The 2011-12 Milwaukee Bucks aren't an inspiring bunch. Heck, they aren't a particularly good bunch. Nothing about their 14-23 record seems unfair, even if one of the primary reasons behind their recent dip is unfair to everyone -- Andrew Bogut suffering another freak injury. Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Shaun Livingston, Jon Leuer and Tobias Harris are bright spots at the midpoint, while Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson have disappointed to differing extents and for different reasons. That's not how it's supposed to go.
I'm back with the NBA roster indexing project. I have researched and indexed player stats relative to the relevant positional league average, meaning that a score of 100 is average for each player at his respective position. Anything less than 100 is lower than the average (in red), and anything greater than 100 is higher than the average (in green). Usage and %Ast do not have assigned colors since they are both more value-neutral, or perhaps more accurately, they require a case-by-case assessment. Let's get to it.
Three Big Observations From The First Half Of The 2011-12 Season
(1) Ersan Ilyasova Is A Nice Player, But Should Not Be Overpaid By The Bucks This Summer. Ersanity has swept the nation....okay, Ersanity has swept Bucks nation...fine, fine, 20 or so people are semi-excited about Ersanity at times. Are you happy now? Anyways, our disgruntled Turkish friend -- who is almost certain to depart via free agency once you consider his stated desire to go to the highest bidder and factor in the exchange rates/tax breaks European teams can offer him -- is playing some very solid basketball. Double-double type ballin' is emanating from his slot on the stat sheet on a regular basis, and that is never a bad thing.
His rebounding has been insanely good. In the 2011-12 season to-date, he has been 104% better on the offensive glass and 68% better overall as a rebounder than the average NBA forward! A low turnover rate and accurate shooting from deep and 10-15 ft buoy his offensive efficiency, but sub par performances at the rim (he's been blocked roughly 85 times on fastbreaks, by my unofficial count) and on long twos evens it all out to average.
His offensive game is strictly complementary, but his defense and rebounding is where the real value lies. To pay a guy like that, who has never proven to be a quality starter, would be too much risk for a franchise in transition. Ideally, Hammond will trade him for future assets before the deadline.
(2) John Hammond Made Some Nice Off-Season Moves, Despite Stephen Jackson. Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston and Mike Dunleavy are all valuable players that can play an important role on a winning team, so the Bucks' general manager deserves some credit. Unfortunately, his biggest move -- trading for Stephen Jackson and billing him as a mentor of Jennings -- completely backfired.
Stephen Jackson needs no further explanation than the link attached to the words "completely backfired" (or perhaps completely backfired might take care of the conversation), so let's break down the good moves. Udrih hasn't been much more efficient than Jennings, and shooting 45% below the positional average from beyond the arc is a big reason why, but he has always done well to get players on the second unit involved in the offense with comfortable looks. One undeniable trend from the first half of the season is that the reserve unit often looked better (and played better) than the starters. Udrih is no panacea, but he has executed in a limited backup role for now and might even opt out of his expensive final contract year during the summer. If so, Hammond gets extra points.
Shaun Livingston has been a joy to watch ever since he stepped in for S-Jax as the starting shooting guard. Our own Dan Sinclair covered the eloquent transformation of Livingston's game into a mid-post monster and heady decision-maker with the ball. His assist rate is higher than Jennings, and from the SG spot it really stands out as something special. Perhaps he is a bit too selective with his shot when the Bucks offense is ailing, but he knows the strengths of his game (see the lack of attempted threes) and works hard to make sure they manifest on the court.
Mike Dunleavy felt like a great idea from the moment the Bucks signed him. I wrote about how Dunleavy's shooting and advanced basketball IQ would certainly help the offense get better, and so far the low-risk experiment has worked beautifully. Since he has rewarded my earlier analysis with consistency in the strengths of his game, I can just quote a portion of my preseason story to sum up his value to the team:
In response to the anticipated line of questioning, I also decided to index his numbers over the past several full seasons to see how much he could contribute if not playing at an optimized level. As it turns out, even a mediocre Dunleavy can help the Bucks improve on offense. Not only has he been consistently above-average in finishing around the rim and from 3-9ft (serious areas of need), his assist rates and outside shooting numbers have been good enough to upgrade or bolster the Bucks' roster under any reasonable circumstances.
His reputation as a savvy offensive player also seems well-deserved, considering he has posted very solid assist and turnover rates over the past few seasons as well. When the only other players on the Bucks' roster with above-average positional assist rates are Carlos Delfino and Andrew Bogut, another skilled and experienced wing that can be trusted to make good decisions with the ball is certainly a good thing.
I could watch Dunleavy play basketball all day long. Two years for a total of $7.5M was a steal.
(3) John Hammond Also Made Some Savvy Draft Picks in 2011. Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer look good. Bucks fans can't get enough of them, and for this team the fact that Bucks fans want more of anything is saying quite a bit. Both players are crashing the offensive glass effectively and already boast above-average scoring efficiency at their positions. Harris has flashed low-post isolation scoring ability, while Leuer worked to avail himself of dump passes for drop step dunks and finishes, as both guys managed to score well at the rim in particular. Leuer has flashed some potential as a pick-and-pop player (shooting 27% better than average PFs from 10-15 ft), while Tobias Harris is trying to add a three-point threat to his arsenal (he's only 1% below an average NBA forward from three so far this season).
Perhaps the biggest relief is that both players look like they belong in the league. They make good decisions with the basketball -- each has a below-average turnover rate -- and seem clear on what their strengths are on the floor. Unfortunately, 2010 first round pick Larry Sanders can't exactly lay claim to those same baselines. He has been awful on offense for most of his career, can't finish at the rim, turns the ball over at an alarming rate for a role player and doesn't rebound very well. Other than that, he's a damn fine player. Harris and Leuer deserve to take most of Larry Sanders' minutes, which is both an endorsement of the 2011 class and an indictment of the 2010 class.
(4) Brandon Jennings is Brandon Jennings. Compared to the average NBA point guard, Jennings is below average in every listed category except the one category you don't want anyone to excel in: 16-23ft jumpshots -- the longest two-point attempts on the floor. Most alarming his his assist rate, which is 36% below average. For all the talk about his teammates holding him back from better distribution numbers, it seems proper to point out that Beno Udrih has somehow managed to keep his own assist rate above the league average (albeit with more turnovers in the process).
Of course, the other concern is his scoring efficiency. In a down shooting year for the league at large, likely due to the compressed and other peculiarities from the lockout, he still can't meet the lower-than-normal standard at his position. To be glass half full, he's almost an average scorer this year. Nobody seemed to like the message at the time, but this is why I questioned whether the Milwaukee Bucks should make him the core of a rebuilding project and later reiterated why I don't think so. Even my last hopeful story contained warning signs that pace could not truly solve the problem. An inability to run half-court offense should be a clear sign Jennings' optimal role long-term may be as a sixth-man scorer off the bench, considering even his high-pace numbers were only around league averages. We've been through this dance a thousand times now, so I'll just stop here.
Here's the complete Bucks roster indexed against positional in the NBA for the 2011-12 season to-date: