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The Facade of Milwaukee’s Second Half Success

Milwaukee’s winning streak is undermined by mediocre statistics

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, wins are the only statistic that matters. Many an athlete or coach has uttered some variation of that phrase either in victory or defeat. It’s a rational viewpoint, and one that encapsulates every team’s ultimate goal. And in terms of that all-important statistic, many would deem the Milwaukee Bucks’ Post All-Star Break an indisputable success. A 15-9 record is good for the sixth-best winning percentage in the league over that time. Their 14 wins in March were the third most in a month in franchise history, and the most since way back in February 1971. It even netted Jason Kidd and Giannis Antetokounmpo respective monthly awards. They’re the “it” team, the young upstarts no one wants to see in the Playoffs. Yet, peering through that commendable record, the statistics reveal a team remarkably similar to their mediocre Pre All-Star iteration. Has this winning streak been a sea change, or a product of improved fortunes?

Starting broadly, the Milwaukee Bucks’ -0.2 net rating since the All-Star Break is actually worse than their Pre All-Star 0.9 mark. That’s due largely to their slightly inferior offensive rating, which is down 1.2 points from before the Break. Some of that is from the dismal Thunder game, which spiraled it over a full point. Regardless, a relatively worse offense isn’t necessarily alarming given they lost a consistent scorer in Parker. What is troubling is their staid defensive efficiency.

For a team that replaced their worst defensive starter with one of the roster’s most acclaimed defenders, their defensive efficiency is virtually the same (106.7) as before the Break (106.8). That’s not a great sign, and underpins some of the question marks that continue to surround this scheme.

Despite the nearly identical statistical performance, Milwaukee’s overloading scheme is finally paying off with turnovers. They’re forcing opponents into turnovers on 15.6% of their possessions since the ASB, tied for second in the league during that time. Previously that number was just 15.0%, ninth in the league. Milwaukee’s scoring only a minimal amount more of its points off turnovers though, and its percentage of fast break points has dipped nearly four percent. Again, that’s not too surprising. While Middleton is a stealing maven, he’s nowhere near the running partner that Jabari is on the fast break. So good news, the scheme is finally doing what it’s supposed to accomplish at a high level. Bad news, those extra stops haven’t improved their defensive efficiency in any way, a distressing development given some of the underlying opponent statistics that have went their way in this stretch.

Chief among those are teams are shooting nearly five less threes per game since the Break and only 33.7% on those, a mark that would be third best in the league over the full season. Teams were shooting 36.4% against them before the All-Star Break. The dip in attempts is due somewhat to Milwaukee’s penchant for slo-mo ball lately, dragging their way to the third slowest pace in the league since ASB. Opponents are shooting three-pointers 4.4% less of the time against the Bucks’ D, so it goes beyond their sloth’s pace, but they’ve effectively replaced that with Moreyball’s second commandment by allowing 3.0% more of opponent shots to come in the restricted area.

Preventing more shots from deep is a good start, but they can’t afford to let teams exchange those for pristine looks at the rim, particularly with questionable rim protectors playing most of your center minutes.

Reverting back to the weak opponent shooting from deep, that stat is generally attributable to luck rather than skill. The best way to defend the three is to prevent it. Thus far, Milwaukee’s defensive luck hasn’t contributed to an appreciably better defense, something that was the case early on when poor opponent three-point shooting helped create a top-ten defensive rating as late as the first week of January.

What some of that luck has contributed to is winning, by which I mean Milwaukee’s bountiful period of victory has come down extensively to their appreciably improved clutch performances. Much was made of their disastrous start to the season in clutch scenarios, with their offensive performance careening into a gulch whenever the game remained close down the stretch. Pre All-Star break, Milwaukee bottomed out with the worst offensive rating (86.7) by far in the clutch. The second worst team, New Orleans, was almost nine points better (95.1). Milwaukee didn’t just fall in the gulch, they rocketed straight to the Earth’s core. Their -23.7 net rating nestled them comfortably between misery (Brooklyn) and despair (Lakers) at the bottom of the league. Despite all that, they still had a 12-16 record in clutch situations before the break. Given the Lakers and Nets records in a similar sample size, 9-23 and 7-22 respectively, one could even make the argument Milwaukee outperformed their abhorrent statistics. Suddenly though, this team’s become clutch maestros.

Since the ASB, they’ve been the most successful team in the league in the clutch, sporting a 9-2 record and a league best 81.5% winning percentage. Many will recall the heroics of Malcolm Brogdon down the stretch of the Boston game, but he also had huge pick and roll sequences with Greg Monroe in the Atlanta game the Friday before. Then there was the Giannis and Thon-led comeback against the sporadically firing Pistons. As with all clutch statistics, small simple size caveats abound, but in those 39 minutes since All-Star weekend, the Bucks have a 10.1 net rating, ninth best during this period.

A few numbers stand out, but most importantly, they’re just shooting better. Their 47.6% effective field goal percentage is still in the bottom half of the league, but it’s a step up from their fourth-worst 41.4% before the Break. They’re getting breaks on the defensive end too, with opponents shooting just 16.0% from deep on the same number of attempts as before, and 36.6% on only .5 more shots per game. That’s helped by the Bucks turning the ball over on nearly 4% less of their possessions, preventing easy offense for the other team.

Looking purely at how Milwaukee gets their points, their scoring profile hasn’t changed markedly. They’re getting a few more percentage of their points at the line, a healthy antidote for a team that shot so horrendously, but for the most part they’re largely the same team in this small second half sample. Khris Middleton, as outlined before the season, isn’t exactly the clutch savior some may make him out to be and he’s only at a 26.9% eFG during his limited time back. Giannis is attacking the basket more frequently, 52.0% of his points are coming at the free throw line as opposed to 25.4% before, and he’s cut back on three-pointers. The most major change though has been the point guard position, where Brogdon’s emerged as a competent clutch option while Dellavedova’s receded into a complementary role after masquerading as a lone wolf scorer with a frigid stroke in the first half.

Delly’s first half clutch statistics represent both a lack of awareness regarding his ideal role and a horrendous shooting steak. His 1.3 attempts per game were nearly as much as Giannis’ 1.7 in only eight less minutes of total clutch time. Not to mention he hit only 16.7% of those shots, including 1 for 12 from deep. Of the five shots he did hit, more of those were unassisted than assisted. Floaters, get your floaters here! He’s already hit more clutch threes in the second half (two) than he hit in the first half, and thankfully all his makes have been assisted. He’s lowered his usage from 20.4% to 8.5% too.

Brogdon’s ascendance in the clutch has been coupled with his team-leading 35.7% assist percentage, all while he’s lowered his usage over ten percentage points to just 16.1%. He’s ceded some of that usage to Giannis, and while his 5/7 shooting performance will cool off, his passing and command of the floor has been his most obvious contribution. That, and stealing some of Delly’s clutch minutes.

Clutch statistics, by virtue of their small samples, are prone to fluctuate rapidly. This Bucks team has been the beneficiary of poor shooting performances by opponents, but they’ve also seen some of their youngest players step into a void and close out games. Even with benevolent fortunes, that last statement is why this season should ultimately leave fans with a sweeter sense of satisfaction than the unforeseen .500 run in 2014-15.

This rash of success started at a time most fans were dragging to their bookmarks. Instead, Milwaukee looks poised for the playoffs barring an utter meltdown. Feel free to revel in the joy of this winning streak, god knows Bucks fans deserve it, but no one should examine this team and declare that they’ve found a solution. The results are drowning out the process a bit at this point, and the underlying fact is that this team is overperforming after underperforming in the first half of the season. Evening those out, you end up with around a .500 team, a Bucks’ franchise special. There are some conclusions to be drawn from this, but it certainly shouldn’t be that this team is prepared to win at anywhere near this clip.

No matter how the Greg Monroe signing turned out, it represented a willingness of this ownership to deviate from the old, jettisoning veterans like Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia in a quest to surround Giannis with more talent and better maximize this franchise’s potential. That’s a decision whereby short term success didn’t cloud their long term judgment. The same must be true this offseason, and a lucky sequence of wins should by no means validate some of the strategic decisions of the team, especially given their defense’s diminishing returns as the season’s progressed. What can be taken away is that this team finally has a superstar, with several young players poised to contribute and who haven’t shirked from the spotlight in Thon and Brogdon. A strong foundation is in place, but the recent house of cards should serve as a clear warning against complacency this summer.