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Archive for May, 2011

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

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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.

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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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The big guns don’t rebuild, they reload.

So goes the saying–a  bit of conventional basketball wisdom that definitely counts the Los Angeles Lakers among those big guns. Until just yesterday, it was strange to think about what would follow the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant era, if only because the end seemed far off. Maybe not in a temporal sense, but certainly in a spiritual sense, which Jackson would probably appreciate. Phil was set to retire at the end of this year regardless, but it was supposed to be graceful. Either finish his career clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy, or bow out in honorable defeat, like an old man relaxing into his favorite armchair.

It definitely wasn’t supposed to be like this. The two-time defending champs, swept under the rug? And not just swept, but exposed. Revealed for the team they were, a team that fell short of the standards to which the organization held itself. There were individual incidents, certainly, and no shortage of minor controversies to boot, but there was still pride in the Purple and Gold.

Not yesterday. Yesterday tore it apart. I can’t speak to the incidents of the past, but I am hard-pressed to believe many offences rival what Andrew Bynum (and Lamar Odom, to a lesser extent) pulled on the court Sunday. Egregious physicality aside, to see a professional athlete strip off his jersey in front of the nation like that, to cast aside his teammates and organization in such a deliberate, base manner, was honestly shocking.

This season seems to have inspired a stunning amount of personal appraisal by the public of NBA athletes. We are not party to the decision-making process of our favorite players, but we’re all deeply affected by their actions. This is simply the unavoidable truth of sports today; it is not something I intend or even desire to ignore. We can debate the merits of Derrick Rose’s humility (boring-ness?), LeBron James’s confidence (ego?), and Vince Carter’s commitment (?), but I myself often make the mistake of passing judgement on such things without any real reason to do so. These are private guys, whose positions lend motives few of us really understand. Not the case last night. Anyone who watched the Los Angeles era crumble in Dallas last night knows exactly what happened.

So where do the Lakers go from here? The LA “title window” was not as small as that of this year’s Celtics, or maybe even the Mavs. Kobe Bryant may be slowing, but he is hardly out of gas. There is still a ton of talent in LA (not even counting the Clippers), and failing to maintain rule over the NBA empire for 1,095 consecutive days isn’t really a death sentence. Accept your fate, regroup, and set out next season to reclaim the throne.

I’m not sure such a thing is possible anymore. The organization may be equipped to handle the logistics, the finances, and everything else, but Sunday’s debacle put a psychological nail in the Jackson/Bryant era coffin. If there were trust issues before, what about now? What kind of impact does the utter breakdown of a team from defending champs to disgraced flameout have? I would trust a figure like Jackson to guide a team through it, but will he be there to do it? I trust Kobe’s dedication to winning to put everything else aside in its interest, but Kobe can’t do this alone anymore.

Even if the summer gives this team a chance to repair itself, will anyone accept it? This is hardly the Malice at the Palace, but it seems like events like this stand as a point-of-no-return. There’s no going back to the way things were. When that means leaving behind a legacy of champions, where do you go? In truth, I have no idea. But I will be surprised if the same team, or even one similar, trots out on the court when next season begins. It’s simply too hard to play basketball carrying this kind of emotional baggage.

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