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Analyzing the Bucks Offensive Style

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

NBA basketball is back!

And with the start of the season comes the talk of a much improved and much changed offense. There will be more threes! More pick and rolls! A faster pace!

All of which sounds like quite a bit of fun, but may not actually be a reality for the Milwaukee Bucks this season. Part of the problem of suggesting a team will do more or less of a specific activity on the floor is that we often rely more on feel than on an actual breakdown of those activities. We rarely break down specific activities on the floor in detail and take a look at how teams across the leagues compare in those categories. So, before we set out to see what kind of changes the Bucks could try to make, let’s take a closer look at how they played last season.

With the goal of taking a more detailed look at the stylistic differences between NBA offenses, I went to team Synergy data to figure out how the league's 30 teams were finishing their possessions and how often players/coaches were executing the game plans they so often mention in interviews.

For starters let's review some basics. In Synergy terms, an NBA "play" can end with a made shot, a missed shot, a foul or a turnover (because of offensive rebounds, a single possession can also have multiple plays). Synergy further categorizes their data into 11 types of plays: Transition, Isolation, Pick and Roll Ballhandler, Pick and Roll Roll Man, Post Up, Spot Up, Hand Off, Cutter, Off Screen, Put Backs, and Miscellaneous (i.e possessions that cannot be neatly cataloged into those other ten types of plays).

Here is a look at how the Bucks' offense finished plays (miss, make, foul, or turnover) in comparison to the other 29 teams in the league. Note that this only measures the distribution of play types and doesn't show how effective they were:

Some notes:

  • The axis goes from 0 to 25 percent for each play type. No team has a type of play that takes up more than a quarter of their plays. The closest any team came was the Utah Jazz with 23.1 percent of their plays ending in spot-ups.
  • The three types of plays that take up the largest portion of possessions are Transition, Spot Up, and Pick-and-Roll Ballhandler. Also, note that the two P&R categories don't capture all types of outcomes from a P&R -- only those that lead to shot, foul or turnover from either the ballhandler or roll man.
  • The Bucks used a higher percentage of their plays on cuts than any other team in the league.
  • Pick-and-rolls were not a large part of the Bucks offense in relative terms. The roll man or the ballhandler in a Bucks pick-and-roll finished just 17.5 percent of their possessions.
  • Though the Bucks did not end possessions with post-ups quite as much as the league’s top three post-up teams, you can see that they used post-ups considerably more than the rest of the league.

Considering the Bucks ranked just 26th in offensive efficiency last season, the immediate reaction to the graph above is likely to suggest the Bucks need to make massive changes to the way they play basketball — but that might be a bit premature because there is another side to this conversation. The success rate of these different play types is also critical to the offensive style discussion. So, let’s take a look at the efficiency of each of these play types:

Some notes:

  • The axis above goes from 0.6 points per possession to 1.4 points per possession. The league’s most efficient finish to a possession was a cutter on the Minnesota Timberwolves at 1.34 PPP, and the league’s least efficient finish was a pick and roll ballhandler on the Philadelphia 76ers at .68 PPP.
  • Possessions that end with the cutter were the most efficient NBA possessions, with the league average at 1.21 PPP. Possessions that end with pick and roll ballhandlers were the league’s least efficient possessions with the NBA average at .81 PPP.
  • Possessions that end with cutters, off screens, or put backs were among the most efficient finishes in the league, but they’re also among the least used finishes. This makes logical sense because it is generally tough to create those type of possessions offensively.
  • The Bucks leave a lot to be desired offensively. They weren’t top five in efficiency in any category last season. They were only in the top ten in efficiency on hand offs and transition possessions. And they managed to get into the top half of the league in efficiency in just three other categories. They were near the absolute bottom of the league in efficiency in spotups and pick and roll ballhandler possessions, two of the most used play types leaguewide.
  • Even considering the limitations of having just two pick and roll categories mentioned above, the Bucks performed poorly in pick and roll play. Obviously, the ballhandler and roll man didn’t perform well, but the other two categories that might have seen a bump from pick and roll play (cutter and spotup) were among the league’s least efficient.
  • Despite being the league leader in percent of possessions finished off cuts, the Bucks were among the league’s least efficient finishers on cuts.

So, what does all of this information tell us? Essentially, nothing.

When you look at the league’s ten most efficient offenses, there isn’t a single blueprint for creating efficient offense. The Warriors scored efficiently in just about every way. They ran fewer pick and rolls than almost any other team in the league. They finished possessions off screens almost twice as much as any other team in the league.

The Spurs used post ups more than the rest of the league. The Rockets focused on pushing the pace and scoring in transition. The Mavericks try their best to create great spot up opportunities. The Raptors, Blazers, and Clippers use masterful pick and roll play to create a majority of their offense. There are a number of ways to score efficiently, so every team needs to find their own identity, but that doesn’t mean the Bucks’ weaknesses should be ignored.

Realistically, they can’t be ignored. The above graph should help demonstrate that no matter how much the Bucks attempt to play to their strengths, a large number of their possessions will be used doing things they were quite bad at executing last season. The Bucks used the pick and roll considerably less than most teams and still used 1500 possessions on the pick and roll ballhandler and roll man. They had among the fewest spot up opportunities in the entire NBA, but still had over 1500 spot up possessions.

So, even if the Bucks limit those opportunities again this season, that’s still over a third of their overall possessions. There’s no compensating. Those possessions are a reality of this Bucks season, which is why it is important for more of those spot-up opportunities to become threes and why Jabari Parker becoming a better playmaker matter so much to the Bucks’ offensive success.

The good news about the Bucks’ offensive style is the team started to make some progress in the “right” direction after the All-Star Break last season. The Play Type statistics do not allow for filtering by date, so there is no way to know for sure, but it seems safe to assume that the team’s pick and roll numbers were better once Antetokounmpo made the move to point guard. In fact, it might almost be scary to think where the Bucks’ pick and roll numbers would be if not for the bump they received from Point Giannis and Miles Plumlee’s league-leading play as a roll man after the break.

It also seems safe to assume that the Bucks were pushing the tempo more after the All-Star Break, which could have led to a higher percentage of their plays ending on transition plays (their fast break points per game increased by around three points per game). If there is one overwhelming positive in all of these numbers, it is that the Bucks are quite good in transition and they should be doing everything possible to play at a faster pace. Not just because they are so terrifying for opponents in transition, but also because getting into their offense quicker may allow them to cut down on some of their low-efficiency isolation possessions that can often come at the end of possessions. Given the Bucks’ huge differential between transition (1.14) and halfcourt efficiency (0.89), any increase in pace could net the Bucks positive returns.

Overall, there may not be a single offensive blueprint that is perfect for every team in the league. No one would expect the Bucks or any other team to simply replicate the Warriors, because no other team has Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But each team can craft a perfect offensive identity for their roster by considering their unique personnel and leveraging the strengths of their players, while also considering the things they they need to do efficiently as a function of the current NBA environment (read: don’t be dead last in three pointers). Last year, the Bucks may have succeeded in the first function of creating an offensive identity specific to their personnel: bludgeoning opponents with constant cuts at the basket, pushing the ball more after the all-star break, and generally de-emphasizing spot-up opportunities given their roster of poor shooters. Still, they failed in the second function of doing everything they can to find some measure of efficiency in the plays that they will have to execute as a NBA offense. With a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, it is now on the Bucks coaching staff to construct a better gameplan to create an above average offense.