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Calculated Countdown: 8 Days to Tipoff

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Can the Bucks repeat their standout performance in the clutch this year?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is rapidly approaching. That means it’s time for the now-annual tradition of our Calculated Countdown series examining a particular stat that corresponds to the number of days until tipoff. Today, that figure focuses on whether the Bucks’ bombastic clutch performance will carry over to this season.

8 Days to Tipoff

The Bucks ranked “8th” in terms of clutch net rating in 2017-18

Despite Milwaukee skating to 44 wins last year, their expected win outcome was just a shade over 40, per Cleaning the Glass. Some of that improvement certainly stemmed from a significant improvement in their clutch performances over the abhorrent play they displayed late the year prior. Milwaukee came in 8th last year in terms of net rating in the clutch, per NBA.com, so let’s explore whether that type of play is repeatable.

It’s worth noting that clutch ratings can be rather variable year to year. Oklahoma City, for example, was a juggernaut in Russell Westbrook’s MVP 2016-17 campaign, catapulting his team Atlas-style to a 19.9 overall net rating in 154 clutch minutes, good enough for 2nd in the league and a 26-16 record in those contests. Last year, they fell to a -1.5 net rating, 16th in the league, and a 24-22 record in 187 minutes. There are myriad reasons for that randomness, particularly due to the small sample sizes we’re often dealing with, but it’s an important qualifier to remember when examining these trends.

In 2016-17, the Milwaukee Bucks ranked just 26th in the league in clutch net rating, posting a -14.6. Were it not for a massive leap from 2nd worst (-23.7 in 111 minutes) in the pre All-Star period to ninth (10.1 net rating in 39 minutes) post All-Star, they would’ve fell even deeper into the final ring of stat hell. Last year, their split was reversed. They came out like gangbusters in the first half of the year, ranking 4th overall in clutch net rating at 16.7 in 117 minutes. Post All-Star, they fell to 23rd, finishing at -11.6 in 61 minutes. It all evened out to that 8th place finish at 7.5 net rating overall.

So what went into that vault up the league rankings? Primarily, a leap by Giannis that one hopes can portend a “killer” mentality when the game’s on the line, coupled with an influx of competent point guard play. Let’s focus first where everyone wants to focus: Giannis.

Going by my filter of clutch players with a usage rate at or above 25% with at least 20 clutch games played last year, here’s how the top players rank out in terms of effective field goal percentage.

EFG% in Clutch Minutes

Player Usage Rate EFG %
Player Usage Rate EFG %
Kevin Durant 32.2 66.7
Chris Paul 32.4 66.7
LeBron James 44.8 61.2
Giannis Antetokounmpo 26.7 59.3
Jrue Holiday 25.6 54.3
Eric Bledsoe 29.9 52.6
Victor Oladipo 38.3 52.5
Kyrie Irving 45 52
Anthony Davis 28.5 51.6
Damian Lillard 32.1 51.1

Right off the bat, it’s clear Giannis had an incredibly effective game in the clutch last season. The other thing you’ll hopefully notice, is that Giannis isn’t alone there. Eric Bledsoe’s relative effectiveness made a huge impact for this Milwaukee Bucks team when it came to play in the clutch.

He may sap some possessions from Giannis, which isn’t ideal, but I also think having more creators on the floor when defenses tighten up will be imperative to this team finding success. As they shift more and more into trusting Bud’s scheme, those contracted, late-game defenses that may shut down the type of open looks the Bucks get early in the game. That will force individual players to create offense to pull the team across the finish line.

Both Bledsoe and Giannis saw their percentage of unassisted field goals leap around 7-8% in the clutch. The shooting sample sizes are small, so it’s hard to extrapolate many definitive statements, but there’s also evidence that just having a competent point guard (be that Brogdon or Bledsoe) does wonders for Milwaukee’s ability in the clutch compared to when Matthew Dellavedova moonlights in that spot. Both of these player’s success also masked what was a poor shooting performance from Middleton in the clutch (6/26 23.1% from three) albeit on just 70 shots. His primary contribution was getting to the line 46 times and nailing his consistent 89% of those.

While I’m attributing some of the success to Bledsoe, and by extension his aggressiveness taking some pressure away from Giannis, Milwaukee’s superstar still could stand to take more control late in games. Bledsoe took the most shots among the marquee three (78), while Giannis took as many as Khris (70). With Giannis primed for an MVP-type year, he should look to up that number this season and test the limits of how far his ludicrous efficiency can take this team late in games.