Now with the Portland Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts ponders his time as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks -- a tenure highlighted by a largely futile playoff run in the 2005-06 season. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports (Feb 12, 2013; Miami, FL, USA)

The Legacy of an Irrelevant Eighth Seed Run


(Photo credit: NBA.com)

 

By the time the 2005-06 NBA season was ready to tip off, the Milwaukee Bucks’ goal as a franchise was pretty clear: qualify for the playoffs.

The Bucks had just finished the previous season in the cellar of the Central Division, with a woeful 32-50 record. Yet, it did little to deter playoff optimism — and an emerging playoff mandate — in Milwaukee following the summer of 2005.

During the offseason, the Bucks selected Andrew Bogut with the first overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft, re-signed Michael Redd and Dan Gadzuric to a multi-year deals, traded for former all-star center Jamaal Magloire, lured the reigning NBA Most Improved Player (Bobby Simmons) to Milwaukee, and replaced head coach Terry Porter with Terry Stotts. The word “playoffs,” which has now become a staple piece of rhetoric among the Bucks’ brass, began creeping its way into more and more dialogue.

“Our goal is to build a team that can get to the playoffs every year and ultimately to win a championship,” said former general manager Larry Harris, who received a contract extension in November of 2005.

The revived playoff mindset also trickled down to the new head coach.

“I’m confident [Redd] will embrace the responsibility given to him and help lead this team back into the playoffs,” said Stotts, following the announcement of Redd’s return to Milwaukee.

The 2005-06 squad turned out to be the definition of a mediocre NBA team. According to Basketball Reference, the Bucks’ offense was slightly above average (106.3 ORtg; 14th of 30) — led by the efficient scoring duo of Michael Redd (25.4 ppg; 57.4 TS%) and Bobby Simmons (13.4 ppg; 55.9 TS%). Milwaukee struggled on the defensive end (DRtg 107.4; 23rd), which was predictable given the defensive sieves on the perimeter — namely Redd, T.J. Ford and Mo Williams.

Although Stotts was known for his up-tempo offensive system with an emphasis on ball movement, Milwaukee played at an average pace of 91.2 possessions per 48 minutes (13th). They forced the exact same percentage of turnovers per 100 possessions (13.8 percent) as they committed themselves, but struggled to get to the free throw line on a consistent basis

Where the Bucks shined, at least relatively, was rebounding. They ranked sixth in defensive rebounding percentage and 11th offensive rebounding percentage, which were in part a result of starting two traditional centers — Bogut (19.8 DRB%), who started at power forward, and Magloire (27.4 DRB%) — with a capable rotational big man, Dan Gadzuric (19.3 DRB%), coming off the bench.

(Photo credit: NBA.com)

The only players on Milwaukee’s roster to produce a PER above 15 — the league average — were Redd (21.2), Gadzuric (17.2), Joe Smith, (16.1) and Bogut (15.2).

In short, it’s certainly not a surprise that the Bucks were smack in the middle of an unbalanced NBA landscape.

Nonetheless, the Bucks ultimately reached their goal that season. They finished with a 40-42 record, which was just enough to secure the eighth seed in a watered down Eastern Conference featuring four playoff teams with 42 or less wins.

Mission accomplished, right?

In reality, snagging the eighth seed in 2006 meant very little for Milwaukee’s franchise. The Bucks lost to the 64-win Detroit Pistons in five games in a noncompetitive first-round series. Aside from a surprising 20-point win at home in Game 3, Milwaukee lost the other four games by an average margin of 17.0 points.

The brief playoff stay wasn’t much of a surprise; at the time, no eighth seed had ever won a seven-game series in the NBA playoffs (a feat later accomplished by Monta Ellis and the 2006-07 ‘We Believe’ Warriors). In fact, only two eighth seeds — the 1999 Knicks, who reached the finals, and the 1994 Nuggets — had ever advanced past the first round, in the now-extinct best-of-five games format. It’s safe to say that unless your team is up-and-coming and could genuinely use the experience, snagging the eighth seed serves little purpose.

The oft-heralded “playoff experience” didn’t prove to be too valuable for the Bucks, however, as only five players from the 2005-06 team returned the next year. Milwaukee sunk right back down the Eastern Conference standings the following two seasons, accumulating a 54-100 record and consecutive last place finishes in the division. Stotts and his eventual replacement, Larry Krystkowiak, were fired in the process, and Harris wasn’t retained following the 2007-08 season.

Attendance numbers in Milwaukee throughout the season reflected the city’s apathy toward the team. The Bucks averaged 16,618 fans per home game (88.8 percent capacity) in the regular season, adding up to a total attendance that ranked 20th in the league. And while fans filled the Bradley Center to capacity (18,717) for Milwaukee’s first home game of the playoffs, Game 3, the arena was only 87.1 percent full (16,296) for Game 4 — what turned out to be the last home game of the season and an anticlimactic send-off.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Coming into the 2012-13 season, the Milwaukee Bucks’ goal as a franchise was familiar: just qualify of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

It’s no secret that Bucks owner Herb Kohl has had a ‘win-now’ vision of the team over the past few years. At the press conference wrapping up last season — and as documented by Brew Hoop – Kohl expressed his disappointment with missing the postseason and reiterated his playoff standard:

“…we didn’t get to the playoffs so we’re not satisfied. If you’re not in the playoffs, at a minimum, you can’t be satisfied. We’re not satisfied.”

“This is a results kind of a business that we’re in, and we measure ourselves by results, and we were supposed to be in the playoffs. We didn’t get there…If you want to know whether of not we are happy, no. We are not happy.” 

At Media Day this past November, general manager John Hammond was equally as explicit about this ever-looming objective.

“We expect to have a good season,” Hammond said. “We expect to have a playoff team – and that’s the goal.”

Well, the Bucks are well on their way to reaching that goal. They are firmly entrenched in the eighth slot of the Eastern Conference– trailing the seventh-place Celtics by 2.5 games and leading the ninth-place 76ers by 5.5 games.

Milwaukee’s magic number is four with 10 games remaining. Thus, they only need a combination of four wins or 76ers losses to clinch a playoff birth. At this point, barring an improbable hot streak or epic collapse, the Bucks will finish as the eighth seed and earn the rights to face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s more important to analyze the process, a mediocre team scraping its way into the last playoff spot of a weak conference, not the result, qualifying for the playoffs.

The Bucks are an extremely unpredictable offensive team, aptly reflecting the inconsistencies and inefficiencies of their two leading scorers, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. According to Basketball Reference, Milwaukee’s offensive rating of 103.8 ranks 21st in the NBA. They push the ball effectively with the league’s fourth-highest pace and commendably force more turnovers than they commit. However, the undersized backcourt players scarcely draw fouls, and the team struggles mightily to rebound on the defensive end, ranking 28th in defensive rebounding percentage.

Milwaukee has improved offensively since the Bucks parted ways with former head coach Scott Skiles on Jan. 8, but their defense has deteriorated in recent weeks. Via NBA.com/Stats:
  • Skiles: 32 games, 16-16 record, 98.8 offensive rating, 100.6 defensive rating
  • Boylan: 40 games, 19-21 record, 102.7 offensive rating, 104.0 defensive rating

*Note: NBA.com/Stats’ ratings differ from Basketball Reference’s

While the coaching swap has prompted some interesting developments — including Ersan Ilyasova’s return to form, Ellis’ renaissance and Jennings’ increased agitation — the Bucks simply remain a mediocre basketball team.

In addition to the obvious — sub-.500 record, eighth seed, about to face a 60+ win team in the playoffs — Milwaukee’s current team disconcertingly mirrors the 2005-06 Bucks.

The Bucks are still led by pseudo-stars. Replacing the likes of Redd, Williams, Bogut, Richard Jefferson and John Salmons are Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Monta Ellis — all valuable players in their own limited ways, but none of whom are capable of moving a franchise’s needle.

Larry Sanders and John Henson are extremely promising young assets, but it remains to be seen if either will ever become all-star caliber players. The same could have been said about Andrew Bogut in 2006.

Tobias Harris, another intriguing prospect whom the Bucks snagged in the mid-first round, is now in Orlando — the notable victim of a ‘win-now’ move for J.J. Redick at this year’s trade deadline. The 20-year-old forward is averaging 16.3 points on 46.1 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds per game since joining the Magic.

Hammond, at the time of the trade, hinted that there could be long-term repercussions for the short-sighted move. Via the Associated Press:

“This comes down to us trying to win, us trying to remain competitive. We’re hoping to get an uptick from this. We haven’t been playing quite as well lately and we’re hoping we can at least solidify this eight spot. We’d like to move up, try to get the seven, the six … whatever we can do. This, for us, trying to get a piece like J.J. is about us trying to win games.”

 “You do look up and you don’t know what it’s going to look like in a few years. But his is kind of more about trying to win now.”

It’s true that we don’t know what the trade is going to look like in a few years; however, we do know what it looks like now. While Harris has thrived in his new home, Redick has struggled to utilize his most valuable skill, three-point shooting. He’s shooting 31.9 percent from beyond the arc on 5.1 attempts per game  – well below his 39.3 percent career average.

The uptick Hammond was seeking from the trade has been nonexistent. The Bucks, who were 26-27 at the time of the trade, have gone 9-10 since acquiring Redick.

Even if the Bucks would have experienced substantial success after the trade, it likely would have been unsustainable with so many question marks approaching this summer. Just as the Bucks completely turned over their team following the 2006 playoffs, the Bucks will undoubtedly be shuffling the decks in the coming months.

Only seven players on the Bucks have guaranteed contracts next season. Samuel Dalembert, Redick, Mike Dunleavy, Joel Przybilla and Marquis Daniels will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Ellis has a player option for next season, while the Bucks hold a team option on Gustavo Ayon. Jennings will be a restricted free agent, unless he accepts Milwaukee’s qualifying offer of $4.5 million.

There are no shortage of decisions for the Bucks to make after the season. They will have the flexibility this summer to keep the eighth-seed engine alive, completely rebuild or assemble something in between. If recent history tells us anything, it’s that the first and third options are significantly more likely than the second.

Lastly, and similarly to the 2005-06 season, the city has yet to come out in droves and support this iteration of the Bucks. The team’s total attendance this season ranks 25th in the NBA. Milwaukee is averaging 14,933 fans per home game, which is down from two years ago (15,412) but up from last year (14,719).

The city wants a sustainable winner or, at the very least, a transparent vision for the future — not the same recycled mediocrity that has plagued the last decade, regardless of a few playoff appearances.

When the eighth seed is clinched this season, which could be as early as this week, will the Bucks’ brass really be able to say this team met its goal? If the Bucks enter the playoffs with a sub-.500 and are swept by the Heat in the first round, will they still be able to say with a straight face that the team met its goal?

It’s time to raise the standard in Milwaukee from simply “qualifying for the playoffs” to “building a relevant playoff team” — the latter of which is an actual accomplishment the fan base can get behind.

Stats Comparison (as of 3/31/13)

Remembering the 2005-06 Season

Out of curiosity, I posed the following question on Twitter: “What do you remember about the 2005-06 Milwaukee Bucks team?” It appears the memories of that team aren’t always abundant — and when they are abundant, they aren’t exactly happy:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven years later, the Bucks are arguably right where they were in 2006 — void of a superstar, lacking a clear direction, hovering around .500, securing an eighth seed and preparing to face a vastly superior team in the playoffs. In 2020, what will be worth remembering about the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks — a team that will soon achieve the franchise’s long-standing goal of reaching the playoffs?

 

Tags: Eighth Seed Herb Kohl Milwaukee Bucks Playoffs