How have the Milwaukee Bucks won half their games?
That's an intriguing question for many folks early in this NBA season. The Bucks, after finishing with the league's worst record last season, were supposed to toil near the bottom again this year. Instead the Bucks are one of the NBA's most surprising teams, record-wise at least. They're tied with the Miami Heat, whom they beat last night, at 5-5, the 6th-best record in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee has been, believe it or not, a "playoff team" in the East so far, albeit somewhat by default, again.
With a young roster and an inexperienced coach, it's difficult to explain just how the Bucks have accomplished this remarkable feat of respectability. The defense has been excellent, as we've recently discussed, and Brandon Knight has been playing the best basketball of his career by far. But there's one thing the Bucks have done better than almost any other team in the NBA so far, and that's dominate the paint on both ends of the court.
Through ten games the Bucks are averaging 45.6 points in the paint per game, 5th-most in the NBA, per TeamRankings.com. They're also allowing just 37.2, 4th-best in the league. That combination of prolific interior scoring and strong defense gives them the NBA's second best points in the paint differential. Only the Dallas Mavericks, who are 2nd in both paint scoring and defense, are better.
The defense isn't particularly hard to rationalize. Having Larry Sanders back to defend the rim gives the Bucks a huge boost, and the rest of the team has been active and energetic. Heck, even the oft-maligned Ersan Ilyasova has been holding his own in the post pretty well. What's really encouraging is that the Bucks haven't been neglecting the perimeter to defend the paint--they're still better-than-average in terms of opponent three-point attempts and shooting percentage. These trends should be accompanied by the same qualifications that colored our earlier discussions of Milwaukee's defense, but that certainly doesn't invalidate the results.
Offensively, the story is a bit more muddled. Milwaukee's offense has been, for the most part, terrible through ten games. The Bucks are 29th in offensive efficiency, saved only from ultimate ignominy by the hilariously bad Philadelphia 76ers. Frankly, point blank is about the only distance the Bucks have been able to score from at all this year. So big offensive numbers in the paint might be as much a result of necessity as ability. But still, there are performances worth highlighting. Brandon Knight has been the Bucks' best scorer this year, and while his improved three-point shooting gets a lot of the credit, he's also hitting a career-best 62% of his shots in the restricted area while boosting the percentage of his attempts from that range. Giannis Antetokounmpo has made similar improvement, though much more extreme--almost 60% of his field goal attempts have come within three feet of the rim. Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, and Jabari Parker are all hitting over two-thirds of their shots near the rim.
Generally speaking, good interior offense derives lots of its value from what it does to improve perimeter offense. When teams respect scorers in the paint it opens up shooters on the outside. Consider that 50% shooting in the paint is only as valuable as 33% shooting from behind the arc, and that's without taking offensive rebounding into account. But the Bucks have only one half of that equation working right now, because their jump shooting has been so terrible to begin the season (they're dead last in team 3P%). Here it's worth noting that the Bucks rank a respectable 12th in fast break points per game (13.2), a number that has also boosted their paint scoring and slightly offsetting their struggles in the halfcourt.That also helps to explain how Milwaukee can appear to be so good at scoring in the paint but so awful as a whole offensively.
It's unlikely the preseason prognosticators were so completely off-base with their predictions. As the games pile up and the schedule gets tougher, the Bucks will probably fall back near the middle of the pack in paint scoring differential. But for now, it's definitely encouraging to see some things working so much better than expected.