Going into the 2017-18 season, the Milwaukee Bucks, coached by Jason Kidd, placed a premium on continuity, bringing back players who accounted for 93% of their 2016-17 minutes, second only to the Portland Trail Blazers (96%). 12 games into the season both clubs find themselves at 7-6.
For Milwaukee, a slightly above .500 start belies their intelligent investment in consistency. After all, 8 of the last 10 NBA Champions brought back at least 79% of their prior season’s minutes distribution. That isn’t to say the Bucks automatically enter title contention by keeping their core intact.
Continuity is but one piece of the puzzle. But it’s hard to argue with Milwaukee’s rationale given a roster comprising Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP-like trajectory, reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, and a host of other key contributors, including Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, and John Henson, all of whom understand their roles and play them to the best of their abilities.
The Bucks’ mediocre start also undermines a number of individual efforts. With about 15% of the season complete, Milwaukee is a middle-of-the-pack team in the East more because of coaching failures than player ineptitude. The bottom line is the players are (mostly) producing as expected, and in some cases, leaps and bounds above any prior projections; it’s Jason Kidd who deserves the ugly report card.
In an attempt to break it all down, it’s time to hand out early season letter grades in Mil-town.
Khris Middleton: B+
It’s no secret that Middleton’s strength, 3P shooting, is nowhere to be found. For his career, Middleton is a 40% shooter from deep, but is an atrocious 19 for 62 (30%) in 2017-18. Part of the drop off in 3P production is the team’s reliance on Middleton to run the offense, especially in Giannis’s absence.
According to NBAwowy.com, Middleton has a Usage Percentage of 30.5% without Giannis on the floor. Compare that to Middleton’s career Usage Percentage of 20.9%. The point is Middleton is being asked to do more than just shoot, as evidenced by his upticks in areas like assists and rebounds. The Bucks are relying on him more as a distributor and he’s actually doing a fine job, averaging 5.0 assists per game to just 2.4 turnovers.
Middleton’s 3P struggles can also be attributed to the fact that he’s getting considerably less looks from two of the most efficient areas on the floor. For his career, 31% of Middleton’s 3PA have been from the corners. This season, that number has dropped to 11%, supplanted by the sharp shooting efforts of Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon. Again, this is also a product of Middleton’s increased duties in other areas of the Bucks’ offense
Generally, Milwaukee is a much better team with Middleton on the floor than without him. His plus/minus of 21.2 is best on the team, even outpacing Giannis’s 19.4 rating.
Tony Snell: B-
So far, Snell is the epitome of efficiency. His usage percentage is at a career-low 9.8%, but he’s making the most of his opportunities. He’s averaging 3.8 3PA per game and knocking them down at a blistering rate of 49%. Furthermore, he’s taking care of the basketball, ranking 2nd among all players in Turnover Percentage (at least 300 minutes played). Snell is the prototype player to fit in around Antetokounmpo, spacing the floor in a way that allows The Greek Freak to play to his offensive strength: getting to the rim.
The downside to Snell, marketed as a 3-and-D guy, is his defense has progressively gotten worse since his rookie season in 2013-14. He certainly passes the eye-test with his 6’11” wingspan and ability to cover multiple positions, but it’s worth noting that his two best defensive years, according to Defensive Rating, were under the watchful eye of defensive-guru Tom Thibodeau. Additionally, in 4 full seasons, Snell has yet to post a positive Defensive Box Plus Minus (DBPM). It makes you wonder if Snell’s perceived defensive prowess was more a product of scheme than skill.
Still, Snell has Milwaukee’s best Offensive Rating so far (130) so he gets some wiggle room when it comes to defense. When basically the entire team can’t get stops, it’s hard to significantly downgrade any one player for their defensive struggles.
John Henson: B
It’s hard to fault a player for being what he is. Henson is a great example. Never a guy to stun you offensively, he remains a defensive anchor for a Milwaukee team in dire need of his services. According to Offensive Box Plus Minus (OBPM), Henson is, thus far, having his worst offensive year. Other metrics, including Offensive Rating and Player Efficiency Rating (PER) agree with this assessment.
But the Bucks don’t need Henson on offense nearly as much as they do on defense, and defensively, Henson is producing at his highest level since 2014-15, when he posted the 4th best DBPM among all players (at least 1000 minutes played). Henson has 4 games with 3+ blocks and his Block Percentage trails only Rudy Gobert, Kristaps Porzingis, and Clint Capela. Per Synergy, he ranks in the 91st percentile in Post-Up defense, which is consistent with his performance across larger sample sizes in past seasons. He also remains “Excellent,” per Synergy, in Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler situations as the “Big Defender.”
If Henson maintains his defensive success and can get back to his career-level efficiency finishing at the rim (65% career FG% vs. 53% this season), his grade easily moves into the B+ to A- range.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A-
If the MVP award was given 13 games into the season, The Greek Freak would probably take the cake. He’s leading the league in points per game (31.3) and doing it with LeBron-like efficiency (59.5 eFG%). But it’s Giannis’s all-around effort that’s most impressive, leading to an unparalleled impact in all facets of the game; 10.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.8 blocks per contest. He ranks 1st in PER and 2nd in Box Plus Minus (BPM), behind only James Harden.
Giannis is a nightmare to guard, capitalizing at will in transition, and forcing opponents to constantly send help defenders in the half-court as he’s never further than two steps from the rim. And it’s the latter that’s so devastating, his ability to get to the rim. With so much athleticism and length The Greek Freak knew from day one what took LeBron 12 seasons to understand: shots within 3 feet are your friend. And the scarier part for opponents is that Giannis is already converting them at a higher rate. In fact, he’s virtually unstoppable.
|LeBron James Shooting Within 3 Feet|
|Season||% of FGA 0-3 Feet||FG% 0-3 Feet|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo Shooting Within 3 Feet|
|Season||% of FGA 0-3 Feet||FG% 0-3 Feet|
In all fairness to LeBron, Giannis has probably defaulted to shots near the basket more out of necessity than anything else as he still lacks a consistent jumper. Look at his numbers from greater than 10 feet and things get pretty ugly pretty fast.
It’s as if Giannis’s gift could quickly become his curse. Odds are teams will figure out ways to limit his looks near the basket. Only 13 games in, some already have, implementing a “rover” behind the on-ball defender to limit The Greek Freak’s ability to attack the paint.
Head coach, Jason Kidd, has advised Giannis to “not get bored,” and he’d be wise not to, as his game is far from complete. His inconsistent jump shot coupled with his inability to consistently raise his teammates’ level of play marks the difference between an A- and A+.
Malcolm Brogdon: B+
The fear following any Rookie of the Year campaign is a sophomore slump. For now, at least, Brogdon has put those fears to rest in Milwaukee. Almost all Brogdon’s offensive metrics are up across the board, including an eFG% of 57% on 11.6 FGA, up from 52% on 8.5 FGA last season. Part of the reason for this is he’s neck and neck with Snell for the team lead in 3P%, averaging 4.3 3PA per game.
By all accounts, Brogdon has proven (so far) to be the steal of 2016 NBA Draft, after Milwaukee selected him with the 36th overall pick. But if there’s one thing keeping him from his full potential, it’s his defense. As with Snell (see above), his grade didn’t get docked much, but with Brogdon, his defensive reputation at the University of Virginia proceeds him.
The Bucks have yet to see the Malcolm Brogdon who rated top-10 in ACC Defensive Rating 3 out of 4 college seasons. Although, there have been glimpses, including Brogdon’s most recent games against the Spurs and Lakers where he posted Defensive Ratings of 91 and 88. The Eric Bledsoe acquisition helps, at least from a defensive perspective, as Brogdon will most likely matchup more often against backup guards as part of the second unit. A stark contrast to guarding the likes of Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.
Brogdon also gets extra brownie points for his reaction to the Bucks acquiring Bledsoe. “Starting, you automatically get into your rhythm faster,” Brogdon said. “Coming off the bench, you’re colder, it can be harder at times. But I’ve done both and I’m going to do whatever this team needs me to do.”
Matthew Dellavedova: C
Yes, Dellavedova brings an undeniable spark every time he takes the floor and yes, his championship experience is undoubtedly important. But this just isn’t enough to warrant the 4-yr/$38M deal the Bucks handed Delly in 2016. And he’s certainly not earning his paycheck with his statistical production either. Through 13 games in 2017-18, Dellavedova is averaging 5.5 points, 3.2 assists, and 2.2 rebounds in 20.0 minutes per game, with a career low 46% eFG%.
With the Bledsoe trade, Dellavedova is expendable. And for quite some time, he’s been replaceable. This is a guy who’s accumulated a negative OBPM and DBPM in every season he’s played. And this season, Delly has already racked up a plus/minus of -10.1.
I’m all for keeping guys around for their intangibles, but not for Delly’s price tag and production. He’s a liability the Bucks no longer need, yet will be hard-pressed to extricate.
Jason Kidd: D+
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Jason Kidd is not the coach to take this Milwaukee team to the next level. Much like Milwaukee’s current flirtation with the .500 mark, Kidd’s Bucks have hovered at or below .500 for much of the preceding 3 seasons, which included two 1st round playoff exits. Stagnation is in the air, a staleness impeding the team’s progress, accentuated by Kidd making one questionable decision after another.
For Kidd’s entire coaching tenure in Milwaukee, the Bucks’ highest rank in pace was 13th (2014-15), while they fell to their lowest rank (26th) in 2016-17. This season, they rank 24th through 13 games. It’s an egregious error. With Giannis (per Synergy, 1.39 points per possession in transition), the Bucks should be looking to push the tempo every chance they get.
On Sports Illustrated’s The Crossover, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver discussed this very issue. Pointing out that since the Bucks are an awful rebounding team, they should try some other “crazy” alternatives, like having Giannis play point guard on offense and center on defense, an idea Golliver comically terms “puberty ball.” The question remains: Why Not?
Under Kidd, the Bucks also continue to struggle defensively. Thus far, player grades avoided defensive scrutiny and that’s because it’s more a schematic issue than anything, which (fair or not) the coach must take responsibility for.
Mitchell Maurer, of SB Nation’s Brew Hoop, did an excellent piece on why Milwaukee’s defense is a disaster. The cliff notes version is while the Bucks are trying to exploit their athleticism and length by playing super aggressive in an attempt to conjure blocks, turnovers, and transition opportunities, the result is a “razor-thin margin of error” leading to out of position defenders making desperate plays on the ball (e.g., fly-bys). It’s a strategy that clearly isn’t working.
On the flip side, the Bucks might be better off playing a “bend but don’t break” defense, making every effort to keep their opponents in front of them, while using their length to disrupt passing lanes and contest lower percentage looks. Again, the question remains: Why Not?
All grades aside, after acquiring Eric Bledsoe Milwaukee’s message is clear: win now. And the Bucks know this with certainty: they have the talent. The real wild card is Jason Kidd. Given Kidd’s dubious past coupled with his early performance this season, he might want to worry less about the officiating and more about coaching. Because truth be told, the Bucks’ core players are doing their part, it’s the head coach who’s on the hot seat.
photo via llanaba