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Examining the Bucks’ Slew of Struggles

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Identifying the Bucks’ key deficiencies and diagnosing Giannis’ struggles of late

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Milwaukee Bucks have struggled of late. They’re 2-10 in their last twelve, and 6-12 since the calendar flipped and they sported a 16-16 record after ground-pounding the Bulls for the third time on New Year’s Eve, 116-96. In fact, despite their mediocre record at the time, the Bucks were in the midst of a rather fortuitous streak that benefited some of their statistical measures considerably.

In the month of December, Milwaukee went 8-8 with their margin of victory at 18, and their margin of defeat at 8.6, although most of that is buoyed by two outliers in a 22-point loss to Toronto and 17-point loss to the Timberwolves. Suffice it to say, the difficult month of December that most people predicted seemed to be more of a proving ground, as the Bucks success even inspired an article from 538’s Chris Herring exploring Milwaukee’s danger despite their sub-par record.

The Bucks’ plight since that point is obvious, but Milwaukee’s malaise of late has been far more damning than the “competitive” losses they posted in December. Their collective margin of defeat is at 10.4, but five of those losses came to the Sixers, Knicks, Magic and Heat as opposed to Cleveland or San Antonio in December.

They’re 26th in defensive efficiency over that time, 110.8, and 24th in net rating at -3.9, just slightly ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers (-4.1) who inverted the Bucks’ strategy with a top-ten defense during that time and a much improved 10-8 record. The Bucks have been able to maintain their scoring punch though with a 107.0 offensive rating, a number nearly identical to their mark in the months prior (107.2).

In the period before this swoon, Milwaukee ranked a stout 8th in net rating at 3.3 with a ninth-ranked defense at 103.9, a far cry from their disastrous performance the last month or so. Additionally, their defensive rebounding rate ranked 16th at 76.3%, but since January 1st is dead last in the league at 73.1, the same as their 29th ranked rate from last season. Lastly, they’re coughing up the ball like they have asthma, with a 15.5% turnover rate that’s 28th in the league. They were a respectable 15th in turnover percentage with a 14% rate before that.

These are all just sea salt in the wound statistics, but really it boils down to the Bucks gifting the ball to their opponents as if they’re trying to please Dudley Dursley, rebounding the ball at incredibly low rates, a defense crumbling quicker than a souffle and Giannis Antetokounmpo sliding just a bit from his super saiyan status earlier in the season.

Those first two are rather self explanatory, but let’s dive into the latter duo in more depth.

Defensively, the Bucks are giving up the fourth most threes per game, 30.5, over that span. Now that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a bad defense, since Atlanta has allowed more threes per game over that period and posted the fifth best defense. However, Milwaukee’s off-kilter defensive scheme has produced an abnormal amount of threes in prime places for teams, namely, corner threes. Nowhere was this more clear than the Utah Jazz game, when they pounded Milwaukee with a relentless pursuit of pristine looks from either short corner. The Bucks led the league even before the bad times, allowing 8.6 attempts from the corners, but that’s ballooned to 11.4 during this period. The Bucks are hemorrhaging attempts from one of the most efficient spots on the floor.

That, coupled with Milwaukee’s early season opponent three-point percentage coming back to slap them in the tush with a 38.5% conversion rate this calendar year are prime ingredients for a rather unappealing defensive recipe.

Beyond the defensive breakdowns, there’s been a slight difference between the Ultron Giannis we saw last calendar year and the one that’s been showing up in this recent stretch of games. The most acute change is his lack of ability to get to the free throw line since November and December, when he was averaging 7.0 and 8.8 per game respectively. In 2017, he’s at only 6.0 attempts per game. That may not seem like much, but from a team standpoint, he’s gone from averaging nearly half (46.6%) of their free throw attempts per game to just 31.8% during this stretch.

In terms of where Giannis is getting his points, that hasn’t deviated much from his early season success, besides the free throw issues. The only small differential is his recent penchant for taking his own three-pointers, which contributed to a little over 11% more of his three-pointers being unassisted (38.5%). That may be a good sign for a team that badly needs someone who can create or make their own shot at the end of games, but his shooting percentage from deep also dipped to 26%.

He’s averaging almost 5% less of the team’s assists than during that prior period, something reflected in his lack of gaudy assist numbers lately. He’s also taking 56.6% of his shots from the restricted area in 2017, and while that’s still an above average mark and he’s converting a healthy 63.5% on those, previously those shots made up 64.4% of his shot profile. Those shots have turned into long twos and threes from the left side and threes from the right wing. He’s below league average in each of those spots, and while there’s an argument to be made that shooting those shots helps opponents respect him in the long run, it’s also actively taking away shots from an area where he thrives, and entirely removing himself from the possibility of getting to the free throw line. Here’s a good example where he has a mismatch on Soloman Hill, with Omer Asik’s husk patrolling the paint. While he gets space for the shot, he seems disinterested in attacking the weak frontline of New Orleans.

Defensively, he’s suffered from the team-wide drop-off on that end, but he’s also descended some from his superhuman heights. Brett chronicled his penchant for transition terrorism when he’s chasing down an opposing player, and those skills haven’t been quite as prevalent in the last bunch of games. He’s listed as allowing 9.9 fast break points the past month or so as opposed to 6.8 during the first few months. That 6.8 mark would be a top ten rate among players who log at least 30 minutes per game, the other plunges him to 68th. Teams are scoring 2.8 more fast break points against the Bucks overall as well during this time, so that about lines up with what’s expected given Giannis is on the court quite often and responsible for some of the Bucks’ recent turnover troubles. This is a small thing, and it certainly isn’t the most reliable or useful statistic given Monta Ellis ranked second in the league to start the season, but it is indicative of a small defensive dropoff from Giannis that’s part of some of his larger struggles.

Looking solely at defensive win shares, Giannis was 22nd in those early months at .049. Since then, if you stare real closely off the cliff you can spot him in 183rd place at .023, nestled snugly between the two ticket-rippers in Rudy Gay and Demar DeRozan. Now, defensive win shares are inherently reliant on both winning and defensive aptitude, something the Bucks lacked considerably during this period, but Giannis’ freefall illustrates that even his presence on the court wasn’t helping the team as considerably as it was during the early portions of the season when his long arms and athleticism may’ve made up for some of the Bucks’ deficiencies at other positions. That’s borne out by the fact no other Buck shows up on that early season defensive win share ranking until Malcolm Brogdon at the 108th ranked spot (.031) I will not place the brunt of blame on Giannis for the Bucks’ issues, but it seems very likely that the Bucks’ sleeping giant status to start the season may’ve been propped up by Giannis’ Atlasian arms.

Before the calendar flipped, Giannis was a 6.8 net rating while on the court, with the Bucks plummeting to -5.9 when he went off. That +12.7 rating gap was the most on the team, just ahead of Greg Monroe’s 12.3 mark, but nobody else was demonstrably close. Since then, the Bucks have a -5.4 net rating with Giannis on the court, and an improved -0.4 net rating when he’s off the court. The team has technically played better without their best player on the court. That is a peculiar anomaly, and underscores the trouble Giannis has had carrying lineups in recent games.

Furthermore, while few of the Bucks’ role players are sporting positive net ratings while they’re on or off the court, the strangest statistic belong to Mirza Teletovic, the Bosnian bomber whose prolonged slump from three and unneeded drives to the hoop may’ve colored his impact in a slightly negative light. However, as Eric and Frank have pointed out on multiple occasions, even his mere presence provides significant gravity on the floor. During this terrible stint for the Bucks, he has an 11.2 net rating while on the floor, and -8.5 while off, creating a massive +19.7 rating gulf. The only other rating remotely close is Matthew Dellavedova, who’s sported a horrendous -12.3 on-court net rating compared to a positive 2.3 off-court net rating. Brogdon’s general net rating superiority over Delly has been a burbling story all season, and it’s only become more apparent during this distressing stretch.

Jason Kidd already gave Malcolm Brogdon (+7.4 rating gulf by the way, although with a -1.0 on-court rating) about six minutes more per game than Delly during this stint, and he’s assuredly mindful of trying to not put too much stress on a rookie. Mirza Teletovic however played almost two minutes less per game than Michael Beasley, whose on/off net rating gulf isn’t disastrous, but has lagged behind Teletovic’s all season.

Milwaukee’s struggles remain obvious, but the reasons are vast and not all that mysterious. A few solutions are easier than others: Rebound better, control the ball more effectively, and try to maximize players like Teletovic and Brogdon’s time on the court while mitigating the stints by their lackluster backups. The more difficult one falls to Giannis, who is still having a spectacular season by all accounts, but hasn’t quite had the intense impact he sported for much of the early portions of the season. At the moment, the Bucks’ defensive scheme’s failings isn’t doing Giannis any favors. However, while he can’t control what defense the coaching staff installs, he can control his offensive makeup. It starts by trying to reach the free throw line effectively again, and those forays into the paint should hopefully start to open up more passing lanes for his teammates around the arc.