Fixing The Milwaukee Bucks Offense

When I say "Milwaukee Bucks", people can think of several things. The optimists think of the top-10 defense under Scott Skiles, the historians think of Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robinson, and Sidney Moncrief, and the dreamers think of Brandon Jennings transforming into the little point guard who could (shoot over 50% from the floor).

But something we can all agree on is that this offense is bad. Wait, let me reemphasize that: the offense is BAD.

REALLY BAD. THE TYPE OF MOTHER-SHUT-YOUR-MOUTH THAT SHAFT IS: A BAD ONE.

Do you not see the point I'm making? No? Let's look at a chart!

Season Points/game Rank FG percent Rank Points/Shot Rank
2008-2009 99.3 15 44.5% 27 1.21 T-24
2009-2010 97.7 T-22 43.6% 29 1.14 30
2010-2011 91.9 30 43.0% 30 1.15 30
2011-2012 92.3 T-20 42.7% 23 1.10 T-26

I'll back off now, because these numbers are making me sad (I can't imagine what they're doing to Steve von Horn.) But it's clear to us that, if they ever want to be more than a plucky underdog, the Bucks need to put the round orange thing in the other round orange thing more often.

That glorious insight begs the question: How? How do you teach a team that has mastered the art of preventing scoring to only do so on one side of the court? The possible cures are everywhere: Ball movement! Faster pace! Let Jennings shoot more! Make Jennings shoot less! Trade Bogut! Trade Jackson! Trade EVERYONE! THREE TEAM TRADE THAT GETS US JAMAL CRAWFORD AND NICK YOUNG; SO MANY POINTS OMG.

And these answers might be true. But the question I'm asking is a bit different: how do you get this team to score more? The answer is less complicated than you think.

First off, let us all realize that last year's team was a monumentally awful offensive team, and the largest culprits (John Salmons and Corey Maggette) no longer play here. We also must recognize the turnover from last year to this year: new additions include Stephen Jackson, Mike Dunleavy, Shaun Livingston, Beno Udrih, Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer, and (from a practical standpoint) Drew Gooden. Each one of these players has a specific offensive skill (except maybe Harris) that is an improvement on the lot that took the floor last season, and a few of these players (Livingston, Harris, and Leuer) stand to improve long-term.

So, yes, we suck at offense, but not quite so hard. We all remember the triumph over San Antonio and the Annual Brandon Jennings F the Knicks Exhibition, so it's not like this team can't score. But doing so with some regularity seems to be an issue.

Part of the problem is shot distribution. Jennings is taking 17.3 shots per game, making a career-high 44.4%. Andrew Bogut is second with 12.0 per game, but is shooting a Jennings-esque 45.5%. Cap'n Jack is lord of the chuckers this year, putting up 11.8 shots per game while making 36.2% of them.

Our most effective shooters? They aren't featured in the offense. Shaun Livingston is making a tidy 54.8% of his attempts, but only taking 5.8 per game. Jon Leuer is second with 53.2%, but takes 5.1 shots per game, and Tobias Harris is third at 48.9% on 5.0 attempts per game.

What about our outside shooters? We have several who claim to be specialists, but few actually match the description. Ersan Ilyasova has (temporarily) fulfilled the promise Scott Skiles saw in him (39.1% on 3-pointers), and Jennings has turned himself around from last season as well (35.1% from deep). Carlos Delfino might not be lighting the nets on fire, but he's a respectable 34.8%. But the rest? Jackson (28.8%), Leuer (25.0%), Dunleavy (18.5%), and Udrih (15.4%) have been worse than awful.

So we've got bad shooters taking most of our shots, on a team when even our good shooters can't hit over 45%. That's a problem, but not the whole problem.

* * *

In my judgement (WARNING: LACK OF STATISTICAL EVIDENCE AHEAD), the offense is not playing to its strengths. My approach to basketball has always been to figure out what the members of the team are actually good at, then building the game plan around that. I haven't seen that out of our Milwaukee Bucks; I've seen a team whose identity is determined more by the coaching staff than the players on the floor. That's great with Skiles on defense, but you get what we've spent 700 words describing on the other side.

And Skiles' seat is at least lukewarm right now, which just happens to be consistent with his first two head coaching stints (fired in Year 3 in Phoenix, fired in Year 5 in Chicago). Not that I'm calling for Skiles' head, but he won't be successful coaching a team that can't improve on offense, especially when the owner wants to a) figure out a way to get a new arena, and b) replace himself.

That brings us to the current roster, put together by John Hammond. Hammond did a masterful job cleaning up past mistakes, and has at least done an adequate job cleaning up his own (again, both Salmons and Maggette's contracts were pawned off on other teams). He's also done a good job at bringing in players who are talented enough to build an offense around, even if that talent hasn't translated into production (yet). Time will tell if Hammond can put together a real winner or not, but that's a different conversation for a different day.

* * *

Right now, the offense is based on protecting the ball, running pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops, and (usually) settling for spot-up jump shots. The rest of the league knows this, which shows in Milwaukee's offensive performance. It's conservative to a fault, and the Bucks don't have the athletes or creative scorers to make a change right now. As always, maybe next year.

But there is a way to at least improve this year's offense with this year's roster. Without further ado, here's my 3-step plan for success!

1) More burn for Shaun Livingston. Livingston is the bright spot in the 3-team trade from before the lockout. He's money from mid-range, and he has a post game that most forwards envy. He's currently fifth on the team in minutes per game (23.8), but fourth and third are players he should be taking time from (Delfino and Jackson, respectively). Delfino should be an 18-20 minute player, while Jackson's 32.0 minutes per game is indefensible at this point in time. Livingston needs to get 25 minutes a night (or as much as his knee can handle), and the team needs to be more aggressive in getting him looks in the high post.

A lineup featuring Jennings-Livingston-Delfino-Ilyasova-Bogut would give great options. Livingston with the ball at either elbow could pass to a shooter, drive and dish to a cutter, or simply launch his silky-smooth turnaround over the shorter defender. It's a look that the team should run at least two or three times in a row, using the P&R game to force the defense out of rhythm.

2) Fix the free throw disparity. I thought we would talk about pace here (Alex would agree with me), but the Bucks are doing pretty well in that department with a factor of 95.0 (tenth overall, NBA league average is 94.0). Something the Bucks are doing terribly is getting to the line and making their shots while there. The team's free throw rate differential is horrendous (-11.59, 30th in the league), partly because the Bucks' rate is the 4th lowest and their opponents' rate is 3rd highest.

Part of this issue is that they're fouling so much (22.1 fouls per game, 6th highest in the NBA). While that might feel like Larry Sanders' nightly output, Bogut (3.4 per game), Sanders (3.2), Jackson (3.1), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (2.8), Delfino (2.3), Harris (2.2), Ilyasova (2.0), Leuer (1.9), and Udrih (1.8) are all at or above the league average.

The other part is that they're not getting to the rim (only 27.8% of Milwaukee attempts are at the rim, 23rd in the league). Brandon Jennings actually leads the team with 4.9 attempts per game (AND HE'S MAKING 63% OF THOSE SHOTS!!!!!), but only he, Bogut, and Harris are above the league average for attempts at the rim. Hacking less and driving more will help balance out the differential, and the team's 77.4% free throw rate (9th in the league) will help put a few more points on the board.

3) Run a smarter base set. To be fair, the litany of injuries that have befallen the team helped ruin any semblance of continuity, but the base half-court set needs to be fixed. This comment thread between myself, Dan, and Steve inspired me, and this article from Beckley Mason at HoopSpeak confirmed my inspiration: we have a trio of stretch PFs that are skilled shooters, but are we using them enough?

But let's start at the foundation: the 1-5 pick-and-roll with Jennings and Bogut. The recipe for success during Brandon's rookie year, it's a simple read-and-react offense that lets Jennings take the initiative to make something happen. Bogut is no slouch here either, strong enough to set a solid pick, but still mobile enough to roll to the basket and catch the entry pass.

Making that the cornerstone of the offense is a must, because it gives us options. With shooters like Delfino and Dunleavy outside, there will be enough space inside the arc to operate. But the real improvement will be seen when the ball is put in the hands of one of our stretch 4's: Leuer, Ilyasova, or Gooden. When the other team's power forward leaves his man to help elsewhere, one of these guys is going to be open, and they've proved able to hit those shots in the past. My money would be on Leuer to be the top option, since both Drew and Ersan lack the consistency or confidence to make defenses pay for cheating.

That's a small sampling of what I think could work. What does the rest of BrewHoop think?

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