All of those would seem par for the course when it comes to the start of NBA training camps, though the current iteration of the Bucks at least seem a bit more authentic in their assertions of all that kumbaya goodness. Still, talk is cheap in early October, and whether they can live up to the lofty numerical goals Larry Drew and company are establishing early on is a very different story.
On Tuesday, the number 43 greeted the Bucks as they entered the Cousins Center for the first official day of camp. That's 43 as in a goal of limiting opponents to 43% shooting for the season, a statistical mark that only two teams reached last year (Indy at 42.0% and OKC at 42.5%). The Pacers led the league in defensive efficiency and the Thunder finished third, so I won't complain too much about the Bucks using FG% over any number of better proxies for per possession efficiency (pts/100, true shooting %, eFG% to name three). Players get field goal percentage, so might as well keep it simple--though it was rather funny hearing Caron Butler suggest that Zaza Pachulia thought the Bucks would target "38 or 39%" in allowed shooting. In case you're curious, no team has ever registered an opponent FG% mark below 40%, with the 98/99 Spurs and Knicks coming closest. I'm guessing Zaza's not really a numbers guy.
The reality is that if the Bucks allow even close to 43% shooting they figure to be a very good defensive team. Scott Skiles' teams never finished with better than 44.7% in opponent shooting (6th in 10/11), but they still managed to twice rank in the league's top five in overall efficiency, due in no small part to their ability to force turnovers and rebound defensively. Only 63 teams have cracked 43% in league history, so odds are the Bucks will find it a stretch and then some to hit that figure. But hey, dream big, right?
Pushing the Pace
Larry Drew's preference for pushing the pace shouldn't come as a surprise, even if his Hawks' rated just 12th and 22nd in pace over the past two seasons. While Atlanta's pace was close to average, they still finished third in the league in fast break scoring last season, and it was a major talking point of his after first arriving in Milwaukee this summer. With that in mind, "4" was the Bucks' number of the day on Wednesday, as in Drew's goal of seeing his team get the ball into the forecourt within four seconds after every opponent miss or make. Via Andrew Gruman:
"We don't want to come down and just jack up any kind of shot," Drew said. "We want to be very mindful of what the situation is to make sure we get a good shot every time.
"What it does is it really keeps constant pressure on the opposition. When teams scout us, I want something in that scouting report to say something like 'Guys, we have to get back make or miss because they really push it up our backs.' We have to develop good habits in doing that."
Not many teams come into camp saying they're going to play slow, so it may not be that telling for the Bucks to talk about pushing the tempo. After all, every coach wants to get every defensive rebound and look for quick, easy shots on the break, but living that philosophy day in and day out is a different matter. Thankfully, Drew's history suggests this is more than idle chatter. Drew's Hawks were among the league's best at scoring in transition last season (17.3 ppg, 3rd) and just as effective at stopping opponents from getting fast break points themselves (11.6 ppg, 3rd), all of which gets to the idea of playing fast and smart. Last year's Bucks played faster than the Hawks (4th in pace), but they didn't have much to show for it: the Bucks ranked 9th in fast break points (14.0 ppg) but gave it all back and then some on the other end, ranking 28th in the league with 15.0 ppg conceded in transition.
Starters start, Zaza sits, Giannis runs?
Wednesday's practice saw Zaza Pachulia join the boot-wearing Carlos Delfino on the sidelines, with Khris Middleton also forced to the sidelines with a turned ankle during practice. That opened up an opportunity for rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo to get burn with the second unit of Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, John Henson and Ekpe Udoh against the presumed starting five of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders.
Speaking of the rookie, Drew sounded every bit the encouraging player's coach when it came to discussing Antetokounmpo and his general up-tempo philosophy. Via Charles Gardner:
"Even our young kid, Giannis (Antetokounmpo), is really good at bringing the basketball. That's something I want to be a part of him, when he rebounds the basketball, to bring it out on the dribble. He's very skilled in that area.
"Yeah, he's going to make some mistakes. But I'm willing to live with it. That's going to be a big part of his development in learning to play with his mistakes."
Managing Antetokounmpo's learning curve won't be an easy task given his complete lack of experience against top talent, and John Hammond has spoken regularly of the Bucks' desire to shield the 18-year-old from overexposure. Personally, I'm not expecting him to be ready for any meaningful minutes this coming season, but with Carlos Delfino's return from injury uncertain, Antetokounmpo may get some opportunities to play earlier than the Bucks might otherwise prefer.
Either way, it's nothing if not encouraging to see the coach thinking about his players' long-term development--and being willing to live with the consequences of helping them learn on the job. Expectations are a big part of it of course. Drew doesn't have the same pressure to win this season that Skiles faced every year after the the Fear the Deer run, and the organization in general seems to be leaning more towards development than in any other season during John Hammond's tenure.
All of these are good things. While the Bucks have seen a number of their youngsters develop into quality rotation players over the past few years, they've also struggled to balance that with the desire for near-term competitiveness. It's one of the NBA's classic debates: is it better to give players a chance to make mistakes and learn in game situations or give them a shorter leash and make them "earn" all their minutes? Normally that's our cue for a Tobias Harris conversation, but Larry Sanders, John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova also struggled to find consistent minutes at various times under Skiles. Sanders and Ilyasova eventually found their bearings, but I'm not sure we can credit that to the inspiration of watching Drew Gooden, Luc Mbah a Moute and Marquis Daniels play ahead of them at times.
In short, Drew has his work cut out for him: win enough games to keep things respectable and make the product fun to watch, all while giving his young players the combination of instruction and latitude to make major strides on the court. That's easier said than done, and Drew's ability to talk a good game won't guarantee anything come November. Still, Drew seems to have the mindset most fans were hoping for, and that should let us all feel a little bit better in October, right?