Not too long ago, a large portion of Milwaukee Bucks fans were calling for major changes in the organization. The biggest sticking points were the Bucks’ overly-aggressive defense that was consistently exploited, and how coach Jason Kidd’s outright refusal to stick to (or even admit) beneficial changes reflected the overall impact of his stubborn nature.
A week later, Bucks fans are striking a decidedly (albeit cautious) different tone. The team is at 15-10, good enough for 4th in the Eastern Conference, and by many accounts has made up for their November transgressions, including both an inexcusable loss to the Dallas Mavericks and their embarrassing showing against the Utah Jazz.
What’s different? What has changed with the team, and has led to their apparent resurgence? I sat down and found three reasons that could explain Milwaukee’s recent success.
Key Players Rounding Into Form
Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo went through a bit of a slump, but it didn’t tank his MVP odds. The Bucks often suffered if he wasn’t playing to his outrageous standards, but Giannis has been getting significant support from three key teammates: Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and John Henson.
He didn’t want to be there, but Bledsoe sure wants to be here. As a Buck, Eric Bledsoe is producing 18.0 points, 4.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game. His outside shot took a while to come around (he’s at 31.3% from three on the season), as did his physical conditioning (he sat out for weeks while the Suns figured out how to move him), but his clutch performance and overall athleticism have breathed life into a Bucks squad who needed it from the guard position.
Teams can usually slow down inverted P&Rs with Giannis handling by hard hedging the guard to slow Giannis’ momentum. Here’s where having an athletic PG helps: Mitchell shows just for a split second but Jazz lose track of Bledsoe and Giannis finds him for the oop: pic.twitter.com/8zTUFc3N00— Frank (@fmaddenNBA) December 10, 2017
Like Bledsoe, Khash had to shake off an early-season slump in order to get where he is today. At 20.1 points (including shooting splits of 0.477/0.378/0.884), 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game, Middleton is in an excellent spot for this Bucks team. What’s more, Middleton is doing his work from an unconventional spot: the midrange.
WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN:MIDDLETON THE MID-RANGER taking advantage of analytics revolution https://t.co/IwB5dko8un— Marques Johnson (@olskool888) December 11, 2017
The article linked in Marques Johnson’s hyped-up tweet goes into detail on just how productive Middleton has been inside the arc this season, and it shows how well he’s salvaged half court possessions where the Bucks can’t get anything going elsewhere. Long twos might not be the ideal shot in the NBA, but if you have someone who can make them, they’re the best contingency plan an offense can have when things don’t go right. Whether the offense needs the same amount of attention and criticism that the defense has received is undetermined, but for now the Bucks are happy with their 11th-ranked offense (108.7 ORtg), and Khris is a huge part of it.
John Henson off a beautiful feed from Giannis!— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) December 10, 2017
Watch the #Bucks on #FOXSportsGO: https://t.co/9bVCy81pNz pic.twitter.com/TtmXl1DKp7
Raise your hand if you predicted that John Henson would be a key cog for the Bucks this year.
* crickets *
That’s what I thought. In any case, Captain Hook deserves a fair bit of credit for extending his streak of competent play at the center position, and although his stat line won’t impress you, he has been a crucial component to keeping everything together on both ends of the court. It’s been a long time coming, but maybe John Henson has finally reached the point where he’s doing his best NBA work.
Changes! Actual Changes!
After an impressive inaugural season, the Bucks’ super-aggressive defense was apparently solved by their competitors, and their defensive metrics tanked accordingly. For each turnover the scheme would generate, another open corner three would negate it.
Something had to change! Either fix the scheme or fire the coach was the refrain, even if a number of fans predicted that #2 would lead to #1 simultaneously. But of late, some changes were made, and they were noticed both at-home and at-large. Those changes were unmade, much to our chagrin, but lately seem to have come back into the spotlight with Milwaukee...not that Coach Kidd would admit it:
Jason Kidd following a 109-102 win over the Mavericks: Our bench found a way to help us win this game pic.twitter.com/9CRsErYib2— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) December 9, 2017
Or would he? Against the Jazz, noted Bucks Twitterer @AllTheBucks found an interesting nugget within the visiting team’s broadcast of the game:
Rewatching the MIL vs UTA game with the Jazz feed, and here's what Kidd had to say about the changes to the defense (turn sound on): pic.twitter.com/n0lVM7GN9j— All the Bucks (@AllTheBucks) December 10, 2017
Either way, Kidd’s stubborn nature is a secondary issue if the team’s defense is working. Overall, the Bucks have improved their defensive rating to 108.6, which is 18th in the NBA. This isn’t great by any stretch, but since the Bledsoe trade (when things really turned around), the team has been remarkably better.
Eric Bledsoe, on his ability to get over the top of pick-and-roll screens: "I'm a dog, man. I'm a dog. I'm a pitbull. When I came into the league, I was a defensive player, picking up full court and doing the whole nine yards. That's what I do."— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) December 10, 2017
Taking Advantage of the Schedule
The Bucks are 11-4 since the Eric Bledsoe trade. Bledsoe is certainly a significant driver of the team’s improvement, but it is also important to examine the context within which this improvement has come. Over the last 15 games, the Bucks have played eleven Western Conference teams, which have a combined record of 87-124. Only four of those eleven games were against playoff contenders; it certainly helps when your opponent exhibits just as many problems as you do.
Another advantage of playing teams from the other conference is a lack of familiarity. The Bucks have actually applied changes to their defense, but those changes were recent. Teams that the Bucks were able to beat before making adjustments would have had the opportunity to take advantage of the open looks that the Bucks’ blitzes would provide. Following this, it would make sense that Western Conference teams who don’t keep the Bucks in the front of their minds would have spent less time on finding the best way to beat Milwaukee, even if the solution is pretty straightforward. Knowing what to do might be easy, but executing on it when you’re dealing with problems of your own in a conference ran by the Warriors, Rockets, and Spurs is something else.
What do you think? Are there any other long-term trends that you’ve noticed over the past 15 games that tell the Bucks’ story? What did we hit? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments!