The Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics are wrapped up in a tight race for the last two spots in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, and as of March 19 it is Milwaukee on the outside looking in. The recent blockbuster trade for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh is a clear signal from GM John Hammond that the organization is targeting a playoff run in the short-term as the primary goal. It's not going to be easy. For the first time in two years -- March 5, 2010 to March 14, 2010 -- the Bucks have managed string together five straight wins.
Boston is a roster still loaded with disciplined veterans like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rando who have clear roles on the team, so they feel safe to me. Even though the Celtics are just 8-15 against teams over .500, the Knicks are just 8-14 under those circumstances and the Bucks lag behind at 6-17. The Knicks present a more vulnerable foe. Let me explain.
For starters, there is a legitimate debate that Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are incompatible superstars. The days of Jeremy Lin dominating the ball in high pick-and-roll are long gone now that Mike Woodson has taken over for Mike D'Antoni. Expect the offense to run through Melo and STAT, but know that ever since the schedule has gotten tougher, the Knicks have dipped back under the league average in offensive efficiency and have the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA. The more unnerving thing for New York is that they have played the easiest schedule of an NBA team to-date, so it's not going to lighten up down the stretch. Can the Bucks catch their wounded prey?
Some aspects of the race look better than others. As long as you are willing/able to forget that it might all lead to a very embarrassing first round matchup against the Chicago Bulls, where the Bradley Center continues its second life as United Center North, there is some measure of hope. Efficiency differential shows the Bucks (-1.48) are a less complete team than the Knicks (+1.6) at the moment, but Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh are warm bodies added to the mix while Stephen Jackson and Andrew Bogut exit as non-entities.
The infusion of healthy talent into Milwaukee could swing the balance, but it might rely more on Udoh than Ellis. For most of his career Ellis hasn't been an efficient scorer, so with the Bucks already producing at a slightly above-average level on offense (+1.5) he might not bump that up significantly unless somehow he and Jennings become greater than the sum of their parts -- both Jennings and Ellis are below-average relative to team TS% and league average TS%.
On the other hand, Udoh could easily improve the No. 23 defense in the NBA (-3.0) if he is anywhere near as good as his adjusted +/- stats suggest. All the Bucks need to do to catch the Knicks is to level out on defense and get back the middle, because then the offense can get the job done on a more consistent basis. Can they ramp up the defense despite playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the NBA? It's an interesting issue that should be interesting to watch down the stretch.
Finally, I've switched back to a look at the percentage of shots a team takes from each distance on the floor, because the Bucks are playing with fire by pairing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt. Both take a ton of shots, and both often settle for long shots (only Kobe Bryant takes more long twos per game than Monta), so will they find a way to get the Bucks into the paint against motivated teams and good defenses? That's a huge key for making a run to the playoffs and competing if they get there, so be sure to keep an eye on how these numbers change (if at all) over the last few weeks. I will likely be tracking it more closely in a separate series as well, so just get the idea in your mind now.
To see how the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks stack up against the rest of the league, take a look below: