Earl Boykins' Christmas miracles aside, Bucks still struggling to find answers offensively

The Bucks' offensive struggles have been well documented, and with just over a third of the season in the books there's unfortunately been little indication of improvement--especially with injuries continuing to test the Bucks' depth. What's especially frustrating is that you can only imagine how much better the Bucks' record might be if they could replicate even their mediocre offensive performance of a year ago.

While the Bucks' already excellent defense has actually improved from a year ago (from 103.1 pts/100 to 102.0), their offense has fallen off a cliff (from 104.9 pts/100 to 100.4) in spite of offensive upgrades at a number of positions. To put that in perspective, not since the 04/05 Hornets has a team put together an entire season with a worse efficiency than the current Bucks, though the Cavs (100.5) and Bobcats (100.6) aren't far ahead of them at the moment.

What's interesting is that the Bucks have actually improved dramatically in terms of getting to the line (11th in FT/FG rate) while also improving marginally on the offensive boards (14th in OReb%), but their regression in shooting has more than offset those improvements. It's generally agreed that eFG% is the most important of the four factors to overall efficiency (ahead of free throw rate, turnover rate, and offensive rebound rate), and the 10/11 Bucks make a nice case for that.  They remain the worst shooting team in basketball by any of the popular metrics--raw fg%, eFG%, and TS%--and have remained similarly rooted to dead last in efficiency terms for most of the season. 

So why can't the Bucks make shots? 

 

Bricks of all shapes and sizes. I've heard some people suggest the Bucks just haven't found their rhythm from the perimeter, but looking at their efficiency by location and type of play shows the problem is much more widespread. The Bucks' lack of athletic finishers helps explain their second-worst rate in converting at the rim (55.9%), though they're around average in terms of shots taken in that area. So they're doing an OK job of getting high-percentage shots, but they're not doing enough with them. And they're also fifth worst inside 10 feet, dead last between 10-15 feet, fourth worst from 16-23 feet, and 10th worst from three. To put that in perspective, the 09/10 Bucks were mid-pack on threes, 7th on long twos (largely because of Luke Ridnour's league-leading 57%), and well below average inside 15 feet, including dead last at the rim (56.3%). Losing Ridnour certainly hasn't helped the Bucks' offense, but it's not like being good at long two point shots has ever been a consistent recipe for success.

Forwards not finishing. The struggles at the rim have been closely related to the steep regressions of Corey Maggette (50% vs. 66% last year), John Salmons (47% vs. 57% last year), and Luc Mbah a Moute (51% vs. 62% last year). I can't offer much explanation for Mbah a Moute's regression beyond his move to SF though Maggette and Salmons' age and preseason injuries likely have something to do with their problems. On the more encouraging side: despite his arm issues, Andrew Bogut has been very close to his numbers from a year ago at the rim (64% down from 65%) and inside 10 feet (46% up from 44%), and Brandon Jennings is still mediocre but notably better than he was as a rookie (51% vs. 43%).

Synergy data shows struggles. The story is similar using Synergy Sports' breakdown by play type. In terms of points per play, the only area where the Bucks are better than 18th is in transition, but that's a bit deceiving since they get so few opportunities on the break. Only Orlando (9.1 pts/g) is worse than the Bucks (9.6) in terms of points scored in transition per game, and in general the hard part about the Synergy data is figuring out a useful frame of reference. Clearly some play types (such as transition and cut pays) yield better expected outcomes than others, but you can only pull off so many backdoor cuts or two-on-ones in a given game. So while it's important to be effective at individual types of plays (as manifested in high PPPs), it's also important to play to the strengths of your personnel and use strategies that increase the proportion of high-percentage plays. 

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Anatomy of the P&R. That's a major reason why the P&R game--an obvious staple of most teams' play-calling--has been a frequent topic of conversation during Brandon Jennings' sophomore season. The folks at Synergy did a study of the Knicks' P&R game with Alan Hahn at Newsday, which also offers a good starting point for understanding the Bucks' data. The Bucks get a relatively high number of plays for ball-handlers out of P&R (15.2% of all plays), which isn't surprising given Jennings' propensity to shoot off the dribble or drive to the hoop after getting a pick, but they're also not particularly good at scoring that way (0.79 PPP, 23rd). Jennings is better than the Bucks' overall averages (0.87 PPP), and his PPP numbers are also better than those of Deron Williams (0.76, 18% of plays) and Derrick Rose (0.82, 38%), though behind guys like Steve Nash (0.98, 46%) and Chris Paul (0.99, 44%). 

Even with his lights-out play over the past two games, Earl Boykins is scoring a modest 0.81 PPP on P&R, slightly better than Keyon Dooling (0.79, 25% of plays) and notably better than John Salmons (0.59 PPP, 19%). Then again, that only shows part of the picture, and much of the criticism of Jennings is that he doesn't get other guys involved enough in those situations. After all, the whole idea of the P&R is that it can also create an easy shot for the screener or a guy spotting up off the ball. In that sense the data provides a very incomplete picture.  

Even for a team like the Knicks, the number of opportunities created off P&R for screeners like Amare is fairly limited. While plays for the P&R screener yield the Knicks a whopping 1.26 PPP (2nd in the league), only 5.5% of Knicks plays go to the P&R screener (Amare gets 10% of his plays that way at 1.34 PPP). The Bucks are just 24th at 0.92 PPP in that department, and they get about the same proportion of plays (5.7%). So are we overrating the impact of a guy like Amare in the P&R?  Overall, I'd argue no. The mere threat of a guy like Amare is probably just as important as the easy baskets he gets directly off P&R, and the data doesn't show how many open shots are created for perimeter guys because of teams having to adjust to the Knicks' P&R. For instance, the Knicks are also a good spot-up team (1.03 PPP, 7th), which accounts for an additional 21% of their plays. Moreover, P&R is something teams can run whenever they want. Fast breaks and putbacks may result in higher expected outcomes, but you can't just run a play for that--more often than not it requires the other team make a more fundamental mistake.  

Post play issues. The numbers don't make a compelling case for throwing the ball down on the block more (9.3% of plays), though it's clearly in the Bucks interest to get Bogut consistent touches and do something aside from P&R and perimeter handoffs. For some perspective, Dwight Howard shoots 50% and scores at a 0.89 PPP clip (62% of his plays), Al Horford shoots 48% and 0.93 PPP (26% of plays), and Nene leads the league with a tremendous 68% shooting and 1.24 PPP in the post (29% of plays). So while the post is a lower percentage means of scoring for the vast majority of guys, it's also the easiest way to get big guys consistent touches.

That also holds true for the Bucks. Andrew Bogut gets 47% of his plays out of the post but scores a modest 0.77 PPP (43.8% fg shooting) that way, while Drew Gooden has 13% of his plays in the post and is even worse at 0.61 PPP (to be honest I'm surprised it isn't higher). Larry Sanders has been even worse in the post, making just 3/18 shots all season; I always chuckle when Earl Boykins ignores him, but you can't blame the little fella. One modest bright spot has been Salmons (9/15 fg, 1.22 PPP), so it'd be interesting to see if they can get him more touches down low.

Overall the Bucks' 9% of plays in the post is on the low end for a team that has an obvious post scoring option; the Magic (0.88 PPP, 18% of plays), Lakers (0.88, 16%), Grizzlies (0.83, 15%), Net (0.84, 11%), and Timberwolves (0.74, 15%)  are among the teams who make much greater use of their big men in the post with mixed results. 

No Easy Remedies 

Scoring points hasn't gotten any easier with recent injuries to Jennings, Maggette, and Gooden adding to the long-term loss of Delfino, but it's not to say that the Bucks are standing pat. Adding Chris Douglas-Roberts into the starting five at the expense of Mbah a Moute improves the Bucks' spacing and ball-handling, but CD-R has also struggled to find his shot since scoring 21 points in his first start against San Antonio five games ago. Inserting Ersan Ilyasova into the starting five ahead of Sanders was also a move aimed at helping the offense, though Ilyasova has also been as inconsistent as ever.

I give Skiles credit for trying to shake things up with an eye on the offensive end, but the loss of Jennings has only further emphasized the Bucks' MO of winning games with their defense. So while you'd like to think the Bucks can become a vaguely credible offensive team, the injuries mean it's now more about survival--putting together enough decent offensive games to stay close enough to .500 until the schedule softens up in mid-January.

Hopefully Earl Boykins has a few more big games up his sleeve, but they'll likely live and die more than ever with the fortunes of Bogut and Salmons. There don't appear to be any magic bullets with that pair, but the Synergy data suggests a couple things. For one, less of Salmons' familiar P&R play on the left wing and more post-ups to take advantage of his length. On the flip side, Bogut's so-so play in the post isn't something the Bucks can afford to go away from, if only because they need something to balance out their disappointing P&R game. Moreover, the improving health of his arm could allow for a degree of improvement from his early season performance. But while the post is the most reliable way to assure Bogut is a center point of the Bucks' offense, keeping him involved in other ways--P&R, baseline cuts, etc--is never a bad idea.

Either way, the Bucks' offensive problems run too deep to fix with one or two pieces of advice. Skiles has often talked about improving execution and focus, and that's likely part of it, though he also has less incentive to admit more basic problems with the Bucks' offensive strategy. There's also something to be said for intense defense limiting a team's offensive upside, but we saw a year ago that they're capable of being much better than they are now while still getting it done on the defensive end. Thankfully the Bucks still have time to get their act together, which they did a year ago in finishing the season 22-8. The only certainty?  Fixing the problems will be much more easily said than done.

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