The Bucks have fallen off considerably from their earlier heights, sinking from the ranks of the division leaders down to the all-too-familiar 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. Much of the blame falls on their recent 2-7 stretch which started with a blown lead in Charlotte and ended with another in San Antonio. That stretch was always going to be a daunting task for Milwaukee, but tough losses to the Bobcats, Timberwolves, and Hornets ceded more ground than they surely would have liked.
We're far enough into the season that "trends" can reasonably be equated with "characteristics". That is, it's safe to say the Milwaukee Bucks are an elite shot-blocking team and a very poor three-point shooting team. So where have they deviated from their usual team profile recently? Let's have a look.
Free Points! We've harped and harped on how vital it is for Milwaukee to draw more fouls and earn trips to the free throw line. Their inconsistency behind the arc exacerbates their trouble scoring efficiently, an issue that's been exacerbated with the absence of Mike Dunleavy. If the Bucks are to succeed without taking advantage of those high-value shots, they have to make up for it elsewhere, and the free-throw line is likely their best option.
That's always been a dicey proposition for Milwaukee. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have all the quickness in the world, but they rarely seem inclined to use it as a means of drawing contact. Rather, both guards are notorious for twisting and contorting their bodies when they get near the rim, looking to shoot around rim defenders instead of forcing them to challenge shots aggressively. But lately, both guys (among others) have been much more willing to force the issue and earn easy points.
Milwaukee's 21.6 free throw rate is next-to-last in the NBA, but they've beaten that average in 7 of their last 8 games, including a 30+ FTR in their last four. Monta Ellis has led the charge (more post-ups, please!), earning 29 foul shots in his last 3 games. It's not just the backcourt, though. Luc Mbah a Moute has shown a surprising propensity for drawing fouls since his return, including yesterday's game in Brooklyn where he earned a game-high 10 foul shots.
Attacking defenses in the full court or delayed transition, like the Bucks did against the Nets, forces defenders to make quick decisions and makes defensive mistakes more likely. It's unlikely the Bucks can break into the upper-echelon of offensive teams without some improvement from deep, but continuing their aggressive play of late would go a long way.
Defensive Rebounding. One of the chief factors fueling Milwaukee's early success was a dominance of the defensive glass. They held four of their first six opponents to a 21.0 or lower offensive rebound rate en route to topping the league in defensive rebound percentage. Since then they've fallen back to 9th, and their recent play bears much of the blame. They've underperformed their defensive rebounding average in 7 of their last 10 games, including dreadful performances against the Chicago Bulls (60.0 DRR) and the New Orleans Hornets (61.8 DRR). The Bucks are right around average in terms of opponent shooting percentage, so limiting foes to one shot is critical to their defensive efficiency.
Who's to blame? Likely everybody, though the big guys are sure to get most of the attention. And it's warranted, to some extent. Larry Sanders has been dominant on the defensive boards this season, but he's been below his average in 3 of his last 4 games. Ekpe Udoh and Ersan Ilyasova have hit similar bumps, though neither's dip is as pronounced since they haven't been as exceptional as Sanders this year.
There's typically some give-and-take with offensive rebounding and transition offense. It's easier to grab rebounds when guards and wings are sticking around to track down loose balls instead of releasing for outlet passes. Milwaukee has gotten that high-octane engine revving a little louder lately, so this might just be the necessary tradeoff. Again, Mike Dunleavy's absence hurts here--he's been a top-10 defensive rebounder among small forwards this season and is capable of igniting and running a fast break quickly off opponent misses.
The recent slump might be just that--a slump--or it might reveal a more pressing issue. If players like Sanders are starting to regress to their previous rebounding ability, Milwaukee's dominance in that regard might be difficult to sustain. That might mean more minutes for Samuel Dalembert, who's been a bit disappointing in term of interior defense but still grabs rebounds at an above-average clip. With any luck it's the former, and Milwaukee's Tandem Tubes are just caught in a bit of a funk they'll soon flail their way out of.