Will A New Year Heal The Bucks Defense?

When the Milwaukee Bucks went 41-41 in the regular season, which was good for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, hopes were high, despite the defeat by the Chicago Bulls in the first round. The season had been a great success for a Bucks team that was the second youngest in the NBA; the future was bright.

Milwaukee was led by first-year coach (Jason Kidd), making the season even more impressive.The sky was supposed to be the limit in Milwaukee for the 2015-16 season. The Bucks went through the offseason without losing any major pieces and signed a big-name free agent in Greg Monroe. Their young stars, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Khris Middleton were all given another year of experience. Jabari Parker, the second overall pick in 2014, was given ample time to recover from his torn ACL that he suffered over a year ago.

But the Bucks have the third worst record in the East. And life isn’t going to get any easier.

To begin the new year, eight of Milwaukee’s first 11 opponents have a record over .500. Additionally, head coach Jason Kidd is out indefinitely after hip surgery, leaving assistant coach Joe Prunty in charge.

The Bucks are one of two NBA teams that have defeated the 30-2 Golden State Warriors. They are the only team to do so with Steph Curry in the lineup and they are the only Eastern Conference team to beat the Warriors.  Yet, Milwaukee has been unable to consistently capitalize on what they demonstrated in the Golden State win. After their triumphant victory over the Warriors, the Bucks  went 0-for-California (Lakers, Clippers, Warriors). Their 18-point loss to a 5 win Lakers team took the air out of the Warriors win balloon as it was punctuated with rumors that the Bucks spent the night before the game hanging out at L.A. hotspots and celebrating their Warriors win.

Last season, Milwaukee found success thanks to its exceptional defensive execution. They ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2014-15, trailing only Golden State. The Bucks only allowed 97.4 points per game by limiting opponents to 43.7% shooting, which ranked fifth in the league. Most importantly, they forced more turnovers than any other team in the NBA with 17 per game.

Milwaukee’s defense has regressed significantly. They rank 28th in defensive efficiency. They allow 103.6 points per game which makes their scoring defense one of the ten worst in the NBA. Their opponents make 45.6% of their shots, which is 20th in the league. They are allowing 1.26 points per shot, which is second-highest in the NBA. To put the icing on the cake, the Bucks are sending opponents to the free-throw line more frequently than every single NBA team.

Defensive Regression Points Allowed Field Goal Percentage Defensive Efficiency
Bucks, 2015-16 103.6 (22nd) 45.6 (20th) 109.5 (28th)
Bucks, 2014-15 97.4 (8th) 43.7 (5th) 102.2 (4th)

The Bucks have an extremely long and athletic team, led by Antetokounmpo. The 21-year-old affectionately referred to as the “Greek Freak” because of his 6’11” frame and the insane ability to guard all five positions and still handle the ball with ease is underutilized. He and his teammates should thrive in the open court.

But they don’t play that way.

Instead, Milwaukee scores only 12.4 fast-break points per game, which ranks 11th in the NBA. Last season they were ranked ninth. Complicating matters more, the Bucks lack outside shooters. They attempt the third fewest three-pointers per game out of all NBA teams. This, in combination with an ineffective transition offense, has led to a 24th ranked 97.8 points per game for this squad.

In order for the Bucks to re-enter the Eastern Conference playoff picture, they must rely on what makes them unique. Their length and quickness should wreak havoc for other team’s offenses. With aggressive defensive schemes, this unit could force turnovers at an elite rate. They should also be able to protect the rim, as the average wingspan of the Bucks’ starting lineup is an incredible 7’0”.

On offense, the Bucks need to take advantage of the open court, and feature Antetokounmpo. He is a matchup nightmare, and is extremely hard to stop when in space. There are few teams in the NBA with the athleticism to keep up with Milwaukee; this must be exploited by the Bucks.

The Bucks are six games behind the eighth place (Celtics) in the East and have almost 50 games to close that gap. For this head scratching underperforming squad to turn their season around and earn a playoff spot in an improved Eastern Conference they have to get back to the grit and grind that allowed their defense to excel last year.

photo via llananba