A critique of the Neal trade: Magic — Bucks Preview

Tobias Harris (left) and Doron Lamb (right) used to play for the Bucks. Other story lines remain scarce.
Tobias Harris (left) and Doron Lamb (right) used to play for the Bucks. Other story lines remain scarce. (Photo: Gary Dineen, NBAE via Getty Images)

What to Watch For: Bucks

Here’s an important preface: What is described below probably won’t significantly affect Milwaukee’s long- or short-term future.

With that said, it’s unfortunate the Bucks incidentally acquired two players who are better than the two players for whom they were traded. It’s also unfortunate Milwaukee didn’t reach buyout agreements with those two players, Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien.

(Aside: This overlaps as a criticism of the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bucks won last month’s trade by virtue of shedding Gary Neal’s $3.25 million salary for next season. Meanwhile, the Bobcats were willing to significantly downgrade at backup point guard — from Sessions to Luke Ridnour — just to secure the services of Neal. Never mind that Charlotte already had Ben Gordon, who is essentially a poor man’s Neal. They subsequently waived Gordon. Ridnour and Neal have PERs of 1.1 and 8.2, respectively, through six games. The league average is 15.0.)

Since acquiring Sessions and Adrien, Milwaukee is an objectively better team. Its average scoring differential was -9.3 in the 53 games prior to the trade; in the nine games since — eight in which Adrien and Sessions played — the average scoring differential is -2.0. In just over two weeks, Milwaukee’s average scoring differential increased by over a full point, from -9.3 to -8.2. By comparison, the Philadelphia 76ers have gone from an average scoring differential of -10.5 to -11.2 over that span. In other words, the Bucks are actually improving at a faster rate than the 76ers are tanking.

Granted, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But Sessions and Adrien have played at an incredible — and extremely unsustainable — level. Since rejoining the Bucks, Sessions has a 19.9 PER – which would easily rank in the NBA’s top 50 over an entire season – and is averaging 19.8 points per 36 minutes. Adrien has a 22.0 PER and a defensive rebounding rate of 31.3 percent, which has helped shore up one of Milwaukee’s most glaring weaknesses.

In short, Sessions and Adrien are helping the Bucks play better. And they are doing this at a time when the front office (not the players and coaches, obviously) should probably be doing the exact opposite of actively trying to win games.

They are also playing a lot.

Perhaps the Bucks are just doing due diligence and evaluating what they have in Sessions and Adrien. But the 27-year-old Sessions and the 28-year-old Adrien, whose contracts are both expiring, aren’t a part of the future – and if they are, they likely shouldn’t be. The Bucks are supposedly committed to a multi-year rebuild.

“It’s not ‘in a way rebuilding,'” John Hammond said during an interview on 1250 WSSP last month. “We are rebuilding. You could look back at teams that have gone through this process that we’re undertaking right now [and] very, very seldom — I don’t want to say never — has it ever happened that you get to this point and you get yourself in the position that we’re in right now, in a complete rebuilding mode, and you can just jump out in one year … and have that kind of a competitive [playoff] team. … I think probably the worst thing to do is try to speed up the process.”

If this is the case, bringing back Sessions and Adrien shouldn’t be a priority. Rebuilding teams usually don’t bring in veteran hustle players; they sign the likes of Brandon Davies, Hollis Thompson and Lorenzo Brown

Yet, Sessions and Adrien are here. They’re helping the Bucks play better, and they’re playing more than younger players who have a legitimate future in Milwaukee.

Sessions and Adrien have logged a combined 364 minutes in their eight games with the Bucks. Over that span, rookies Nate Wolters and Giannis Antetokounmpo have played a combined 353 minutes. Wolters and John Henson have played 342 minutes.

This is neither the blueprint for tanking nor rebuilding.

What to Watch For: Magic

Aside from buying out Glen Davis’ contract, not much has changed for the Magic since these two teams last met. Arron Afflalo is still having a career year. Tobias Harris, whom the Bucks traded last season, will still treat this game differently from others. Doron Lamb, who joined Harris in the trade to Orlando, is still struggling to translate his game to the NBA. Although his signature three-point shooting has improved since leaving Milwaukee, his field goal percentage remains well under 40 percent this season.

It’s also worth noting the Bucks lead the Magic by a comfy six games in the tank race.
(via ESPN.com)
(via ESPN.com)


Time — 7 p.m. CDT

TV — FS Wisconsin 

Radio — 620 WTMJ

Injury Report

Bucks: Ekpe Udoh (right knee swelling; questionable), Larry Sanders (fractured right orbital bone; out), Carlos Delfino (right foot surgery; out) 

Magic: Victor Oladipo (sore ankle; day-to-day)

Projected Lineups


PG Nate Wolters

SG Brandon Knight

SF Khris Middleton

PF Ersan Ilyasova

Zaza Pachulia


PG Jameer Nelson

SG Arron Afflalo

SF Maurice Harkless

PF Tobias Harris

 Nikola Vucevic

Choose the Form of the Destroyer: Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic is averaging 16.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game against the Bucks in his career, which spans a decent sample of eight games. The only team he scores more against is Portland. Bucks killer!


One team wins.

Categories: Game Previews

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  1. It’s really sad how the Bucks are apparently mistreating John Henson by keeping him in the backround. With Tobias coming to town we have a stark reminder of how the Bucks can squander the potential of a highly promising player, at least for the benefit of the Bucks.
    Now something similar may be happening to Larry Sanders and John Henson, two players who — just a day or two ago it seems — were huge hopes for the future of the Bucks. To a lesser extent, perhaps put Nate Wolters and Miroslav in the same predicament.
    At what point does maybe the front office of the Bucks come under scrutiny for the futility of the team and the languishing of our players? Then again, at what point do the media and fans deserve all this suffering if we don’t hold team management accountable?

    P.S. I appreciate Preston’s good insights in this essay, which to me are a good reminder that the Bucks can’t seem to resist quick fixes with duct tape and chicken wire rather than patient and solid rebuilding. It can be a good thing to bring in veteran help, but not at the expense of our young future. When management seems so shortsighted, no amount of lottery picks can make long-term seem anything but bleak.

  2. I think John Henson can be a good back-up, but he hasn’t shown enough improvemnt in 2 years now…He still bad at recognizing swithches on defense…and though is help defense is really good in terms of blocked shots, his actual on ball defense is terrible…He still needs to put on wieght / bulk up because he gets pushed around in the post with regularity…His offense has improved slighty, but just in one area which is his lefty hook….beyond that however, he hasn’t improved on a jump shot, or anything with his right hand…I just don’t see the promise that some fans do. It seems like the Bucks’ organization agrees with me too because they don’t seem like they’re wanting to play him much and he was in trade rumors this past trade deadline too…

    • With best regards, Jake, you’re proving my point. I didn’t hear any of this talk after summer league and going into this season. Since then, it seems as though John has been given inconsistent minutes and inconsistent roles.
      If John was considered a great prospect just a few months ago, either he’s really slipped, or the Bucks have mishandled him. My strong hunch is the latter, a hunch that is reinforced in my mind by the case of a certain former player who is coming along very nicely for the team we’re playing tonight.

  3. If the Bucks trade/give up on Henson ….. then absolutely anything might happen this off season.

    Note- the fact Henson is playing much less of late is a terrible sign.

  4. Henson and Sanders are an outstanding (if easily pushed around) center combination.

    But that’s all they look like they’ll ever be.

    Henson can’t shoot beyond 10 feet (and even then, the results look horrid, though they’re effective). Both are easily moved aside by larger centers and power forwards. You can’t play them side-by-side against any team that goes big unless you enjoy seeing opposing teams dunk home offensive rebound after offensive rebound.

    A big, strong power forward that can shoot from outside the lane would be a nice fit. (Julius Randle? A trade for Thad Young?) However, it looks like Kohl loves him some Ilysasova, so that’s unlikely.

    If the Bucks are looking to deal Henson, in the hopes that Pachulia and Sanders will provide pretty much the same value, I get the thinking. Henson’s good for only about 25 minutes a game. But those 25 mpg are very good minutes. He should garner a piece like that back.

    I could see the Bucks biting on a Henson and spare change to Memphis for James Johnson and Ed Davis deal. That, IMO, would be a decent gamble for a rebuilding Milwaukee team, too. Johnson could be the whirling, board-crashing, turnover-inducing, turnover-waiting-to-happen wild card of a small forward while Davis could play PF with a bit more range, better on-the-ball defense, but less upside.

    Or you could always shoot for the moon and go for a blockbuster. How about dealing Henson, Sanders, and Ilyasova for Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Isiah Canaan, and Omar Asik? Who hangs up first?

    Houston would have a power forward combination of Henson and Sanders to play defense, cut to the hoop, rebound and defend, not to mention add a little streak of mean AND a long-distance sniper. Pair that group with Dwight Howard and Parsons, and you have enough depth to really challenge the big boys.

    Milwaukee, meanwhile, gets out from under Sanders’ deal quickly and ultimately saves a metric crap ton of cash, though they do have to add a defense-first, top-flight rebounder on a huge contract in its place. They also get two good big men shooters who can play multiple positions. Both are young and uber-talented. Canaan, meanwhile, has no conscience as a shooter, can fill it up from deep, and has jets enough to be a poor man’s Vinny Johnson or Jerry Sichting.

  5. Bucks need to win two more games and not in a row to have the most wins in a season without a winning streak of 2 games. Lets make history!

  6. To play devil’s advocate on the Sessions-Adrien trade:

    The trade almost certainly hasn’t affected our W-L record yet. We’ve won two games, against the D-League Sixers and a not great Jazz team that had had to keep up with Indiana the night before, by blowout margins. We win those games with or without Sessions, Adrien, Neal, and/or Ridnour.

    (To be clear: If we win any close games, or games where the pre-trade Bucks would have been underdogs (which is to say almost anything), then you may have a point, depending on the circumstances.)

    In our seven losses since the trade, our differential has been (if my quick math is right) 9.14. Given that our overall pre-trade differential was 9.3, I’m going to guess that 9.14 is about two points better than our pre-trade differential in losses (which I’m too lazy to compute).

    Although sucking slightly less is playing with ping-pong ball fire, it has a meaningful benefit. Constantly getting creamed has to wear on our young players. We don’t want these guys to give up, develop awful habits, etc. There has to be a point on the loss-differential curve that optimizes the balance between ping-pong chances and letting our young players feel like they’re actually playing basketball games. Going from -11 to -9 seems to me like a reasonable, conservative (from a tanking standpoint) stab at where that point is.

  7. I agree gregmag with your analysis. Also that would be an interesting thing to research the optimal loss-differential curve i like that idea a lot (although it would be extremely difficult to quantify) In addition it is hard to say this trade was an attempt to improve. In my mind the goal was: remove neal’s salary plain and simple. Could you honestly say Adrien would come in and start setting the league on fire getting every offensive rebound on the way? We may have realized sessions would be a slight upgrade but a 19 per? Yeah right! No matter what happens it is still Larry Drew’s job to win games and with these players playing well he has to play them. Undoubtedly every decision with the Bucks DOES need to be questioned, but i think this was made with good intentions and no one could have seen the lights out play from these two coming.