A long, long time ago, in a basketball galaxy far away, the young Milwaukee Bucks' identity was clear.
Defense was Jason Kidd's training camp priority and the primary talking point of a surprising 5-5 start, one that saw Larry Sanders reestablish himself as the fulcrum of a long, active defense that hounded and hustled opponents into misses and turnovers. Following the Bucks' early season surprise win on the road in Miami on November 16, the Bucks ranked second in the league in points allowed per possession, and the narrative of a young, scrappy defensive team was taking shape -- especially with the Bucks' offense puttering along at a cringeworthy 29th.
But fast forward a month and things have quietly changed. Yes, the Bucks continue to rank among the league's top ten defenses (9th), while their offense remains an unimpressive 22nd. But drill down into it a bit further and you find little consistency in the way the Bucks have scraped together their encouraging 11-11 start. For both better and worse, the team that went 5-5 through the season's first ten games has done it rather differently from the one that's gone 6-6 over its last 12, with major gains offensively being offset by accompanying struggles on the defensive end. Take a look at the team's NBA rankings in the four factor categories over the two stretches:
While both samples are small (and early), the interesting part is that the Bucks put together identical winning percentages in both (.500) stretches. So it's not as though we're simply cherry-picking a good stretch and comparing it to a bad stretch -- both samples were ultimately fairly successful ones for the Bucks, and their personnel has been fairly constant throughout both. So what magically changed when the Bucks left Miami in mid-November?
Jokes aside, the offense has actually been pretty good lately -- top ten in fact, thanks to a nice combination of improved shooting from deep (from 29.4% to 38.6%), big gains at the free throw line (+4.6 pts/game), and terrific work on the offensive boards. It's not hard to find improvement among individual players either, particularly on the bench. The start of the team's hot streak roughly coincided with Ersan Ilyasova's nine-game hot streak, though they also haven't missed a beat (offensively at least) since Ilyasova was sidelined by a nasal fracture last week. The Bucks have shot 50% or better in three straight games, with the improving Khris Middleton, Jared Dudley, and Kendall Marshall among those who have been key contributors to the league's most prolific bench scoring unit.
Interestingly, the Bucks' improved offense has come with a slight decline in their middle-of-the-pack pace number, though their fast break numbers have increased -- from 13.2 ppg through 10 games to 16.9 over the last 12. In other words, while pace is a good shorthand for a team's ability to play in transition, it's certainly possible to be above average in fast break scoring (Milwaukee is 7th overall) without posting high overall pace numbers (they're just 17th by that metric). It's not to suggest Kidd has abandoned his defense-first approach -- that's still the fastest way to competitiveness -- but it does appear as though the team is becoming more comfortable in Kidd's read-and-react offense.
The defense rests...for now
The current starting lineup has also seen a similar trend of increased scoring for and against, piling up 105.1 pts/100 for and 108.8 against. The defensive piece is a cause for concern, especially given that any lineup featuring Larry Sanders should be an above-average defensive team. But instead they've been scoring freely and hemorrhaging points as well, likely due in no small part to running with a pair of talented but green youngsters at the forward spots. Though he's been increasingly efficient on the offensive end, Jabari Parker is in particular still a long way from being something other than a liability as a team defender, and the Bucks' defensive rebounding has also suffered in part due to their underweight frontline.
The opponent side of this also can't be overlooked, especially in regards to the team's recent defensive struggles. Though it doesn't explain the Bucks' poor offensive numbers, Milwaukee had the weakest schedule in the league in November, with a string of offensively-challenged opponents likely propping up the team's defensive numbers in the early going. Ironically, the same recipe that's helping the Bucks' offense also appears to be working for opponents. Perhaps as a response to the Bucks' emphasis on defending the strong side (related: read Zach Lowe's terrific feature on the Bucks if you haven't already) teams seem to be working the ball around the perimeter more and benefiting with both more frequent and more accurate shooting form three. They're also generating tons of second chances when they miss, an issue common to most of the Bucks' losses.
There's also the matter of luck, some of which has persisted through the entire season to date. Both samples have seen opponents shoot just under 70% from the free throw line, well below the league average of 75-76%. Unfortunately that's not likely to last. The Heat are the only team to "hold" opponents under 73% for a whole season in the last decade, and historically there's little evidence that teams can systematically hold opponents to low accuracy from the line over long periods (ie by strategically fouling bad free throw shooters isn't really a thing). For the Bucks it may just be the case of "the Piston effect," as Detroit shot just 34/66 (52%) against the Bucks in three games in November. If opponents had shot league average in November, the Bucks' defensive efficiency would have been around 1.6 points per 100 possessions higher, which isn't trivial and indicative of the Bucks probably being worse defensively than their early numbers suggest.
It's not to say the Bucks are doomed to be a poor defense the rest of the season; we've seen stretches where their gambling style has worked to excellent effect, and it would certainly help if Sanders wasn't always battling foul trouble. The Bucks will make adjustments and players, especially the young ones, will improve their understanding of the system over time. Still, the obvious question is whether Kidd and company can leverage the Bucks' length creatively enough to overcome their other weaknesses over the long term. We know it's possible, but 22 games is far too small a sample to make broad conclusions.
Knight finds his niche?
Milwaukee's improved offense might also make us think a bit differently about Brandon Knight, who started hot and remains the Bucks' most productive player by both traditional and advanced metrics (he leads the team in PER, RPM, VORP among others). In this case, slightly less Knight has meant more offense for the Bucks. His usage (26.4% to 24.1%), shot attempts (13.8 to 12.8 per game), scoring, assists, and turnovers are all down over the past 12 games, but his scoring efficiency has remained strong as teammates have started to pick up the slack. All of the samples are small enough to just be noise, but if the Bucks can maintain an average to above-average offense for the rest of the season it may very well change the way we think about Knight as a lead guard heading into restricted free agency.
Most of the criticism of Knight to date has of course centered around his ability to marshal an offense effectively, and the first 10 games did little to blunt criticism of Knight's ability to make his teammates better. But Knight does seem to be playing somewhat differently of late, and the team's improving offensive data provides hope of an evolving team less reliant on their 23-year-old point guard to initiate offense. The Bucks have been both less predictable and more effective with Mayo, Parker and Antetokounmpo shouldering some of the playmaking burden, and that has in turn allowed Knight to play more regularly off the ball...rather than simply pounding it into the ground looking for high pick-and-rolls. Note that he's still very much the point guard, but he also seems to be coming off screens and doing more damage of spot-up opportunities than we saw a year ago. In an ideal world, that version of Knight could serve as an attractive foil to more mature versions of Giannis and Jabari, whom everyone is of course hoping will develop into the sort of 1-2 punch that can carry an offense on its own. We're still a ways from that happening, but talking yourself into Knight as the long-term solution at point guard is a lot easier now than it might have been six months ago.