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How the Bucks might survive a brutal November

While the Bucks' 5-6 record isn't going to turn many heads in L.A. or New York, it's tough to complain given what they're up against: an obscene eight back-to-backs in the first month, 12 of the first 19 on the road, and seven games and counting without Michael Redd. Add in all the new faces and the team's miserable preseason performance, and it's difficult not to feel a bit relieved with what Scott Skiles and company have managed to pull off in the first eleven games. Then again, the Bucks have little time to pat themselves on the back, with six of their next eight on the road, including back-to-back road games in Denver and Utah.

Granted, the Bucks almost always provide fans a brief glimpse of promise in November, last year's 7-4 start being a prime example.  Even then there were some warning signs: the Bucks were winning close games and getting blown out in their losses (three of four came by 15+ points), tell-tale signs of a team that's been lucky rather than good. And over a full NBA season, it's always better to be good.

Statistically, the Bucks thus far have been neither lucky nor unlucky, as their point differential has them at an expected win% of .460 compared to their actual win% of .455.  For the most part they've beaten the bad teams and lost to the good ones, both home and road.  They've been slightly unlucky with Redd and now Charlie Villanueva on the sidelines, but neither injury is likely to be a long-term issue.

Is that...defense?  Though their penchant for cold shooting has seen them drop to 25th in offensive efficiency, the Bucks' 12th-ranked defense has kept them afloat.  That's right, 12th best in the entire league.  While the season is less than a month old, there's certainly reason to believe the Bucks can finish in the top half of the league defensively, a feat which hasn't occurred since...1991.  I'm not sure how a team can be below average defensively every year for 17 straight years, but somehow the Bucks have managed to pull off the feat.

While it's difficult to quantify individual defensive performance, 82games' opponent stats show that Villanueva is the only Buck regular who has allowed an opponent PER of over 14.4--which is pretty damn good.  With the exception of Jose Calderon, Ridnour and Sessions have generally managed to contain opposing PGs, but they'll face even stiffer tests this week with Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams.  On the wings, Jefferson and Mbah a Moute have generally done well against everyone not named LeBron, while Bogut continues to play the sort of solid defense that he showed last year.

Rebound, rebound, rebound.  For all their problems in 07/08, the Bucks were actually a decent rebounding team, so it's not a complete shock they would stack up fairly well in this department.  Still, are they really this good?  Let's take a look at rebound rate, which measures the percentage of available rebounds a team gets, thus normalizing for team pace and total available boards.  At the moment the Bucks rank second in offensive rebound rate (32.1%) and first in defensive rebound rate (76.8%), mainly because they're getting average to above-average rebounding from virtually every position (player rates are a % of all available rebounds while they're on the court).

Player Position Rebound Rate NBA Positional Rank
Andrew Bogut C 18.9 11/50
Charlie Villanueva PF 18.6 5/70
Luc Mbah a Moute SF 14.8 3/51
Joe Alexander SF 11.3 16/51
Richard Jefferson SF 8.8 31/51
Luke Ridnour PG 7.8 9/65
Ramon Sessions PG 6.5 25/65

Granted, some of these rankings are deceptive.  For one, Mbah a Moute has been getting more minutes as a PF lately and Sessions has been playing a fair bit of the 2 with Redd out.  Still, the rebounding provided by Bogut and Villanueva has been excellent and has somewhat mitigated their troubles in getting things going offensively.  But it's also important not to overlook someone like Ridnour, who doesn't put up big raw numbers yet consistently gets to rebounds more often than opposing PGs. 

Another question is how sustainable these numbers are.  Ridnour had sub-5.0 rebound rates the past two seasons and has never been better than 5.7, so his current rate seems somewhat unsustainable.  Bogut and Villanueva were at 16.5 and 15.0 respectively last year, so their current rates are also well above where they were last year, though it's hardly rare for young bigs to improve on the glass.  Jefferson used to be an excellent rebounder for a small forward--he was consistently around the 10-11 mark early in his career--but his rebound rate cratered to a paltry 6.2 last year.  So the glass half full view would say he's just getting back to where he should be.

They'll likely need to continue rebounding at a high rate to stay afloat as long as Redd and Villanueva are out, as recent games have seriously exposed their lack of scoring depth.  At the moment, Jefferson, Ridnour, Villanueva and Bell are all shooting 40% or less while only Bogut and Gadzuric are making more than half their shots. Hopefully some mean-reversion will kick in at some point, but even then the Bucks aren't likely to be offensive juggernauts.  As long as that is driven mostly by their focus on defending, that's OK, but if they're defense goes south it obviously will place extra pressure on the offensive end.

The kids are alright.  I'm not about to categorize the Bucks as a deep team--it's hard to feel good about a bench that features Malik Allen as the only "true" PF and Francisco Elson and Dan Gadzuric as the backup 5's.  But the Bucks have been given a major boost by the versatility of Sessions and Mbah a Moute, and Joe Alexander has also managed to move into the forward rotation of late. 

Sessions actually leads the Bucks in PER (18.32), but it's likely that he'll continue to come off the bench in the near term given he's much better at creating his own offense than Ridnour.  While the Bucks' starters haven't been great offensively by any stretch of the imagination, the bench is that much worse, so Sessions' ability to get to the rim helps noticeably.  With Redd sidelined there are plenty of minutes available for Sessions, who has been playing with Ridnour in the backcourt down the stretch anyway.  But Skiles will have an interesting decision to make once Redd is healthy--presumably Bogut, Redd, Jefferson, and Mbah a Moute will be on the court, but can Ridnour hang onto the point guard spot in crunch time?

As for Mbah a Moute, let the record show that he actually became the starter before Villanueva hurt his hamstring, and at the moment it's difficult to see why Skiles would change things up once Villanueva returns.  Mbah a Moute is simply a baller: just put him on the court and he'll find a way to help you.  While he's undersized for a 4, his boundless energy and athleticism allow him to be productive guarding either forward spot.  And though scouts were adamant that he could neither dribble nor shoot, he's shown a decent ability to put it on the floor along with a rather smooth 18-footer.  It's a bit strange that he never showed much improvement during his three years at UCLA, but Bucks fans can count their blessings that John Hammond, Dave Babcock and Scott Skiles were one step ahead of everyone else when they picked him 37th overall.  His finishing around the hoop could definitely use some work--21% of his inside shots have been blocked--but it's difficult to complain about a second rounder putting up 10.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg along with excellent defense.

And while Mbah a Moute has overshadowed eight overall pick Joe Alexander, the rookie from West Virginia has also benefited from increased minutes with Redd and now Villanueva's absences shortening the bench.   He clearly has a ways to go, particularly on the defensive end, but Alexander's shown good range, a very quick first step, and better-than-anticipated court vision thus far.  Everything he does seems to be at top speed, so one of the most important things he can do is learn when to slow down and when to go all out.  Either way, all the early talk in the preseason about Alexander being a bust is looking increasingly misplaced.