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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.

I’ve been a fan of Wisconsin Basketball longer than I’ve been a fan of most anything else. Back when I was drinking milk out of little paper cartons and going outside to play between math and reading, I was a Wisconsin Basketball fan. It was my first real love in the world of sports. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where I truly hated Wisconsin Basketball.

I admit, Wisconsin doesn’t play a particularly aesthetic brand of basketball. I won’t make the mistake of equating beauty with effectiveness, because there is simply no way to argue with the consistent success this team has achieved: 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, stellar home record, plus a handful of Big Ten Titles. Every year it seems there’s no way the Badgers can continue that streak, or compete with a steadily improving Big Ten, and yet by season’s end they’ve battled their way to the top of the standings. Maybe not always the tip-top, but certainly not down in the basement. Impressive, no doubt, but the ride there isn’t always scenic.

Still, as long as I’ve been a student at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve found plenty to complain about. I wish Wisconsin would recruit more, and it kills me when top Wisconsin prospects leave the state. As good as this team is at holding a lead, I don’t think they can play from behind very well. As good a coach as Bo Ryan is, his dedication to a system sometimes limits the potential of his individual players, and when the system doesn’t work in a particular game, I don’t think he’s a great adjustment maker.

In that respect, this season was no different. Despite near record-breaking shooting from the free-throw line, the Badgers weren’t particularly good at getting there. The defense, while still good, wasn’t as strong as years past. And the player I had convinced myself was the best NBA prospect Wisconsin had seen in some time, Jon Leuer, turned out to be only the second-best player on the team for much of the year, overshadowed by Jordan Taylor’s spectacular play. Yet for all that, I again couldn’t question the results. For much of the season, Wisconsin was the best offensive team in the nation, eventually settling in second behind Ohio State. They finished third in the Big Ten, easily one of the top two conferences in the nation.

That’s exactly what made last night’s Sweet 16 loss to Butler so tough. On the surface, it was the same old loss to a mid-major that has ended Wisconsin’s season so many times recently. This wasn’t a typical Wisconsin loss due to some systemic flaw in the game plan, though. The Badgers matched up across the floor with the Bulldogs, and their statistical resume was superior nearly across the board. This was a completely disastrous single-game performance, plain and simple. Wisconsin could not for the life of them get the ball through the rim. The Badgers actually played reasonably good defense, holding Butler to under a point per possession. Despite the continual protesting from media members, they didn’t “settle” for jumpers. Nearly every shot Wisconsin took came from a reasonably efficient zone on the floor: either behind the three-point line or within about 10 feet of the basket. That didn’t lessen the frustration that flooded my veins every time a Jon Leuer hook shot bounced across the back of the rim or a Jordan Taylor three went long. It was a head-scratching loss, a performance that would have blindsided everyone had it not happened against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago. The excellent Big Ten Geek’s Blog points out a sad fact:

Twice this season Wisconsin has posted an effective field goal percentage under 40.0.  The first time was when the team scored 33 points against Penn State in the slowest game between Division I foes in some 13 years.  The second time was last night.

The Badgers played Wisconsin basketball last night, but picked a bad time of year to become wildly inconsistent with their shooting. The same guy who single-handedly dragged Wisconsin to victory over the nation’s top team during the regular season completely fell apart. The fourth-year senior who could have played his way into the first round of the NBA Draft was a mess. Few things went right, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. As a Wisconsin basketball fan, I’m pretty familiar with low expectations, and I’m almost as familiar with seeing the team exceed them. But last night, I expected a Wisconsin victory. If that was a mistake on my part, it’s a sad commentary on the state of this program. Either way, thinking about what should have been sucks a lot more than thinking about what could have been.

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.

I was reading the latest article up on Hardwood Paroxysm, regarding the infamous “long 2” and it’s role in offensive and defensive efficiency, and was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between above- and below-average defensive teams and the percentage of long 2s they force opponents to take. As described in the article, the correlation between forcing long 2s and better defensive efficiency seems much stronger in below-average defensive teams than the elite defensive teams. Why is that? Why does forcing long 2s suddenly become less important when you start talking about the best defenses in the NBA?

I’d warrant that the key difference is this: the best defensive teams in the NBA don’t always need to force long 2s. The conventional wisdom (and, by extension, the statistical framework) doesn’t apply equally to good defensive teams. That sounds illogical, though. If long 2s are indeed the least valuable shots in the NBA, why would any team not pursue the advantage of forcing opponents into those shots?

Let’s not blind ourselves by looking exclusively at numbers. Consider those teams in the “elite” defensive efficiency range. Each has the benefit of a standout defensive player or players, an exceptional defensive system, or most likely a combination of both. San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Orlando has Dwight Howard, Boston has Garnett/Rondo, Cleveland had LeBron. Milwaukee has a great system plus perennial DPOY-snub Andrew Bogut. The Lakers have a great coach and a bunch of good defenders. Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Miami all had solid defensive schemes and players in place.

The point is – and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch – those teams all have factors contributing to their defense that are far more important than opponent shot distributions. In improperly-applied mathematical terms, the defensive efficiency of above-average teams is more a function of their own ability than their opponent’s shot selection. Meanwhile, those teams who can’t (or don’t) play high-caliber defense are far more subject to the performance of their opponents. Conceivably, the efficiency rankings for those below-average teams are a result of which teams randomly gave up more high- vs. low-percentage shots. Obviously this isn’t the exclusive factor – we can all agree that basketball is more complex than just shot selection, and we would expect the graph to be perfectly correlated in such a one-variable system. But the correlation is strong enough to suggest that affecting shot selection is a useful defensive technique. It is, however, still subject to an occasional hot-shooting night from the opponent.

In Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver explains how inconsistency tends to drag teams toward a .500 record. The discrepancy in HP’s graph suggests that the best defensive teams avoid such inconsistency by excelling at factors that are easier to control. Maybe they have a good shot-blocker, or they defend pick-and-rolls well. If you imagine an idealized team that blocks a very high percentage of shots at the rim, it might even be advantageous to funnel opponents inside, rather than forcing long 2s. The point is, good defenses force opponents to conform to a game-plan that favors the defender. Teams who can’t do this tend to perform better when opponents shoot bad shots. Thus, the best teams can play effective defense independent of opponent shot selections.

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.

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.

Click to zoom

A couple of numbers: some surprising, some not; some arbitrary, some revealing; some reassuring, some hopelessly, hopelessly depressing.

  • Larry Sanders has the best Defensive Rating on the Milwaukee Bucks at 96. Andrew Bogut is second at 97. Newcomer Drew Gooden clocks in third at 101.
  • Brian Skinner is the only player currently on the roster with a DRtg above 105. Yes, that includes Corey Maggette, who is tied at 105 with Ron Artest.
  • Since the NBA/ABA merger, only 4 teams have ever shot worse over the course of a season than the Milwaukee Bucks are currently shooting (.410 FG%). The ’01 Warriors (.409), and the ’99 Hawks (.409), Nets (.406), and Bulls (.401). The ’99 NBA season was shortened to only 50 games, and the Hawks somehow made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
  • Jon Brockman is leading the Bucks in Win Shares per 48 minutes with 0.174. Chris Douglas-Roberts is second with 0.169. Keyon Dooling is last at .026.
  • John Salmons is third on the Bucks in Defensive Win Shares with 1.1. He has produced -0.3 Offensive Win Shares.
  • If John Salmons makes his next 35 shots without missing, he will be shooting at his career percentage of 44.3%.
  • The Bucks are on pace to shoot 2364 free throws this year. That would be tied for 9th most in franchise history. Of the nine Milwaukee teams to shoot at least 2364 FTs, two won more than 60 games (any guesses as to which years?) and eight won more than half of their games.
  • By using their Pythagorean Record Expectation, the Bucks are predicted to win 37 games this year.
  • If the Bucks shot league-average from every spot on the court, they would be the 12th-best shooting team in the league. Miami would be the worst.