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Milwaukee Bucks top training camp storylines #3: Can the defense bounce back?

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We're counting down the top 5 storylines surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks as they go through training camp. At #3, we ask if the defense can bounce back from a disappointing 2011-2012 season. Will the new additions fix the problems of last year?

Mary Langenfeld-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Scott Skiles effect is well documented.

  1. Struggling franchise fires coach, hires Skiles.
  2. Skiles injects much-needed intensity and work ethic into roster and practice habits.
  3. Defense improves thanks to improved scheme and heightened effort.

The formula held true for the Milwaukee Bucks. In 2007-2008, Larry Krystkowiak's Bucks gave up an astounding 112.8 points per 100 possessions, dead last in the NBA. The year before, the Bucks ranked 29th in the NBA with a 111.7 defensive rating.

Enter Scott Skiles, and goodbye matador defense. In Skiles' first season, the Bucks' DRtg dropped five points and jumped all the way to 15th in the league. The next season (the year of Fear the Deer), another four-point drop bumped the Bucks all the way to second in DRtg. The Bucks stifled their opponents thanks in large part to a breakout season from Andrew Bogut in which he ranked 7th in defensive win shares. But it wasn't just Bogut. The Bucks got solid defensive play from nearly every position. Brandon Jennings was a surprisingly well-rated defender as a rookie, and John Salmons provided some physicality on the perimeter after his acquisition. Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, and even Ersan Ilyasova all tallied at least 3 defensive win shares that season. And while Skiles' third season was a significant disappointment, the defense bore little of the blame. The team's defensive rating dropped another point and remained 4th in the NBA.

Last season, however, the trend reversed. Milwaukee's defensive rating jumped by three points, but a depressed offensive environment (thanks, lockout) made the drop far more striking. The Bucks went from top-4 to below-average on defense. They couldn't rebound and they fouled too much. The absence of Andrew Bogut for much of the year necessitated a timeshare at center, split up between an out-of-position Drew Gooden and various lanky forwards. It wasn't the disaster of the pre-Skiles era, but it was striking given what many had come to expect from a Skiles defense.

The Bucks have made little secret of their offseason priorities. Their pre-draft trade for Houston center Samuel Dalembert filled the most glaring defensive hole on the roster. John Henson was a defensive-slanted draft choice. And the recent signing of veteran wing Marquis Daniels was a defensive-minded move.

So the team has its priorities in order. While the offense wasn't elite, it made major strides last season, and after the Ellis addition, it was actually quite productive. The team seems confident that improvement is sustainable.

So what were the major issues plaguing the defense last season? First and foremost, they couldn't rebound. The Bucks dropped from 8th in defensive rebound percentage in 2011 to 25th in 2012. Part of the problem was the personnel they had at their disposal. Drew Gooden was signed to be a rebounder and scorer next to Andrew Bogut, not in his stead. And while he held up reasonably well (just a .5 reb/48min deficit while playing the 5), the Bucks backed him up with a number of poor rebounders.

If there's an individual element of the game Milwaukee's crop of power forwards needs to work on in camp, it's rebounding. Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders have been poor rebounders for the entirety of their young careers, limiting the time their teams can afford to leave them on the court. John Henson had strong rebounding numbers in college, but he's likely to get knocked around by the bigger players he'll face in the pros (for reference, Jon Leuer was also a good rebounder in college, and his inability to hold a box out killed his playing time...grumble...).

It's not just on the players, though. Skiles is often (and somewhat inaccurately) associated with slo-mo offenses, but last year the Bucks made every effort to turn games into track meets. That means wing players were increasingly likely to leak out on defensive possessions, increasing run-out opportunities at the expense of rebound coverage. More minutes for the team's best rebounders (Ilyasova and Dalembert, presumably) and a few wings who excel on the boards should allow the Bucks to take such risks from time to time, but it will be important to strike a balance.

The Bucks' other big problem was an inability to keep opponents away from the basket. They allowed the 5th-most attempts at the rim per game last season at over 26 per. The only thing that saved Milwaukee from disaster in that regard was their ability to contest close shots; the Bucks were 6th-best in opponent FG% at the rim, likely a testament to their many shot blockers. The obvious targets for blame here are Milwaukee's perimeter players. Jennings has left his early reputation as a plus defender behind, becoming more gambler than stopper. Adding Monta Ellis hardly helped, and Beno Udrih has a poor defensive reputation as well. The Bucks paired two guys who love diving into passing lanes but are less enthusiastic about fighting through screens. This gave opponents ample opportunities to drive or pass into the paint. Again, a fast-paced style of play can make it tough for both defenses to adequately control ball-movement, but Milwaukee's guards didn't typically offer much resistance.

Overall the roster certainly doesn't boast as much defensive talent as it used to. Dalembert's career numbers offer hope he'll be a capable replacement for Andrew Bogut, and Marquis Daniels will pair with Luc Mbah a Moute to give the Bucks a pair of perimeter stoppers. But the team needs to refocus as much as retool. Skiles is known as a defensive wiz, but he had a tough task in front of him last season. With much more to work with in terms of ability, as well as far more time to perfect his scheme, Skiles will be expected to turn things around quickly. A failure to do so might be considered little more than an indictment of the roster, perhaps rightfully so. But it could also be the herald of darker things to come--another item on the list of perennial factors holding the Milwaukee Bucks back from their ultimate goal.