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Building the Bucks offense, pt. 3: O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal in isolation

In the third installment of our preview of the offense, we look at O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, and how the team may incorporate isolation plays into sets.

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The biggest question facing the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks is how an efficient and effective offensive attack can be built from their modest talent base. In part one of this series we attempted to rank the roster. In part two I extolled the virtues of Larry Drew's transition offense. Now it's time to deal with what happens when a transition opportunity isn't available. How will the Bucks score when the defense is set?

The biggest strength of the perimeter players on Milwaukee's roster is spot-up shooting from three-point range, but much like transition looks, you can't exactly call a 'spot-up' play. Someone has to break down the defense and force help defenders to shift and commit before a spot-up shooter can typically get a clean look from beyond the arc. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis were far from perfect players, but they had the speed to put pressure on a defense and the aggressiveness to draw some extra attention.

No one has ever accused me of being a Jennings or Ellis apologist, but in this respect they did help create opportunities for others. The current roster lacks a true creator, so if the swag twins are missed at all, it will be when the half court offense looks cluttered and the spot-up shooters aren't getting clean looks. Gary Neal, O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour, Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino are all great shooters when they get their feet set and receive a pass, but someone has to 'get them open' by stretching and bending the defense first. Isolation and pick-and-roll plays are among the most common play types used to set up spot-up looks, so that's where we need to focus our attention.

In case you need a refresher on the efficiency of play types, here's my chart from last time:


To get those juicy spot-up looks, somebody has to do the dirty work. Pick-and-roll will be used a lot -- because that's simply how the NBA works -- and isolation plays will also develop as some of the primary and secondary actions of each set fail or devolve while the shot clock winds down.

The Bucks don't have a star player to create a mismatch for scripted isolation plays, but as those 24 seconds bleed away, the choreography of the offense always needs to become less elaborate. You don't necessarily want a lot of isolation offense, but in certain clock situations the Bucks will be calling on someone to beat their counterpart in a one-on-one situation. It happens to every team in the NBA. In fact, roughly 10 percent of all offensive possessions ended in an isolation play last season, and that's not counting plays where iso action created a shot for someone else. Here's a breakdown of how possession ended for the average team in 2012-13:


So who on the roster is equipped to help the offense when it comes to these chances? I've broken down the stats from from the last two NBA seasons for each of the perimeter players on the Bucks, and it turns out that Gary Neal and O.J. Mayo have had the most success in isolation, while Brandon Knight and Luke Ridnour have produced some toxic efficiency numbers. Here's a look at that data:


And now here's a graph that makes the data a bit easier to digest:


As you can see, Ridnour and Knight struggled to escape the bottom-five range for two straight years (gulp), while Butler and Delfino hovered around the average mark as third and fourth options on offense. Finally, Neal and Mayo produced impressive numbers in isolation, and it's important to remember that they both spent a good chunk of that time as primary or secondary options on bench units. These numbers are far from definitive (small sample size alert!), but the tiers break down the ballhandlers on the Bucks in a way that we should expect.

I feel as if this Bucks team is built in a way that will force everyone to play one or two rungs above their ideal spot on the offensive hierarchy, so seeing Neal and Mayo stand out isn't quite as scary as it first appears. Here's what I saw from these players when I watched the corresponding video clips:

  • Gary Neal doesn't have a first step quick enough to get past his defender in isolation (only four of his 55 iso plays last year ended with layups), but he is adept at creating space with one or two hard dribbles, setting his feet in the process, and pulling up quickly for a long two or three-point jumper. When a big man switches onto him in PnR coverage, Neal is smart enough to force the commitment, back the ball out, and then attack the big on a reset. He doesn't have the athleticism to overpower an opponent, but he knows how to pick his spots fairly well, even when the shot clock is running down. Even so, he's not someone who can collapse the defense and command help, so he's basically creating for himself.
  • Mayo ranked 16th in the NBA in isolation efficiency last season, so he figures to be the leader when it comes to those opportunities with the Bucks. Though he's not going to be Russell Westbrook in terms of getting to the rim, he is quick enough to beat his counterpart off the bounce, and that extra dimension helps him create space to get off his jumper. His footwork gets a bit too fancy at times, and it isn't always as clean as Neal's, resulting in higher turnover rates. However, he has more talent and can do more to reshape a defense -- which should open up opportunities for teammates if he doesn't get tunnel vision. His biggest problem is that he looks too comfortable taking contested jumpers in these situations. He may or may not drive us all nuts this year. When Mayo breaks a guy down with his dribble and attacks the rim, it really looks nice because he can get all the way to tin with enough burst to finish. Hopefully Larry Drew can keep him aggressive in iso looks as well as find ways to get him the ball on the go. Over the past couple weeks we've seen Mayo regularly coming around screens on the left side of the floor, looking to catch the ball on the go and immediately drive to the paint.
  • The Pistons used Knight sparingly in this capacity last season, and it was for good reason. He ranked 140th in isolation efficiency last year, and generally looked lost when asked to create something from nothing. Sometimes it felt like he was stuck deciding between two different moves: leaning too hard in one direction after a jab step, getting the ball stuck on his hip in a hesitation move, getting up in the air without a plan, or tossing up an off-balance jumper. He has the most raw physical talent of any guard on the roster, but his pet move seems to be a one-dribble step-back in isolation. Did I mention that he turned the ball over on one-fifth of his isolation plays last year? Um...nowhere to go but up!
  • Most Ridnour isolations feel a bit accidental, but when he's asked to make some magic as the shot clock bleeds away, he at least knows where he needs to get on the floor. His behind-the-back pullback dribble helps him create space and get back to the middle of the floor, while he can counter that rhythm with an extra one/two dribble(s) on the strong side and drift to the baseline for jumpers in his hot spots. That being said, when he tries to attack the rim, defenders erase any space he creates before the ball hits the ground for a second dribble, so his options are always limited.
  • Delfino and Butler aren't getting any younger, and more importantly, they won't have the benefit of playing off superstars this season. The Rockets and Clippers had enough talent to create beneficial switches and move help defenders away from ideal positions. That won't be happening for either of them this year. Delfino also uses the behind-the-back pullback to create space on jumpers and bring him back to the middle of the floor, but he and Butler both default to long jumpers in iso looks. We know Carlos runs extremely hot and cold on long shots, and you can expect a similar situation with Butler this year. They both strike me as serious rhythm shooters. It's either going to look really good or really bad. The thing I like about Butler is that he is willing and able to post smaller players when a switch occurs, so hopefully he can get some easier buckets that way on mismatches.


As the Bucks work hard to create spot-up opportunities in the half court, things will occasionally go wrong and someone will be called upon to create a good look in a one-on-one isolation situation. Although no player on the team is an ideal choice, Gary Neal and O.J. Mayo are the best options available and should be able to shoulder the load with the first and second units, respectively. If the majority of iso looks go to Mayo, followed by Neal and then Butler (who will hopefully post smaller guards when teams switch), Milwaukee may be able to muster a respectable iso offense. Don't expect big things from this phase of the game, but if the Bucks can establish isolation offense as a legitimate threat, it can open up the floor for better spot-up shots.