The Milwaukee Bucks' big, bad month of December couldn't have been much worse in terms of injuries, and yet it probably couldn't have been much better in terms of wins and losses.
Despite a brutal schedule and a slew of short- and long-term injuries, the Bucks finished December at 7-8 and ride into the New Year at an improbable 17-16. And while they've only been two games above .500 once all season (10-8 at the end of November), they now have a golden opportunity to pile up some wins against a rather favorable January schedule.
Things start tonight at home against the improving Indiana Pacers, followed by a road game against the struggling Knicks on Sunday, a home game against the Suns next week and then two more winnable games against the Sixers and Timberwolves.
After suffering through an eight-game losing streak in early December, the Pacers have rebounded to a more respectable 5-4 over the past three weeks. Though their offense continues to struggle (26th in efficiency in November, 27th in December, 27th overall), their defense ranks sixth overall and they have a bench that can give Milwaukee's a run for their money. While the Bucks continue to lead the league with 44.8 bench points per game, Indy is third with 40.8. Due in large part to injuries forcing a bunch of bench guys into bigger roles, the Pacers have an incredible ten guys averaging between 9.6 ppg and 14.2 ppg.
UPDATED UPDATE: The Pacers figure to be shorthanded in the backcourt, as George Hill (groin) is now out and C.J. Watson (foot) is questionable. Donald Sloan figures to start if both are out.
No news is bad news for Larry Sanders (illness) and Ersan Ilyasova (concussion), both of whom are once again listed as out on the latest Bucks' injury report. There's been nothing said publicly about when Sanders will be ready to return, though Charles Gardner reports that he won't be immediately returned to the starting lineup once he is healthy.
"He won't start when he does come back," Kidd said. "He's got to work his way back in...he's been out for a little bit here.
"So whenever he does come back, we want to make sure he's ready to go."
The Bucks could get Jerryd Bayless back after he missed Wednesday's win due to knee soreness, while there's still no word on when Damien Inglis (broken foot) might be back. On the Jabari Parker front, we still haven't heard anything about a date for surgery to repair his torn ACL, which presumably means that swelling has been an issue since he suffered the injury nearly three weeks ago.
For the Pacers, Paul George is presumably out for the season with the gruesome leg injury he suffered with USA Basketball last summer, while Ian Mahinmi (torn plantar fascia) is also out.
Defense continues to be the unsurprising cornerstone of Frank Vogel's squad, with Indiana ranking 7th in eFG% allowed and second in defensive rebound rate. In other words, opponents struggle to make their first shots and rarely get any second chances, which is a pretty nice defensive formula. That said, they play a fairly conservative style that forces few turnovers and mostly relies on Hibbert clogging up the middle, though it's worth noting that they rank in the top ten in both two point and three point field goal percentage allowed.
Offensively they've struggled without George's dynamism, though it's not like they were much of an offensive team even with a healthy George and havoc-wreaking Lance Stephenson around last year. They're 27th in overall efficiency this year after finishing 23rd last year, ranking in the bottom third of the league in pretty much every category.
Matching Up: Hibbert vs. Pachulia and Henson
Roy Hibbert's raw numbers are about where they were a year ago (11.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.0 bpg), though he's also playing three fewer minutes per game and thus putting up marginally better numbers in efficiency terms. Whether that's good, bad or underwhelming is a matter of perspective. Hibbert's disappointing playoff performance last spring might have cost Indiana a trip to the Finals, though most would still count him among the league's best defensive centers.
Then again, he might be slipping some in that regard. Despite his shot-blocking and improved defensive rebounding, the Pacers have actually conceded fewer points per possession with Hibbert on the bench this season, and their offense has been dramatically improved without him as well (nearly +10 points/100 possessions). He's still a positive defensive player by defensive RPM metrics (+2.59, 17th overall), but his -3.90 pts/100 impact on offense corroborates the raw net numbers in suggesting he's been a negative player overall this season.
Which isn't to say the Bucks will have an easy go of it tonight against Hibbert. The Pacers are at their most dangerous when Hibbert is getting good position and finishing around the basket, so it will be interesting to see if the Bucks look to double him early or try to mark him one-on-one with Zaza Pachulia and John Henson. I'd guess we'll see a fair bit of doubling if only to try to force turnovers, especially considering that George Hill is the only Pacer starter who's been a consistent three point threat this season.
The Bucks' success on both ends of the floor in Sanders' absence has raised some interesting questions about his role going forward. Does he need to start with Pachulia and Henson each playing well? Could the Bucks get good value for Sanders -- or one of the other big men -- in a trade? For now the Bucks are obviously accentuating the positive, including Kidd having some kind words for Henson's recent play off the bench.
"I don't just look at John as blocking shots," Kidd said. "He changes shots; he rebounds. He gives us a guy rolling, being able to play above the rim athletically.
"He's also playmaking. I think he's been great since he's been back and we're going to ask him to continue being great."
Whatever happens, the Bucks seem to have options, which is always a good thing for a rebuilding team that needs to continue accumulating assets. Sanders' $11 million annual salary doesn't make him easy to move -- big man-starved teams like Cleveland and Dallas don't have a lot of contracts to match that kind of cap number -- but Sanders also hasn't played poorly this year. Though his finishing remains a problem, foul trouble has limited him to 21 minutes per game and the Bucks have held together well without him, Sanders is still 6th in the entire league in defensive RPM, a plus-player overall and putting up solid per-minute numbers.
|2014/2015 NBA Season|
(17-16, 7-6 home)
|January 2, 2015|
|BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
|FS Wisconsin | AM 620 WTMJ|
|Khris Middleton||SG||Rodney Stuckey|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||SF||Solomon Hill|
|Johnny O'Bryant III||PF||David West|
|Zaza Pachulia||C||Roy Hibbert|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|104.0 (22nd)||ORtg||101.5 (27th)|
|104.0 (9th)||DRtg||103.0 (6th)|