The 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks have played through sixty-two percent of their regular season schedule. At 26-25 they control the eighth seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference. They have no All-Star players. The only two top-5 picks on the squad are Drew Gooden and Mike Dunleavy. No player on their roster has ever been selected to an NBA All-Star Game.
These are facts. These are just a few of the reasons why it's hard to get genuinely excited about the Bucks. I'm not even sure if they deserve light tennis applause for their early effort this year.
A Celebration of Excuses
When Larry Sanders suffered a back injury against the Nuggets and the Milwaukee immediately hit a 1-4 tailspin to close out the pre-All-Star portion of the schedule, I felt an urge to make excuses for the team. Then I thought about the situation for a while and suddenly felt silly about my initial reaction. The best players for the Bucks have been quite healthy this year, and yet they can't seem to jump past less fortunate teams in the conference.
It's been a nine-team race for eight playoff spots in the East for most of the season, and I'm supposed to be excited that the Bucks rank eighth among those nine squads?
The Knicks have played most of their games without Amar'e Stoudemire. Danny Granger has yet to play for the Pacers. Former MVP Derrick Rose hasn't played a single minute for the Bulls. Devin Harris, Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow have missed significant time for the Hawks. The Celtics lost Rajon Rondo for the remainder of the year. Andrew Bynum has never played a game for the 76ers. John Wall missed the first 33 games of the season. Kyrie Irving missed 11 games for the Cavaliers, and Anderson Varejao saw a career year cut short due to health issues.
Meanwhile, Brandon Jennings (0), Monta Ellis (0), Ersan Ilyasova (2) and Larry Sanders (6) have missed a combined total of eight games so far this year. The Bucks have put their best and most important players on the floor nearly every night to get fat against skeleton crews and star-stripped squads in the Eastern Conference (they are 20-14 vs. East teams), and yet they're on pace to meet the Miami Heat in an utterly un-winnable playoff series.
Forgive me if I don't erupt with raucous applause. Hear me out on why I may even hold off on light tennis applause.
Waiting For Better Execution
The Bucks haven't executed particularly well this year, and it's been difficult to find direct causal connections between their play and the positive result of their presence in the playoff bracket. They rank 18th in net efficiency rating. Only 16 teams make the playoffs (they have the worst record of the entire bunch), and most people think it's a bloated field anyways.
Injuries to top players have thinned out the competition. When it comes to execution, the Bucks are the only team in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with a negative point differential for the season -- they've been outscored by opposing teams by an average of one point per game. On any random night, they're supposed to lose.
Of the nine teams actively in the playoff race (10 if you have the heart to count Toronto along with the 76ers), the Bucks sit at No. 8. I can't find a way to link Andrew Bynum's absence to any brilliant execution by Bucks players, so I refuse to celebrate their placement ahead of Philadelphia. Wins over the Bulls w/o Derrick Rose, and Pacers w/o Danny Granger sometimes feel more like a double fault by a better opponent than a gutsy showing of top-notch play by Milwaukee.
I don't get the sense that fans or analysts around the NBA have gone out of their way to celebrate the Bucks or the spot the team currently holds in the East. I don't have the urge to celebrate the results of the first 51 games either, and I've got my reasons.
A Set of Sports Sensibilities
When I started my unofficial career as a tennis spectator nearly 11 years ago, I committed some conspicuous mistakes in the stands. My early attempts to offer public support to my talented girlfriend (who is now my wife) during match play struck some sour notes among tennis faithful.
My sports sensibilities had been incubated by team sports like soccer, baseball and basketball, where cheers at any moment in time and at any decibel level are more than just acceptable, they are expected. Tennis -- and other individualized country club sports which I had never really experienced -- required the crowd to play by a different set of rules. Fans were asked to be more discerning in how they celebrated success and failure.
I learned two important lessons while watching from the perimeter of the tennis courts:
(1) When lady luck's golden horseshoe shines on your behind, don't try to take credit for the success. A fortuitous bounce is unpurposed. When a tennis ball clips the tape on the top of the net and lands in the open court on an opponent's half of the court, it's customary for the winning player to make a gesture of apology.
Competitors are expected to openly admit they aren't in control when strange things happen. When a ball hits the tape and picks a side of the court it's not considered clutch. The result is discretely disowned in the name of sportsmanship. It's impossible to rightly claim ownership of a shot that ricochets at an impossible angle off an obstacle that nobody would ever target on purpose. Tennis players try to avoid celebrating acts of God.
(2) Don't cheer when opponents commit unforced errors. Save your applause for moments of genuine achievement, and let the sloppy incidental action carry on without explicit recognition. Excellent execution that directly generates a positive result deserve a cheer. To feast on the fruits of failure is an imperfect strategy.
I was forced to adjust my binary notion of sports success. In baseball, it's perfectly acceptable to cheer after an opponent strikes out or commits an error. Basketball crowds have never had a problem celebrating a turnover or a big miss by a member of a rival team. Fans in team sports routinely root for opponents to fail, and they often take pride in inducing mistakes.
If you ever choose to cheer after an opponent commits an unforced error in tennis -- meaning "a mistake made by the player and not due to the opponent's skill or effort" -- be prepared for people to stare daggers at you before the last remnant of your lonely outburst can even diffuse into the dead air.
It's flatly considered bad form to let loose with the vocals when an opposing player fails to convert on a routine play. In high-level tennis there isn't a lot of pride to be taken from gaining a point due to an unforced error. When the causal connection between execution and a positive result becomes too weak, the cheers disappear.
The aural emptiness at certain moments in tennis matches initially confounded me. When my wife won a point, I wanted to celebrate her progress in the match. My binary notion of success and failure had been reinforced over decades of play in team sports. When the zero-sum game tipped in favor of my favorite team or player, it was time to cheer. That's how I had been trained.
Now excellent execution is my cue to celebrate. That's what we all came to see in the first place. I'm still waiting on better execution from the Bucks. They've been lucky with injuries, while the other eight teams in competition for the playoff spots in the East have suffered some massive blows. Milwaukee has clipped the tape with its effort this season. They're one game over .500, despite a negative point differential.
The prolonged absences of Bynum, Granger, Rondo, Rose, et al. are acts of God. I don't expect the Bucks to apologize to their opponents for the current circumstances, but I hope they acknowledge their lack of control. If they don't want to call it luck, it should at least be considered a string of unforced errors by opponents. The skill and effort of the team count for something, but injuries have stripped competitors of top talent and pushed backups into bigger roles.
Maybe it's a step too far to invoke the concept of unforced errors, but let's remember that every serious Eastern Conference team missing a big time player, except for the Sixers, is still positioned comfortably ahead of the Bucks in the standings. Luck and timeliness can only get you so far. I need better execution, and that's why I'm saving my applause for a later date.