On Wednesday, the SB Nation network is reviewing each team's biggest surprises in the season's first month.
Even with Monday's loss in Charlotte taking some of the shine off their Central Division-leading start, your 6-3 Milwaukee Bucks still qualify as one of the league's pleasant surprises--at least for now. And as you'd expect from any small sample, there's been no shortage of surprises and outliers--both good and bad--to be found in the Bucks' first nine games. Most have been good, some have been...well, not so good.
Larry Sanders and the tube man revolution
The Bucks' most obvious improvement has been on the defensive end, where--even factoring in some dicey performances over the last two games--the Bucks rank in the top ten in overall efficiency and first in defensive rebound rate. Even with Andrew Bogut long gone, the Bucks have essentially recaptured the essence of what made them a top five defensive team in both 09/10 and 10/11: pressure the ball to force turnovers (pre-shot defense) and rebound the ball to minimize second chances (post-shot defense). They're still struggling to force opponents into missing their first shot (25th in eFG% allowed) and they continue to foul too much (27th in FT/FGA), but the general idea is quite familiar.
And while it's not altogether surprising that the Bucks have cleaned up their act on the boards and (to a fair extent) on the defensive end overall, the inspiration behind that change was not entirely predictable. Though summer acquisition Samuel Dalembert has started every game alongside incumbent power forward Ersan Ilyasova, the Bucks' best basketball has generally come with bench big men Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh on the court. The crazy length of Sanders, Udoh and understudy John Henson has also provided us our favorite nickname/NBA meme of the season thus far: the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men. Good play and a fun nickname? What more could you want?
For Sanders in particular, improvement has been driven by simplicity rather than diversification--a refreshing breath of fresh air in a league where every big man seems intent on playing more like a guard. His finishing at the rim has bumped to a more big man-like 66% (from 58%) while his conversion rate from 3-9 feet has tripled to 71% (from 24%). Though he's still liable to hoist the occasional jumper or put the ball on the floor once a game, it's no longer preventing him from being an effective offensive player--even if it means acknowledging that he'll never be more than a DeAndre Jordan-style garbage man. Cutting down on his turnovers would be the next major step, though I'm not sure we'll ever see him shake his penchant for moving screens or fumbling passes; he's gotten better at the latter, but you can't simply teach a guy to have terrific hands.
And let's be honest: while we all love seeing Larry score more effectively, his real value will always be driven by his abilities on the defensive end. There's nothing disciplined about what Larry does here; his comfort zone seems to exist only on the boundary between chaotic brilliance and utter lunacy. His foul rate remains astronomically and obnoxiously high (5.0 fouls in less than 25 mpg!), he takes hard fouls with aplomb and he'll argue his way into a technical, well, just because. Watching film of Sanders' defense is like watching a hyperactive man-child playing a human-sized game of whack-a-mole.
And damn is it entertaining--and increasingly effective as well. It's not clear if he can sustain it for a full season, but at the moment Sanders' rebounding has gone from below average (40th out of 52 centers in def rebound rate last year) to elite (6th this year in both DRR and overall rebound rate). And naturally he continues to block shots at a rate few in the NBA can match (2nd among all players playing >20 mpg in blocks/min), while using his long strides to cover acres of space and erase positional mistakes--both his own and his teammates'. The long-term question is whether Sanders can find a more optimal balance between the good disruption and the bad disruption; can he challenge shots and rebound at a high rate without fouling out in under 30 minutes? Can he cut down on his turnovers and manage his emotions more effectively? It won't be easy, but the "Lar-ry!" chants that now regularly fill the Bradley Center suggest that we'll enjoy the ride regardless.
When will Ersan's struggles end?
Unfortunately, surprises aren't always good things.
While Sanders may finally be figuring things out, no Buck player looks as lost right now as Ersan Ilyasova--with "lost" being a rather charitable way to put it. Slow starts aren't unfamiliar territory for the Bucks' 25-year-old power forward, as he lost the starting power forward gig early last season as well. But Ilyasova eventually bounced back in a way few could have expected, putting together a fantastic final three months of the season and earning $32 million in guaranteed money in the process.
Superficially, Ilyasova's struggles might seem rooted in his jump shot. His three point accuracy has cratered from an elite 45.5% last year to just 27.8% thus far, while his conversion rate on long twos has fallen to 27% after three straight seasons above 40%. But focusing on his jump shot ignores how poorly Ilyasova has played in other facets of the game. Ersan's offensive rebound rate has dropped by about half and his overall rebound rate is below his positional average for the first time in his career. Ilyasova's lack of offensive rebounds has translated into fewer easy baskets (4.1 fga at the rim per game last season, 2.6 this year), and he's also been remarkably ineffective at finishing when he has gotten the ball around the hoop. Remarkably, Ilyasova has made just 8/23 shots at the rim all season (34.8%).
The good news is that the Bucks have had the depth up front to mostly compensate for Ilyasova's early struggles, but that's not to suggest the Bucks can afford to start a sub-replacement level player for much longer. While there were huge questions over the summer about the sustainability of Ersan's improvement last season, there's also no question that he's nowhere near as bad as he's been over the past few weeks. And with a brutal stretch of games upcoming, the Bucks could really use Ilyasova to start proving it.