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Midseason Check-In: What Has Not Worked For The Milwaukee Bucks

At least it’s not everything.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we tried to stay positive for a day and look at what is actually working for the Milwaukee Bucks so far this season. However, this season’s also been full of disappointing trends and in fact that seems to be the overriding theme for all Bucks fans this year. So let’s dive straight into the darkness and take a peek at several pieces that haven’t been trending the correct way thus far.

What’s Not Working

There’s a litany of items we can rattle off here, particularly in the limelight of two disappointing losses to the Heat last week and a Giannis-less Sixers loss. However, let’s try and distill this down to three core issues that are clearly plaguing the team this season. *Note that these statistics do not include Saturday’s Sixers game

1. Coaching Clunkers (Let’s just talk about the defense...)

Some lay all of the Bucks’ problems at Jason Kidd’s feet. Much of this criticism is fair. The defensive scheme seems broken perhaps beyond repair. When your team’s overall defensive statistics were better last year while Matthew Dellavedova, Jabari Parker, Michael Beasley and Greg Monroe hoisted minutes aplenty rather than Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and John Henson, then there’s probably a fundamental issue that needs to be solved.

Yes, the on-court numbers for many of those players last year were not kind, particularly for Jabari, but this year’s team seems to have rectified one of the issues everyone’s had with this scheme for years: providing 3-pointers aplenty. This year, Milwaukee actually ranks 5th for least 3-pointers allowed, at 26.1. Last year they were 8th worst at 28.2 and 4th worst the year prior at 26.5. Considering the league is shooting more 3-pointers than ever, that should be buoying Milwaukee’s defense. They’ve been particularly unlucky to this point with opponents shooting the 3rd best against them at 38.1, so there is some room for regression to the mean in that statistic considering 3-point shooting percentage is generally considered a product of luck. The best defense against 3-pointers is to not allow them. So if Milwaukee is on track in that respect, what gives? You hear that? That’s the sound of their paint defense snapping beneath the weight of the points teams are piling atop it.

Milwaukee allowed 38.7 shot attempts in the paint last year, a number that’s juiced up a bit to 40.1 this year. In the restricted area, teams are shooting 62.9% as compared to 60.6% last year. Rim protection has been an issue, and when teams are pounding it to the hoop even more that only compounds issues. That 62.9% mark is actually middle of the pack so far (17th), but only two teams allowing better shooting are also allowing more shots in that area than the Bucks (Houston and Orlando). It’s not like the Bucks haven’t been around to contest shots either. They rank second in the league in allowing the least “wide open” shots, defined as when a defender is 6 feet or further away. Teams are shooting 3rd best in terms of eFG% on those though at 61.9%, another statistic highly reliant on luck given there are no defenders in the area.

So they’re around the ball quite often, generally not letting teams let loose too often for free shots, but that doesn’t always tell the full story. As Zach Lowe indicated in his 10 Things column this week, the overhelping of Milwaukee’s defense lends itself to exploitation quite easily. Too often, Milwaukee sends extra helpers at post-ups or overloads one side of the floor leading to communication issues on the backside. When one player sees another facing off against someone one-on-one, they feel compelled to rush to their aid rather than trusting in the player’s defensive capabilities and aiding them when needed. This is true both in the paint and on the perimeter. The individual talents of Milwaukee’s defenders seems obvious, both in eye test and the statistics. Indeed, Milwaukee actually defends isolation plays at the sixth best rate in the league. Some of the trapping probably helps in that regard, but since it’s been toned down a bit this year it seems fair to say isolation plays will typically involve one-on-one play, a scenario in which the Bucks’ defenders should theoretically excel. Here’s a prime example of that too eager attitude:

And another opportunity where it feels like the Bucks are genuinely just overthinking this, something that feels all too common with this team:

That complexity can allow for teams to take advantage of their constantly switching parts in addition to their lapses in judgment. Running players off screens has given Milwaukee fits in the spots opponents do it (allowing the 2nd most points per possessions), and those sorts of actions force Bucks’ players to adjust the helter-skelter scheme in ways that allow savvy players to either find open spots or seek out the player Bucks’ defenders left open to recover for their trailing teammate. Here’s a prime example from the Heat game:

Now, that play is reliant both on a poor 3-point shooter in Winslow hitting a shot and the rookie Bam Adebayo making an impressively quick read for a big man rolling to the rim, but it also results in Matthew Dellavedova as the last line of defense for what could’ve also been an easy lay-in. Brown fails to stop the roller and give Henson a smidge more time to recover before returning to contain Dragic. These open corner threes have basically been running through Bucks’ fans nightmares the past three years despite them being cut back this year.

What’s also been hindering this team is their weakened rim protection. John Henson is actually defending at a better rate than last year at 58.1%, ranked 14th among all players who face at least four field goal attempts at the rim per game. For reference, he was at 62.3% last year. Thon Maker’s at 59%, up from 56.4% the year prior. Most prominently though, Giannis has not been the staunch defender at the rim he was last year. This year, opponents are shooting 60.2% against him, a far cry from his spectacular 52.4% mark last year that ranked 6th among those facing at least four attempts per game, just behind Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Hassan Whiteside. We cannot ask Giannis to do everything, but this is almost certainly a contributing factor to teams pummeling the Bucks at the rim. However you slice it, Milwaukee ranking 24th in defensive rating cannot be considered anything but a complete failure to this point. I don’t see any opportunities for considerable upside either besides a small regression for opponent 3-point shooting.

2. Thon Maker’s Sophomore Season Thud

Thon Maker entered this year with quite the expectations from Bucks fans. His improved performance in the playoffs against Toronto seemed to finally validate the fits and starts he had shown after starting the final stretch of the games in the regular season. Instead, he lost his starting job to John Henson after seven game and hasn’t shown any inkling of ever getting it back.

After posting a fairly impressive 9.4% turnover rate last year, he’s up to 14.1% already this year. That’s made more depressing by the fact his usage rate has dropped precipitously from 16.2% to 12.5%. He’s down to just 33.3% from deep, a mark one would hope nestles into the 37-38% range to make him a valuable stretch-5. His 44.2 eFG% is ranked in just the 2nd percentile among all bigs, per Cleaning the Glass.

He’s also shooting just 44% at the rim (2nd percentile among bigs) after going 63% in that area last year. All year long he’s looked preposterously uncomfortable beneath the basket, swinging his arms violently like a toddler to get the ball up before someone might pop it out of his undersized hands. I can’t think of almost any possessions where he’s caught ball, gathered himself and put the ball into the rim with any sort of finesse. Additionally, the Bucks have taken to trying him as a roll finisher in what can only be described as a circus act. He never catches the ball, he can barely get enough lift to have time to finish and anytime Paschke might say “alley-oop to Thon,” feel free to step away and grab more food because it’s likely going to end in a turnover. Those make up 15.5% of his possessions and he’s ranked in the 9th percentile in terms of scoring efficiency. What’s also bizarre is that Milwaukee’s percentage of transition plays decreases while Thon’s on the court, a peculiar phenomenon given his ability to run the floor is about the only attribute I would say has been on display this year.

Defensively, he only rebounds 14.4% of opponent misses, per Cleaning the Glass, ranked in the 23rd percentile for his position. His block rate (2.3%) is respectable, but I also venture to bet he’s one of the league leaders in whiffed block attempts. The Bucks have a -6.0 net rating with him on the court and a 111.3 defensive rating that improves to 105.0 with him off the court. To be fair, some of that has come because he’s played primarily with bench units other than the start of the season. He was still part of those early starting lineup groups that were decimating teams, as Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Thon lineups had a +8.6 net rating in 95 minutes. However, that’s still a lower rate than that same groups with Henson (+14.0 net rating) and the current starters are scoring at practically the same rate as that Thon starting unit with a lower defensive rating by 3 points. All of this is to say that Thon has not taken anything approaching a sophomore season leap. Indeed, I’d say his alley oop attempts are a fitting symbol for how his year has gone.

3. Bottom of the Roster Improvement

Teams that build sustained successes year-after-year consistently find ways for late draft picks to contribute. Rifling through the crapshoot that is the NBA Draft, especially true following lottery selections, teams like Toronto and Golden State have consistently found fringe guys who can contribute in meaningful ways like Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and Jordan Bell among others. Yes, they have plenty of misses too, but the value Milwaukee is receiving from its last four drafts is alarmingly low. With Giannis already hoisting a significantly higher salary and more players set to shoot up Milwaukee’s cap sheet, the importance of cheap contributors is tantamount to Milwaukee building a contender around their superstar. As a refresher, here are the players selected in drafts since 2014:

  • Jabari Parker (Y’know...)
  • Damien Inglis (out of the league)
  • Johnny O’Bryant (occasionally makes a basket in Charlotte)
  • Rashad Vaughn (RIP fourth year rookie option)
  • Thon Maker (Value slipping down a mudslide
  • Malcolm Brogdon (props on this pick)
  • D.J. Wilson (Lost minutes to Marshall Plumlee)
  • Sterling Brown (An increasingly bad - in a good way - man)

Sans Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and maybe Sterling Brown, that is essentially four years of draft history offering this team absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s more accurate to probably say they’re detracting from this team given their presence on the court generally coincided with sad plus-minus times. Distilling their impact down to the most simplistic stat - points - I combined every player’s minutes and point production together outside of Brogdon and Parker to this point. Together, they have scored 1,239 points in the nearly 4,600 minutes they played. Brogdon alone has already exceeded that scoring output by 98 points with around 1,300 less minutes.

More importantly, what few hits they’ve had have been second-round selections. When they hit, which is rarely, they are significant given the dirt-cheap salaries they command. However, they’re also usually older players with limited to no upside, hence them falling so considerably in the draft. So, the young-ish players they’ve chosen in the first round have not only commanded higher salaries, they also haven’t shown the incremental growth or talent one would hope to glean from a first round selection.

One could also argue that hitting on second round selections is actively hurting their cap sheet given they can only sign those players to three year deals, meaning they’ll command higher salaries sooner and be looking to get paid given they played for effectively nothing. Milwaukee will almost certainly be paying Brogdon considerable dollars already in the fourth year of Thon’s rookie deal. For a franchise that’s rarely going to get free agents, it’s paramount they find cheap talent to supplement the highly paid players surrounding Giannis. That includes ensuring they keep as many swings at the plate as possible, no more trading silly second round picks just to make a Buck (Eric Bledsoe deal excluded since that still seems worthwhile to me). Hopefully one of their last two first round guys starts to put something together, but at present the best attribute of the Bucks bench is their quick first step to stand up and cheer.

Milwaukee sits at 23-22 now after falling to the Sixers on Saturday night. There’s an incredible amount of improvement that would be needed for this team to reach anywhere near the lofty goals they set from the outset. At present, that doesn’t seem likely and a disappointing year for the Bucks should force the franchise to take a long look in the mirror before deciding the proper path towards the championship contention ownership craves.