By: Scott Levine
The Bucks are currently 9-9, just outside of the playoff picture. While that may seem fine for a team incorporating a new piece, their advanced metrics are more ominous. They are in the bottom half of the league in both offensive rating and defensive rating. Per Cleaning The Glass, their net rating is -3.8, good for 25th in the league. Based on these marks, they are actually overachieving by reaching .500.
It has still been an exciting year for the Bucks, though. The two highlights so far would have to be Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominant stretch to start the season, and the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe gives the Bucks a pick and roll-oriented point guard, something they have not had since Greivis Vasquez had ankle surgery two years ago. Before Bledsoe, the Bucks relied on Khris Middleton post-ups, Jabari Parker’s funky craft, and Giannis’ general brilliance to fart out enough points every game.
Giannis has benefitted from having a teammate who can run with him in transition. He will unlock Giannis’ potential as a lane filler on the fast break. Bledsoe is one of the fastest players with the ball in the league.
Middleton has looked stellar on offense since Bledsoe’s arrival. He has shot 47.1% on 3.8 catch and shoot attempts from three since Bledsoe arrived per NBA.com Player Tracking. Middleton started the season cold, partially due to the offensive responsibility he carries when Jabari Parker is out. Per Cleaning the Glass, he has taken 53% of his shots from mid-range, defined as all two-point shots not within four feet of the basket. This is a high mark for a secondary ball handler who can shoot threes. He will still use his cheeky mid-range game at times, especially when posting up smaller players, but that number should decrease as he gets used to a diet of catch-and-shoot threes.
Bledsoe creates opportunities for others as well in the half court by slicing through the defense and putting his teammates in advantage situations. Malcolm Brogdon, Middleton, and Giannis do not have the same burst and tact for getting to spots that Bledsoe does. He is adept at getting the opposing big on his heels in pick and rolls. From there, he will find an open teammate, pull up from mid range, or get to the basket.
His effectiveness has waned in recent games due to his shooting slump. The Mavericks and Wizards went under on Bledsoe, and it hindered his ability to attack. He took a few out-of-rhythm pull ups against Dallas when they went under, and bricked them all.
The Bucks have toyed with corner sets to help Bledsoe get to his spot even if teams go under. Against both the Wizards and Suns, Milwaukee ran a play in which Bledsoe started in the left corner, and caught the ball on the run into a side pick and roll. Both actions led to good results.
On the play in Phoenix, Ulis elects to go over the screen, but Bledsoe still would have gotten to his spot if Ulis went under, given the angle of the screen.
While this is a good set, it’s harder to initiate than a simple pick and roll. The Bucks won’t have to jump through these hoops if Bledsoe can make the defense go over. He is shooting 26.3% on pull up jumpers per NBA.com Player Tracking. History suggests he should shoot in the high-30s off the dribble – not great, but good enough to make defenses consider going over. The team’s offense should steadily improve as Bledsoe finds his shot and acclimates to his new teammates. It should receive another bump when Parker comes back, if he can recreate what he did last season.
Their defense is more of a concern. I don’t see an avenue for it to rapidly improve the way I do with the team’s offense. They are 20th in the league with a defensive rating of 107.9 per Cleaning the Glass. Also per Cleaning the Glass, opponents shoot 38.6% of their attempts within four feet of the basket against the Bucks, the highest frequency in the league. Teams have been able to work the ball inside for easy layups against Milwaukee.
While Bucks opponents shoot a middle-of-the-road 30.9% of their shots from three, they are making 41.1% of these shots, the highest mark in the league per Cleaning the Glass. We have to assume that some of this shooting is just their opponents’ luck and small sample size. But it’s hard to assume it’s only that. Milwaukee struggles to execute Kidd’s aggressive scheme, and often yields wide open shots from three for opponents.
That’s not to say it’s all the players’ fault. Some aspects of Kidd’s scheme are head-scratchers. They trap the pick and roll ball handler regardless of whether it’s Kyrie Irving or Ricky Rubio.
Notice how Middleton has to bump the roll man since Milwaukee is trapping Rubio. This leads to an open shot for Ingles. Sequences like this one happen a few times every game to the Bucks.
The Mavericks and Jazz both set franchise records for made three pointers this week against Milwaukee. Both of these teams have smart players who can shoot, but neither have an elite creator to grease the skids on offense. Luckily for them, the Bucks defense will grease the skids for you. You’re going to get an open shot if your opponent sends two help defenders at Devin Harris.
Harris is probably as shocked as I am that he drew this much help on a drive. He probably has not done that since 2009. This play illustrates that the Bucks are not looking to force any particular type of shot. They seem to just mindlessly blitz the ball until they inevitably leak and give the opposing team an open look.
The Bucks also must think that Harrison Barnes is capable of Dr. J-esque layups, and is always a threat to score from behind the backboard.
If Barnes makes a layup with John Henson all over him, good for Barnes. However, the defense felt the need to eliminate any remote possibility that Barnes makes a layup.
Sometimes the blitzing defense works, as was the case against Detroit last week. It led Stan Van Gundy to bench Reggie Jackson, who is known for having the ball stick in his hands more than desired. Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris also struggled to make the requisite skip passes that break the Bucks defense. The Pistons had a dreadful fourth quarter on offense and played into Milwaukee’s hands.
But for every moment in which the Bucks defense engulfs opponents, the team gives up two open threes that had no business being open. The Jazz were keenly aware of what the Bucks were trying to do, and found ways to hurt Milwaukee with its own scheme.
Utah knows that Bledsoe is going to help trap Rubio, which is why Mitchell darts to the wing after setting a brush screen. Rubio’s man can’t recover onto Mitchell because of the Favors screen.
When a team is able to exploit the Bucks’ trapping, it doesn’t just hurt Milwaukee’s defense, it hurts their offense. Giannis looks to go coast to coast on every missed shot. Until Bledsoe’s shooting rounds into form, they cannot churn out a reliable half court offense, and need to capitalize on transition opportunities.
Kidd’s defense is geared towards causing turnovers. But with Giannis, the one man wrecking crew in transition, they don’t need to generate turnovers to trigger transition opportunities. Per Cleaning the Glass, they convert 35.6% of their live ball rebounds into transition opportunities, good for third in the league. They should only get a boost in this department from Bledsoe. They are probably better off using a simpler switch-heavy defense that forces bad shots than gambling for turnovers.
The only downside to a less aggressive, switching scheme is that it would put more stress on their rebounding ability. The Bucks are a notoriously bad rebounding team, especially now that Greg Monroe is gone. But it’s hard to imagine they’d hemorrhage as many points on rebound battles as they are right now.
For now, the Bucks are not the team their talent suggests they could be. They may start winning more games when their offense clicks into place, but their defense will be a liability until they change their scheme or their coach.