The "What's Working" half of this post might've gotten a lot more emphasis if not for a disheartening loss in Charlotte last night. Instead, the Bucks will have to be content with a small lead over the Bulls in the Central Division and a 6-3 record entering a stretch of games we've been anticipating (fearing?) all season. The Bobcats' comeback was tough to swallow, but there's still plenty of good stuff happening in Milwaukee, and we don't want to overreact to one loss just because of timing, especially not when the Bucks played relatively poorly and still only lost by four points.
Steve has recently delved into the depths of Milwaukee's roster in hopes of identifying the players and lineups who have been helping or hurting the Bucks most of late. Now let's look at the team as a whole and identify what elements of the game they've excelled at and what's been contributing to some lackluster play.
They See Me Rollin'. The Bucks are using the pick and roll more often this season than they did last year, finishing 21.1% of their plays out of that set versus 19.5 in 11/12. And while they're scoring at about the same clip, they're doing it in a very different fashion: the Bucks' bigs are dunking as much as possible. Both Samuel Dalembert (14 dunks) and Larry Sanders (12) find themselves in the top-20 on the NBA slam leaderboard. 46.4% of the total made shots between those two have been dunks, and 78% have come at the rim. That's a pretty seismic shift from the Ilyasova/Gooden pair that dominated Milwaukee's P&R possessions last season, a pair that recorded 45% of their made baskets at the rim.
That the Bucks' pick and roll game has remained mostly stagnant efficiency-wise with last year despite that shift inside should lend some optimism to the future. Close shots are nearly always preferable to the jumpers Milwaukee relied on via the pick and pop game last season, especially since they're more likely to draw fouls--the Bucks drew shooting fouls on 8.8% of roll man attempts last season, but that number has jumped to 12.7% this year. If the Bucks' screeners continue to roll to the hoop aggressively (and the ball handlers keep looking for them at the hoop), their scoring efficiency should improve correspondingly. Effective pick and roll plays do wonders for the rest of the unit as well, and it's showing in the Bucks' statistical profile: according to HoopData, the Bucks rank 6th in the NBA in Expected Effective Field Goal Percentage. Basically, their shot selection should yield positive results as everybody regresses toward league averages, because they're maximizing attempts in the high-efficiency regions of the court. Evidently it's not just the guards who benefit from forgoing some of those long jumpers.
Mind Games. There was quite a bit of backlash against Scott Skiles after Monday's loss, particularly in regards to the Bucks' poor offensive execution over the final six minutes. Not hard to understand, considering that stretch featured such gems as Samuel Dalembert pulling up for a foul-line jumper off a pick-and-roll, or an off-balance (though reasonably wide-open) three-point attempt by Monta Ellis in the final seconds when the Bucks were down two. And while it's unfair to simply blame Skiles when the offense grinds to a halt late in a game, the visible plan did warrant a little second guessing (do you really want to hold for the last shot down two with 19 seconds left?).
But head coaches aren't the ones out there playing the game, and Milwaukee's players have made their fair-share of bad decisions lately. Larry Sanders is as energetic as ever on defense, but instead of picking up fouls challenging shots, he's reaching in after rebounds or barreling down the lane (and through his defender) off the dribble. The former we can live with, the latter two are killer.
The Bucks got where they are with smart play, featuring lots of ball movement and great communication. Perhaps nobody benefited more than Brandon Jennings, whose offense looked as good as ever thanks to a determined avoidance of shots that Jon McGlocklin would label as "tough". Then against Charlotte, it was back to crazy drives and scoop shots that were lucky to even draw iron.
We've spent a great deal of time discussing Milwaukee's wide-open style and how it benefits their personnel. But that style always had some measure of control, where every player knew where to go and what to do when he got there. That crispness has softened a bit on both ends lately, turning blowouts into nail-biters and wins into losses. It feels like something easily fixed, and Skiles is a good bet to drill things to death. Just don't make the mistake of conflating subtlety with irrelevance.