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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009

Buck Up: It’ll Take Time

The Fairly Detached Observers

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As improvement goes, it’s not as eye-catching as a breakaway slam-dunk. But the Milwaukee Bucks hit the season’s halfway mark playing close to .500 basketball, something they haven’t done over a full season in five years. A new coach (Scott Skiles), new players (Richard Jefferson, Luke Ridnour, Luc Mbah a Moute) and reliable holdovers (Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva, Ramon Sessions) are giving fans reasons for optimism. The Observers have noticed.

Artie: The Bucks are in contention for the eighth and last playoff spot in the East. I sure wasn’t expecting that.

Frank: They entered this week at 20-23, three games better than last year through 43 games. I suppose it would be a step up to get crushed by Cleveland or Boston in the first round. A year ago, any Buck fan would have sounded like Jim Mora in those beer commercials: “Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?”

Artie: It’s next season that’ll be the real test. Three years ago, in Bogut’s rookie season, they improved by 10 games and made the playoffs at 40-42. But they caved below 30 wins the next two seasons.

Frank: I was surprised to find that these Bucks are doing well on the boards. Through 43 games they were averaging 2.4 more rebounds per game than their opponents (41.8 to 39.4), the seventh-best differential in the league. I haven’t associated strong rebounding with the Bucks for 20 years.

Artie: Bogut is averaging a doubledouble, but he’s had trouble staying in uniform because of injuries. He’s a key. Villanueva and Mbah a Moute are rebounding well, too, and Mbah a Moute is providing some scoring off the bench, about 8 points a game.

Frank: Six Bucks are averaging double figures in scoring, including Sessions, who’s complementing Ridnour well at point guard. The Bucks are in the middle of the NBA in average points at 98 per game, but they’re giving up 97.5, so those extra rebounds can be mighty big.

Artie: What’s the field-goal percentage they’re allowing on defense?

Frank: Let’s see… the Bucks’ opponents are shooting 45.5%.

Artie: If I’m not wrong, that’s way better than last season, ain’a?

Frank: Yup, in each of the last two seasons they allowed 48% shooting. Three percentage points doesn’t sound like much, but 45% shooting averages out to two or three fewer baskets per game than 48%. And because the Bucks are shooting 44.7% themselves, every basket is crucial.

Artie: They’re not being blown out much. To use coach-speak, the consistent problem is consistency. They had a nice win over Toronto but stumbled the next game against Philly. They beat New Jersey but blew a lead the next night at Minnesota. They rallied to win at Washington but fell short at home against Miami. And they split road games against two crummy teams, Sacramento and the L.A. Clippers. Both of those were without Bogut, showing how important the guy is.

Frank: The defense definitely is better. Opponents’ shooting is down and their turnovers are up—16.3 a game, tops in the league and 2.6 higher than last year. The Bucks are on pace to finish 38-44, which would be a 12-game improvement.

Artie: That’s OK for now, but the fans need more.

Still Kicking

Frank: As we’ve implied, a No. 8 playoff spot in the NBA isn’t terrific. After all, more than half the league’s 30 teams make it to the postseason.

Artie: Same thing in the NHL, 16 out of 30 teams in the playoffs. Gotta keep that revenue flowing! And I’ll bet you a buck two-eighty that sooner or later there’ll be a league where EVERY team makes the playoffs.

Frank: There is such a league now, sort of. It’s part of a new era for Milwaukee’s indoor soccer team, the Wave.

Artie: New? I hadn’t been paying much attention to the Wave’s old era.

Frank: Well, the Major Indoor Soccer League folded last year amid financial squabbles. But now the Wave is part of the Xtreme Soccer League, which has a whopping four teams. There’s a rival league, the National Indoor Soccer League, with five teams.

Artie: They better watch out. They’re heading toward nine one-team leagues.

Frank: The four XSL teams are playing a 20-game schedule, which ends in April. The league’s Web site mentions playoffs, so I guess the season and the postseason are one and the same.

Artie: One long playoff. That’s genius! Hey, what was that football league Vince McMahon had for one year?

Frank: The XFL, baby. Another extreme entity.

Artie: Maybe the soccer guys should go the McMahon route—chokeholds and the like.

Frank: No matter how silly a four-team league is, the Wave stays popular because indoor soccer is fun to watch.

Artie: Agreed! I saw the Wave in years past, and it’s entertaining.

Frank: Good family fun. A lively game, reasonable prices and lots of loud music and stunts to keep the kids’ attention.

Artie: Cheerleaders?

Frank: Probably.

Artie: Just thinking of my attention span.

For Shame

Last week the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted speedster Rickey Henderson and slugger Jim Rice into the Hall of Fame, Henderson in his first year on the ballot and Rice in his 15th and last. Andre Dawson got 67% of the vote but was 43 votes short of the required 75%. And fourth in the balloting, with 62.7%, was pitcher Bert Blyleven. Artie, who appointed himself Blyleven’s campaign manager, was appalled.

Artie: Well, sir, it’s a travesty.

Frank: I’m expecting to hear the Dutch version of “We wuz robbed.”

Artie: You’re in the BBWAA, so explain this! I mean, Bert B., the Rembrandt of great pitchers for mostly poor teams…

Frank: Rembrandt, huh? You really are Dutch at heart.

Artie: I never felt a special connection to Blyleven when he was pitching, but the numbers don’t lie. Just to re-reiterate: The guy had 287 wins, 60 shutouts and stands fifth—fifth!—all-time in strikeouts. That’s a glamour stat, a pitchers’ version of homers.

Frank: I suppose. As you know, Bert’s had my vote for several years.

Artie: But this was his 12th time on the ballot, so he only has three years left.

Frank: He gained only two votes this year, to 338, or 66 short of what he needed. But there’s good news: Blyleven’s total is one more than Rice had in his 12th year. Rice made a big jump in his 14th year, to 72%, and got over the top this time. Bert could do the same.

Artie: I also took comfort in a column by Tom Verducci on SI.com. He said everyone who ever reached 60% in the BBWAA vote eventually made it to the Hall, sometimes after moving into the veterans category—with what Verducci called “one cruel exception,” Gil Hodges.

Frank: Blyleven and Dawson, who has six years on the ballot left, could also benefit because there’s no “can’t miss” guy like Henderson joining the ballot next December. A guy’s eligibility begins after he’s retired five years, and the top newcomers for 2010 are Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff.

Artie: Verducci said the same thing applies for two years after that. The top newcomer for 2011 will be Jeff Bagwell, and for 2012 it’s Bernie Williams.

Frank: So Bert’s last three years might be a window of opportunity. I think BBWAA voters generally don’t like having a year when nobody makes it.

Artie: So I might have to learn the Dutch for “What took them so long?”

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