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What's Working, What's Not - 1/1/12

We're back with the first installment of this season's "What's Working, What's Not?" series, in which we take a look at what the Milwaukee Bucks are doing well and where they need to improve. This week features Brandon Jennings' improvement at the rim, Stephen Jackson's rough week, and the dreaded third quarter.

What's Working?

Brandon Jennings' finishing
Most every NBA fan has seen enough of Brandon Jennings to be familiar with his offensive struggles. After two seasons of observation, most of those fans have discovered that his biggest problem lies not in his mid-range game, but at the rim. The main thing holding Jennings back from improving his efficiency has been poor shooting at the basket. Jennings improved from 43% in his rookie season to 51% at the rim last year, and through 3 games this season he's shooting 9-13 (69%) from point blank. While his overall shooting numbers are being depressed by an early-season cold streak from behind the arc, he's still posting a true shooting percentage of 57.8, almost ten points above his mark from last season and comfortably above the typical point-guard average (around 53%). Continued success at the rim combined with smart and aggressive moves to the hoop could turn Jennings into a very successful offensive player.

Pre-Shot Defense
I make an arbitrary distinction between "pre-shot" and "post-shot" defense here because the Bucks have excelled at the former while the latter hasn't been up to expectations. The Bucks currently boast the second-best defensive rating in the NBA (95.2 points per 100 possessions according to Basketball-Reference) thanks largely to outstanding field goal defense (second in the NBA) and defensive turnover rate (fourth). In fairness, Milwaukee's first three opponents all fall within the bottom ten in terms of offensive rating, but the degree to which the Bucks have stifled the opposition remains impressive. Milwaukee is currently below average in defensive rebounding and opponent free-throw rate, but both should improve (or at least regress to the mean) as the season continues.

What's Not?

The Third Quarter
As CanadaBucks recently pointed out, the Bucks currently have a +43 point differential in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th quarters combined but are -30 in third quarters. It's tempting and convenient to blame that differential on poor halftime adjustments or a lack of energy out of the break, but it could also be completely random. If it really is a failure on the part of the coaching staff, they had best work things out before the upcoming Western road trip. Just for fun, consider that Milwaukee's current Pythagorean Winning Percentage is 0.76 (whoa!). If we remove the third quarter entirely, it shoots up to 0.93.

Stephen Jackson
I hate to pick on one guy like this, especially after only three games in a year with a shortened training camp, but Stephen Jackson has been a minor mess through his first week in Milwaukee. It's easy to point out his 30% shooting or 4.8 turnovers per 40 minutes. Those numbers are going to get better as Jackson plays more, but there's no denying he's struggled. Milwaukee has gotten offensive contributions from all over the roster, but the man they brought in specifically to be a leader--a go-to scorer capable of bailing out a sluggish squad--has had a hard time even staying on the court. Jackson's 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes is another product of his limited playing time, but it's also the most damning number of all. Those fouls have relegated Jackson to the bench for long stretches, killing whatever offensive rhythm he might have and making him a constant target on defense. Jackson needs to stop pulling up for so many perimeter shots and get back to the aggressive playmaking he was supposed to bring to Milwaukee. We saw flashes against the Wizards, so hopefully those were signs of things to come.