By Connor Hitchcock
The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the better surprises of the 2014-2015, making the playoffs and losing in the first round to the Chicago Bulls. Following a busy offseason, including a great rebranding campaign and the signing of Greg Monroe, the franchise garnered a lot of buzz going into this season. The result, thus far, has been disappointing as the Bucks sit 19-25 through January 20th and in last place in the Central division. While one could spend a long time documenting the Bucks’ woes, today I want to specifically focus on how the Bucks beat some of the league’s best teams (CLE, GS, DALLAS, IND, CHI, ATL) and yet still remain 7 games below .500.
A quick look at the descriptive statistics (see all in Appendix below) show that they generally either win big or lose big with a +10 Net Rating in Wins and -14.9 Net Rating in Losses, a swing of 24.9 points per 100 possessions. Both offense (105.6 rating in wins, 99.0 rating in losses) and defense (95.6 rating in wins, 113.9 rating in losses) feel this extreme fluctuation.
When looking at the Bucks’ offense, the style doesn’t so much change as much as the success within that style does. Looking at the “Shot Selection Graph” in the Appendix, the rate at which Milwaukee takes pull up jump shots compared to catch and shoot jumpers fluctuates within 1%, essentially, the kind of jumpers they take don’t change on a game to game basis. However, the percentage they shoot on each of those shots does change. In wins, the Bucks shoot 43.1% from 3 on catch and shoot threes — roughly ~1% less than the Golden State Warriors. In losses, they shoot a league-average 35% on catch and shoot 3’s. Considering only two starters (Michael Carter-Williams and Khris Middleton) and four total players shoot above 30% from three (Middleton, Bayless, MCW and Vaughn), it’s safe to say that the pace at which the Bucks’ shoot in wins is unsustainable.
One thing that does change stylistically is the Bucks’ aptitude for getting shots near the rim in wins, shooting 4% more shots <10 feet than in losses. These shots are the easiest to make and generally yield the highest Points Per Possession. What conclusions can be drawn from this? The Bucks have won the majority of their games offensively this year by 1) getting more shots around the rim and 2) getting extremely lucky from deep.
While no one expected the Bucks to be an offensive juggernaut, some certainly expected the defense to be one after last years impressive showings. Sadly, the Bucks have slipped by a wide margin this year, especially in losses where they allow an egregious 113.9 points per 100 possessions. The explanation for this can be found more easily in the statistics. In wins, the Bucks force four more turnovers per game than in losses, and limit ball movement by allowing four less assists per game than in losses. The numbers also point to a tendency for the Bucks to foul significantly less in wins than when they lose. Forcing turnovers, limiting ball movement and not fouling are all tenets of good defense. It should come as no surprise that when the Bucks don’t do these things well, which has been the trend this year, they do significantly worse on defense.
There are some signs of luck, however, that could come back to hurt the Bucks, specifically with 3PT% allowed. The Bucks essentially allow the same amount of three-pointers to be taken each game whether they win or lose. What does change is what opposing teams shoot on the same amount of attempts. In wins, the Bucks hold opponents to 29% from deep. This very low percentage (the Los Angeles Lakers, a team stuck in 1995, is the worst 3-point shooting team in the league at 31%) does not necessarily suggest that the Bucks play better 3-point defense in wins. Recent evidence from Nylon Calculus suggests 3-point defense is a matter of prevention over percentage, and considering the Bucks don’t prevent more 3’s in wins, it can be suggested that Milwaukee gets lucky as teams miss more shots.
After looking into the data, it appears that a large part of the Bucks’ big wins come from getting to hole, forcing turnovers and frankly, lots of luck on both their own shooting and lack of their opponents. However, those good things in wins aren’t the norm, as the losses expose the flaws that get covered up by luck. Moving forward, a return to limiting opponents 3-pointers, developing their own shooters, and building upon last years’ defensive schemes will move Milwaukee in a positive direction as they look to “own the future.”
Appendix (stats date to 1/20/16)
All stats via NBA.com and BasketballReference.com