MIAMI, FL - APRIL 06: Corey Maggette #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on April 6, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
"This game is being played at Milwaukee's tempo."
But what happens when a team plays badly at "their" pace? And when they play quite well not at "their" pace?
This was precisely what was happening with Milwaukee by Feb. 1, when we first made connections between Milwaukee playing better in faster-paced games. Back then, the sample sizes were smaller, but the trend had already emerged. And it stayed true all the way through the final week of the season.
After the final home game of the year, in the final post-game presser of the year at the BC, I asked Scott Skiles about the Bucks racking up 22 fastbreak points against the clearly more athletic Raptors:
We believe in a pretty simple philosophy. Play good defense, rebound the ball, and run every time. Now, getting guys to do that is very difficult. We want to run every single time. They (Toronto) are not a great transition defensive team. But we were getting them (fastbreak points) more off of just deflections and steals than we were off actual rebounds and running. It's something that you to create, make happen, by running the floor. Then the people who have the ball have to make good decisions and deliver the ball.
In Milwaukee's 41 fastest-paced games, they went 23-18. In their slowest 41 games, they went 12-29.
Milwaukee finished the season as the sixth slowest team in the NBA, according to pace factor. This contrasted with the style that Skiles brought to the NBA when his Suns and Bulls teams finished among the fastest 11 teams in the NBA in each of his first eight years as head coach. His aforementioned comments after the final home game reinforced what he told me pretty much every time I asked about pushing the ball. And his coaching history suggests that although he is known for a grinding defensive style, he really does want to push the pace on offense.
And for good reason. The Bucks were absolutely dreadful running half court offense. Brandon Jennings typically gave up the ball early in the shot clock, most commonly to John Salmons on the wing. What happened from there was usually a series of back-and-forth passes and dribbles that spanned the vast majority of the shot clock. A lot of contested jumpers and not much momentum going toward the rim.
But the Bucks compounded offensive misery by finishing dead last in the NBA by averaging 10.0 fastbreak points per game. Not an ideal scenario for a club in the top half of the league in steals and with the NBA's leading shot-blocker. The team was great defensively all season, finishing fourth in efficiency, and they created plenty of chances to run, both off turnovers and by a lot of missed shots by opponents. But ultimately, all of that defense never translated into any offense. For a counterexample, the Grizzlies used a very good defense (9th overall) to spur its offense (16th overall). Whereas the Bucks restarted on every change of possession, the Grizzlies turned one into the other, averaging 16.4 fastbreak points.
Personnel issues play a role here. Andrew Bogut plods down the court. Salmons is not the most vivacious starting two guard these days. Jennings improved at the rim but goes up with his left hand no matter the angle. Corey Maggette was really the only consistent finisher, but he was too predictable, turning three-on-ones into one-on-ones. Despite that, the evidence shows that Milwaukee can and positively did play better in faster-paced games -- they played far better when they played at the other team's tempo.
Just after halfway through the season, I pleaded to "Beam me up-tempo, Scotty." At the time, the Bucks had an 89.9 pace factor. Final pace factor? 89.8.