The Bucks: The Bluff

The Numbers

  •  Average Seed
  • 📉 Pessimist
    19.6 wins
  •  Realist
    28.6 wins
  • 📈 Optimist
    37.6 wins
 First Seed
⋆ Division
 Top 4
👍 Over (28.5)
ğŸ‘Ž Under (28.5)
ğŸŽ€ Playoffs

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. Benjamin Franklin

The Brief

We keep hearing that the Bucks are going to try to win this year, that they are on the treadmill of mediocrity and that there is no plan in Milwaukee. We examine the evidence and find that the conventional wisdom looks to be very wrong. What a surprise.

The Story

On March 14, 2012, the Milwaukee Bucks traded their injured 26 year-old Franchise center Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors for Monta Ellis, Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh.

On June 27, 2012, the Bucks traded John Brockman, Jon Leuer, Shaun Livingston and a draft pick to the Houston Rockets for Samuel Dalembert and picks.

On February 21, 2013, the Bucks traded Gustavo Ayon (another good center), Tobias Harris (a promising young swingman), Beno Udrih and Doron Lamb to the Orlando Magic for a two month rental of J.J. Redick and Ish Smith.

It's important to note that not a single one of the six players acquired are still on the Bucks roster.

Are they trying to tank? Are they trying to force a move? Are they aiming for the illusion of competence to get a new Arena?

As I started to write this piece, I was very confused about what the plan in Milwaukee is. Is there even a plan? Do they know that they should have one? In fact I was so confused that I took to basketball twitter to ask the following:

Can a Bucks fan answer me as to what if any is their overall strategy right now?

@brewhoop and (@tpcourier) answered the call. I thank them kindly for all their help and I sympathize with their Bucks-related angst.

Last Year

  •  Actual Wins: 38
  •  Expected Wins: 43.4
  • ⚅ Lucky Wins: 1.0


Player Minutes Age WP48 Wins
Monta Ellis  3076 28 .057 3.7
Brandon Jennings  2897 24 .080 4.8
Ersan Ilyasova   2012 26 .155 6.5
Mike Dunleavy  1943 33 .110 4.5
Larry Sanders   1937 25 .215 8.7
Luc Mbah a Moute  1326 27 -.034 -.9
Ekpe Udoh   1312 26 .063 1.7
Marquis Daniels   1085 32 .004 .1
John Henson   827 23 .195 3.4
J.J. Redick  804 29 .080 4.0
Samuel Dalembert  765 32 .198 3.1
Beno Udrih  719 31 .100 3.1
Tobias Harris  325 21 .063 1.7
Doron Lamb  280 22 -.091 -1.1
Gustavo Ayon  163 28 .077 1.2
Drew Gooden   151 31 -.224 -.7
Ishmael Smith  138 25 -.015 -.2
Joel Przybilla   68 33 .012 0

 Indicates that the player is no longer with the team.

  • 43.4 total Wins Produced
  •  10 players leaving
    (11110 minutes, 24.7 wins)

The Bucks are only bringing back 4 of the 17 guys on their depth chart.  The players that left the team in the offseason accounted for 70% of the Bucks minutes played last year, and for 45% of their wins.

I'm going to let that sink in for a minute. The Bucks basically blew up their entire roster.

What's even more interesting is that they kept 2 good win producers (Ilyasova and Henson), a very good player that was the darling of the Sloan Conference (Larry Sanders, who was identified as the best interior defender in the NBA), and Ekpe Udoh, who's a plus/minus darling. There is every indication that someone in the Bucks front office is paying attention to the stats revolution.

I've seen arguments that they are trying to be respectable while their young talent develops. That they had every intention of keeping the team competitive. But that doesn't seem to hold that much water.

The Redick trade is the smoking gun here. They sold this trade as a 'win now' move, but really it's more of a cap dump move. If you want to win now, why get rid of Harris and cut Ayon?

Fact #1: The NBA minimum payroll for teams in 2013-14 is $52.811 million

Fact #2: The Total payroll for the Bucks in 2013-14 including cap hits is $52.08 million right now

Why would an NBA team keep only a few productive players and take it's payroll to the absolute minimum allowed?

That Wiggins kid sure looks like a good player.

This Year

  •  Projected Wins: 28.6
  •  Conference Rank: 15
  • % Playoffs: 12.4


Player Position Minutes Age WP48 Wins
O.J. Mayo  1.9 2866 26 .073 4.4
Brandon Knight  1.1 2598 22 .031 1.7
Caron Butler  2.9 2276 33 -.005 -.2
Ersan Ilyasova   3.8 2197 26 .179 8.2
Larry Sanders   4.7 1904 25 .137 5.5
Luke Ridnour  1.2 1540 33 .078 2.5
Zaza Pachulia  4.8 1350 29 .122 3.4
Gary Neal  2.0 1177 29 .033 .8
John Henson   3.5 962 23 .213 4.3
Carlos Delfino  2.9 780 31 .090 1.5
Ekpe Udoh   4.8 659 26 .037 .5
Giannis Antetokounmpo  3.0 514 19 .055 .6
Nate Wolters  1.0 387 22 .083 .7
Khris Middleton  2.0 274 22 .095 .5
Miroslav Raduljica  5.0 188 26 .056 .2

 Indicates that the player is new to the team.

  • 📅 30.5 WP last year
    by these players
  • 🔀 -.7 WP (roster changes)
  • ⏲ -1.8 WP (age/experience)

The two key ideas behind this roster are the future and the tradable assets.


Bucks fans should consider this an open audition for the team of the future. The pieces brought in (or kept) reflect that. Brandon Knight has not been a good NBA player but he's getting every chance to prove he can be. OJ Mayo has been an ok player and here he gets a chance to be showcased. Butler and Neal have playoff pedigree.

We should all be prepared to see these guys actively shopped for picks, young players, or expiring deals. In fact, management may have brought them in specifically for just those purposes.

The true Bucks nucleus looks to be the very young rookie Giannis (another clue right there) together with the Sanders, Henson, Ersan, and Udoh rotation.

This team is young and could exceed expectations but I do expect that their front office will do their best to keep them in the lottery hunt. The fact that every other team in their division has a real shot at 50 wins or more should help their lottery chances a lot.

Projected Playoff Rotation: Knight, Mayo, Giannis, Ersan, Henson, Sanders, Udoh, Neal and Butler. This is actually not terrible but this won't really be an issue at all.

The Wrap

Even though the Bucks are not really built to compete this season, the Eastern conference is so terrible that their odds of making the playoffs are about 1 in 8. Interestingly, Vegas and my model are exactly aligned on the Bucks at 28.5 wins. If they did not play in the central, I would feel somewhat more bullish on their win total but there you go.

My final thought on the Bucks is that the front office actually does seem to have a plan. They kept pieces with potential/talent (even if they made some real mistakes). They understand that it makes the most sense for them to tank and have built the team accordingly. They also have a few nice and inexpensive pieces that will help them a few years down the line.

The confusion has come in because of the building situation. Herb Kohl, the Bucks owner, is pushing for a new stadium and as such is loath to publicly appear to be tanking. They need to tread a very fine line between building a likable, engaging team that's not about winning now, but still remains competitive.

I think they've managed it. Even if the Tobias Harris trade was a bad idea and drove their fans up the wall.

Like the Lakers, Arturo labels this as an example of "calculated tanking". But there's a major issue there. Even in the best case scenario, the odds of winning the Wiggins sweepstakes are 1 in 4. With other teams doing a similar strategy and the oddness that follows lottery winners in the NBA, there's no way to spin this as good. The Bucks made the playoffs last season as a 38 win team. The East looks just as top heavy this year. There's no reason not to try to go for another playoffs!

Arturo often credits owners at being savvy about tanking, while also "placating" the fans with clever moves. I just can't sign off on it. Get good players and win is what any smart team should do. Shuffling the deck chairs and hoping for a #1 to save your team is just not good business.