After a tough 0-2 road trip against the Western Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks are currently settled in the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They're one half game behind the Boston Celtics in 7th, two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the 6th seed, and four games ahead of the 9th-place Philadelphia 76ers.
So yeah, pretty familiar territory.
The season began with surprising success, as the Bucks claimed victory in six of their first eight contests, including solid wins over the Celtics, Pacers, and 76ers. They stumbled a bit after the hot start, dancing around .500 before a late-January stretch pushed them 5 games above even. But since then they've lost four of five and now boast the worst record of any playoff team in the NBA.
Much will be decided about this team in the next two weeks, as John Hammond must take a firm stance on the club's direction. Will he swing a deal seeking help now in an effort to climb back up in the standings? Will he flip the roster for assets and look toward the future he now has an investment in planning for? Or will he stand pat, counting on the team to pick up their play and make a push?
All important questions, but for now our concern lies not in the future, but in the past. So let's see what we can conclude about the first half of the year, complete with the obviously-required letter grades.
A letter grade typically associated with an "average" level of performance might seem generous for an offense currently ranked 23rd in points per possession, but there have been bright spots from a number of guys on the roster. Ersan Ilyasova has shaken off a terrible early slump and now ranks 6th in the NBA in 3P% (43.6%), two spots below teammate Mike Dunleavy (44%). Brandon Jennings is cracking 37% from behind the arc for the first time since his rookie year. All told, the Bucks have risen all the way to 13th in 3P% (although they're still a bit below "average" because the top 6 teams are so much better than the rest).
Yet despite pretty solid three-point shooting, the Bucks are 26th in team true shooting percentage at 50.9%. The reason? Milwaukee is pretty bad at just about every other method of scoring. They don't draw enough free throws and they're just 25th in two-point percentage. Much of that is due to their 26th-ranking field-goal percentage at the rim (though they're top-10 in percentage of shots taken at the rim).
Unsurprisingly, all those criticisms fit equally well when ascribed to the Bucks' starting backcourt. Jennings is at his best when he's raining threes, but he's otherwise pretty limited, especially in the halfcourt. And frankly, Ellis has been even worse, since he takes over three deep shots per game and hits less than a quarter. When a team's offense is as dominated by two players as Milwaukee's is by their starting guards, it's no wonder it becomes little more than an extension of their best and worst qualities.
But yeah, bright spots. Larry Sanders learned how to catch the ball and is suddenly a legitimate pick-and-roll threat, capable of flushing even wayward lob passes with authority. Luc Mbah a Moute has shown off some nice aggression under the basket, though his overall offensive season could be described as little more than disastrous (seriously, have you looked at his numbers lately? I hadn't. Whoa.). John Henson has shown flashes, at times looking like the Bucks' best interior scorer.
Unfortunately there's just no getting around it: with Jennings still struggling around the basket and Ellis on pace for his least-efficient season ever, the Bucks' offense is capped at below-average. It'll take a roster shakeup or significant changes in play style (and efficacy) to change this.
The Bucks 103.7 DRtg is very good, but not quite elite. What's impressive is that the Bucks have maintained such a strong defense despite regularly running out a starting lineup featuring 3 below-average defenders. It speaks to a well-designed system, and even more to a truly dominant anchor (more on that later). The Bucks are among the best in the NBA at defending opposing shooters, 5th-best in defensive eFG%. What's incredible is that the Bucks don't really force teams into "bad" shots: according to HoopData, the Bucks' opponents (in aggregate) have the third-highest expected effective field-goal percentage in the NBA. This is likely due in large part to the high percentage of opposing shots that have come at the rim (a league-high 35.1%). But the Bucks are so good at defending every type of shot that it hasn't mattered. In fact, only the Pacers rank higher than Milwaukee in HoopData's "DRatio" metric, which measures how well a team defends the floor versus an "average" team.
That's all an admittedly complicated way of saying the Bucks are great at challenging and disrupting opponents' shot attempts. And nobody is better than Larry Sanders, who leads the NBA in blocks despite playing just 25 minutes per game. Sanders' mobility and length more than make up for his lack of bulk, allowing him to effectively defend the pick-and-roll, isolations, and post-ups alike. He's also transformed his rebounding from a liability into a key strength, though the Bucks as a whole have been terrible on the defensive glass for much of the year. All told, a combination of metrics point to Sanders as the best interior defender in the NBA.
The problems come on the perimeter, where Jennings and Ellis give up a lot of size to opponents and have a tendency to make bad gambles. I'll defend them a bit if I may, though: as our understanding of defense has evolved, steals have entered the realm of "so overrated they're underrated". With a backstop capable of erasing mistakes, allowing Jennings and Ellis to jump passing lanes is more of a favorable bet, since steals tend to ignite high-value offensive possessions. Even if they miss the steal and find themselves out-of-position, there's an opportunity for a runout if the Bucks can force a miss. Maybe it's not as reliable as less aggressive styles, but the benefit to the offense shouldn't be overlooked.
I'll be honest, the minus is just for continuity's sake. Realistically, there should be two grades here: one for Scott Skiles and one for Jim Boylan. There's little doubt Skiles hit his breaking point with this roster, a point that seems to have been inevitable in hindsight. He captained the team to a reasonably successful start, largely through continued excellence on the defensive end (he probably deserves a great deal of credit for Sanders' emergence), but also mystified fans with player rotations. His departure and the early returns from the Boylan era made a lot of fans exceedingly happy, and by most accounts things are better now than they were under Skiles. Boylan's reinstatement of Ersan as a starter and Dalembert as an anything have paid dividends, and there seems to be less tension on the roster. Skiles probably took too much heat for the problems in Milwaukee, but it becomes clearer and clearer every day that the change was probably for the best.
MVP: LARRY SANDERS!
All I really have to do is point out the mandatory capitalization-and-exclamation-point edict Larry Sanders' name now carries among the NBA blogosphere (Bucks blogs are exempt from this rule because we use his name so much and because we love him more than anybody). Nobody on the Bucks does anything as well as Sanders blocks shots, and the Bucks' DRtg is 8.1 points better with Sanders on the court. We're past "Most Improved Player candidate" and barreling toward "inevitable Defensive Player of the Year snub". Sanders not only anchors the Bucks' defense, his presence on the court has become crucial to the success of the offense (his on/off numbers still say the Bucks score more efficiently with him on the bench, but they've drastically improved from just a few weeks ago). Larry's redesigned offensive game gives the Bucks a solid pick-and-roll threat, forcing help defenders to rotate off of perimeter shooters. All the while Sanders has been showing off his trademark energy and personality (with the intensity turned down at least a bit). Brandon Jennings gets the headlines and might still be Milwaukee's most important player in the long run, but Sanders is every bit a fan favorite and a dominant force under the basket.
So what do you think? How would you grade the first half of Milwaukee's season? Got another candidate for MVP, or nominations for the other awards? Share them in the comments!