You'll be forgiven for not noticing, but a curious thing happened by virtue of the Pistons' home loss to the Jazz today: the 7-4 Milwaukee Bucks are in first place in the Central. The odds of that result holding true at season's end are still remote, but on the heels of Milwaukee's five game winning streak that claimed the Cavs, Lakers and Mavs as its most recent victims, Bucks fans are justifiably feeling pretty good right now.
Of course, before we start popping the corks, let's get a dose of reality. All that winning still hasn't completely erased the Bucks' blowout losses in Orlando and San Antonio, which helps account for the Bucks' net negative overall scoring differential (104.0 scored vs. 104.6 allowed per 100 possessions). Scoring differential has historically had a high predictive power of future success, so it's worth noting that the Bucks' net performance this season still projects to only a .480 winning percentage. Somewhere John Hollinger is writing an article warning Bucks fans to be wary, as the odds of winning 52 games (the team's current pace) while being outscored are virtually non-existent. In January 2006 Hollinger wrote of the Bucks in similar terms, noting that the 21-19 Bucks at the time had a 13-1 record in games decided by five points or less, a historically unheard-of rate of performance in the clutch. Yet Hollinger noted that statistically even great teams aren't "clutch" in those terms over sustained periods:
I know what you're thinking: "But the good teams are the ones that win the close games." Actually, that isn't true -- the lucky teams win the close games. The good teams win by 20 and spend the final minutes cheering on little-used teammate Darko.
Sure enough, the Bucks finished 5-9 in close games during the remainder of the season, backing into the playoffs with a 19-23 finish. In case you're wondering the 07/08 Bucks are 3-1 in close games, which in part accounts for their relatively low 13th spot in Hollinger's current power rankings, compared to 7th in Marc Stein's subjective rankings.
But Bucks' fans optimism has more to do with the promise they're seeing on the court than Pythagorean projections, and it's justifiably inspiring optimism not just for the short term. Regardless of the team's scoring differential, they've shown a number of things in the past two weeks that should make even a hardened skeptic smile.
They're beating good teams. If you looked at the Bucks' schedule at the beginning of the month you probably would have been thrilled if the team was at or above .500 come December 1st. The Bucks have had the league's fourth-hardest schedule so far according to Team Rankings, with five of their six wins coming against playoff teams from last year (Bulls, Raptors, Cavs, Lakers, and Mavs). Meanwhile, they were waxed on the road by the 12-3 Magic and 11-2 Spurs while playing pretty tough up until the final minutes in Houston. Of their losses, only the Bobcats game could be described as a disappointing result.
They're winning at home and winning in the division. Perhaps the most stunning testament to the Bucks' struggles last year was their 1-15 record against Central division foes, with the lone win ironically coming on opening night in Detroit. Eleven games into the 07/08 season they stand at 2-0 against division foes, having beaten the Bulls on opening night and the Cavs on the road, the first win in Cleveland since LeBron James was in high school.
Meanwhile, the Bucks also gave their home fans little to cheer about last year, finishing below .500 (18-23) at home for the first time since 96/97. Creating a true home court edge was a major talking point in the preseason, and continuing their current winning ways at home will help the team both on the court and in the bottom line. While the Yi signing created a buzz around camp, the Bradley Center crowds haven't been spectacular so far, ranking 21st in average attendance (15,690) and 22nd in capacity factor (83.8%). Which is a shame, because the Bucks are 6-0 in Milwaukee and off to the best start at home since their 18-0 start to the 90/91 campaign. In a market where they inevitably rank behind the Packers and Brewers for fan affection, the Bucks didn't help things by sending out tank-tastic lineups for a few of the final home games last season. Still, the best way to boost attendance is to start winning, and sending fans home happy every night could have a nice snowball effect on both ticket sales and the team's performances at home.
The offense has improved balance. For a historical perspective on the Bucks' current five-game streak, it's worth remembering that the Bucks won six in a row last from December 16-27 last season; shortly thereafter Michael Redd's knee injury began the long descent into the injury abyss that was the 06/07 season. But unlike that team, the current Bucks are playing a more balanced offensive game that may prove more beneficial for the team's long-term development.
While last year's streak was fueled by the scoring of Mike Redd and Mo Williams, the new Bucks feature the same backcourt, only this time playing a more complete game. Williams is learning how to manage an offense, averaging 10 apg during the streak and keeping everyone involved while still scoring when needed. Redd meanwhile has done it all, scoring nearly 25 ppg while boosting his rebounds (5.8 vs. 3.7 rpg), assists (4.0 vs. 2.3 apg) and yes, playing defense. The Bucks were admittedly a bit slow to get things going offensively, but they're too talented to stay below average for long, and now rank 13th in offensive efficiency. The difference has been the guards' willingness to share the ball, and all of a sudden the big men are also more involved.
Bogut may never be a dominating post presence, but he has done well of late finding openings in defenses and his teammates have worked hard to put him in good positions to score. Yi and Villanueva each have dynamic skills at the PF spot, though finding enough minutes for both will be a challenge all season long. And the bench, overlooked by many, has started to consistently outscore opponents' second units thanks in large part to the efforts of Villanueva and Bobby Simmons.
Last year's streak also came with both Brian Skinner and Charlie Bell starting, a lineup that never had the look of lasting. While Mason will likely give way at some point to Simmons, for now his energy and defensive orientation is a good complement to Redd and the youth of Mo, Bogut, and Yi.
They're trying to play some defense. Perhaps more importantly, the new Bucks aren't merely trying to outscore you. A defensive mindset began with Larry Krystkowiak's emphasis on accountability in the preseason and seems to be resonating with the entire roster. Sure enough, Villanueva and Simmons lost their starting spots because they weren't defending like their lower-scoring counterparts Yi Jianlian and Desmond Mason. And the talk about Redd and the perimeter players improving their defense has been more than just idle chit-chat.
It's not to say the Bucks have become defensive stalwarts; they still rank only 21st in defensive efficiency (104.6 pts/100 possessions). But the goal for the season was to get into the middle of the pack after ranking near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency, rebounding and blocks last season. So far the modest aim for respectability seems a reachable one. In general their defensive problems seem to come mostly come from poor execution and missed assignments on switches, and not for a lack of effort. It's still a long road to becoming a good defense, but it's very possible they improve as the season goes on and they become more comfortable with each other and their new system. Relying less on zone and worrying less about leaking out for transition points, the Bucks are also staying home and rebounding at a vastly improved rate, currently eighth in the league (.516 rebound rate). And the worst shot-blocking team in the league currently ranks fifth in that category so far this season (5.6 bpg), more than doubling their average from last year (2.7).
The most notable improvement has been inside. Andrew Bogut has had some hiccups offensively, but he's been an altogether different player defensively, more than quadrupling his block rate (2.1 bpg) and setting a hard-nosed tone that should bode well while the team continues to find its defensive identity. As opposed to last year when Brian Skinner was normally made to be the punching bag of other teams' post scorers, Bogut has taken on the challenge of defending the league's best bigs rather respectably. Though that job has seen him battle foul trouble at times, he's already logged four games with four or more blocks, a feat he accomplished just once in his first 148 games as a pro. All of a sudden he's helping the guards more effectively, and to their credit the perimeter players haven't needed as much help, either.
Meanwhile, rookie Yi Jianlian has been much better on defense than expected, using his length and lateral quickness to bother shooters while managing to avoid post punishment. He's had his share of excuse-me moments, but in general has been a decidedly quick study who should be an above-average defender for years to come. Charlie Villanueva still is prone to defending too much with his hands, but his effort has been there and the rest of the bench is full of players who have also been willing to work on both ends.
Most guys aren't playing above expectations. It's an old cliche for teams playing well to muse optimistically that they can still play even better, but for many of the Bucks that's still very true, suggesting that mean reversion of individual shouldn't hurt the Bucks much at all. Using PER (average = 15) as an overall yardstick of efficiency, Redd has been much improved (25.29 vs. 22.30 in 06/07), but it's come primarily from increased rebounding and assist rates, while his shooting from the field has been virtually unchanged. It's too early to say whether Redd will keep it up, but the early returns are very promising.
Bogut has improved slightly (17.64 vs. 15.54) due to increased scoring and rebounding rates, but he's still well below his career averages from the field and the line, which will hopefully come around. Desmond Mason has been much more effective (13.25 vs. 10.85 last year) but Bobby Simmons (12.84) and Charlie Villanueva (12.46) have each been worse than expected so far. Mo Williams (14.85), Dan Gadzuric (11.06) and Charlie Bell (9.86) are also below their expected PERs. Royal Ivey has been perhaps the biggest surprise (16.72), nearly doubling his career PER, so expect him to come back down to earth.
Yi (13.99) remains the x-factor, with the main question being how much he can improve over the course of the season. Given his role on the team I wouldn't expect drastic improvements over the course of this season, but the good news is he's already a contributor on both ends. His biggest weakness is currently inside, where he's sporting an anemic .308 eFG%, second-worst on the team behind Charlie Bell.
Krystkowiak is laying the groundwork for a successful team. Everyone (including Larry Krystkowiak) entered the preseason with far more questions about the 07/08 Bucks than answers: Would anyone play defense? Were guys like Villanueva and Simmons back to 100%? Could the guard-dominated offense incorporate the rest of the team's talent? Would the young talent ever live up to its potential? Were the team's guards and center really the types of talent worth building around? Was Yi really worth all the hype?
None of those questions can be answered conclusively after eleven games, but for the moment the early returns on most of the questions are positive. Redd is playing like the all-around guy fans have been hoping for years he could be. Williams is playing like a real point guard who just so happens to be able to score. Bogut is playing like a tough SOB down low. Yi looks like he'll be a player and then some. Krystkowiak seems to have won the respect of the entire roster.
Krystkowiak unquestionably deserves plenty of credit; the Bucks seem like more of a well-rounded, hard-working team than they ever were under their two previous coaches. A roster that seemed talented but ill-fitting all of a sudden is making much more sense, which is probably the best indicator of the coach's value. Krystkowiak's next challenge starts tomorrow, with three winnable games: at home against Philly and then on the road in Atlanta and New York. A period of short-lived promise seems like an annual rite of passage for the Bucks, so now it's now up to the 07/08 squad to show they can play the last 71 like they played the first 11. The Bucks' youth unquestionably suggests this team was built mainly for the future, but who knows, the present could be pretty fun too.