Article the First: Recalled to Life

It was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams. 

It was the height of the era of Pop, it was the low point of the era before Kidd. The Spurs’ stars are almost allowed to join AARP, the Bucks’ stars are almost allowed to drink alcohol. It was the season of overcoming the heat in San Antonio, and it was the season that epitomized “ice-cold” in Milwaukee. In short, the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs had absolutely nothing in common.   

So how did the best and the worst teams from 2014 end up in the same situation just one year later: as a six seed losing in the first round of the playoffs? We can trace this unexpected result to one common theme. 

There is a revolution in the NBA, a democratization of the game that is making playoff parity the norm. By the end of June, there will be five distinct teams winning the championship in the past six years. The most shocking part is that many of the teams fueling this revolution are located in relatively small markets. Just look at Cleveland, Golden State, Memphis and OKC: none of these teams rank in the top third of the league in either size of fan base or monetary team evaluation. 

It’s safe to say that this current revolutionary theme in the NBA (of extreme “democratic” parity) is just as important as any global zeitgeist in the history of mankind. With that obvious statement out of the way, I’ll explain how this Tale of Two Six Seeds mirrors the late 18th century (the time period in A Tale of Two Cities) in three ways: the theme of overthrowing the aristocracy, the strong influence of powerful leaders like Gregg Popovich and Louis XVI, and the fact that the revolutionary spirit crosses international borders. 

The Aristocracy in the NBA

The aristocrats of the “modern NBA era” (since 1990) are easy to identify: Chicago, San Antonio and the L.A. Lakers. Together, these teams have won sixteen of the twenty-one NBA titles between 1990 and 2010. That means that in the past twenty-five years, the top 10% of teams won 76% of the championships. Talk about an upper class. 

In addition to championships, these teams are unified by their large market shares, with each ranking in the top quartile of the league in terms of largest fan bases (by population of city).  

Their reign is coming to an end though. In the 90’s, there were only four unique champions. In the first decade of the 21st century, there were only five unique champions By June, there will be five different NBA champions in the past six years alone. 

One reason that parity is becoming the norm in the NBA is an indirect result of a lesson learned from Moneyball. Essentially, small market teams are starting to realize that even though they are unlikely to lock down big-ticket names, they can find untapped value by investing in youth. 

Without overlooking the influence of their all-star veterans, the Spurs’ success last season was a direct result of twenty-two year old Kawhi Leonard’s incredible performance in the Finals, in which he won Finals MVP. The Spurs had acquired Kawhi and two other players in a trade two years before, in a move that angered many Spurs fans and even Manu Ginobli, as it sent George Hill to Indiana. Lo and behold, the Bucks’ front office was taking notes!

This year, many Bucks fans (myself included) were frustrated by Milwaukee’s decision to trade Brandon Knight in exchange for Michael Carter Williams and two additional players. What I was overlooking was the investment in our next two seasons.

Knight’s offensive efficiency this year would have surely made him a “sexy” free agent, and if there’s one thing we know about the Bucks, it’s that we don’t attract the big names. When a team lacks the ability to attract star power, their success is tied to strategically investing in the seasons to come. The Bucks’ trade for MCW by most accounts mirrors the trade that the Spurs made for Kawhi two years prior.  

The French Revolution was a rebellion against the organizational power structures of the French government. Following the eras of Jordan-Pippen and Kobe-Shaq, there has been a Democratic revolution of sorts in the NBA, and this revolution has been fueled by an investment in youth. When it comes to building a foundation for consistent success though, it is easy to overlook the influence of the powerful men who bring everything together: a democracy still needs a ruler. 

The Pop and The Kidd

A democracy without a ruler crumbles into anarchy. 

The most successful teams in NBA history (Lakers, Bulls, and Celtics) may no longer be dominating the NBA, but the democratization of the game is tied to a handful of elite coaches, like good ol’ Pop.  

What you might not know about Gregg Popovich is that he played a significant role in saving the Spurs from moving to Sacramento in the mid-90’s. Just as Jason Kidd was hired immediately after a new ownership group bought the Bucks last year, Popovich was hired in 1994 as general manager, immediately after Peter Holt and a group of investors bought the team. Following two years of success as GM, he moved into a head-coaching role two years later (1996). 

Following the 1996 season, the Spurs were on the brink of moving out of San Antonio. The infamous Maloof brothers (who went on to drive the Sacramento Kings into the ground) bid for the team, and planned on moving the Spurs to California. A twenty-two member board meeting was held, and the ownership group barely voted to refuse the offer of $150 million. The decision was tied to the Spurs’ newfound success, spearheaded by Gregg Popovich’s expertise in the front office. 

Milwaukee has seen four coaches in the past three years, and seven since Popovich started in San Antonio in 1996. With the Bucks on the brink of moving out of Milwaukee, Jason Kidd’s role in keeping the Bucks in the city is similar to what Popovich faced in San Antonio. 

Can we compare coaching legacies of the flowing Gandalf beard vs. the smooth headed Kidd? We surely can’t compare accolades, as Pop has won five NBA titles and three coach of the year awards whereas Kidd has only coached two years in total. Popovich climbed his way up the coaching ranks for decades while Kidd was thrust into the role within months of retiring as a player. 

It’s clear that Gregg has already established himself as one of the five greatest coaches in NBA history. Popovich has not merely been blessed with talented rosters, but has consistently handpicked draft-picks and molded them into versatile all-stars and talented role players. While we can’t directly tie the Bucks’ massive turnaround to a single isolated variable (for instance, Middleton’s breakout year didn’t hurt), it’s clear that Kidd’s style is rubbing off on the Bucks. So are there any statistics that point to Jason Kidd’s influence as coach that hint at the degree of his success? The answer is yes, and unsurprisingly, Kidd’s effect on the Nets and Bucks manifested in four improvements: steals, assists, points off turnovers, and defensive efficiency, four categories that Kidd himself was incredibly successful in. 

Steals Per Game Milwaukee Brooklyn
2013-2014 6.6 8.6
2014-2015 9.6 7
Kidd Effect 3 1.6

Assists Per Game Milwaukee Brooklyn
2013-2014 21.5 20.9
2014-2015 23.6 20.9
Kidd Effect 2.1 0

PPG Off Turnovers Milwaukee Brooklyn
2013-2014 16.2 18.6
2014-2015 19.2 14.3
Kidd Effect 3 4.3

Defensive Efficiency Milwaukee Brooklyn
2013-2014 108.9 (2nd Worst in NBA) 104.9
2014-2015 99.3 (2nd Best in NBA) 105
Kidd Effect 9.6 0.1

Why is this not surprising? Coach Kidd is 2nd all time in assists, 2nd all time in steals, and was a member of the first or second All-NBA defensive team nine times. Kidd is coaching what he knows, and the immediate effects have been astounding. The proof is that the Bucks had one of the top ten largest single season turn arounds in NBA history, by winning twenty-six more games than the previous year.

Improvement Team  Record Catalyst
42 2008 Celtics 66-16 Trading for Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen
36 1998 Spurs 56-26  Drafting Tim Duncan,David Robinson’s return from injury
35 1990 Spurs 56-26 Drafting David Robinson
33 2005 Suns 62-20 Signing Steve Nash
32 1980 Celtics 61-21 Drafting Larry Bird
29 1970 Bucks 56-26 Drafting Lew Alcindor (Now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)
28 2009 Heat 43-39 Dwyane Wade return from injury
27 1989 Suns 55-27  Signing Tom Chambers,trading for Kevin Johnson
27 2010 Thunder 50-32 Drafting James Harden
26 2002 Nets 52-30 Trading for Jason Kidd
26 2004 Nuggets 43-39 Drafting Carmelo Anthony
26 2015 Bucks 41-41 SIGNING COACH KIDD

While Kidd is extremely inexperienced, he shows a flash of promise that has been vital in improving the Bucks, which in turn, will help the Bucks’ chances of staying in Milwaukee. Other than Kidd, it’s funny to think that the Bucks’ success has been tied to picking players whose homes are thousands of miles away to make sure we don’t have to move our home out of Milwaukee. 

Zaza, T.D, and the International Theme

The international theme in the NBA is, quite simply, the globalization of the game of Basketball. Each year, the number of international players in the NBA continues to climb, and the total reached over one hundred this past year. That means that about one fourth of all NBA players were born overseas. The Bucks and Spurs have consistently had more than their fair share of international players on their respective rosters.

In 2008, the Bucks were home to the most international players in the league (the era of Bogut and Yi), and still remain in the top five to date. This year, the Spurs boasted nine international players, which gave them the outright title as the most diverse team in the NBA. This total is about three times greater than the league average of three international players per team. 

One interesting thing to note is that, for some reason, the best international players happen to be big men. Very, very big men. In fact, of the sixteen centers to start in the NBA playoffs, ten of them were born overseas. If we consider the Spurs and Bucks, Duncan and Pachulia (both team’s starting centers) were statistically the second best players on their teams respectively, according to their player efficiency ratings. 

The trend is clear: not only is their parity in terms of which teams are winning titles, but likewise, there is increasing diversity in NBA players’ countries of origin. Yet, despite their extremely efficient foreign-born big men, both the Bucks and Spurs were unified by their unlucky fate that comes with being a six seed in the playoffs.  

Six Seeds Need Luck

There was a time when six seeds had a legitimate shot of advancing deep into the playoffs, but that time was quickly over once the first round was extended from a five game series to a seven game series. In the twelve playoffs since this revision in 2003, here’s how each seed has faired in the playoffs, in terms of average number of series won.

Average Number of Playoff Series Won, By Seed
Avg. Series Wins 2.13 2.21 1.38 0.83 0.50 0.25 0.04 0.13
Seed 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Since the first round series was expanded to a best-of-seven format, the sixth seed has won .25 series on average. On average, one six seed will advance past the first round every two years (last year, Jason Kidd and Brooklyn defeated Toronto in seven games). There has yet to be a six seed to make it past the second round of the playoffs in the best-of-seven era (since 2003). 

In the era before the extended first round, the “lower” echelon of seeds actually had a shot. In 1995, this translated to a championship  
1981 Houston Rockets: lost in conference finals
1984 Phoenix Suns:, lost in conference finals
1989 Chicago Bulls: lost in conference finals
1995 Houston Rockets: won NBA championship 

In the era before the extended first round, parity was much more common. The “lower” echelon of seeds actually had a shot. In 1995, the sixth seeded Houston Rockets won the first round 3-2, and went on to win the NBA championship. 

If this had been the 90’s, the Spurs would have been off to the second round to face Houston! On average, the lower seed benefits from the a series decided by fewer games, and this year’s Spurs would have exemplified this heuristic, just as the NBA champion Rockets did in 1995.

Things were just a fraction off from being much better for these ultimately doomed six seeds. Both San Antonio and Milwaukee suffered from unfortunate losses in the final days of the regular season that condemned them to the cursed sixth seed.

The Bucks were all but ready to head to Toronto, but the Raptors dropped a game to Boston on the second last day of the season. The Bulls ended their season on a four game winning streak to steal the third seed, while the 4th seeded Raptors withered in their series against Washington, losing 4-0. For the second year in a row, Toronto failed to make it past the first round after securing home court advantage. 

San Antonio’s first round fate was decided by an even smaller margin, as their loss to the Pelicans shifted their playoff rank by four seeds (from second to sixth in the West). Simply by winning the final game of the regular season, the Spurs would have increased their expected number of series victories by nearly two rounds. The difference between playing a home series against the struggling Mavericks versus one on the road against the high-flying Clippers sent the Spurs home early.

The fundamental question is; how can Milwaukee, who seem to mirror the Spurs in many ways, attain the success that has become commonplace in San Antonio? 

If Milwaukee Wants to Keep the Bucks, We Need to Learn from San Antonio’s History: How To Fund the Stadium and Save The Bucks

When it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. 

Though the city of San Antonio is much larger than Milwaukee, the metropolitan population is only slightly higher (San Antonio is 31st, Milwaukee is 34th). So in researching how the comparable metropolitan population of San Antonio funded their stadium in 2000, I was surprised to find that one of the most conservative cities in the country increased taxes in order to pay for a new stadium. How could this be possible in one of the most conservative states in the country, at a time when George W. Bush was governor? 

San Antonio raised the visitor tax, which increased the tax rate on 
1) Hotel/Motel rooms in the city
2) Rental Car rates in the city
These two taxes on tourists paid for $150 million that helped build the Spurs new stadium in 1999, The AT&T Center.

This bipartisan approach to public financing is exactly how Milwaukee should fund the new stadium. 

I added in the comment about the extremely conservative voting history of Texas because the most common conservative phrase today is “no new taxes”. Yet, it was a Republican mayor who signed San Antonio’s deal that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The hotels and rental car companies did not suffer because they had to pay new taxes; they thrived because the new stadium brought in a larger revenue stream! 

Instead of forcing Wisconsinites to pay for the project (the Democratic approach is increasing the sales tax in Milwaukee), and instead of going into debt (Scott Walker/Republican proposal to use bonds to fund the stadium, and pay them back over the next thirty years), taxing tourists is the logical and bipartisan approach.  

Jason Kidd, the new ownership group and an influx of extremely talented young players have resuscitated the Milwaukee Bucks. What remains unclear is whether the Bucks will follow in the footsteps of San Antonio, by funding a stadium with money raised by taxing tourists. 

The question is this: Will Wisconsin’s legislators go the way of San Antonio and agree upon a bipartisan approach to funding the Bucks’ new stadium? Or will lawmakers let partisan politics reach a stalemate and run the risk of losing our Milwaukee Bucks.

The coaching, ownership, and talent acquisition is simply out of our control, though it’s surely moving in the right direction. Can we as fans do anything to help Milwaukee mirror the success that San Antonio has achieved over the past two decades? Is there anything that we as Bucks fans can do to help Milwaukee keep the Bucks? 

Yes! We can demand that the stadium be funded by the hotel and rental car companies that will directly and drastically increase their profits if the Bucks stay in Milwaukee! Instead of raising taxes on Milwaukee’s citizens, we can follow San Antonio’s lead by raising the Visitor’s taxes by 3%, a plan that would pay for itself in a matter of five years. Lawmakers have made no tangible progress in the past year since the Bucks were sold. Let’s demand that Wisconsin taxpayers aren’t being burdened with increased taxes or debt, while ensuring that the Bucks stay in Wisconsin. 

It’s time to increase the visitor tax and rebuild downtown Milwaukee.  

Article the second coming soon: A Bipartisan petition to fund the New Milwaukee Buck’s stadium.