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The Bucks’ D-Cline

Feb. 9, 2016
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This isn’t what the Milwaukee Bucks and their fans had in mind for mid-February. After a startling 26-game improvement a year ago, the young and dynamic team was supposed to keep climbing toward the NBA’s top tier. Instead, the Bucks entered this week at 20-32 with two games left before the all-star break. The last Eastern Conference playoff spot was seven games out of reach with 30 to play.

The Fairly Detached Observers didn’t see this coming either. But they can see the core of the problem...

Artie: It’s the blaring music during timeouts—when Jason Kidd tells them to “defend!” they’re hearing “descend!”

Frank: Last season, the Bucks averaged 97.8 points per game and gave up 97.4—the eighth-best defensive mark in the NBA. Through 52 games this season, their scoring average was the same, 97.8, but their opponents’ was 102.9, dropping their defensive ranking to 20th out of 30 teams, and only four teams had a worse point-differential. 

A: Points per game—how dated! What about that trendy stat involving “efficiency”?

F: That one calculates scoring per 100 possessions. Last season, the Bucks’ offensive efficiency number was 100.5 and their opponents’ was 99.3, giving the Bucks the second-best defense by that measure. Entering this week, the Bucks stood at 101.5, but their opponents were up almost seven points—at 106.2—higher than all but five teams.

A: Another audio problem. The Bucks obviously think the goal is “deficiency.”

F: One huge factor is three-pointers, at both ends, as Charles Gardner wrote in the Journal Sentinel. Through 52 games, they had 597 fewer points on treys than their opponents, or about four fewer “makes” per game.

A: That’s like starting every game down by 12 and needing to make it up the old-fashioned way—with deuces and free throws.

F: The Bucks were averaging 5.5 successful threes-per-game—29th in the league—and giving up 9.3, more than all but three teams. 

A: Plus the rebounding is poor; their defensive rebound rating through 32 games, which was 72.4%, was dead-last in the league. That means plenty of second chances for opponents.

F: Last week Kidd said, “We’ve got to get better in switching our ‘smalls’ and understanding who’s shooting the ball.” In other words, know the guys you absolutely need to run at behind the arc.

A: Especially since the margin in most games amounts to a handful of possessions.

F: Tony Smith on “Bucks Live” said this last week: “They’ve got to really buckle down on their assignments, their rotations, what’s going on with the scouting report with each player, the team they’re facing that night. All those little things they go over every day in practice and especially in the shoot-arounds.”

A: That sounds a lot like “work harder.” More specifically, Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker are defensive liabilities. Monroe is slow on switches and not a real rim-protector like John Henson or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Which is one reason rumors are swirling about a possible trade involving Monroe or point-guard Michael Carter-Williams—or both—before the Feb. 18 trading deadline.

F: Even though Monroe was the big free-agent signing? And would they really end the MCW experiment a year after they brought him in and sent Brandon Knight away?

A: Oh yeah. They had a 10-17 regular-season finish after MCW arrived. Plus the trade apparently rattled the locker room; everything I’ve read says Knight was real popular with his teammates.

F: Ah, the ever-hazy issue of team “chemistry.” When Kidd returned in January from his hip surgery, he told Gardner that while watching the team on TV he was struck by a lack of emotion. “It was something I talked with the guys about, cheering each other on,” he said. “Wins always bring teams closer together, but for championship teams, losses bring them closer together... We’ve got to become a tighter group.”

A: And that requires locker-room leaders.

F: As Kidd put it, “We’re here to develop a leader as a player, and hopefully we can do that in the next couple weeks.”

A: But you need guys who want to lead. I think MCW just isn’t that type, where Knight apparently was.

F: You’ve also said that when they parted with Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley they lost some leadership.

A: Yes sir, I read somewheres that Dudley was always talking on the court, yelling out the switches. That is, communicating.

F: One problem they can’t control has been injuries, especially to bench players. Greivis Vasquez, another key addition, played only 16 games before having ankle surgery in December. O.J. Mayo hurt a hamstring in January and might return this week after missing 12 straight games.

A: Jerryd Bayless and John Henson have missed significant time, too.

F: Another factor is that the East is better overall. Boston is solid and Detroit, Miami and Indiana are back in the playoff picture.

A: Good thing Brooklyn and Philly are still crummy. 

F: As for trades, I assume they’d be after shooters.

A: Definitely! Right now there’s Khris Middleton and Jerryd Bayless but not much else consistently.

F: MCW is way streaky. He had a terrific game in Sacramento; then vanished in Portland.

A: Alas, 2-for-12 nights are more the norm for him. Kidd saw his length—his abilities on defense—and figured they could develop him into a shooter. Not so far.

F: Gardner recently asked John Hammond if a “rebuilding situation” was at hand, The GM said, “Absolutely not. A rebuild is saying, ‘We don’t have players.’ We like the players we have.”

A: Save that quote for the trade deadline. Then we’ll see. 

Three Points of Criticism

A: Back to the defense. I recently saw a pretty detailed analysis on the website called FanSided. One of their writers, Daniel Larson, cited three big problems with the Bucks’ D. One, “The defensive communication has all but disappeared. Instead of calling things out to their teammates, the players try to correct the mistakes on their own. This puts guys woefully out of position...”

F: Like nowhere near the arc when they should be.

A: Larson said a second issue “is lack of understanding and over aggression... Last season the team mastered double-teams and seamless rotations...” But this season, he says, “Too often three defenders get sucked into watching the ball handler rather than their own guy.” And the third thing, he says, is “the lack of effort being given at the defensive end on a nightly basis.”

F: I have a case in point. In the recent home game against Miami, at the end of the third quarter there was a scrambling play, great effort to keep the ball, that ended with Rashad Vaughn making a three-pointer to put the Bucks up four points. And the place went nuts! But there were still five seconds on the clock, and in that time none other than former Buck Beno Udrih took the inbounds pass, went the length of the floor and made a shot from the free-throw line at the buzzer. I replayed it several times, and all five Bucks were in the picture but no one challenged Udrih.

A: And they lost that game by four. Stopping Beno might have meant some difference in their last-minute tactics.

F: And in other games it’s sure looked to me like there are opponents getting the ball at the half-court line and just cruising in for unchallenged layups. The kid in Portland, C.J. McCollum, comes to mind.

Will History Repeat?

F: One more thing about “chemistry” What happens if they move either Monroe or MCW or both, before the deadline or in the summer? Then there’ll be a whole new group dynamic, and who knows how that works out?

A: But then this is going nowhere right now, and maybe Kidd and Hammond don’t see it getting better with the current configuration.

F: But wouldn’t major dealing put us right back in the usual Bucks revolving-door mode? Six years ago it was John Salmons who gave ’em a spark, got a big contract, then regressed and soon was shipped out. Then it was Monta Ellis who helped liven things up for a while but soon wore out his welcome.

A: The Ellis thing was weird to begin with. Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the same backcourt, with both of ’em wanting to jack it up.

F: But for a while the team was scoring a lot and people were excited.

A: But year after year there’s lots of new guys, so there’s never consistent chemistry. Except for last year, and they kind of stumbled on that chemistry—until the big trade.

F: And they stumbled on it in the spring of 2010 when they made that big surge into the playoffs. Not that they would have won a championship, but you’ve got to wonder how things might have developed if Andrew Bogut hadn’t wrecked his arm right before the playoffs in 2010.

A: It seemed like they were on to something. Just like last season.

F: Seems like that surge last year inspired some unrealistic expectations—ours included. Should people really have expected 45 or 50 wins? The 26-win improvement came from a base of only 15!

A: Still, a team on the rise is what everyone was selling the fans. Right now the team slogan should be, “Green and Going... Nowhere.” For the fans it’s like being kids waiting for Christmas, then getting only underwear and socks.

F: The owners might be feeling fortunate that they got that public money for the new arena amid the afterglow of last season. Who knows how much more grousing there’d be now?

A: The schedule after the all-star break is heavy on home games, but it sure looks like it’s “draft lottery, here we come.” It’s not a great year for that. There’ll be some good players available but no one unlike what they already have.

F: Here’s one more comment from Hammond: “Sometimes you take two major steps forward; you might take a step backward. Maybe the step backward might be healthy; maybe it’s the right thing for you.”

A: That’s like saying, “Hey, a car accident might be a good thing for you.”

F: Yeah, it gets you off your feet for a while.

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is efficiently offensive.


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