Rebounding woes leading to Bucks' offensive throes

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee's early-season rebounding struggles have seriously disrupted their offensive gameplan.

Up-tempo allows you to attack initially, and if the attack is not there, we can get into our offense. By pushing the basketball, by playing up-tempo, we have more time to get into a half-court set, to explore more options with more time on the shot clock.

That quote, courtesy of an interview with coach Larry Drew by Bucks.com's Alex Boeder, offers a slightly different take on the familiar up-tempo offense, highlighting a wrinkle in Drew's system that differentiates it from a true run-and-gun offense. While Drew favors an up-tempo attack, he doesn't want to be transition-or-bust. To him, up-tempo can simply mean fast-moving half-court sets, featuring rapid ball swings and constant player movement. Drew's Bucks should always be looking for good shots, but the idea is to create those shots as quickly as possible.

It stands to reason, then, that ranking 28th in the NBA in pace isn't something Drew is particularly thrilled about. As Alex pointed out in his interview, Drew's Atlanta teams improved their pace ranking every year under his coaching. And there's no reason to believe Milwaukee's roster, as currently constructed, won't up their average as the season progresses. There are other NBA teams looking to slow the pace who have averaged more possessions purely by chance--we're only talking about two or three games here, after all.

What's kept the Bucks from executing their preferred up-tempo style? A chain reaction of mistakes and poor execution which has manifested primarily in some truly awful rebounding metrics. The Bucks currently rank 27th in offensive rebound rate and, more importantly for our purposes here, 29th in defensive rebound rate. They are allowing an offensive rebound on more than one third of their opponents missed shots, an overwhelming figure for a defense that has been above-average in terms of opponent shooting numbers.

Conventional wisdom says you can't push the pace if you're always taking the ball out of your own basket, and that seems to be holding true with the 2013 Bucks. Why are they struggling so much on the defensive glass? Basically a perfect storm of poor execution and bad luck. For starters, most of their primary rebounders are in significant slumps right now. Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, and Larry Sanders have all taken significant steps back from last season for any number of reasons: Ilyasova has been working back from an injury, Sanders has been plagued by foul trouble. And frankly, I can attest to seeing plenty of unlucky bounces rob these guys of rebounds through little fault of their own. Simple regression should boost the Bucks out of the basement, but poor boxing out remains too common a problem--opponents often have free runs to the basket because Milwaukee's bigs are just waiting for the ball to come off the rim and ignoring their assignments.

Improvement on the boards alone isn't going to fix the offense, even if it's likely to help. There's also the issue of what happens when Milwaukee actually gets a rebound. None of their big men are known as particularly good outlet passers (though Pachulia is decent), making it hard to get into transition without awkward extra passes. And it hasn't helped that the Bucks are missing their top two point guards, particularly the speedy and athletic Brandon Knight.

Poor rebounding derailed Milwaukee's push for a higher playoff seed last season. While they started off as one of the best boarding teams in the NBA, by season's end they were 28th on the defensive glass. The addition of Pachulia (the one bright spot on the boards this season) should help, but they'll also need better production from their guards and wings. A stronger perimeter defense would also help--last season, Milwaukee gave up the most field goal attempts at the rim per game, shots that carry higher than usual offensive rebound rates.

We're still sitting squarely in the realm of small sample sizes, but the problems are no less real. Milwaukee needs Larry Sanders to get his fouling under control and nearly everybody needs to show more focus on finishing defensive possessions. There are a lot of issues to fix in this young season, but better rebounding would go a long way toward getting things back on track.

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