Stop ignoring process

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.

Don’t let Mbah a Moute’s smart play fool you – the Bucks have quite a ways to go. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

I’m positive.

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.

Categories: I hate momentum

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  1. The truth hurts…

    I will remain positive, because negativity helps nothing. I cant disagree with you though. Without Sanders, this squad has been a fright to watch on the defensive end. Im of the mind that strong D creates offensive opportunity. Really hope Larry can return with some similarity
    to his level of play pre-injury.

  2. “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.”

    How can the pieces start coming together if every time they do, we trade all the pieces? The best teams are the ones that have played together and are able to draw up a play and execute it. We have an awful lot of our team with expiring contracts, to say nothing of the rest of the team that everyone seems to want to trade away. Ersan, Ellis, Jennings, Dalembert, LRMBM

    Just saying…so don’t bite my head off.

    • Haha. Patti, no one at Bucksketball would ever bite your head off.

      Unfortunately, that paragraph was crafted before Andrew Bogut’s arm exploded and ruined everything. I think he was a big part of a core that could have been very good, but after that, he just wasn’t that 19 and 10 threat anymore.

      • Sigh…and the Bucks are TRYING to find that combination that will be a confident team again.

        Whatever happens, I don’t think we’ll soon forget the Ellis / Jennings year!

  3. Bucks need a long-term view. That means trade Jennings for a good pick and Ellis for a gallon of Gatorade.
    Then build through the draft, starting with Trey Burke.

  4. I think the most glaring point of everything you said about this year’s team was the fact that the Bucks really are relying on two 40% shooters to get their offense going. This cannot work! A team cannot succeed in the NBA with BOTH guards shooting 40% and taking 16-20 shots a game.

    It’s that simple. We must trade one, but also cannot afford to lose both of them this summer.

    Mix Ellis OR Jennings with the young talent like Henson & Sanders with veterans like Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute, Dunleavy, and this team has a chance to compete next year and for years to come. If you lose both of those guards though, we are back to having a team with no go-to scorer, and a team struggling to find an offensive identity.

  5. “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. ”

    If they start buying into themselves as a good team, they start playing better and winning more. Isn’t that what positive momentum is?

    • I think momentum and confidence are different things. Confidence is based on a large sample, good practices and a group that believes in themselves. Momentum is something that writers and announcers cite every time a team wins a game or two in a row, regardless of how they win them.

  6. Good article Jeremy on a very interesting topic of “momentum”.

    I agree momentum is no magical thing and wins aren’t as important as the objective decisions and actions of each individual possession, but momentum does exist to some extent as a result of the varied psychological states of the players on the floor. Throughout a game the pace and style of play for a given team and player can change a lot, as we’ve seen with the bucks. Players will play more loose/tight, aggressive/passive, fast/slow, smart/careless based on variety of real-time factors such as the outcome of the previous possession/game or string of possessions/games, the caliber of opposing team or player, the score in the game, the actions of teammates, the actions of coaches, the officiating, offcourt issues etc. The bucks change identity and experience “momentum swings” in a single game more dramatically than maybe any other team in the league. I think this is the direct result of two things:

    1. Some immaturity among players on the floor. They aren’t showing the mental discipline to consistently work toward executing the gameplan.
    2. A lack of confidence in the gameplan itself or a lack of certainty of what the real strategy is or should be.

    Jennings in particular seems to be a very emotional player and as a result a player that displays remarkable changes in personal “momentum”.

  7. Great article about the process!

    The Bucks have good individuals, but
    they don’t seem to play well together
    as a team. They seem to be indecisive
    and to fumble around with the ball,
    especially in crunch time — and it
    can be so exasperating!!! It’s hard
    to know who to blame, and maybe the
    point isn’t so much to blame anyone
    as it is to make the tough decisions
    about who to keep and who to trade —
    based on attitudes and abilities.

    A couple brief thoughts:

    (1)Keep Sanders, Harris, Henson;
    play them consistently 15-30 minutes;
    give them positive reinforcement through
    their ups-and-downs as long as they play
    hard physically and mentally and also try
    to fit in with the team. By the way,
    Harris could be the only other guy besides
    the guards who can create offense both inside
    and out. Please give him a real chance!

    (2)Let’s get a real point guard to run the show
    and help guys play together — at least a decent
    point guard now at the break, and a top one ASAP.
    Jennings and/or Ellis could work well as
    2-guards/hybrids/6th-men if they are willing to
    accept these roles. They’ll still get shots, but
    they need to cut back to save our sanity as fans.

    Thanks for any consideration of these thoughts!


  8. Process begins and ends with the man who signs the checks. Nothing is going to change unless Herb Kohl does

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  10. This is still a squad trying to define who they are… and unfortunately, they are different personalities on different nights. I know I harp on the Bucks brass a lot… but most players in today’s NBA are so interchangeable, that the overall vision for the club, that identity, needs to come from the top….not from the players. Where is Hammonds??? I never see the guy quoted in the paper, I rarely hear interviews on TV… he needs to share his direction for this club. When he signed his 3 year extension he gave a rare interview and talked about how he wanted this team to make the playoffs this year. Well, no s— John… what team doesn’t? How are you going to get there? Not just this year, but beyond?

    My opinion… figure out who on your squad is crucial to building the team you want… meaning, they show the commitment, the passion and the skill to start and succeed, not just generally, but for YOUR team and YOUR city. Does anyone on this squad fit that definition besides Sanders? I personally don’t think so. I think that makes everyone else expendable if by trading them away it helps you get closer to realizing your vision for the squad. And all of us fans need to get it out of our head that the Bucks will be able to draw a top tier / all star caliber player here right now… Maybe in 1988, but not now. Make no mistake that in the eyes of a young NBA player who expects marketing money and a chance to build their personal brand, present day Milwaukee is NBA purgatory. You have to change the perception of this team first before you can lure that top talent, and that starts from within… a clear, consistent, communicated vision, identify your core pieces and keep them happy, bring in a bold coach who can translate that vision into action, and draft or acquire the mid-level pieces that will help you continue down to road to achieving your vision. With that, build consistent success on the court until a moment where maybe you CAN land that critical last all-star piece.

    I would argue that NONE of these pieces are in place currently… so this team has a lot of work to do.

    • There are plenty of pieces in place already, its just that the bucks have their order of operations for building a team backwards, they have the bench and role players without the star instead of building around a star.

      Sanders is solid, Henson will be a fine player, Ilyasova is good and has more potential, Brandon would be solid as a hybrid guard who was looking for a reasonable salary, Dunleavy and Udrih are top tier reserves, LRMAM can guard the Lebron’s and Carmelo’s of the league… Scrapping the whole thing is a little extreme in my opinion.

  11. I certainly wouldn’t ignore process, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t ignore results either. For example, the Lakers have a ton of talent, but they’re basically hoping results fall into their favour in order to get a playoff chance. I know this wasn’t the point of the article, but you have to see something positive about a team that shoots poorly and is somehow able to win more games than lose. Some say situations like this is because a team gets lucky, but I’m not one to believe that luck is a consistent factor.

    I know this is a very simplistic way of looking at the Bucks’ place right now, and there is much more to it, but it’s also not asinine to believe that sometimes the current method works. All they need to do is pinpoint what they do right, and then do that all the time. Obviously that’s more difficult done than said. I don’t think we really need to trade any starters, or at least make a high-risk trade.

    • “All they need to do is pinpoint what they do right, and then do that all the time”

      @Steve, what the bucks do right at this point is

      a) play great interior defense (thanks to Sanders)
      b) occasionally get a hot hand from one of their guards

      The problem here is that part b which largely determines their success is not reliable due to the style of the guards and their shooting abilities. Both of these guards will be costly to resign come the offseason, so adding additional offensive firepower will be difficult if they are to be resigned. A trade or several trades does need to be happen if the Bucks intend to improve and become more consistent.