The Bucks Are Coming…Soon

Mediocrity Green Road Sign with Dramatic Clouds, Sun Rays and Sky.

By now we all know the mantra of the Milwaukee Bucks: there will be no tanking.

“There are different ways teams conduct their business in the sports leagues, and I like to see that we put a competitive product on the floor every season.” 1

Those words, said by Herb Kohl, former Senator and longtime owner of the Bucks, are undoubtedly well meaning, but they leave his franchise in a difficult situation.

The best option for a struggling team to achieve title contender status is to tank. A poor record usually translates into higher draft picks, which can then be used to draft talented players capable of elevating a team into the upper echelon of the NBA. Moreover, higher draft picks are a valuable asset that can oftentimes be used in a trade for a disgruntled star.

With their owner’s insistence on maintaining a “competitive” unit every year, the Bucks don’t have access to that advantageous undertaking. Unfortunately, this has left the organization in an uncomfortable and uncompetitive spot; for example, last year’s squad had the fourth worst record of any playoff team in the last 16 years. Teams like the 2012-2013 Milwaukee Bucks may make the playoffs, but with absolutely zero chance of ever winning the series, where does that leave the organization in the immediate future?

Kohl’s desire not to tank has forced the Bucks to revamp their squad through methods other than the draft. Over the course of this offseason, the Bucks have seen 10 old players go, while 10 new players have come in. Milwaukee’s roster is essentially a brand new team.

pic 2

At the Center of the rebuild is Larry the Redeemer

The Bucks’ new roster is highlighted by its bigs. At center there’s “LARRY SANDERS!”, shot blocker extraordinaire and a guaranteed top level defender. Sanders’ defensive RAPM of 6.1 was good for third highest in the league, narrowly trailing the 6.3 marks by Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. And when he played, the Bucks defensive rating jumped from 108.3 to 102.4. In layman’s terms: when Sanders was on the bench, opposing teams scored at a rate equivalent to the San Antonio Spurs; when Sanders was on the court, opposing teams scored at a similar rate to the Philadelphia76ers. Sanders’ offense admittedly needs work, but his problems are relatively easy to fix and he brings so much value defensively that his offensive struggles can be tolerated.

Ekpe Udoh and Zaza Pachulia are two solid backup centers who’ll ensure that the Bucks defense doesn’t fall apart when Sanders rests. Udoh may be the most underrated player in the league; he’s posted defensive RAPMs of 3.0 and 3.5 these past two seasons, which are numbers that are similar to the 3.3 mark Josh Smith possessed last season. Pachulia isn’t quite as good defensively, but over the course of his career opposing team’s offensive ratings have dipped by about one point when he’s stepped onto the court. On offense, neither Udoh or Pachulia are ideal, but they find ways to avoid becoming offensive quagmires a la Kendrick Perkins 2. Overall, they’ll do a fine job holding down the fort defensively when Sanders sits and will fill out a very solid three man rotation at center.

Ersan Ilyasova

The power forward outlook is similarly rosy. The projected starter is Ersan Ilyasova, ace stretch four 3, and someone who’s offensive value is hard to understate. The first added benefit of Ilyasova’s three point prowess is the high value of threes. Due to the extra point, the 44.8% mark from three that Ilyasova has hit the last two seasons is the equivalent of shooting 67.1% on twos. Being able to take and make such an efficient shot 4 is clearly a boon for any team’s offense. But the value of Ilyasova’s three point shooting goes beyond just added points, as it strains opposing defenses to breaking points. Ilyasova’s man is forced into a difficult decision: if he helps off of Ilyasova in order to protect paint, he risks giving Ilyasova an open three; if he sticks with Ilyasova, he rids his defense of one less body in the paint, which can lead to less-contested shots or offensive rebounds…or both. It’s a borderline impossible decision to make and it resulted in plenty of high percentage shots for the Bucks. Add in Ilyasova’s low turnover rate 5 and surprisingly good offensive rebounding despite spending so much time on the perimeter 6 and you have a very good offensive player. Appropriately, Ilyasova’s offensive RAPM of 2.4 is a mark that trumps more dynamic offensive players such as Paul Millsap (2.0) and Paul Pierce (2.0).

Ilyasova’s backup, John Henson, doesn’t provide as much any range, but there’s still plenty to like about the long limbed sophomore from North Carolina. On offense, Henson moves well without the ball, making subtle adjustments to free himself for dump offs at the rim, where he’s a capable finisher. Furthermore, Henson is dominant on the offensive glass. He uses his innate nose for the ball and incredible length to snag offensive boards, which are invaluable for an offense. In total, Henson finished with a terrific offensive rebounding percentage of 14.5%, which was second in the league among all power forwards. On defense he faced the usual rookie struggles, but he continuously works the defensive glass 7 and, with his 7’5’’ wingspan, he showed major potential as a shot blocker and rim protector 8.

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers

There’s always Ilyasova open for the three…

When you move onto the Bucks’ perimeter players, things initially continue to look up. For one, they’re not a disaster defensively. While Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, and Luke Ridnour haven’t made their money through their reputations as defensive stoppers, Larry Sanders & Co. 9 should be able to provide the Bucks with enough defense to keep them in most games 10.

Also, the Bucks’ shooting guards have thee point shooting for days. Take a look at their numbers compared to the league average 11.

Player

Three Point Attempts per 36 minutes

Three Point Percentage

League Average Player

2.8

36.3%

Caron Butler

6.3

38.8%

Carlos Delfino

9.0

37.5%

Brandon Knight

5.0

36.7%

O.J. Mayo

4.3

40.7%

Gary Neal

6.1

35.5%

Luke Ridnour

3.1

31.1%

That’s a lot of three point shooting. While it is true that Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino probably won’t be able to post such gaudy three point attempt numbers again 12 and O.J. Mayo is more of 38% shooter than a 40% one, that’s effectively counterbalanced by two facts: (1) that before last season Gary Neal shot 41.9% from three and (2) that Luke Ridnour’s thee point percentage last season is well below his very acceptable career mark of 35.1%.

For reasons I’ve already gone over 13 three point shooting is incredibly valuable, but to drive that point further home here’s a list of the top five offenses in the NBA last season.

Team

Offensive Rating

Percentage of Field Goal Attempts from Three (NBA Rank)

Three Point Percentage (NBA Rank)

Miami Heat

110.3

29.1% (5th)

39.6% (2nd)

Oklahoma City Thunder

110.2

25.9% (10th)

37.7% (3rd)

New York Knicks

108.6

36.4% (1st)

37.6% (5th)

Los Angeles Clippers

107.7

27.1% (8th)

35.8% (15th)

Denver Nuggets

107.6

22.5% (22nd)

34.3% (26th)

With the exception of Denver, every team attempted a lot of threes, made them at a high rate, or did both. Clearly, three point shooting is vital to maintaining a top-notch offense, something which bodes well for the Bucks. Obviously, there were other factors at play besides three point shooting 14 in determining offensive rating and the Bucks won’t be able to be as prolific of a shooting team as the Heat, Thunder, or Knicks, but they could still be better than the Clippers. With that being said, the Bucks could probably muster a top 15 offense, a big improvement over their 22nd rank last season. That is, if they didn’t lack one glaring need: shot creation.

Until now, this Bucks preview has been unusually positive. They should have a top 10 defense due to Larry Sanders & Co. And thanks to Ersan Ilyasova and the Bucks’ perimeter guys, they’ll have an avalanche of three point shooting, which will help their offense mightily. But, they have almost zero shot creation.

Seriously, where’s it gonna come from? This excellent Bucks article showed that the Bucks do have some players who can create in isolation, which is all well and good. After all, there’s always going to be broken possessions where only an isolation can be salvaged, and then isolation players come in handy, but they tend have a pitiful lack of passing. Looking at the passing numbers of the Bucks’ projected ball handlers 15 is disheartening.
 

Player

Assist Percentage

Turnover Percentage

Brandon Knight

21.3%

17.3%

O.J. Mayo

19.4%

15.7%

Gary Neal

13.5%

9.9%

Luke Ridnour

21.0%

12.8%

Knight’s numbers are pretty bad. As a point guard you want your assist percentage to be at least in the high 20’s, and the average turnover percentage is around 11%. On the court, you can practically see Knight going through his reads one by one. In short, he’s not the answer.

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Mayo’s assist percentage of 19.4% is actually pretty good for a shooting guard, ranking 16th in the league, but it’s more a result of the fact that he’s a willing passer rather than a natural one. He genuinely makes an effort to set up his teammates, but he’s not great at it and it shows in his high 15.7% turnover percentage. He can only be really called an above average passer at the shooting guard position, and would be woefully inadequate as a point guard. He’s not the answer.

Gary Neal does a great job not turning the ball over at 9.9%, but his 13.5% assist percentage is tiny. He’s a microwave man, the person who you turn your offense to when you sit your point guard. He’s not the answer.

In the end that leaves Luke Ridnour as the best option. His assist percentage is a bit low, but he played shooting guard last season. When he ran the point, he was able to post an acceptable assist percentage in the high 20’s. Unfortunately, that also came with a spike in his turnover percentage. He’s the best option, but far from an ideal one.

The lack of passing is pretty damning for the Bucks’ offense. They have plenty of players capable of finishing possessions efficiently, but they’re all catch-and-shoot/catch-and-finish types who need to be set up. With that problem, it’s hard to imagine the Bucks beating their 22nd offensive rating from last season. However, it’s not all bad. The Bucks still have plenty of three point shooting and possess a few capable isolationists among their ball handlers which should prevent them from slipping past that 22nd spot. Combine that with their sure-to-be top 10 defense and you have a team that’ll easily eclipse it’s Vegas over/under of 28.5 games and challenge for 40 wins and a playoff spot. So in other words, they’ll be…the Bucks. Oh well, some things never change.

 

Statistical Support from Stats for the NBA, Basketball Reference, and Hoopdata.

 991 Oranges Squeezed

Notes:

  1. http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/sports/209958411.html
  2. Udoh sets great screens and Pachulia is a good offensive rebounder (his career offensive rebounding percentage of 12.1% bests the center average by about two percentage points). They’re still probably net negatives on offense, but they do more than enough to prevent that from overshadowing their defensive contributions.
  3. Ersan Ilyasova has shot 44.8% from three point land on 3.2 attempts per 36 minutes over the past two seasons
  4. The league average FG% at the rim last season was 64.9%. Think about that – an Ersan Ilyasova three had a better chance of going in than your average shot 2 feet from the basket. Yeah, he’s a pretty good three point shooter.
  5. Ilyasova has had a turnover percentage of 8.9 since 2011-2012, the seventh best mark among power forwards over that time span.
  6. Ilyasova’s offensive rebounding percentage  of 10.1% the last two seasons is a good distance above the power forward league average of roughly 8.5%.
  7. He had a defensive rebounding percentage of 24.4%, a top 10 mark among power forwards.
  8. Henson had a block percentage of 3.7% which was once again a top 10 mark among power forwards. Blocked shot numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of good defense (Javale McGee), but they do show the potential Henson has.
  9. Co. being Ekpe Udoh, Zaza Pachulia, and John Henson
  10. I haven’t mentioned Giannis Antetokuonmpo (I actually spelled that right first time, not even kidding) yet because there’s a good chance he doesn’t play much this season. Regardless, here are my quick thoughts on him based off of preseason. He’s shown plenty of signs of being an impact player: his three point shot looks good, but it has some kinks to work out; his handle looks alright, though he does need to tighten it to become an off-the-bounce guy; he’s impressive with his passing; and he’s made some incredible plays on defense, though as a whole his defense has been hit or miss. There’s a lot to like, and though almost all of his strengths have caveats for now, he’s only 19 and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t improve them. Get excited, Bucks fans.
  11. The league average numbers are for positions one through three.
  12. After all, Butler and Delfino were playing off of Chris Paul/Blake Griffin and James Harden, respectively.
  13. See the paragraph on Ersan Ilyasova
  14. Lebron, Wade, Melo, KD, Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin to name a few.
  15. I think it was safe to leave out Butler and Delfino.
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