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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?

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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.

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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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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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Value seems like the buzzword of the hour. The focus on ascribing some definitive number to every part of a team’s construction and performance has become measurable, visible in the databases filled with box scores and batted-ball spray charts. Suddenly even casual sports fans have trouble navigating the culture of their favorite teams without encountering some formulation of acronyms stuck to the front of a “-metric” suffix. Some (though perhaps fewer and fewer) lament the passing of days where a complete understanding of sports required no knowledge of regression analysis. While public opinion might not always follow along with willful enthusiasm, remember that the original motivation behind “advanced metrics” was to achieve a deeper understanding of what constituted success. Doing so proved an exceptional method of winning, a common goal for both the front-office brains and the fans who watched unorthodox methodology deliver the same result they always hoped for. Winning, after all, was the ultimate goal for everyone involved, and this value-based system was simply the latest tool.

The numbers sum up everything. They don’t value rough-and-tumble defensive stoppers, they value low defensive ratings. They don’t value 30-point scorers (er, kinda), they value 16 points on 10 shots. Sure, that’s overstating and oversimplifying things too much, but there’s a reason efficiency gets all the face-time these days. Efficiency gets results on the cheap. Efficiency doesn’t blow leads or hog the ball. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done. Efficiency gives owners what they want: value.

One could say, then, that value is just little bits of winning. We grant that a player is valuable because the things he does help his team by a (reasonably) determinable amount. The only reason the numbers want Kevin Love to grab a rebound is because it has some specific value which, accumulated in high enough numbers, will help earn his team a win. It’s a mildly harsh reality, reducing the actions we see to parts of a sum, but it’s one that more and more people are warming to, myself included. I’m happy to grant that per-possession statistics are far more valuable than their per-game counterparts, or that protecting scoring opportunities is exceedingly important in winning basketball games. I’ll happily agree with anyone who says that maximizing the value of those shot attempts is an important factor in winning a basketball game, and that high-volume shooters might actually be deviously undermining their team’s success.

Given all that, it would appear I have managed to convince myself that I am kidding myself when it comes to Brandon Jennings. When Jennings fell just shy of a triple-double in his first career game, it jolted me out of my chair. When he dropped 55 points on the Warriors two weeks later, it sold me. It sold me so well that even as Jennings fell back to Earth over the next few months, I remained stoutly convinced that he was the future of professional basketball where I was concerned. Following that season, I started writing this site under a name inspired by his performance, even as doubts over whether it was all a cruel joke grew in my mind.

If you’re looking for an understatement, let me say that Brandon Jennings has experienced a drop-off since those torrid first weeks of his rookie season, to the point where there are times when the Milwaukee Bucks win in spite of him, rather than thanks to him. As that first season rolled along, it pained me to see criticisms of the team, identifying the frequent nights when Jennings would “shoot Milwaukee out of the game.” Why was I so affected by such scorn? After all, the number-disciple in me sided with the critics. I had no vested interest in Jennings outside his role as the starting point guard for my favorite team. I had no affiliation with the team beyond  that of a particularly interested fan, but I hated that every shot taken by Jennings would invariably lead to some shot taken at him. Yet through it all, my enthusiasm for his play never waned. It was cognitive dissonance wearing a #3 jersey. Screw value, I thought. Efficiency be damned, this kid is fun.

Is that irresponsible? Probably. Professional basketball is a business, where personal attachments only count for as long as they’re convenient. If Tim Duncan wasn’t the greatest power forward who ever lived, he probably wouldn’t have stayed in San Antonio his entire career. Draft picks staying with the same team for a full career isn’t exactly the norm. Is Jennings good enough to warrant the title of “Franchise Point Guard” in Milwaukee? That’s not a decision to be left up to me. But I can attest that Bucks basketball hasn’t been the same since Brandon Jennings joined the squad. He brought with him the most exciting performance and season in years. He has a dramatic flair and unquenchable attitude. Despite his undeniable struggles, when he has the ball in his hands, I always feel like something really, really cool could happen. Don’t tell me there isn’t value in that.

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My latest on Brewhoop.com questions what to do with Corey Maggette, who recently gave his experience so far in Milwaukee an “F.” Hit that link and voice your opinion.

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Happy Holidays everybody!

Milwaukee took two of three on their West Coast Tour, and not the two you might think. That leaves the Bucks at 6-5 in the month of December – 6-5 in a month that I earlier speculated might not yield 4 wins. It sucks knowing that we might not see Brandon Jennings back on the court until February, but this team has shown, once again, that tenacity and raw effort can go a long way. It’s been a frustrating season, for sure, and while beating the defending champs in a shockingly-sound manner makes Milwaukee fans pull their heads out of the snow, there remains work to be done. Milwaukee is still four games under .500 and now faces a Hawks team looking for revenge before kicking off what is likely the most difficult five-game stretch of the season.

Milwaukee is now closer than they’ve been all season to outperforming their Pythagorean Win Percentage. Unfortunately, those numbers still only peg the Bucks for 37 wins. Personally, that seems low to me, especially considering how easy Milwaukee’s schedule gets, but Pythagoras cares little for such hopeful wishing. We can hardly call the Bucks contenders, and the preseason expectations seem a far cry from where they currently stand, but this is a team that can absolutely win any game they play. They might not win the NBA Title, but you can bet there’s gonna be a few more times this squad will embarrass some elite team, prompting many declarations of “Fear the Deer” and drawing minor attention to Andrew Bogut’s status as a top-3 defensive player in the NBA.

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