The Bucks Are Stopped Here and Now

Before the season started I offered a crude forecast of the playoff picture in each conference.  In the West I was quite specific.  I saw eight teams that were clearly better than everyone else.  And at the midpoint of this year, those eight teams – Phoenix, New Orleans, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Dallas, Utah, Denver, Houston — lead the West in efficiency differential [offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency].

The Pre-Season Projection and Early Returns in Milwaukee

In the East, though, I thought the picture was more muddled.  Basically I thought everyone had a shot at the playoffs, except the Milwaukee Bucks.   Here is what I had to say about Milwaukee last October:

Okay, every team I have mentioned thus far could make the playoffs.  And except for Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, I would not be surprised if any team misses the playoffs. In other words, the playoffs in the Eastern Conference are hard to predict.

The lone exception is the Milwaukee Bucks.  This team added Desmond Mason, who produce -2.3 wins for the Hornets last year. Then they drafted Yi Jianlian.  Even if Jianlian was as productive as an average player, I don’t see this team getting to 30 wins.  And given what he did in the pre-season, I am not sure we can expect an average season from Jianlian.  The Bucks did get above average productivity last year from Andrew Bogut, Michael Redd, and Maurice Williams. But those were the only above average players on the roster, and none of these players surpassed 0.150 in WP48 (average is 0.100).  In sum, this team lacks any really good players but does have several below average performers. Consequently, I see this team trailing the rest of the conference.

And then the Bucks started 7-4.  At that point I posted a column that suggested I could have been wrong about Milwaukee.  Michael Redd looked like he had improved.  Desmond Mason was below average, but not as bad as he was last year.  Given these changes, maybe Milwaukee could contend in 2007-08.  

Milwaukee at the Midpoint

Of course the sample at that point was quite small.  And as the sample increased in size, Milwaukee’s fortunes declined.   Or more specifically, Milwaukee’s performance returned to expectations. At the midpoint of the season Milwaukee’s record was 16-25.  This means the team was 9-21 after its fast start.

So what happened?  For an explanation we turn to Paul Forrester of CNNSI.com, who recently penned the following article: Bucks still struggling to put all their pieces together

Here is an excerpt from the Forrester piece:

After a 7-4 start, which included a five-game winning streak highlighted by victories against the Cavs, Lakers and Mavericks, the Bucks have sputtered in that familiar Bucks way, losing 25 of their next 36 games to fall to 18-29.

That may not be anything unusual for a team that has averaged 47 losses the last four seasons. But for a team that doled out $70 million last summer to retain free-agent point guard Mo Williams and top reserve Charlie Bell; that had been building around former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut for two seasons; and that had signed shooting guard Michael Redd to a maximum-level $90 million contract in 2005, this season’s struggles are no longer considered the growing pains of a contender in development. Indeed, owner Herb Kohl has said this is a “very important year” for the Bucks.

“Our expectations going into the season were that we thought we were a playoff team,” Bucks general manager Larry Harris said in a telephone interview the other day. “I really felt going into the season that this was the best team that I had had in my five seasons as general manager; I told the team that, I told the community that, I told the fans that.

“We have experience, we have an inside game, we have an outside game, we have some veterans, we have some toughness. Sometimes it’s played itself out, but there have been times we’ve been in games and had some things transpire and it ends up getting away from us quickly. Those are growing pains that we’ve had and we assumed would take place, but not to the level it has to this point. We’re certainly not happy with our record, but … when you’re in the Eastern Conference, you still feel like you’ve got a chance even as well under .500 as we are.”

So Larry Harris – the team’s general manager – claims the Bucks are very talented.  But the team’s record indicates otherwise.  And when we turn to Wins Produced, it becomes hard to buy the story Harris is telling.

Table One: The Milwaukee Bucks at the Midpoint of 2007-08

Table One reports two forecasts of the Bucks.  The first assumes that each player – except for Yi Jianlian – performs as he did last year.  That projection indicates that the Bucks would win 28 games this season. The second projection assumes what we saw the first half of this season will be seen in the second half.  That projection indicates that the Bucks will win 25 games in 2007-08. 

What do these projections tell us?  Charlie Villanueva and Bobby Simmons are playing a bit worse than they have in the past.  Desmond Mason is playing a bit better.  And everyone else is playing just about as well this year as he did last year.  In sum, we should not be surprised – given what these players have done in the past – the Bucks are not winning. 

As I noted when I made my original projection, the Bucks only have three above average players: Redd, Bogut, and Mo Williams.   All the other players on this roster are below average.  So this team may be the most talented team Harris has seen in five years (although the 2003-04 team was the most productive of the bunch), but this team is still not very good.

Summarizing the Story

The Bucks are not performing well this season. That is an objective fact.  Why the Bucks are not succeeding, though, is something people might question.  Harris would like us to believe that he has assembled a “talented” team.  But for that to be true, we would have to believe that last year’s team – the team that won only 28 games – was also “talented.”  Clearly the Bucks were not very good in 2006-07.  And given that virtually all these players are performing this season as well as they did last year, I don’t think we can conclude this is a talented collection in 2007-08.

So why does Harris tell us this team is talented?  A cynic would note that Harris has two choices:

1. The team is losing because he chose the wrong players.

2. He chose the right players, but the team is losing for some other reason.

Given this choice, Harris is naturally going to gravitate to #2.  Although one can think that Harris is motivated by self-interest to state that his team is talented when it’s not, it’s also possible that he sincerely believes this to be true.  It’s possible that he believes that the current Bucks, if they tried very hard (or received the right coaching, or had the right attitude, etc…), this team could be successful.

The data in basketball, though, tells a different story.  The numbers posted by basketball players – relative to what we see in football and baseball – are quite consistent from season to season.  In sum, what you see is often what you get.  Given this reality, to expect the current collection of players in Milwaukee to start winning consistently is unrealistic.  Three slightly above average players does not a great team make.  And all the coaching, attitude adjustments, etc… are probably not going to make much difference.

The solution is of course obvious.  Milwaukee needs more productive players.  In other words, for Milwaukee to start winning consistently, Harris is going to have to find even more talented players to come to Milwaukee next year.  If that does happen, the Bucks will indeed start winning.  But until that happens, the Bucks will remain stopped.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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