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Bouncing Back and Forth: The Puzzling Resilience of the Milwaukee Bucks

We take a quick look at some of the details surrounding the Bucks’ most maddening losses and why they happened.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

English majors will recognize that line as the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, but Milwaukee Bucks aficionados can understand the duality it represents as it relates to the Bucks’ performance in the 2017-18 season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been a sensation, while fans’ impressions of head coach Jason Kidd have only declined.

At 21-17, the Bucks have won 55% of their games, are presently on pace to win 45 games for the year, and currently sit in the fifth slot of the Eastern Conference rankings. They also are smack-dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference’s “second tier;” while the trio of Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto are clearly ahead of the rest of the pack, Milwaukee is (as of today) on relatively equal footing with Washington (23-17), Miami (22-17), Detroit, (21-17), Indiana (20-19), and Philadelphia (19-19).

Despite their modest success, Bucks fans have regularly expressed a mixture of disappointment, confusion, and anger in response to the team’s wildly inconsistent performance. After all, a 45-win campaign is still five games short (at least) of the franchise’s preseason expectations, which should not change no matter what the head coach tries to walk the goals back to. But as usual with the Bucks, it’s not what record they end up with, but how they get there.

Any discussion of the Bucks needs to start with their inconsistency. In their 38 games, the Bucks are seemingly unaffected by the results of any previous games. They only have five significant streaks (positive or negative) of 3 or more games, with a four-game losing streak (before acquiring Eric Bledsoe), a four-game winning streak (after acquiring Bledsoe), two separate three-game win streaks, and a single three-game losing streak. Whether they triumph or fall on any given night, there isn’t much discernible overall difference; they are 10-10 in games following a win, and an equally-unimpressive 9-7 in contests following a loss.

Looking for even more reason to #NeverTrustTheBucks? Their scoring differential within these categories is all over the place. In ten post-victory wins, Milwaukee has an average margin of victory of +7.6 points, and in ten post-victory defeats, that mark is -13.6 points. Likewise, in their nine post-defeat wins, the average margin of victory is +9.3 points, and in seven post-defeat losses, the Milwaukee boasts an average deficit of -7.0 points.

If you needed less predictability, the Bucks are hard to forecast when it comes to the results within a single game. From matchup to matchup, Milwaukee vacillates from getting blown out to blowing out others, and everywhere in between. In games decided by 12 or more points, the Bucks’ record is 4-5; in games determined by margins between 7 and 11 points, the Bucks are 8-6. The Bucks are doing their best work in close games, where they are 9-6 when the final scores are separated by 6 or fewer points.

A possible reason for this unpredictability is Milwaukee’s propensity for playing up (or down) to their opponents. With most teams in the NBA having played roughly 40 games, most squads have established what they’re going to be this year, meaning we can break up the Bucks’ opponents into aggregated categories based on win percentage (as of Sunday, January 7). The table below shows Milwaukee’s record against different types of opponents; shockingly enough, the Bucks are good against bad teams (those with a win% less than 0.380) and struggle against good ones (those with a win% above 0.700).

The most concerning games are those six lost to teams with a winning percentage of 0.450 or lower, which include the Dallas Mavericks (13-27) the Rudy Gobert-less Utah Jazz (16-23), and two apiece from the underwhelming Charlotte Hornets (15-23) and the spunky Chicago Bulls (14-26). These are games against over-matched opponents that, for whatever reason, the Bucks were simply unable to play like a team that should be above those who can’t match them on talent. It’s no coincidence that those six losses were the ones that Bucks fans were most upset about.

What happened in those games? The answer is actually straightforward; the Bucks failed to generate enough turnovers, and couldn’t keep up with their opponents in a shootout. In comparing the averages from each game log to the team’s season averages, the two main stats that show the biggest spike are steals/opponent turnovers and three point shooting (on both sides).

Turnovers, that mythical substance that somehow makes the Bucks’ ultra-aggressive defense click, are a critical component of a team that relies on transition opportunities as much as Milwaukee does. In the six losses, the Bucks far under-performed their season averages in turnovers generated, with opponents only coughing the ball up 12 times per game vs. the 15.4 per game (8th in the NBA) the Bucks usually enjoy.

More than turnovers was the massive over-performance opponents put forth in their three-point shooting. For themselves, the Bucks actually attempted ~15% more threes than they usually do (28.5 attempts vs. season average of 24.4), and actually kept their opponents within 5% of their normal frequency (27.7 3PA vs. season average of 26.6, which is actually 6th in the NBA). So even though the Bucks didn’t give up a ton of attempts...opponents hit an average of 46.0% in these six games, which is absurdly better than the Bucks’ already league-last average of 38.7% allowed.

The Milwaukee defense is oft-criticized, and deservedly so, but opponents have simply been red-hot against the Bucks all year. In a league where shooting has never been more important, Milwaukee has actually tamped down the number of attempts they give up, but there’s only so much to be done when shots go in. Perhaps the Bucks’ allowed threes are simply of a higher quality if shooters have more space to work with, which could explain the percentage of shots that land, but the table above shows just how silly some of those games were for Milwaukee.

Even just two-thirds of those six troublesome games going the direction they were “supposed” to go would make Milwaukee’s season look very different. Instead a 21-17 record leading to talk of disappointment and futility, a 25-13 record would be cause for celebration, or at least contentment, even if the Bucks kept doing things that many followers hated. A win percentage of 0.657 would put the Bucks firmly in the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed, instead of stuck in the middle with other good-yet-limited teams.

But stuck in the middle we are, and will be for the foreseeable future. What can the Bucks do to break out of the cycle they’re in, and capitalize on wins while avoiding getting stuck on losses? The easiest answer (and one Coach Kidd might agree with) is to treat every team like they’re a winner, to avoid letdowns in games the Bucks ought to win. In terms of specifics, though, it’s hard to prescribe any realistic changes; further dialing back the Bucks’ aggressive movements on defense (while still maintaining aggression) would be the best change if it were implemented permanently, and the Bucks’ offense (110.3, 6th in the NBA) is good enough to keep the team in most games already.

The Bucks are who they are. Without any fundamental changes on the roster or on the staff, there’s no reason to expect them to be different than who we’ve seen. They are susceptible to faltering against lesser opponents, but can never truly be counted out against greater ones. Is this a maturity issue? A coaching issue? Something else entirely?

Regardless, the next seven games might be the most important stretch of the Bucks’ season. Tonight against the Indiana Pacers will kick off a stretch of games where Milwaukee faces off against talented opponents that are invested in the Eastern Conference playoff race (two games against the Miami Heat, another game against the Washington Wizards, and a matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers). Rounding things out are showdowns against the Orlando Magic (which has “trap game” written all over it) and the *gulp* Golden State Warriors.

The Bucks have a chance to show the league who they are and what they’re about. Over the next seven games, we will be watching.