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Midseason Check-In: What’s Actually Worked For The Milwaukee Bucks

Diving into the positive trends of the Bucks season so far

NBA: Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just past the halfway point of the season, so it’s about time we take a peek at what’s been working and what hasn’t been for the Milwaukee Bucks season thus far. Obviously there has been plenty to whine about, but there have still been some elements worth exploring as to why this team is still above .500. Today, we’ll look at what’s been successful thus far and tomorrow we will explore the issues that have plagued Milwaukee all year.

What’s Working

Nothing! Just kidding, despite the sky is falling rhetoric that constantly surrounds this team and is approaching Green Bay Packers-levels of perpetual disconnectedness, some pieces have gone well. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to find yourself ceaselessly frustrated with this squad, but there are elements to latch onto and carry forward. Some are obvious (Giannis), some are slowly emerging (Tony Snell’s expanding game) and others have to be sifted through to determine their validity (clutch competency). We’re going to winnow through these trends to pull out three primary positive points to carry forward. *Note that these statistics don’t include last night’s Sixers loss

1. Giannis Remains Transcendent

Setting any cap on expectations for Giannis is a fool’s errand. His scoring output continues to rocket upwards year-after-year, his arsenal of moves continues to grow and his offensive acumen and defensive athleticism buoy the Bucks on both ends of the court. This year, he’s only become more efficient despite increased usage. His turnover percentage (10.8%) is the lowest of his career by far and ranked in the 77th percentile for his position, per Ben Falk’s wonderful Cleaning The Glass. That’s particularly impressive given Falk’s site uses positional definitions whereby Giannis is ranked as a “Big”, or someone who splits time between power forward and center. Few of them handle the ball nearly as much as Giannis, so that should illustrate how obscenely low his turnover numbers are.

Meanwhile, his percentage of shots at the rim (56%) is the lowest it’s been since his rookie year. Granted, it’s down just 2% from the year prior, but when you attempt as many shots over the course of a year as Giannis that becomes significant. While his free throw attempts per game are up, he’s also drawing less fouls at the rim, just 26.4% so far this year compared to 29.4% last year. He’s replaced some of that with savvy from the midrange, psyching guys out to draw fouls on 10.7% of his midrange attempts already this year as opposed to just over 5% last year. The decrease in rim production makes his career-high 56.1% effective field goal percentage even more impressive, especially since 3-pointers are making up even less of his attempts this year than last (12% to 7% this year). For a stat that is weighted to include the additional value of 3-pointers, that’s indicative of his greatness.

Defensively, he remains a stalwart player capable of uplifting the team in several categories. He’s the finest defensive rebounder they have, corralling 19.7% of opponent misses, a mark that currently puts him in the 67th percentile among his position but should shake out to be much higher by season’s end considering his 19.4% rank last year put him in the 98th percentile. Opponent’s offensive rebound percentage also drops by 7.5% when he’s on the floor too, another stat that ranks in the 98th percentile. In fact, just scrolling through the entire on/off page on CTG reveals any number of impressive stats one could use to illustrate Giannis’ worth. The team has a +13.9 points per 100 possession differential with him on, they turn it over less (-1.6%), opponents score less (-7.3 points per 100 possessions), and they’re far more deadly in transition and off steals. His MVP-level play so far is the saving grace from a disappointing first half. However, there are some fringe issues, particularly the lack of success from center Giannis lineups and a decreased block percentage.

The barren big man crop for Milwaukee means center Giannis lineups have featured more prominently this season. Those groups have scored at an impressive clip, 111.2 points per 100 possessions, a number that eclipses their season’s offensive rating of 107.4, in the 125 minutes they’ve been on the court per NBAWowy. Gaudy on the surface, those same statistics crumble beneath the weight of what’s been dragging down this team all season: defense. Opponents are bludgeoning those groups with 117.5 PPP rating. That’s too few minutes to draw any sort of conclusions from though, but it does illustrate those groups are not some sort of fix-it-all solution.

Milwaukee’s defense at the rim remains a torrid issue, one that even Giannis’ frenetic athleticism can’t fix. Indeed, Giannis’ block percentage is the lowest it’s been since his sophomore season (1.8%), a full percentage point down from last year’s ludicrous 2.8% mark that ranked in the 100th percentile among bigs. They can’t ask him to take care of everyone’s mistakes within this wacky scheme and we will cover how his rim protection has diminished in tomorrow’s piece. Additional expenditures on offense could certainly have contributed to a decreased ability for blocks like this where he’s the lone man stopping opponents

Long story short though, Giannis’ MVP-level play represents another step forward for someone who continues to bash through any proverbial ceiling people place above his head.

2. Coming Up Clutch

As Dean points out in his hypothetical playbook piece, Milwaukee sports the worst of their offensive ratings in the fourth quarter. However, the Bucks have excelled in clutch situations all year, defined as games in which the score is within five points with five minutes to go. Their abhorrent numbers in the first half of last year submarined what was actually a +1.2 net rating team around the halfway point of the season. With an offensive rating descending deeper than the Marianas trench then, they were due to flip back to the mean eventually considering they were a positive offensive team all last year. Indeed they did, going 9-1 down the stretch to dig themselves out of a dark hole that emerged soon after Jabari Parker went down and they descended to 22-30. This year, it’s quite the opposite. The team is essentially neutral in net rating (0.1 to be exact), yet is above .500 on the strength of winning narrow games this year.

Their clutch +14.8 net rating is good for sixth in the league to this point, thanks mainly to a stingy 99.0 defensive rating well below their season mark of 107.3. At this point last year, they were far deeper in the well, with a -22.4 net rating (29th in the league). They ended the year on a tear but still finished -14.6 in clutch spots, which we will use as our comparison point for this exercise given it’s a bit more indicative with a larger sample size. Milwaukee is 16-11 in clutch situations this year, so let’s dig in and see what might be making the difference this year.

What sticks out initially is the fact that Khris Middleton leads the team in clutch minutes with 97, Eric Bledsoe is second at 85 while Giannis is third at 82. During those times, Bledsoe has led the team in usage (33.9%) with Giannis second at 27.4%. Before everyone gets in a tizzy over not letting Giannis have the ball, let’s remember that many of those point guard duties last year included Matthew Dellavedova moonlighting as a clutch dive-bomber. He was abjectly horrible in those spots, and some of Milwaukee’s second half regression came from Kidd finally allowing Brogdon to take over in those slots. Indeed, Bledsoe’s arrival and willingness to control the flow of the game as a primary ball handler when the game slows down has been a welcome addition. He may not be the off the dribble shooter fans pine for out of a point guard, but he’s alleviated some of the burden put on Giannis to score late in games last year.

Bledsoe’s 52.3 effective field goal percentage in the clutch is second best on the team among guys who have played in at least 15 clutch situations (Snell, Brogdon, Henson, Giannis and Middleton as the others). That’s also coming on the most field goal attempts on the team, 44, two more than Khris Middleton. Giannis has been preposterously good in the clutch, 62.5 eFG%, a far cry from his 45.2% mark last season. That’s likely to regress some, but it does illustrate his improved ability to take and make shots when it matters. See his OKC late game dunk and continued sinking of jumpers in both games against the Wizards if you’re looking for examples. The Bucks have also gotten to the free throw line quite often. Last year, the only guy to get there more than 20 times was Giannis (41 overall). Already this year, Middleton (27), Giannis (28) and Bledsoe (31) have eclipsed that mark. Bledsoe’s ball handling has led to a far higher turnover rate than Giannis, but simply having his assertiveness and jitterbug quickness to the hoop is a welcome change from the midrange jazz club post-ups of Middleton.

Besides Giannis’ absurd shooting thus far, Bledsoe’s arrival has been the most vital element to an improved clutch Bucks team, partially because it replaces Middleton as Milwaukee’s second-best clutch option. Middleton having shot more than Giannis in these scenarios is silly on its face, but particularly because he’s been a poor clutch player for several years now. Even this year, when he’s shooting his best percentage from midrange ever, his shot somehow goes awry in these spots. Here’s his eFG% in clutch situations the last three years compared to his overall mark:

Khris Middleton Effective Field Goal Percentage

Season 15-16 16-17 17-18
Season 15-16 16-17 17-18
Clutch 39.2% (74 shots) 30% (15 shots) 44% (42 shots)
Overall 50.70% 51.80% 51.70%

This has already been his best clutch year by a considerable margin, but he remains well behind his fellow members of the big three. That’s despite ranking in the 81st percentile among isolation scorers at 1.03 points per possession, a play type common in clutch situations as the game slows down.

Additionally, look at all the guys who got minutes last year in the clutch for the Bucks (Terrence Jones being there is a lie). Kidd seemed like a kid in a toy store with the number of wacky options he threw out there. This year, he’s stuck with the guys who can make something happen off the dribble or that can finish quickly off passes from playmakers (Snell and Henson). That’s led to considerably more success, although it will be curious to see if Giannis and Bledsoe regress in the second half or continue at this clip to help Milwaukee until season’s end.

3. Role Player Reversals

Milwaukee’s role players have shifted considerably from those backing up the Bucks last year. Gone or relatively absent is the bull-headed steadiness of Greg Monroe, ball-swinging 3-point slinging ability of Jason Terry and Mirza Teletovic’s deliciously high-arcing pull-up-from-anywhere attitude is out due to his dangerous blood clot issue. Even Matthew Dellavedova’s role has been diminished considerably with the arrival of Eric Bledsoe. Granted, he was injured for a stretch, but Delly’s only on track to play around half the minutes he did last year and the lowest of his career. In their place have come the resuscitation of John Henson’s career and the continued improvement of Tony Snell.

Among those two, Henson is by far the most surprising. His name was essentially synonymous with a punch line for Bucks fans before this season, but he’s come into his own finally as a guy with genuine two-way value at the center position. He’s rebounding at the best rate since his rookie season, including a 22.6% defensive rebounding percentage that isn’t spectacular, but at least has helped Milwaukee get to 16th as a team in DReb percentage. While some of his other statistics are down including block and steal percentage, many catch-all defensive stats illustrate his usefulness to Milwaukee on that end including ESPN’s DRPM (he’s ranked 14th among all players) and NBA Math’s TPA. Among Bucks players with at least 1,000 minutes this year, he’s also tops with a +6.2 on-court net rating and Milwaukee has a 104.6 defensive rating with him, which would be tied with Charlotte for the 8th best in the league. That’s even more important given his replacement, Thon Maker, has led to a 111.6 defensive rating while he’s on the court, which would be higher than the Kings’ league-worst mark. Henson remains limited offensively, but he’s been a potent roll man this year ranking in the 82nd percentile at 1.25 PPP. Milwaukee could even consider using him more in those situations, but he’s done his duty beneath the basket by connecting on 67% of shots within 0-5 feet.

Meanwhile, any trepidation over Tony Snell’s contract extension this summer seem like they’ve been relatively unfounded. Snell remains a bit piece, but an uber efficient one who excels in that lane. He’s shooting a career-best 42.8% from deep this year while somehow even decreasing his already minuscule usage rate down to 10.9%. However, he is shooting less threes per-36 minutes than last year, just 4.6 compared to 5.5 the season prior. The Bucks’ coaches have been vocal about imploring Tony to shoot, even relegating him to the bench in a move in an attempt to increase those numbers. The logic doesn’t really follow on that one, since sending him to units with less spacing and playmakers doesn’t seem like it would help him shoot more, but I digress. That silly decision aside, Milwaukee should legitimately look to let this guy fire it up more. Wayne Ellington was told he has a green light any time by the Heat coaching staff and Milwaukee should be aiming to put Snell’s 3-point attempts closer to Ellington’s over-10 mark. Running him off screens (he’s averaging nearly a point per possession in those limited chances) may give him a few more of those shots, but really Milwaukee should just be kicking him the ball more often considering he has a 70.3 eFG% on spot-ups. He’s even flashed a little more on-ball ability this year too, showing skills as a driver by hitting 56.3% in those situations and already attempting four more free throws this year than he did all of last year despite nearly 60 less drives. Bottom line, even as a role player, a 10.9% usage rate simply won’t be enough for Milwaukee to suck the value out of Tony Snell’s $11 million/year contract. He should be more involved in Milwaukee’s offense, primarily as a willing chucker, but he’s been able to flex his basketball skills in additional ways that will be valuable going forward.

That’s gonna be it for our look at what’s been working for the Bucks so far this season. For the most part it’s nothing too revelatory, but there have been elements that contributed to the Bucks’ mild success to this point. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the elements that have caused constant consternation among Bucks’ nation this year.