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Stop the steals: Why the Bucks lose

Risky personnel in a risky system

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Like many that have come before, the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2023–24 campaign has featured wins and losses. Some of the wins have been worse than others, and some of the losses have been better than others, but on the whole, there is a consensus that wins are better than losses. The challenge is to divine what separates a win from a loss.

Statistically speaking, the most obvious difference is point differential. But under that surface lies an ocean of metrics that feed into it, affecting the degree to which the Bucks score and prevent their opponents from doing the same. In general, these metrics also paint an obvious picture: the Bucks perform better (or at least similarly) on them in wins than in losses.

But over the course of the season thus far, an interesting exception to this trend has emerged: steals (related metrics—such as opposing turnover rate—show a similar pattern, but I’ll focus on steals for simplicity). While they rank 29th in steals overall (6.3 per 100 possessions), the Bucks steal the ball more in losses (7.1) than wins (5.9). It’s a small but notable margin, especially since few steals occur per game. To put this margin into context, it’s the third-lowest in the league. And they’re not in good company: they’re only outpaced by a terrible defensive team (Pacers) and a terrible team period (Pistons—apparently, this is one of the hallmarks of the Central Division). Although given the extremely low sample size of wins for Detroit (lol), it’s hard to be confident in the Pistons’ value on this metric.

Steals seem to be good: not only do they take a possession away from the opponent, they offer a chance to score in transition (indeed, the Bucks score almost an extra point in transition in losses). Moreover, the league-wide average corroborates the general value of steals: teams record an extra half a steal in wins (that said, overall averages indicate some exceptions: Boston’s excellent defense doesn’t steal the ball, but Philly’s nearly-as-excellent defense does). So, what gives?

A steal is often a risk. Although steals can happen when opposing players pass the ball directly to the Bucks, most of them are not nice enough to do that. Instead, steals often involve putting oneself where the opposing player does not expect one to be. Typically—almost by definition—that involves being “out of position.” Being out of position is a risk with the potential reward of a steal.

And being out of position is indeed a risk. There is one less defender between the opponent and the basket, opening an avenue to score: unsurprisingly, Bucks’ opponents score seven more points per game in losses. Alternatively, the trailing defender or a covering defender may fly in to foul to prevent an easy bucket: the Bucks accumulate 1.6 more fouls per game in losses.

These problems are accentuated by both the current system and the current personnel. Griffin has attempted to install an aggressive and random defensive scheme. Yet many of his players are not spring chickens and have not bought into this system; as mentioned above, across wins and losses (i.e. overall) they are nearly last in the league in steals per game (whether the system is truly engineered to generate steals is then an open question. For now, I still assume that Griffin’s intent is a similar defensive style as Toronto’s while he was on their staff). And it’s hard to blame the Bucks for not buying the system; the fact that they have fewer steals per game in wins—at a rate that would rank dead last in the league overall—suggests that they are more successful when they are less aggressive on the defensive end.

But the personnel is also imperfect. Breaking down this statistic by individual players, the biggest differential belongs to Dame, who averages about half a steal per 100 possessions more in losses (1.8) than wins (1.2). In terms of percentiles, he jumps from the 21st percentile for his position (below average) to the 76th percentile (above average). Dame is already a suspect defender, but when he follows the system and aggressively goes for steals—with some success!—the net result is negative. More often than not he is taking himself out of the defensive equation: Dame doesn’t foul much (89th percentile overall, roughly similar across wins and losses), hence the all-too-common sight of defenders leaving him in the dust.

In contrast, the few players that are above-average for their positions— Giannis (71st percentile), Khris (65th), and Bobby (61st)—get roughly the same number of steals per 100 possessions in losses versus wins. These players get theirs, and although their effort isn’t correlated with the game outcome, at least it’s not negatively correlated like Dame’s.

Ultimately, Griffin should play with the cards he has. The win-loss steal differential is a small sign of a broader issue: his system does not match his personnel. The Bucks’ defense would be better off being more defensive.