their franchise center just for the chance to flip the haul a half-season later. And like always, the fate of the roster is tied up in the direction Kohl wants to take the franchise. But this trade idea can certainly be made out as a win-win, satisfying the needs of both franchises while positioning them for future success.

As one last pipe dream, consider this possibility:

1. Trade Monta Ellis to Portland for Wesley Matthews, Shawne Williams, and the #6 pick
2. Draft Harrison Barnes with the #6 pick.
3. Draft a center like Meyers Leonard with the #12 pick.
4. Amnesty Drew Gooden’s contract (or not, if you’d like to keep him in the lineup)

You’re then left with a roster full of young players still on rookie deals, with another year or two to evaluate most of them. You’ve got a potential lineup of Jennings, Matthews, Barnes, and some combination of Sanders, Udoh, and Leonard. If things don’t go well? Play all the young guys and see how things go. You either score another lottery pick or they exceed expectations and make us all happy.

Who’s dropping this one in Hammond’s suggestion box?

I’ve long taken issue with the work of the Wages of Wins Network, mostly in the form of twitter jabs or snide comments in the stuff I write. While the work being done on those sites is admirable, and they’re pursuing a noble goal–richer and more descriptive quantitative analysis of basketball–the prevailing no-questions-asked approach seems to fly in the face of what should be a scientific pursuit.

There’s no doubt an expanded use of advanced statistics and analysis has vastly improved out understanding of basketball. We have better ways of quantifying nearly every measurable event that occurs on the court. But we’re no closer to a Unified Theory of Basketball than physicists are to a Unified Theory of Everything, and yet the faith the WoW Network places in numbers often seems blind and absolute.

It’s one thing to insist again and again that Kevin Love is the best player in the NBA. We can talk all about the eye test offering proof that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and perhaps a few others are superior players to Love, but in the end we’re all just sharing opinions based on whatever criteria seem most appropriate. It’s quite another to assert that Green Bay, Wisconsin is incapable of supporting any professional sports team. But that’s exactly the conclusion reached by Arturo Galletti using a metric he devised to gauge a metro area’s capability of doing so. Green Bay is a casualty of a system that simply aggregates a huge amount of money and splits it into a few smaller sums. It’s Win Shares with dollars and cents in the place of rebounds and points.

If you examine the chart, you’ll see that Green Bay lands just barely on the positive side of the “Available Personal Income” divide. However, that calculation saddles Green Bay with only 30 percent of the burden for supporting the Packers. The rest falls on the already stretched thin Milwaukee metro area. In turn, that 70 percent stake in the Packers drives up Milwaukee’s “debt” and makes it the WoW’s number one candidate to have its NBA franchise relocated. If the full cost of supporting the Packers is shifted back to Green Bay, the city falls in the red. Galletti justifies the split by saying “the Packers are very much Milwaukee’s team as well”. But this is true of many franchises, particularly ones that represent a state’s only entry into a particular league. Why is Milwaukee the only one in which the calculations reflect this reality? What’s more, a 70 percent share in the Packers is outrageous. For any metric one could possibly devise, suggesting that any city other than Green Bay could bear a significant majority of the team’s “cost” is just wrong.

The scientific method places tremendous emphasis on falsifiability, and any theory that purports to be comprehensive has to hold in every case. So how have the Packers persisted in Green Bay? How can the tiniest market in the most popular sporting league in the United States compete with 31 other teams and win the Super Bowl? Because it’s about more than money. It’s about a fanbase that supports the team with greater fanaticism than any other. A fanbase that places newborn babies on a 955 year waiting list for season tickets. The Milwaukee Bucks currently lack such support. The Bucks can succeed in Milwaukee if they draft good players, make smart personnel decisions on the roster and in the front office, and play well. If they fail to do so, they will fail no matter which city they call home.

I can’t believe the volume of rumors flying around the Milwaukee Bucks right now. They were supposed to do something at the trade deadline–they sat still. They weren’t supposed to be in this lottery, and their tenth pick wasn’t even supposed to be that valuable in a down draft–suddenly the mid/late lottery is where everybody wants to be.

In actuality, it’s not a bad situation to find yourself in if you’re John Hammond. This is a team that feels confident it can compete in the Eastern Conference when healthy, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a top-10 defense that can at least be average on offense if guys just hit open shots. I wouldn’t characterize the roster as one with major holes as much as small depressions. That means you can afford to roll with the punches as the picks fall. But it also means deciding whether you want to continue building around the pieces in place or maximize the assets you currently have. And you have to be confident in that choice.

Milwaukee is going to be supremely influenced by what happens ahead of them in the draft. Anytime the plan revolves around a “best player available” approach, you always have to consider what happens if a highly-ranked prospect falls. There’s also a ton of potential trades on the radar. For these purposes, I’m going to imagine that all of these trades are on the table for Milwaukee to sign off on. As such, I think the best way for me to suss out my ideal Milwaukee Bucks draft scenario is through a priority-style explanation. Here we go:

Priority #1: Draft Jonas Valanciunas if available

I’d pretty much completely talked myself into Colorado SG Alec Burks with the #10 pick until a day or two ago, when it was revealed that Valanciunas’s buyout situation was a minor mess. If that kills his 2011 stock to the point that he drops all the way to 10, I don’t know if he can be passed up. We’re talking about a true 7-footer who rebounds well, loves running pick & roll, and hits his free-throws like a point guard. Even if you don’t see him for a year, isn’t that worth it, especially if this season is truly in jeopardy due to the lockout? You’re also given the option of dangling him out for the highest bidder, and there are sure to be interested parties. I think the value of getting this guy at 10 is just too great.

Priority #2: Maximize first-round picks in this draft

If Valanciunas isn’t there, my first instinct is to say, “just grab Burks and be done with it.” But I can’t help feeling like there is a way to maximize the value of a suddenly-popular tenth pick and still grab Burks a few spots later. My favorite rumored deal for doing so would have Milwaukee sending the 10th pick and Ersan Ilyasova to the Houston Rockets in exchange for the 14th and 23rd picks plus Patrick Patterson. I’d love this deal, as I don’t think Ilyasova has much production in him beyond what the Bucks have already seen, whereas Patterson could be a very productive (if non-star) player for many years. The Bucks (and I) wanted him in last year’s draft anyway.

The other option that has been tossed around would send the 10th pick and Drew Gooden to the Knicks for the 17th, Ronny Turiaf, and Toney Douglas, but it’s contingent on Jimmer Fredette being available at 10. I’m not so hot on this for a few reasons: 1) I think the current trade climate is a good market for Milwaukee to acquire assets, not dump debts, which is what this is (the only reason Milwaukee makes this trade is to get rid of Gooden’s bad contract), and 2) I still think Gooden can be a reasonably productive player, and have no problem with a Gooden/Larry Sanders/Patterson PF rotation. Speaking of which…

Priority #3(a): Trade Ersan Ilyasova for a first-round pick this year or next

If Ersan isn’t moved in the Houston trade described above, I’d love to see him flipped for a first-round pick. This could go a number of ways, including independent of a straight pick swap with Houston in which Milwaukee trades 10 for 14+23, then packages the 23rd pick with Ersan to move back into the teens. If nobody’s biting on a deal in this year’s draft, there’s always the video-game strategy: try to predict who’s gonna be bad next year and grab their first-round pick. With the 2012 Draft supposedly stacked with talent, any such pick is likely to be top-10 or lottery protected, but even if you land a pick in the teens, it could be a huge boost.

Priority #3(b): Get Alec Burks…somehow

If any deal involving Ersan eventually nets the Bucks Alec Burks, I’ll be happy. I don’t know if the Bucks are totally sold on Burks, but I am. I talked myself into him a week ago, for better or worse, and I don’t think I can be talked out of him now. Until the Valanciunas news dropped, I was on board with him over anybody else likely to be available at 10. But while I think Jonas’s value is too great to pass up if available, I still want the Bucks to make an aggressive play on Burks. Maybe you can get him at 14 if Houston does the pick swap, but I could see Golden State, Utah, and Phoenix all snagging him depending on how the board played out ahead of them. If it means swapping 14 and 40 to move up with one of them, I think I’d do it, and I might consider 14 and 23 if something else came back. Either way, I just want Alec Burks.

Priority #4: Dump Gooden, Salmons, or Maggette’s contracts

I don’t think getting rid of these contracts should be a particularly high priority, and I’m glad to see that John Hammond has emphasized upgrading the team over dumping salary. With Michael Redd’s massive contract coming off the books, the Buck’s cap situation is very unlikely to be a serious issue in the next few years, especially considering they aren’t going to make any big plays in free-agency. Still, if Milwaukee’s options disappear, likely due to any desired players getting selected in front of them, there’s no reason to not explore options of trading back and unloading a contract. If a capable 4 can be acquired, Gooden is probably the most pertinent guy to move, but it would be tough to do so without some sort of contingency plan on the roster–otherwise we’re likely headed for additional time with Mbah a Moute starting at PF, which minimizes his value.

The truth is, John Hammond could absolutely crush this draft if he plays his cards right. Milwaukee could walk away with a very nice core of young players to develop. The bad contracts remain an issue, but Milwaukee’s roster has the talent to compete in the Eastern Conference next year. They’re not championship contenders just yet (and Hammond would be wise to acknowledge that), but Milwaukee has the chance to come out of this summer in much better shape than they went in.

By popular account, the Lakers got obliterated in the playoffs this year because their defense fell apart, their stars didn’t perform at star levels, and because they had no trust in each other. Those reasons all seem plausible, though perhaps in different ratios than suggested in the screenplay that is so often Lakers coverage. The stories are easier to believe when plainly visible on the court: Dallas averaged an excellent 113.8 ORtg during the second-round series; Kobe and Pau Gasol were inefficient and ineffective. But the trust issues? Those were more subtle. Scowls and body language don’t always get picked up by television cameras; sound bytes get taken out of context and overblown. Still, I don’t doubt that they exist–the personalities and relationships of the Lakers are well documented.

So did we see the same thing out of the Miami Heat? In Game 2 of the NBA Finals? Smart basketball minds had little difficulty spotting the disaster they were creating for themselves even as it was happening. “Hero ball” took over and the points stopped coming. There was no chemistry, no semblance of order or purpose, just basketball players (albeit a few very very good ones) telling everyone and each other, “I got this.” What resulted was one of the most stunning collapses/comebacks (I suppose it depends on which camp you’re in) in Finals history.

Is there writing on the walls? If so, I’d warrant the paint is still wet.

LeBron James has stirred his fair share of controversy in the NBA, and not just in the past 10 months. But trust issues? Was there ever an inkling of dissension in the ranks, at least among the players, that threatened to derail a team of his? I’ve always imagined issues on or off the court being easily remedied by each player sticking his friendship ring into a circle and giving a loud, “huzzah!” It was so visible in Cleveland. The elaborate handshakes, the choreographed introductions and celebrations, it all pointed to a tight-knit basketball commune, bearing serious resemblance to the teams of the old Soviet Union who basically grew up together. It’s a departure from Jordan’s fiery intensity that is oh so relevant in the Great Debate. LeBron is praised for his distribution as much as his scoring; he elevated players to levels hitherto unknown (if you’ll forgive the narrative standby). It was still LeBron & the rest as far as talent and responsibility were concerned, but one man does not a basketball team make.

Unfortunately, that saying still holds true for three people–two if you trust Carlos Boozer. Yet that’s exactly what the Heat turned into Thursday night. It was subtle, again, but it was amplified by its results. What was first hinted at with Dwyane Wade refusing to give the ball up to Mario Chalmers during a two-on-one (he scored anyway, for the record) rapidly evolved into a me-against-the-world approach to basketball. And it failed, miserably. Chris Bosh was essentially frozen out of the offense in the last few minutes, and while he’d had an awful offensive game to that point, he remains the Heat’s third-best player by a wide margin. LeBron and Wade mixed dribbling with stepbacks and long threes. Even on the last play of the game, Chalmers–the guy who was 6 percentage points better from behind the arc than Wade this season, and had tied the game a possession earlier–was left largely uncovered just a step behind the arc. Time constraints obviously limited his involvement, but even if there was another second or two on the clock, is anyone confident Wade would’ve given that ball up?

The top guns of the Miami Heat seemed convinced that they were the only ones who could deliver victory in Game 2. These are the same guys that won just about every game for the Heat to this point, but it didn’t come off as confident in Game 2. It came off as stubborn, arrogant even, if you prefer to read that far into things. The supporting cast in Cleveland wasn’t great, but they certainly eclipsed their Miami counterparts. Maybe that talent disparity is enough to discourage the kind of cooperation that formed the norm in Ohio? Or maybe it borne solely of confidence, perhaps overblown by the very heroics that carried Miami to where they are now. It shouldn’t matter. The Heat are headed to Dallas with a “1-1″ scratched into the whiteout covering the spot where “2-0″ was penned in. They’re in this situation because of something that had previously been a non-issue. That’s enough to be worried about.

I’m getting to this a few days late because I was up north near Antigo, WI, where the internet is tougher to find than a clean major conference college football program. Akis Yerocostas, who writes the NBA blog Pick and Scroll and is an associate editor for Sactown Royalty, has a cool Tumblr of NBA pictures and graphics called NBA Mashups. He’s been working on creating a new version of the NBA’s Logo for each team, and the Bucks’ is pretty sweet.

Check out the other ones on his site. I really like the Sixers’, Raptors’, and Mavericks’, but they’re all pretty cool.

Follow Akis on Twitter @Aykis16

I don’t remember if I made a true “prediction” at the beginning of the year regarding the success the Miami Heat would enjoy this year. Between the two extremes of: “they’re going to steamroll the entire league” and “they’re going to be a colossal wreck,” I know I leaned toward the former, but it doesn’t matter. A lot of people said a lot of things about the Heat, about LeBron James, and about the future of the NBA in an era where players could pick their teams the way they pick vacation homes and designer watches. I’d venture roughly half of them were way off, and the other half weren’t much better. I don’t think preseason predictions are bad per se. They may not be the most informed or informative element of NBA pop-journalism, but they’re fun and they let us start talking about basketball that much earlier. I’ll readily admit to rolling my eyes at the people who roll their eyes at mock drafts published 12 months in advance, because who cares? Whose time are we wasting? What damage is it doing?

But the preseason prognostication was different this year, because LeBron James declared war on all that is good in professional sports, and it needed to be shouted from the hills! Or so you might have heard if you’d checked the internet last summer. The Miami Heat immediately became the NBA’s Evil Emperor, a looming shadow threatening to swallow up the pure, good-hearted souls and declare martial law for the next half-decade. It was the first time, I would imagine, that questions like “how many games will they win?” were interspersed with “will they destroy everything NBA fans hold dear?” Yet for all the griping and lamenting the passing of the good ol’ days, reasoned responses were there to be found. Plenty of people, probably more than one might think, acknowledged it as a basketball decision that could be explained in basketball terms. And why couldn’t it be? The only difference between the Heat’s free-agent haul and every other 2010 signing was that all three players are obvious stars. Other teams who undergo roster overhauls have to work out how everybody will play together too. They just do it without three of the most talented players in the NBA on their roster. Sure, the Heat have a weaker-than-average bench, but the impact of that disadvantage was probably overstated. The Heat are, as it turns out, just another basketball team, subject to the same rules and natural laws as any other, blessed only by the presence of three players who perform exceptionally well.

So I have to admit, I have taken immense pleasure in the Heat silencing critic after critic during these playoffs. Silence is the only appropriate response from the year-long detractors, perhaps augmented by a subtle nod. No new excuses that only became relevant within the past three weeks. No handicapping their opponents to deflate what Miami has accomplished. Just credit, where a whole mess of credit is due. Because in reality, the Heat weren’t a malevolent triumvirate heralding the end of days. They were a good-sometimes-great basketball team that excelled because they combined a ton of talent with a ton of hard work. Sure they had motivation. I don’t doubt that a nation of naysayers constantly hurtling insults–often varied only in degrees of childishness–inspired the Heat to work a little harder. But do we really think things would have been significantly different without the criticisms? Do we honestly think Miami is lacking in personal motivation?

If the Heat take this thing all the way, if they take home in a championship in the first year of this grand experiment, there will be a lot of resigned admission. Columnists will publish 800-word odysseys emoting sideways glances, grins, and muttered statements of “oh, you guys…!” Heck, it’s already begun, in the form of three hundred paragraphs devoted to Rick Reilly waving the communal white flag in valiant defeat. As if he’s doing the Heat a favor.

I’m no Heat fan. I don’t overtly cheer for them, at least not in the same way I cheer for the Bucks, or the Green Bay Packers, or whatever other team is geographically closest to my hometown. But I am smugly, maybe even arrogantly pleased with myself for respecting what they did from the very beginning. Not because it’s an accomplishment, but because I’m not stuck here worrying about eating my words for the next three months. I’m not exactly happy about the prospect of seeing the Heat dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future, but I’m willing to accept that they have soundly, completely, and legitimately earned it.

Things didn’t turn out as expected in Milwaukee. It’s difficult to predict a team losing 267 player-games to injury. It’s crazy to expect the shooting percentages of an entire team to crash down to near career-low levels. But the Bucks found themselves facing down both disasters this season, and the results were often ugly.

Click to enlarge

Of course, you don’t encounter those problems without a bit of bad luck. Or a lot of bad luck. In this case, that luck is theoretically illustrated by the gap between the two lines. That upper red line follows Milwaukee’s Pythagorean Expected Win Percentage, which remember is based on point differential. As is turns out, Milwaukee’s final point differential was typical of a thirty-eight win team. This season, 38 wins earned you the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

This bad luck often gets explained by a team’s record in close games. The Bucks were 9-10 in games decided by five points or less. Of course, final margin might not be the best way to consider a team’s success in “close games,” so what if we consider Tom Haberstroh’s modification? Expanding the “close game” moniker to all games that are within five points anytime during the last five minutes, the Bucks’ record becomes 22-25.

Both percentages are close enough to .500 that it’s not totally unreasonable to blame bad bounces for dragging down Milwaukee’s record. After all, we’re talking about games decided by a bucket or two one way or another. A few more misses by Milwaukee’s opponents or a few more makes from the Bucks and we could be talking about how much they outperformed expectations.

So the Bucks were apparently a little unlucky, but the graph shows another interesting trend. Namely, Milwaukee actually had a winning record after the All-Star break. In fact, Milwaukee’s 14-13 record gives them a .519 winning percentage after the break, which outperforms their Pythagorean expectation over that same stretch by about 0.6% (Milwaukee outscored it’s opponents 2510-2501 in total post-break). If we say a few magic words, toss some glitter in the air, and extrapolate that sample out to a full season, the Bucks grade out as a 45 win team.

FORTY-FIVE WINS!

I can’t help but be a little excited by that number (which is a bit sad in itself). Obviously it’s treacherous to trust small samples, but there are reasons to believe 45 wins is a better measure of this team than 35. For starters, they finally started to get kinda-sorta-healthy after the break. They shot a little better while their opponents shot a little worse. They fouled less and forced more turnovers. In general, they looked much more like the team that won 46 a year ago.

Unfortunately, the only thing this winning stretch accomplished was worsening Milwaukee’s draft position. Pre-break, the Bucks were on pace to win only 31 games, which sounds awful, but would have bumped them up two spots in the draft. It’s always something, isn’t it? Still, these numbers suggest that–with a little luck–Milwaukee may indeed wake from this nightmarish season next year.

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