The theme this past week? Progress.
Through the season so far, the Milwaukee Bucks have been the poster-children for inconsistency. They'll be competitive against some of the better teams in the league only to be decimated by mediocre franchises in humiliating fashion. This week could have been another one full of frustration, but the Bucks bucked (sorry) the trend by defeating the Detroit Pistons and avenging recent defeats to the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. The red-hot Boston Celtics proved too much, but if these teams face off down the road they'll likely be completely different iterations of themselves and so early-season returns are a wash. Most importantly, the Bucks beat teams they should be beating.
However, that inconsistency I talked about earlier could show its face again as early as this week. Just look at head coach Jason Kidd's insistence on running his broken defensive scheme for the sake of proving doubters wrong. This Monday morning, it feels like the team has taken one step forward. The key will be whether the players, coaching staff, and team management can prevent taking two steps subsequently back.
In that vein, this week we'll take stock of how sustainable recent successes can truly be. We begin with an evaluation of recent defensive adjustments, then move to understanding the impact of Eric Bledsoe after 15 games, see if there are any trades available that might push Milwaukee over the top (* cough * DeAndre Jordan * cough*), and much more.
One of my favorite games through the season has been tracking the fluctuations in defensive ranking. Some would call it a form of masochism. They may not be too far off.
As of this writing, the team holds the 19th place in defensive rating (108.6), down from last week's mark. Jason Kidd's trademark defense still rears its ugly head from time to time, and that alone will handicap the defensive potential of this team. However, if he and his coaching staff continue to transition to a more switch-reliant approach, don't be surprised to see that ranking improve.
The biggest question coming into the season was how good the Bucks’ defense would have to be in order for the team to seriously compete. Something tells me 19th won't cut it, and now we'll have to see if the team agrees and adjusts accordingly.
My second favorite hobby of the season are reviewing the number of compilation videos that exist in the online ether of the Bucks aggressively trapping ball handlers in pick-and-roll situations ~36 feet from the basket. I'm all for pressuring the point of attack from time to time, but a defense that inherently leaves a gaping hole for opponents to exploit is fundamentally broken.
So, what is there to do? Perhaps moving from aggression to a conservative and reactive style is the answer? Jared Dubin at The Step Back makes the case (with videos!), and I'm guessing it isn't a stretch to assume most readers would agree that less may prove to be more for the Bucks on defense.
Raw record isn't nearly enough to evaluate the impact Eric Bledsoe has had since arriving in Milwaukee, but going 11-4 certainly doesn't hurt things. He's proven able to fit within the team's other dominant scorers while doing enough on defense to allow teammates to look beyond trapping ball handlers on the perimeter.
The biggest question remaining is what his role means for every other bench guard, most notably Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon has admitted to struggling with his scoring and his identity since being sent to the bench, and while Bledsoe is an upgrade, the longer-term question may be what his presence will cost younger pieces. For now, winning should continue to fix everything, but the guard rotation will continue to be worth watching.
Part of me likes the exercise of finding a nickname for the trio of Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, doubly so when they put up impressive stat lines night after night.
The other part of me wonders if any potential moniker can be enlarged when Jabari Parker returns and presumably does enough to warrant inclusion into the pantheon of Bucks stars.
Not the worst conundrum to have, when I think about it.
The Bucks only get a short nod at the start of Zach Lowe's weekly column, but he spends his time mostly praising the steps forward the team has made from their early struggles.
His core belief, like everyone else's, is that an upgrade on defense is sorely needed. However, it will take more than a stylistic change to turn Milwaukee into contenders. Another elite defender, ala DeAndre Jordan, might prove to be the difference between below-average defensive efficiency and a top-tier unit capable of stonewalling opponents at a reliable clip.
Jordan may prove too lucrative to chase, and I question whether his inclusion would simply allow Kidd & Co. to revert to a sloppy strategy that relies on DeAndre for clean-up, but it is clear Milwaukee isn't done altering the roster just yet, especially if they increasingly view post-season success as being within their grasp.
A little beyond basketball here to close the article links with an interview with Raj Saha, the new arena's general manager. Saha has helped operate a number of facilities around the globe, and now the hope is that he can bring that international experience to Milwaukee to create a space filled with activity year-round.
You can criticize team ownership for several choices since they arrived a few seasons back, but they certainly know how to usher unique individuals in and out of the organization.
From the Social Media Realm
If you're anything like me, you probably didn't get nearly enough of this highlight from the weekend, so here it is again for your viewing pleasure:
Giannis really did that pic.twitter.com/b9jyyx1xXz— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 10, 2017
Who would ever have guessed this wide-eyed kid would prove to be Milwaukee's long-awaited savior?
You like defensive metrics? Because All the Bucks has defensive metrics from the Dallas game for you:
MIL vs DAL Defensive Analysis:— All the Bucks (@AllTheBucks) December 9, 2017
- The Bucks became more aggressive on the PnR following a time-out in the 1Q, until the 4-min mark of the 2Q. You can see the implications in the chart.
- I've expanded the table to include Soft Shows and Off-ball switching (on actions). pic.twitter.com/nTZ7pLQdrO
It took John Henson a matter of weeks before he turned on new Miami Marlins owner Derek Jeter:
I see under Derek Jeter’s Marlin Orange there’s pinstripes ...— John Henson (@Johnhenson31) December 9, 2017
Former Buck Stephen Jackson joined ESPN host Ryen Russilo to talk basketball, and it was only a matter of time until he brought out reflections on his time in Milwaukee:
Which reminds us that if you're scared to talk championships, you should get to church:
"We talkin 'bout championships. Y'all scared? Get to church" - one of the most epic pressers ever. pic.twitter.com/v3da02wH17— Paul Henning (@brewcitypaul) December 8, 2017
This upcoming week will be a good yardstick for how permanent Milwaukee's recent winning ways may be. They start on Wednesday in New Orleans to face the dominant duo of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, return home Friday to play the lowly Chicago Bulls, and finish the week on the road Saturday against the Houston Rockets. The Pelicans and Rockets present two different styles of play for a defense in flux: New Orleans is a challenge with dominant frontcourt play and the Rockets take a league-leading 42.3 three pointers a game. What needs to be stopped is pretty obvious; whether Milwaukee can actually do so is the question at hand.
Those fears made known, I'll throw all caution to the wind this week and wager the Bucks come out of their three contests with a 2-1 record. Houston may be too much of a load to handle, but the Pelicans have shown a penchant for turning the ball over (TOV% of 14.6% as of this writing), giving the Bucks a fighting chance if they use their length to their advantage.
If the team comes out relatively unscathed you can expect many to start taking notice of their ascent back into the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference. Things aren't perfect, but they feel a long way from the “sky is falling” feeling of just a few weeks ago. I, for one, embrace decreased reliance on heartburn medication to get through the expected pain of watching Milwaukee basketball.
But maybe go get a refill of Tums, just in case.