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History 101: How the Bucks have teased us in the past

The Bucks are 14-16, but if you're a Bucks fan then you know that's actually a pretty good thing. As of last night the Bucks were clinging to the 8th and final playoff spot in the East despite a road-heavy schedule and their fair share of injuries. Not bad. But you're probably also a bit wary, because the Bucks always seem to offer some early-season hope...and then the New Year hits and the wheels come off. And the wheels explode into fireballs. Call it the Globetrotter Curse or something. Anyway, here's some historical perspective on Buck disappointments.

7-4 on November 24
11-15 on December 25
15-41 thereafter, 26-56 overall

How it went wrong: Ah yes, the False Hope of Larry Krystkowiak. On Thanksgiving last year the Bucks were actually in first place and had taken down the Cavs (on the road), Lakers, and Mavs in succession. Re-reading my take on the Bucks at that point, I at least had the decency to warn that the Bucks' early blowout losses and negative point differential were ominous signs, but for the most part I was feeling very good about that team. Heck, I even wrote the sentence, "Krystkowiak seems to have won the respect of the entire roster." Whoops!

In reality, the Bucks won a number of early close games and it later came to light that a number of players most definitely did not respect Krystkowiak. The Bucks also suffered some injuries following their good start, but losing Desmond Mason doesn't really explain their December problems, and the team's record with Michael Redd was actually better than with him (5-5). For the most part, the Bucks simply weren't talented enough and the coaching staff quickly lost credibility when things went south.

13-14 on December 25
16-15 on December 30
12-39 thereafter, 28-54 overall

How it went wrong: Despite all the hand-wringing about Bogut being misused, the Bucks went on a six game winning streak from December 16-27 due in large part to their scoring backcourt of Mo Williams (24.3 ppg) and Michael Redd (27.7 ppg). The Bucks were 8-7 in close games (6 points or less) so they weren't being especially lucky, and had beaten New Jersey (still a decent accomplishment), Miami, and San Antonio (on the road) in their December hot streak. But then Michael Redd was lost to a knee injury, landing awkwardly on a routine, uncontested late-game dunk against Cleveland. The Bucks lost 17 of their next 20 games and that was all she wrote, as some late in the season tanking injuries added to their late season spiral.

15-9 on December 25
17-11 on January 2
23-31 thereafter, 40-42 overall

How it went wrong: Terry Stotts' first season hardly seems like a disappointment juxtaposed against the two seasons that followed, but had a similar trend of starting fast and fading in the New Year. The culprit this time around was simple: the 05/06 Bucks were perhaps the luckiest team in NBA history...for the first third of the season at least. They inexplicably went 13-0 in close games (six points or less) to start the season, before reality kicked in and the team went 7-13 in close games the rest of the way. Hey, mean reversion can be cruel. Though the team finished with 40 wins and took a game off the Pistons in the first round, the progress made was somewhat illusory: using point differentials, the 30-win 04/05 squad had an expected win total of 33, while the luckier 05/06 edition should have expected only 36.

15-9 on December 25
33-23 on February 27
8-18 thereafter, 41-41 overall

No mention of Buck disappointments can ignore the collapse, which precipitated the breakup of the (original) Big Three. Michael Redd was just a fresh-faced 22-year old bench sparkplug for the '02 Bucks, who suffered from something no recent Bucks team has dealt with: expectations. A year after taking the Sixers to seven games in the East Finals, the Bucks mistakenly thought Anthony Mason might be the missing piece of their championship equation, dealing glue-guy Scott Williams to make room for the 35-year old PF. But as much as Mason never meshed with Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell, the team was still on track for a division title until a disastrous finish left them on the outside looking in.

Their downfall has been well documented: a potent cocktail of injuries, bad chemistry, big egos, and bad luck. The Bucks lost all six OT games in the New Year and went 1-8 in close games over the final month and a half, and were fittingly embarrassed in the final game of the season. Needing a win to clinch the final playoff spot, the Bucks were demolished in Detroit by 34 points as Sam Cassell and Ray Allen scored just six points each. Robinson was dealt the following summer, Allen would depart less than a season later, and all the mojo the Bucks had acquired in 2001 was gone. OK, let's just move on...I'm getting annoyed just thinking about it.

So, what about the 08/09 Bucks?

On paper at least there's no obvious reason for the Bucks to collapse yet again. The Bucks' decent record thus far has been more than deserved, as they've been outscoring opponents on average (expected winning percentage of .512), their schedule becomes far more favorable in 2009, and they've dealt with their share of injuries as well. It's the latter which is also the biggest threat going forward. Losing Bogut in particular would be difficult to manage, as evidenced by the 0-3 mark they had without him a month ago. But they've also been getting substandard production from Mike Redd and Richard Jefferson, which hopefully has more to do with Redd's lingering ankle injury and Jefferson's acclimation to a new team/city than both players simply becoming decidedly average. Neither player has hit 30 yet, so I'm hoping both come around soon, especially given the monster paychecks they're pulling in. Jefferson at least defended well, and Redd has at times looked solid there as well.

But probably the biggest difference between this team and previous editions is Skiles. Not only is he the Bucks' first proven coach since Karl, but he also has a history of improving his teams over the course of the season. Ironically, Skiles lost his job in Chicago after a poor start to the 07/08 campaign, but slow starts and fast finishes were actually an annual occurrence during Skiles' tenure with the Bulls.

  • 06/07: 3-9 start, 46-24 finish, 49-33 total
  • 05/06: 12-19 start, 29-22 finish, 41-41 total
  • 04/05: 2-13 start, 45-22 finish, 47-35 total

I'm not particularly sure why those Bulls teams couldn't put it together from the start, which is also why I wouldn't conclude that the Bucks are destined to take the league by storm now that they've gotten their first 30 games out of the way. Still, there might be something about the system that Skiles uses which makes it a little harder to pick up than most (Bulls fans, feel free to chime in here). Hopefully that's the case, but I wouldn't bank on it. At this stage, I'd gladly take 40 wins and one of the final playoff spots--which is what the Bucks are on pace for at the moment. You've gotta start somewhere, right?