The Milwaukee Bucks will venture into the All-Star break one game with one more win than loss. On the surface, that seems like a rousing success. Okay, I’ll back off a bit. Maybe not a rousing success, but a success nonetheless. They’ve grabbed a firm hold of the final playoff spot in the East and look on track to finish this season with more wins than losses for the first time since 2009-10.
On the surface.
But that’s just what the results look like. Sports fans, we’re way too caught up in results. What’s really important for predicting future behavior is the process that creates those results. Often times, results of a group of games can be decided by fairly random circumstances. For instance, Milwaukee beat the Sixers last night, not because they were demonstrably better, but because Royal Ivey is a terrible player that should never play during crunch time and Luc Mbah a Moute was wise enough to tap the ball down the court and let time expire after making a deflection.
Some will say “those are the plays that good teams make”. Those people would be wrong. Good teams don’t put themselves in those situations against teams that play Royal Ivey in crunch time.
There’s more to a good team than wins and losses. It’s largely about how they play. You can tell when a team is starting to roll. It’s not about momentum or any stupid mystical property that lazy sportswriters create, it’s about teams figuring out and having confidence in what they do really well and executing on that over and over. Those teams and the teams that have a lot of talent, those are the teams that are successful. They get the process down and then the wins follow.
I loved this recent quote from Jim Boylan. For the 100th time, he was asked by media about being five games over .500. Media obsesses with records, results, grit, grind, momentum, home court record, confidence and small sample sizes. Talking with the media (yours truly included) seems like the worst part about being an NBA head coach. But here was his response to some question about Milwaukee’s record:
“The only people who think about that are you, the media,” he said before Milwaukee fell back to four games over .500 with a loss to the Chicago Bulls. “For some reason the number five is a big number. That’s what no what we’re concerned about. We’re not concerned about being five over, four over, three over, two over, whatever. We’re just concerned about playing well. If we play well, everything will take care of itself.
There’s no better example in recent Bucks history than the 2009-10 Bucks.
The common explanation for Milwaukee’s run that season is the acquisition of John Salmons in straight star form. He burned very bright for his first half season in Milwaukee and elevated the team to a level they hadn’t been at in some time. He certainly was crucial to Milwaukee’s success.
But he wasn’t the main reason.
Andrew Bogut was phenomenal in 2009-10. He was coming off a pretty good, but injury laden 2008-09 where he really started coming into his own both on offense and defense. In the midst of a dominant November, Bogut strained his left leg and the Bucks suffered badly without him. After a hot start, Milwaukee found themselves six games under .500 half way through January. The record indicated that this was a team far from being able to compete with really good teams. Beyond that, they had been brutal on the road and against better competition.
But with Bogut finally getting healthy again, Milwaukee started playing like a team that knew who it was and had an effective strategy. Defensively they began to lock down. Offensively, they had Bogut and the 19 and 10 nights he was starting to post with regularity to ride. Starting in the middle of January, the team just started to play much better. They closed the month 4-3, but the record was much less important than the way they did it. Convincing, double digit wins at home over the T-Wolves and Heat and close road losses in Dallas and Toronto.
The wins and losses were much less important than the games themselves. Milwaukee didn’t barely lose to Dallas because they had positive momentum from blowing out the Wolves, they barely lost because they started to buy into themselves as a good team if they could defend at their best and ride Bogut on offense. By the time the Bucks acquired Salmons, they knew they were already pretty good but just needed a guard who could carry them late in the game. Salmons was the perfect fit for that half season.
Here’s what I wrote after that Dallas game:
But disappointment need not show itself around me tonight. I’m feeling good, feeling great because the Bucks have strung together a couple weeks worth of strong performances, their record over that time be damned. For a team that has the future in mind while playing for right now too it’s more important that the pieces start to show some signs of coming together and being greater than the whole they currently make up and in that department, the Bucks are making progress.
It all seemed so obvious at the time. That was a team that was about to make a big run, despite a 24-27 record before the All-Star break. Past record means nothing when trying to predict future performance. Look at the process, not the results.
This current, 26-25 Bucks squad? The one that has to fight for a win against a brutal Sixers team? If you think the positive results of the first half are replicable in the second half if the Bucks don’t make significant changes to their process, I’d love to make a wager with you. Letting 40% shooters control an offense can only work with a fantastic defense. Without Larry Sanders, the Bucks do not have a fantastic defense and no one seems sure when he’s coming back. There’s been very little evidence that the Bucks know what they do well on offense and can keep doing it well.
The process is not there folks. And with Milwaukee’s second half schedule, wins could be hard to come by at some point. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Sure, the Bucks can and probably will make the playoffs. But unless some miraculous happens with Milwaukee’s offense, that’ll have a lot more to do with the team playing Royal Ivey in crunch time than one the Bucks are putting out there every night.