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A closer look at the Bucks performance through the small sample size theater

Discerning the real from the fantastical for the Milwaukee Bucks so far this season

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks have officially played 17 percent of their season. That obviously means it’s time to discern what’s real (perpetual Bucks fan angst), what’s fake (Beasley’s nails, come on) and what warrants further examination (turns out, a lot). So after a few days of stuffing our gullets, just relax, sit back, silence your cell phones and settle in for glimpse at what’s playing at the Small Sample Size Theater so far this season.

Get your popcorn, this thing’s gonna last awhile!

Giannis’ godliness: When you look at Giannis’ stats, it’s pretty remarkable he’s able to score as much as he can without a semblance of jump shot. I’ve walked away from most of the season’s games thinking he hasn’t even played a real complete game yet, and that includes the triple double versus the Magic. Inside five feet, he’s shooting 67.4%. Outside of five feet, 27% on 6.6 shots/game. Not great Bob! Still, it points to his wholly unique skillset that he’s able to remain an efficient player despite those obvious deficiencies. He’s getting to the line frequently, averaging the 17th most free throw attempts in the league (6.4) right behind Lebron James, showing a unique ability to draw fouls with his length. Frank outlined his freakish numbers, so saunter over there and try not to be blinded by its brilliance. Shrugging our shoulders at a 24-point, nine rebound, seven assist game is the epitome of #FirstWorldBucksFanProblems, but that’s where we’re at with Giannis now. He’s a star.

Mirza jacking it in transition: This is a thing of beauty. The Bucks force a turnover or start to push the pace and Giannis dribbles into the pearly white teeth of the defense before flipping it behind him to a trailing Mirza Teletovic who promptly shoots a three before the ball even touches his hands. Eric Nehm drew it up best:

Not only does it create a quick strike threat for the Bucks, whose halfcourt offense leaves a lot to be desired, but it gets Mirza open looks without having to run him off screens or any offensive action, he is 31 after all. Among guys who’ve appeared in at least ten games this season, Mirza’s third in the entire league for percentage of their points coming on fast breaks (33.3%). Get used to it folks.

The center crapshoot: This one’s more subjective, but if there’s one thing I’m most certain of so far, it’s that discussing the center rotation has been even more annoying during the season than it was during the offseason. Jason Kidd’s juggled it all around, having John Henson start five games after Plumlee looked like a third grader’s rendition of a tree all season. And now Plumlee is back starting because Henson’s numbers with the starters broke the analytics department’s computers. Plus Greg Monroe was effectively benched for several games, barely even appearing in the last three games before Toronto. Finally there’s the fact they may just be best without any of these guys on the floor?

The whole situation is a cluster, and Milwaukee’s done little to pull back the curtain with Kidd’s ever impenetrable wall of coaching cliches. They’ve put themselves in the unenviable task of carrying a mountain of unwanted weight on their roster, and the market for centers looks bleaker than Black Thursday. We’ll continue to jabber about it for the foreseeable future until one of these guys is moved.

Let’s wait and see if its Metacritic stays above 75%

Jabari 3-point percentage: Jabari’s development into a three-point threat has been an optimistic (and theoretical) hope for Bucks fans since he came back from his ACL injury. After some quotes early in the season about his reticence to chuck from the land of eternal efficiency, Jabari’s shown far more confidence of late. After nailing five of seven against the Magic, Jabari’s percentage shot from 31 percent to 39 percent, but settled back in at 36 after the Raptors game. So there’s a fair bit of variation we’re still dealing with, but his stroke is starting to look more competent after a relatively woeful shooting season last year. Perhaps more importantly, he’s taking the shots within the course of the offense, as every one of his threes has been assisted.

Sticking around that 39 percent rate seems like a tall task, but if he slots in around 35 percent or so, his slithering python drives will be nigh unstoppable. Remember, Kevin Love gets supreme perimeter respect from opponents, but he’s really only a 36-37% shooter and lacks the skills to attack closeouts like Jabari. Jumper Jabari is a formidable foe, but with only 44 three-point attempts this season, we can’t consider this the new normal quite yet.

Smallball lineup success: Jason Kidd’s latest infatuation are sleek smallball lineups that he’s used to start several fourth quarters of late. It’s peculiar it’s taken him this long to go to those, particularly considering his smallball inventiveness towards the tail end of his Brooklyn campaign. Of course, having three centers diving into the team’s coffers like Scrooge McDuck muddies that situation. The intriguing part is that these smallball lineups are chomping on opponents, with a “pinch me I’m dreaming” +11 net rating during 40 minutes without Monroe, Henson or Plumlee on court, per NBAwowy.

The most surprising part is their 76.2% defensive rebounding rate, a mark better than the Bucks overall figure (75.8%) and one that would rank in the middle of the pack for the league. Getting killed on the boards has always been a theoretical barrier to running these lineups more often, but if the Bucks smallball squad keeps that up, a main deficiency is masked. They’re still in the infancy of the tactic, so it bears further examination, but opponents are only shooting 41.4% on shots within three feet of the hoop. That’s another potential deficiency sewed up at the moment. It’s probably best used as a dagger rather than a sword, but that’s one damn sharp dagger right now. (* Editor’s Note: This data doesn’t reflect last night’s Raptors game)

Defensive success: Slowly but surely, the Bucks defensive numbers are starting to resemble the 2014-15 season more than the 2015-16 abomination. They’re allowing fewer fast break points than last year, one point less on 2nd chance points and have improved their dilapidated defensive rebounding rate from 2nd to last in the league to 21st so far. And that’s with a center in Miles Plumlee who treats defensive rebounds like cooties, posting a worse defensive rebound rate (11.5%) than Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon. Opponents are also shooting 1.3% worse than their expected field goal percentage against the Bucks, another promising development after they shot marginally better than expected against last year’s team. That being said, there’s some math building up against this defensive dam.

Opponents are shooting just 31.8% from three, a figure that’s best in the league by nearly a full percentage point. Opponent 3-point percentage winds up being pretty variable from year to year with plenty of luck involved, so that’s somewhat alarming, particularly considering the Bucks allow the fourth most 3-point attempts in the league. Last night’s game, with the Raptors nailing some extremely difficult shots and shooting 45%, was an example of how this stat will swing back to the mean. They are contesting the most 3-pointers in the league though (24.9) though, and while their scheme’s Achilles heel has long been its penchant for allowing threes, the assumption was that their length and recovery speed could make up for that disparity. It’s possible that’s finally paying off, but their opponent 3-point percentage is still a figure that would’ve led the league by a mile last year. It won’t stay that low forever.

Giannis’ shooting: On shots within five feet of the hoop, he’s shooting 67.4%. Outside of five feet, 25% on 6.7 shots/game. Last year he shot 31% on 5.3/game. Remember that blissful second half of the season in 2014-15, when he was shooting around 42% from midrange and we all thought, “Pshh, that’ll extrapolate no problem!”. So maybe that was just me, but that’s looking like the outlier rather than the norm right now. I don’t think he’s a 25% guy, but he might not be much better than a 30-33% slinger, at least right now. At media day, Giannis mentioned that he didn’t work on his shot as much this summer, instead focusing on more advanced point guard functions. That’s great! But it may be worth revisiting that whole shooting thing.

The Bucks record: The Bucks have been a pretty baffling team thus far, looking like gangbusters or hobos seemingly at random. Every team has their off nights, but the Bucks’ performances have felt more variable than usual. All this, and they’ve played the eighth easiest schedule in the league along with the most games after 3+ days rest in the league. I’m dour on this Bucks team’s chances, and while they’ve looked better than I thought, I’m not sure they’ll maintain this trajectory all season. Eventually they’ll face some injuries, Michael Beasley has been an alarmingly key component, Malcolm Brogdon could hit the rookie wall and their defense may start to slip a bit as outlined above. There are warning signs, but if Giannis and Jabari continue to play like they have, I’d love to have this trepidation shoved right back in my face.

Sell your tickets on SeatGeek, these won’t stick around

John Henson and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Net Rating: John Henson currently has the Bucks worst net rating at -12.4. For comparison’s sake, even during the franchise’s worst season ever in 2013-14, Henson only had a -11.5 net rating. Maintaining this level of deficiency would be a titanic task of apathy and poor play, something I don’t even think the famously...even-keeled...Henson could accomplish. The scariest part is that he started the last few games, meaning he’s played with competent on-court contributors. Apparently his stank is rubbing off on Giannis and Jabari though too. When Henson, Giannis and Jabari have shared the court, they’re a negative-20 net rating. That’s in 121 minutes too! How is that even possible? He’ll find his way out of the basement eventually.

Underperforming 3-point bombers: While the Bucks are certainly tossing up more three-pointers than years past (24.6), they aren’t necessarily shooting them all that well. They’re in the bottom ten of 3-point percentage, despite the addition of several proven shooters this summer. After a poor start, Mirza is back shooting 39% on three-pointers. Right now, he’s really the only one who’s found his footing. Dellavedova is shooting a career-low 35%, a frisbee’s throw from his career 39% mark. Tony Snell is attempting three more 3-point attempts than his previous career high (2.7), but he’s shooting only 31% compared to a 34% career percentage. Maybe the increased usage sapped his efficiency, but that seems like it should tick upwards at least a few points. Malcolm Brogdon is also firing only 29% on nearly two 3-point attempts a game. There’s no data to go off of for Brogdon from NBA range, so hoping for improvement is really all there is at the moment. Delly and Snelly should see some improvement though, and with the rest of the team around their expected mark, that’s a perfectly fine spot to be in at this point.

Think of me fondly when you say goodbye...

THON!!! Freeze this Per-36 stat line in carbonite and weep for as long as we still have the eternal pleasure of anticipation.