Milwaukee Bucks

('88 Record: 42-40)

A year ago I wrote a comment on the Bucks that got buried in a folder that said 'Random Junk' on the cover. The research that went into the comment was junk, but what was said makes some sense. Some of the points I tried to make then are summarized below.

1) The Bucks of the '80's have been a successful but boring team. Part of the reason they've been so boring is the place they play - the Mecca, a very dark arena where the crowd can hardly be seen. Another reason they've been so colorless is that they've been so predictable. The Bucks could be counted on to dominate about 60% of the league, do well against another 20%, and struggle against Boston, Philadelphia, the Lakers, and Denver. In the playoffs, Milwaukee would occasionally make it past Boston or Philly, only to die in the next round against the other Beast from the East.

2) The Bucks have consistently won fewer games than their Pythagorean projection. Through the '87 season, the Bucks had won 431 of 656 regular season games in the '80's. Their Pythagorean projection was for 466 wins, a difference of 35 wins over eight years. In '86, the Bucks won 57 games, but should have won 66 based on their Pythagorean projection, which would have placed them next to the 67-15 Celtics for best record. Instead, the Bucks lost all five regular season games to Boston and got swept by them in the playoffs.

3) The Bucks have had a lot of 'second line superstars' in the '80's. Second line superstars is the way I think of players like Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings, and Marques Johnson who score, rebound, and assist well, but do nothing extraordinarily well. They haven't ranked with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, or Adrian Dantley in their ability to stand out in one category. When television promotes a game, Moncrief, Cummings, or Johnson aren't the big names that many others are. Even when Moncrief was making the NBA All-Star Teams at the end of the season, he wasn't being promoted as well as others.

4) Clutch performance appears to be more important in basketball than in baseball or football. One basketball player can have more of an effect on the result of a game than one baseball player or one football player can have on their game. In baseball, if a player hits .800 in the late innings of close games, he still may not help his team win a specific game if his teammates don't get on base or if the batting order doesn't allow him to get an at bat in the late innings of the game. In basketball, a player who shoots 80% at the end of close games can get a chance to win a game as long as he can free himself from the defender. There are no rules of the game preventing him from getting a chance to win the game. In football, a quarterback is dependent on both his blockers and his receivers in trying to score points. A basketball player like Adrian Dantley or Michael Jordan can create points for himself without the help of his teammates. In clutch situations in basketball, a team can go to its best player. In clutch situations in baseball and football, a whole team effort is required.

5) The second line superstars that the Bucks have had weren't the most creative scorers or passers. They were more effective at taking what was given them and doing well with that. Though measurements of clutch performance aren't available, not many Bucks have been mentioned in articles on top clutch performers. This may explain the Bucks' poor performance in close games and the Pythagorean discrepancy. The Bucks won 65% of all their games in the '85-86 and '86-87 seasons, yet were a very poor 8-17 in games decided by three or fewer points. There most likely is a real reason for their poor performance in those close games other than just random chance.

6) The Bucks have had a very good bench for much of the decade, featuring players like Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Craig Hodges, Ricky Pierce, Pat Cummings, and Kevin Grevey. Most of these players had been starters for at least one season in their careers and scored pretty well. As such good players coming off the bench, they probably weren't far below the quality of the Bucks' starters. As a result, the Bucks would continue to pull ahead of poor teams when the bench came in and stay close against better teams. When the starters came back in, though, they weren't good enough to get past the better teams. This would also explain the large Pythagorean discrepancy the Bucks have had this decade.

7) In Don Nelson's eleven years at Milwaukee, he never had a good point guard. Only twice did a Buck place in the top ten in assists; that was Quinn Buckner who finished ninth in '78 and tenth in '79. Would a good point guard have made the Bucks a better team?

8) Move Paul Pressey to point guard. Pressey has been the best passing small forward in the league since the '84-85 season. He has also been one of the smallest forwards at only 6'5" and 185 lbs. (according to The Sporting News '86-87 Basketball Register). It wouldn't hurt to move Pressey to point guard in front of John Lucas and to rearrange the front court so that Cummings and Jack Sikma are forwards and Randy Breuer is the center.

9) My questions about the new Bucks: Will Pressey continue at forward or will he be experimented with at point guard? Will the Bucks fall to mediocrity or hang around the 50 win mark before they get new talent to replace aging Moncrief and Sikma, ailing Cummings, and to aid Pierce and Pressey? Will the bench that has played so well collapse? How are the Bucks going to acquire more talent with no first round picks in '87 or '89 and little to trade? Will new coach Del Harris last as long as his two predecessors?


1) The Bucks are still pretty boring a year later. They are still playing in the dark Mecca, though I think I've heard that they are going to be moving out next year. They are also still predictable. Although they were finally an average team last year, that is what most experts predicted they would be.

2) Milwaukee won 42 games last year, while their Pythagorean projection was for 43 wins. Technically, the Bucks won fewer games than they should have, but a one game error in the Pythagorean projection is normal and not considered to be a problem. Still, over the past nine years, the Bucks deviation from their Pythagorean projection is the largest in basketball.

    Points Points  -Projected-- Actual  Difference
Tm  Scored Allowed W/L%   W-L     W-L       (per yr)
MIL  80826  77088  .691 510-228 473-265 +37 (+4.1)
POR  82663  81148  .578 427-311 403-335 +24 (+2.7)
DEN  88790  87707  .552 407-331 386-352 +21 (+2.3)
SEA  79507  78919  .532 392-346 377-361 +15 (+1.7)
DAL  72288  72196  .505 332-324 320-336 +12 (+1.5)
DET  82006  82008  .500 369-369 360-378 + 9 (+1.0)
IND  78479  80349  .401 296-442 289-449 + 7 (+0.8)
PHO  80608  80075  .528 390-348 384-354 + 6 (+0.7)
ATL  77631  76823  .544 402-336 397-341 + 5 (+0.6)
NYK  77745  78804  .443 327-411 322-416 + 5 (+0.6)
SAC  81052  82257  .438 323-415 321-417 + 2 (+0.2)
CHI  79091  80260  .438 323-415 322-416 + 1 (+0.1)
BOS  83199  78229  .740 546-192 550-188 - 4 (-0.4)
SAS  84234  84457  .489 361-377 366-372 - 5 (-0.6)
CLV  77706  80445  .357 263-475 269-469 - 6 (-0.7)
NJN  79136  80576  .424 313-425 320-418 - 7 (-0.8)
LAL  85086  80645  .713 526-212 534-204 - 8 (-0.9)
UTA  79706  81101  .427 315-423 326-412 -11 (-1.1)
HOU  80055  80670  .468 345-393 357-381 -12 (-1.3)
PHI  80961  78293  .639 471-267 489-249 -18 (-2.0)
WAS  76917  77646  .460 339-399 357-381 -18 (-2.0)
GSW  80817  83524  .364 268-470 289-449 -21 (-2.3)
LAC  78793  83251  .282 208-530 235-503 -27 (-3.0)

Notice that the better teams tend to be underachievers, while the poorer teams tend to be overachievers. That would indicate that there is a problem with the Pythagorean formula, notably that the 17 in the exponent is too large. This may be the case as different studies have indicated that 16.5 or 16.1 work better depending on the criteria set for the study. Changing the exponent to 16, though, doesn't particularly change the above trend. It would take a change to about 13 to make obvious differences and those differences would show that the formula is then inaccurate and somewhat useless.

Another study involving the Pythagorean formula, done by Martin Manley, indicated that, if we let the exponent vary, the most accurate exponent for teams far from average (greater than about 15 games from 41 wins) is larger than 17 (see Clippers comment). This totally contradicts the above chart and tells me that our understanding of what is happening is severely limited by statistical illusions beyond our control. In other words, we should either start over on or forget this situation.

There is some reason for winning teams being apparent underachievers and losing teams being apparent underachievers. If that could be explained, there would still be the problem of explaining why Boston, L.A., and Philadelphia, the three top teams of the decade, overachieved. This will probably require extensive investigation from a pure statistical point of view, which is a project for another year and, possibly, another person.

3) The idea of 'second line superstars' was not originally mine. Now I wish I hadn't adopted its usage. The word is just another blind label without a strict definition that shouldn't be used in research. As a fan, I might label Moncrief, Cummings, and Johnson 'second line superstars', but it serves no purpose in a study as the players' individual characteristics should have been looked at, rather than some general, poorly defined class of ballplayer.

4) The issue of clutch performance is one of the most controversial in sports. There are a good deal of 'sports scientists' who don't believe that it exists and there is a large group of fans and basketball people who insist that it does exist. My feeling should be obvious by what I said above that I do believe some players consistently play better in the clutch than they would otherwise. There are no numbers to support clutch performance, but so many people have seen something resembling it that it seems more likely than not to exist. It's not like Bigfoot or UFO's, where only a small percentage of the population have claimed to have seen them. If you sent someone who had never heard of Bigfoot into supposed Bigfoot territory, then brought him back a few years later, he probably would not come back with claims of having seen something that looked like the creature. If you put someone who had no knowledge of the reputations of basketball players at a television to watch large numbers of games, then talked to them afterward, they would probably talk about Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, etc., as not only great players, but as players who seem to consistently come through when the game is on the line.

5) The Bucks were 9-8 last year in games decided by three points or less, which is consistent for a team that went 42-40. Other teams that did unusually poorly in close games in '86-87 - Boston and Chicago - also bounced back last year. Detroit and Philadelphia (especially Philadelphia), did strangely poorly in close games in '87-88 and should be expected to pick up a few games next year by straightening that out.

6) The bench theory sounds good, but, as I said from the beginning, the research was junk. There is nothing to support the theory. I would follow up on it if I had the information, but it's not available now.

7) Would a good point guard have made the Bucks a better team? Probably yes. Most indications now are that teams with one good point guard to distribute the ball operate better than teams that have no distinct ball circulator.

8) Pressey was moved to point guard this year. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the experiment wasn't very successful. Pressey's ability as a passing forward is outstanding, but, as a point guard, he is only average. His numbers last year at the point are very similar to his numbers in previous years at forward. Point guards generally must be the safest players on the team because they have the ball so much of the time. Last year, Pressey still didn't make many mistakes, but didn't ignite the offense either. The Bucks have no one better than Pressey for the position (though Humphries may be his equal) and Pressey isn't a bad player because his defense and rebounds are bonuses from a point guard. A Pressey-led offense will never be the best in the league, but his other contributions should keep the team respectable.

9) Q. Will Pressey continue at forward or will he be experimented with at point guard? A. Pressey was moved to point guard. Q. Will the Bucks fall to mediocrity or hang around the 50 win mark? A. The Bucks fell to mediocrity. Q. Will the bench that has played so well collapse? A. The team was so mixed up last year that there were no defined bench players; many became starters for periods of time. If forced to make a call, I'd say it collapsed. Q. How are the Bucks going to acquire more talent with no first round picks in '87 or '89 and little to trade? A. The Bucks acquired Jay Humphries from Phoenix for Craig Hodges. Humphries is a potentially good point guard, but nothing special. The Bucks' top draft pick last year, Bob McCann, was a bomb. Their first pick this year was Jeff Grayer, who should be good enough to become the starting shooting guard and hold the job for several years. Q. Will Del Harris last as long as his two predecessors? A. No way. He may not last through this season, but more likely will be gone at the end of '89-90.


Basketball Hoopla, 1988, L. Dean Oliver