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Mapping the Bucks' road to 50 wins

If you were to come up with a list of numbers that would mean the most to the 2010/2011 Milwaukee Bucks, where would you start?

Andrew Bogut playing 82 games would be a good one. How about Brandon Jennings shooting north of 40% from the field (or perhaps 50% in true shooting terms)?  Damn, let's hope so.

But every number we come up with is really just a proxy for the most important number of all: wins. And after arguably the most fun season of the past two decades, it's hard to look back at those 46 wins without looking ahead and hoping for 50. Or...if we're being greedy, a few more.

So how exactly can the Bucks pull it off?

Let's begin by considering the 50-win question at its most basic level. Namely, how do you win one game? Sarcastic answer: score more points than the other team. But it turns out that starting with that most basic of concepts is actually a pretty good framework for understanding the more abstract question of how the 46-win Bucks of 09/10 become the 50+ win Bucks of 10/11.

In what should be completely unsurprising, scoring differential tends to be a fairly robust predictor of team success over the long term--and provides a good guide for how the Bucks have to improve in order to crack 50 wins. While some teams can win a high proportion of close games over a half season or even full season--the 05/06 Bucks were a great example of the former--in the long term the best teams differentiate themselves in the scoring column, not with magic pixie dust in the clutch. As John Hollinger once put it, great teams win blowouts, not close games, and even great teams don't show above average results in close games over multiple seasons. 

Which leads us to expected winning percentage, based on the Pythagorean relationship between points for and against. The basic concept is simple: the greater your share of the total points in a game, the greater your chance of winning the game. Based on a large sample of game data, the formula raises everything to the 14th power: (Points For)^14 / [(Points For)^14 + (Points Against)^14)]. Interestingly, the 09/10 Bucks had an expected winning percentage exactly equal to their actual winning percentage. Based on points for and against, we would have expected the Bucks to win 45.99975 games. Yay, math.

The stat is also nice in that it's based on proportions, so you can use any scoring stat and get the same answer. Total season points, average points per game, and pace-adjusted efficiency stats all reflect the same basic proportion of points for and against, so they all give you the same answer. 

The Math of 50 Wins

It follows then that the Bucks either need to score more or allow fewer points in order to reach 50 wins on an expected basis. Either strategy will do, but given the Bucks were already the second most efficient defense in the league, you might expect the more likely area of improvement will be on the offensive end, where the Bucks' ranked just 23rd in efficiency terms. So for illustrative purposes, let's assume the Bucks only improve on the offensive end. Holding their defensive numbers the same, you can then solve for the offensive efficiency or total points required to reach 50 wins (or a .610 winning percentage).

Beginning with the Bucks' 09/10 offensive (104.9) and defensive (103.1) points allowed per 100 possessions, we find that the Bucks would need to up their scoring to 106.4 pts/100 possessions in order to add four more wins on an expected basis.  In raw terms, the Bucks would need to bump up their scoring output by a little over 1.4 points per game, from 97.7 ppg to 99.1 ppg, assuming constant pace and the same 96.0 ppg allowed. To add another four wins beyond 50, the Bucks would have to score an additional 1.5 ppg. Improving defensively would have about the same effect. Note that because the expected win calculation involves exponentials, the relationship between incremental points and incremental wins doesn't scale linearly.

It's also interesting to use this method to compare teams from different eras. The '96 Bulls were the league's best on both ends, racking up an incredible 115.2 pts/100 while allowing just 101.8 pts/100 on defense. Still, their 13.4 pts/100 scoring differential (12.3 pts/game) "only" translates to 70 expected wins. The '71 Bucks (66-16) outscored opponents by an average of 12.2 pts/game, good for 67 expected wins, the same figure as the '72 Lakers that went a then-record 69-13.

The Challenge of Cracking 50

Using that approach, 50 wins seems plausible. Afterall, how hard can it be to add one more made basket per 100 possessions? Bumping up to 106.4 pts/100 possessions would have put the Bucks a still-below-average 20th in the league last year, so we're not demanding that they become an offensive juggernaut. 

Which is a good thing, because Scott Skiles knows it's not easy to be both a great offensive and defensive team. In his six full seasons of coaching with the Suns, Bulls and Bucks, Skiles' teams have finished 2nd, 2nd, 7th, 1st, 15th, and 2nd in defensive efficiency. But all that defense would seem to come with a tradeoff on the other end.  In those same seasons Skiles' teams have ranked just 22nd, 27th, 23rd, 21st, 23rd, and 23rd offensively. You could say Skiles just isn't a good offensive coach, but that ignores the tradeoffs involved with offense and defense. The Bucks exert more energy defensively than most teams, and their focus on finishing possessions defensively limited their fast break opportunities as well. It's easier to score when you're leaking out early on defense and crashing the boards extra hard on offense, but both will cost you defensively. And we all know where Skiles' comes out on that.

Skiles has cracked 50 wins only once in those six seasons (51-31 with the Suns in 00/01), though the 49-win 06/07 Bulls had the best expected record of any of his teams (55-27).  That owed to the incredible, league-best defense they played (99.6 pts/100 allowed), which more than compensated for their middling offense (21st).  It might seem like a lot to expect the Bucks to get to that level of defensive brilliance, but take a look at the Bucks after Salmons arrived and it paints an encouraging picture.

In the 30 games after the Salmons deal, the Bucks were 22-8, equating to a 60-win pace. The schedule may have been somewhat favorable as well, though 16 of 30 games at home isn't that big of a difference. Their expected winning percentage based on scoring differential was slightly worse but still excellent in that span, projecting to around 56 wins (106.5 pts/100 offensively, an even more outstanding 100.9 pts/100 defensively). And remember that those numbers also include the seven games that Bogut missed after his injury. With both Bogut and Salmons, they played at a 57-win pace--slightly worse on offense than without Bogut (105.4 off) but even more outstanding on defense (99.4). 

So What Gives in 10/11?

It's easy to look at the Bucks' gangbusters finish and the talent upgrades this summer and feel bullish about what's to come. In that sense, 50 wins may be the least of what we could expect from a reasonably healthy Bucks squad this coming season. Still, we also have to consider that Bogut may not be 100% to start the year, Salmons is a year older, and the Bucks will have to find a way to replace Luke Ridnour's backcourt productivity. Note how I phrased that last part--I don't think Ridnour himself would have been able to put together another career season had the Bucks kept him, but they still need to find someone to step up as the Bucks' second unit scoring ace.  Fortunately, Corey Maggette fits the profile of high-efficiency bench scorer perfectly--provided he actually comes off the bench. If you want efficient scoring on the wing, there aren't many better than Maggette.  And while most of the key rotation players are unchanged, the issue of chemistry can't be ignored either. 

Room for improvement on offense. From a four factors' perspective, the Bucks did well taking care of the ball and were middle of the pack as offensive rebounders, but they have more obvious room for improvement in terms of both shooting better (25th in eFG%) and drawing more fouls (dead last). Maggette is a big part of improving the latter, which is why he's always been a more reliable scorer than the jumper-dependent Ridnour.  Meanwhile, Jennings' epically bad shooting has been well-documented, and it's anybody's guess as to how much improvement we can expect. Even factoring in his good shooting from distance, he was last among all regular PG starters in true shooting percentage (even low-volume bricklayer Chris Duhon was better), and there's no way he can join the NBA's elite without dramatic improvement.

I'd be surprised if he ever becomes more than a middling efficiency guy, so I'm curious to see how much progress he can make this coming season. Much has been made of his horrid finishing around the cup, and he was also poor on long twos (34%), most likely thanks to all the fadeaway 20-footers he launched. More discretion and a year of learning the NBA game should help, as will a better supporting cast. And though scoring has often been viewed as Jennings' calling card, he's fortunately proven himself more capable as a defender and game manager. 

Still a chance to be better defensively? As noted earlier, the Bucks were already a fantastic defensive team a year ago, so there's not a lot of low-hanging fruit to go after on that end. Losing Kurt Thomas' rugged post defense hurts, but that's OK if Bogut plays 70+ games. Moreover, Larry Sanders and Drew Gooden give the Bucks some bigger bodies to match against post PFs, the kind that occasionally caused matchup problems a year ago. And as we saw in Vegas, Sanders could be a major spark-plug as an energetic shot-blocker and help defender, the kind we haven't seen in Milwaukee since Dan Gadzuric was actually good (seriously, four or five years ago he was). Jennings will also be a year older and Keyon Dooling, as much as he may be unable to replace Ridnour's scoring, should have no problem providing an upgrade on defense. 

So will this Bucks squad be the first in a decade to crack 50 wins? Looking at their performance down the stretch last spring as well as the talent upgrades this summer, it's hard to dispute that the opportunity is there. Still, all the old caveats about health (particularly that of Bogut), chemistry and young players getting better still apply.