One Buck – What’s Up With Milwaukee?

Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the best player in basketball.

Of course, he also might not be, but the fact that he might be tells you enough about his talent. The 23-year-old, 6’11” tall, 7′ wingspan, every-position nightmare from Athens has more than earned his nickname “The Greek Freak”. However, the name originates more through a combination of his raw physical measurables and his hard-to-pronounce surname than his actual skill, which has grown at an incredible rate. Just the 15th pick in the 2013 draft, Giannis has panned out to an extent perhaps unimagined by even the Bucks, and more quickly than the rest of the league would wish. Giannis ranks 3rd overall in CornerThree WAR and 2nd in RPM WAR across the entire NBA, and has an extremely versatile skillset that allows him to play all 5 positions on both offense and defense. Despite this, the Bucks sit just half a game above the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, sport a -0.3 average point differential per game, and rank 19th out of 30 in TSP, which expects them to perform at a level under that of a 38 win team in the postseason. FiveThirtyEight ranks them as the 2nd-worst team in the postseason.

How?

Many people posited the problem was coach Jason Kidd. Under Kidd, Milwaukee ran an aggressive defensive scheme that often gave up high-value shots, like corner threes, in an effort to force more turnovers. The strategy worked well in the first season (2014-2015), when the Bucks ranked 2nd in the NBA in defensive rating, but teams had seemed to figure things out since, with ranks of 22nd, 19th, and 24th (up until the Kidd firing) in the seasons since. Kidd was fired on January 22nd; since, the Bucks rank 8th in defensive rating.

Despite this, not much has changed overall for the Bucks. 24-22 on the date of Kidd’s firing, they are just 13-10 since. A quick proportion hypothesis test in the statistical programming language R would indicate there is no statistically significant difference between their record before and after firing their coach:

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 5.00.22 PM.png

That output can be a bit confusing, but the main idea is the p-value of 93.2%, the percentage chance that the two proportions come from the same distribution – i.e., there is no significant difference.

Image result for joe pruntyNew coach Joe Prunty has had difficulty elevating the Bucks’ level of play since the departure of Jason Kidd.

How is this possible considering their defensive improvement? Of course, an offensive regression. Where this year’s Bucks had the 8th-best offensive rating in the league with Kidd, they’ve fallen to 15th without him. My first thought was that perhaps in the absence of Kidd, they’ve played more conservative defense, causing fewer turnovers and therefore fewer easy transition points – what they’d gain in defensive efficiency they’d lose in offensive efficiency. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case, as their points off turnovers per game and fast break points per game have both slightly increased since January 22, from 17.7 to 18.0 and 13.7 to 14.5, respectively, and with minimal change in pace.

It’s important, though, that most teams’ offenses have gotten better over the course of the season. The Bucks’ offensive rating is actually slightly higher since firing Kidd (ranking 15th) than it was before (ranking 8th). Over the course of a long season, defenses wear down, players get injured, and some teams even tank, making above-average teams normally see their offensive efficiencies rise. Whereas other playoff-level teams have gained chemistry over the course of the season, figured out which of their lineups and offensive sets work, and scored more efficiently, Milwaukee has lagged behind.

This could be ascribed to instability for the team this season, the biggest of course being the firing of their coach. They also traded for a starting point guard (Eric Bledsoe) after the season started and lost last season’s rookie of the year (Malcolm Brogdon) to injury. Supposed second-fiddle Jabari Parker returned from another ACL tear midway through the season. They simply haven’t had enough time to gel, and haven’t been able to figure out how to either a) succeed (or at least tread water) without Giannis on the floor, and b) maximize Giannis’ skills when he is on the floor.

Image result for malcolm brogdon jabari parkerMilwaukee has dealt with stability issues – it’s been one-or-the-other for players like Malcolm Brogdon and Jabari Parker.

Incredibly, the Bucks only have 5 lineups that have played over 50 minutes this season, and all 5 both include Giannis and have a positive net rating. Giannis is currently playing more minutes per game than anyone else in the NBA, and it seems they might need 40 minutes a game from him if they’ll want a chance in the playoffs – their offense and defense both suffer tremendously with him off the court. How tremendously? Their net rating with him (4.8) would rank 4th in the NBA; without him (-9.1) 29th, ahead of only the Phoenix Suns.

On paper, this seems like it shouldn’t be the case. Eric Bledsoe is a capable defender who is shooting the second-best effective field goal percentage of his 8-year career this season. Khris Middleton can switch across multiple positions while averaging an efficient (.466/.353/.875) 20 points per game. John Henson is a limited but capable defensive center. This season, though, that has been the short list of capable NBA players on the Milwaukee Bucks. Thon Maker is an enticing prospect, but simply isn’t ready for real NBA minutes – he’s logged 1135 of them this season (7th on the team) and in them has dragged the Bucks’ net rating from 3.5 to -3.8. Jabari Parker is still getting back into the flow of the game after another serious injury, and his shooting has looked good (.506/.421/.743), but by all other accounts he’s been a disaster, with a career-low -2.4 BPM thus far this season – the Bucks are giving up over 4.5 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court than off since his return to the lineup.

After Bledsoe, Middleton, and Henson, the Bucks have evidently had little to no contribution, but it’s not clear that those three even fit well with Giannis in the first place. Of all of Milwaukee’s 4-man lineups that have logged over 50 minutes this season, Antetokoumpo-Bledsoe-Middleton-Henson ranks 18th. Offensively, you need a lot of coaching creativity to score efficiently and create enough spacing when you have four players with three point percentages of 30% (Antetokoumpo), 34% (Bledsoe), 35% (Middleton), and 0% (Henson).  With Kidd and now Joe Prunty, it doesn’t appear the Bucks have it.

As a likely 7 or 8 seed this upcoming postseason, the Bucks will have an uphill battle to even advance past the first round. The Raptors have been scary good this season and eliminated this same Bucks team in the first round last season. The Celtics have one of the best coaches in basketball in Brad Stevens, a proven playoff performer in Kyrie Irving, and multiple defensive wings they could use to attempt to slow Giannis in different ways over the course of 7 games. In both situations, the Bucks would be the road team.

Milwaukee would have to make some pretty radical changes this offseason if they wanted to change the roster. Via Spotrac:

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 6.25.01 PM.png

The Bucks have lots of money tied up next season (and the season after), and that doesn’t include pending restricted free agent Jabari Parker, who will represent a huge decision for Milwaukee all by himself. He’ll have to prove both the ability to stay healthy and to play a semblence of defense when he is healthy to be worth the max contract that he will be eligible for. The Bucks also likely don’t have their first round pick this season as a result of the Bledsoe trade.

Between injury, coaching changes, and overall lack of cohesive talent, this team has had real problems gelling into the potentially scary roster they should be with such a transcendent superstar. If the Bucks want to instill stability this offseason, they’d have to both match whatever anyone else is willing to pay for Parker and convince themselves things will be different this time around with the same core. If not, with their nonexistent cap room, they’d need to make trades and create more roster fluctuation like that which has plagued them all year.

Of course, these problems are secondhand when you have a talent like Antetokoumpo, as young as he is, under a bargain contract for three more years. But the Bucks will have to make some important decisions in order to optimize the results of those three seasons and convince Giannis to stay once that contract is up. Speaking for small markets everywhere, I hope they succeed.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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