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Back in black: The good and bad of the Bucks' first 29 games

In every game preview we list the Bucks' offensive and defensive efficiency stats, and for tomorrow's game against the Jazz you may notice something a bit peculiar: the Bucks are on average outscoring their opponents.  On the strength of their recent string of blowouts, the Bucks are back in the black for the first time since they beat the Knicks and Wizards in early November: 2,832 points for, 2,830 points against.  And that's in spite of their brutal schedule, which has featured 18 games away from home and eight back-to-backs.  All in all, pretty encouraging stuff for a team that few experts viewed as a playoff contender.

As we've noted a number of times around these parts, scoring differential is typically a better predictor of future performance than even past won-loss record.  Why?  Well, it's been shown that close games in the NBA are mostly coin-flips--the better teams differentiate themselves by winning blowouts, not close games.  Over time, even the best teams don't do much better than average in close contests.  Which is why point differential can be used to calculate a (luck-adjusted) "expected winning percentage" that you can find at Basketball Reference and KnickerBlogger among others. Teams that have won more than their share of close games have higher actual winning percentages than expected winning percentages, while the tough-luck teams see the opposite. 

For some historical reference, consider that the Bucks' 05/06 playoff team started 17-11 due largely to a record-breaking 13-0 record in games decided by six points or less.  As much as Bucks fans hoped that their club simply "knew" how to win close games, the rest of the season showed it was mostly luck: the Bucks went 7-13 in their remaining close games and barely snuck into the playoffs.   Last year, I wrote a far-too-optimistic column after the Bucks started 7-4, but at least I had the decency to note the Bucks were winning despite a way out-of-whack differential.  Again, the Bucks' true quality was reflected more in their blowout losses (which continued to crop up with stunning regularity after the good start) than their propensity to win close games early on.

The good news is that the Bucks' expected winning percentage is now .502, which actually places them fifth in the (luck-adjusted) East standings.  The bad news is that expected winning percentage has exactly zero impact on the actual standings, where the Bucks still rank ninth and a game back of the Bulls for the final playoff spot.  Still, with 53 games left there's ample time to make up for that. So, what's gone right and wrong so far?

Defense: Pretty good...seriously.

Really!  With the eighth-lowest points per possession mark in the league, the Bucks are actually playing defense, especially compared to last year when they ranked dead last out of 30 teams.  Individually, only Luc Mbah a Moute really stands out as a great defender, but as a unit there's actual cohesiveness: guys help when it's needed, every shot is challenged, and with the second-best defensive rebound rate in the league, they also minimize second chances. 

The latter might be the most important factor, because the Bucks still show some problems defending one-on-one.  They have the worst FT/FG ratio in the league (ie they foul the hell out of opponents) and their eFG% allowed is 12th in the league--good but not great.

Using 82games' opponent PER metric, they do an OK-to-solid job defending every position, their best ranking at SG (#8) and their worst at point guard (#17).  That seems to mesh reasonably well with what we've seen on the court, and in general it's difficult to hope for much more.  Even with Skiles' track record of success, making the Bucks an elite defensive team immediately seemed virtually impossible: too many bad habits and not enough individual defenders. 

While Joe Alexander's development has been slow, the drafting of Mbah a Moute in the second round already appears nothing short of genius.  Mbah a Moute already appears to be one of those rare players who can competently defend almost any position--quick and long enough to keep up with perimeter types, wiry-strong and wily enough to hold his own against bigger players. For a guy who picked up basketball fairly late, it's amazing how instinctive he is defensively.  There was an interesting interview with Kelvin Sampson in November where he described Mbah a Moute as the player in camp whose effort and tenacity gave them an identity defensively. Granted the Bucks didn't defend at all last year, but that's still a massive compliment for a young player who most assumed wouldn't play at all as a rookie.

Richard Jefferson has also recaptured some of the toughness that he showed early in his career, and Charlie Villanueva is no longer the huge liability he once was.  Give each guy credit for showing increased dedication, but the majority of the kudos belong to Skiles.

Offense: Bad, but getting a bit better

At the moment, the Bucks' offense is exactly where it was at the end of last season: 21st in the NBA.  Stil, their actual points-per-game number is slightly higher because they're playing at a faster pace (11th vs. 17th)--hardly surprising given that Larry Krystkowiak emphasized a half-court style while Scott Skiles has always run an up-tempo, shoot-it-if-you're-open style of offense.   And considering that the 07/08 Bucks didn't seem to be expending any of their energy defensively last year, the sub-standard offensive efficiency is far more tolerable this year since the defense is so improved. 

Just as with the defense, it's rebounding that is largely keeping the offense afloat.  The Bucks are just 26th in eFG% and middle-of-the-pack in FT/FG, but third in offensive rebound rate--they corral 30.2% of their own misses.

Another difference this year is balance, though the stats are a bit deceptive since Michael Redd has missed half of the Bucks' games thus far.  Six players average in double figures with no one getting more than Redd's 18.9 ppg and 15.4 shots/game in 35.4 mpg.  To put that in perspective, Redd averaged 17.3 fga in 37.5 mpg last year and 19.3 fga in 38.4 mpg the year before.  So Redd continues to shoot less and he's also been passing more of late, with five straight games of four or more assists.  Still, Redd is the Bucks' most gifted scorer, so he should also be scoring much more efficiently given his newfound penchant for forcing less shots.  As of now his TS% is at .538, which is below the .574, .586, and .559 numbers he put up with greater volume the past three seasons. And if he's not scoring efficiently relative to his volume, then why is he making $15.78 million?  That's a question John Hammond is hopefully grappling with as we speak.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Andrew Bogut has not been a bigger part of the offense, his fga declining from 11.7 last year to just 8.6 fga this season--less than Redd, Jefferson, Villanueva, Ridnour and Sessions.  Part of the thesis behind trading Mo Williams was of course to get Bogut more shots, but there are a few reasons that hasn't happened so far.  For one, Bogut's minutes have been down because of foul trouble while nagging injuries to his knee and back have also hampered his movement.

He's also often struggled with double-teams, turning the ball over at a much higher rate--which both prevents him from getting shots off as well as further encouraging teams to double him.  And as much as Mo was practically reviled for his scoring prowess, he also got Bogut plenty of dunks, especially off pick-and-roll and with his probing moves to the baseline.  It wasn't exactly textbook, but Mo always seemed good at getting under the basket and then finding a cutting Bogut down the middle for the dunk.  Ridnour struggles to beat his man off the dribble, meaning fewer cheapies for Bogut, though they seem to be improving in that regard.  Still, this year Bogut's dunks are down to 0.92/game, compared to 1.31 a year ago.  Even so, Bogut's fg% is up to .567, though the free throw line continues to be a major worry.  The light schedule this week will hopefully allow Bogut to heal up a bit.

The Bench: Surprisingly decent

Lastly, the bench has actually been respectable, ranking fourth in the NBA in points/game (35.0) and middle-of-the-pack in overall +/-.  Injuries and Skiles' willingness to toy with different lineups mean the Bucks don't have a well-defined rotation, and Skiles' meritocratic (and occasionally random) style of awarding PT mean we're probably unlikely to see one.  At the beginning of the year depth seemed an obvious achilles heel, but the contributions of Charlie Villanueva (discussed in greater detail here) and Ramon Sessions have been major boosts. 

From a productivity standpoint it's difficult to justify Ridnour's huge playing time edge over Sessions, who's seen his minutes dip lately as Ridnour and Tyronn Lue (shooting 65% from three) have also seen more of the court. At least Ridnour has been playing better lately, somewhat rewarding Skiles' patience.  It still looks like Sessions is the long-term answer at PG, however.

Conclusion: Playoff contention--why not? 

Barring a major injury to Andrew Bogut, the Bucks certainly have reason to believe they can contend for one of the final Eastern playoff spots.  They seem to have figured out the defensive end reasonably well and have enough offensive weapons to be a 40-win team...though I've been a Bucks fan long enough to know that banking on even an average record is probably a bit aggressive.  Still, the glass half full view would emphasize that they've been about a .500 team even with substandard production from Redd and just solid production from Jefferson and Bogut, and no one for that matter seems to be playing out of their heads. You never know what to expect from Villanueva and both Sessions and Mbah a Moute have had the ups and downs you might expect from young players, but it doesn't seem like mean reversion should be a problem. 

Still, while the hand-wringing among Bucks fans usually focuses on Redd, the obvious truth is that a core of Bogut, Redd, and Jefferson isn't enough to contend anyway.  The Celtics and Cavs look untouchable atop the East for the next couple years, so the all-or-nothing fan could reasonably suggest that there's no point paying Redd and Jefferson a combined $29 million, $31 million, and $33 million each of the next three years--especially when they're not producing close to their paygrade. To that end, I think Ty has some very good arguments for trading Redd specifically.

For the short term I think patience could be a virtue, however.  It's been a long time since the Bucks have had any type of continuity, and a decent season is a necessary starting point for becoming something more than that.  The Bucks are fighting for relevancy in Milwaukee right now, and wih a new arena needed in the not-so-distant future, they have to right the ship...even if that ship isn't a title contender.  Don't expect the Bucks to ignore trade offers for Redd or Jefferson, as they're simply not good enough for that sort of treatment.  But Hammond could have dumped Redd for picks and expiring contracts to Cleveland last summer and opted to dump Williams instead.  No one is likely to offer more than that for Redd now, so I wouldn't expect to see Redd dealt this season unless a) the Bucks really become concerned about their 09/10 luxury tax situation (possible) b) the team's level of play drops off notably (possible) or c) Redd's market value unexpectedly rises (highly unlikely).