October 18, 2018

After their strong playoff showing, the Milwaukee Bucks were a trendy pick to make a giant leap forward entering this season. Despite serious questions about their ability to create offense and maintain success with new pieces on their roster, it seemed as though the Bucks would live up to their expectations and, even if they started slow, at least contend for the playoffs in the East.

Instead, they’re a middle-of-the-pack team struggling to work around their inability to space the floor with an offensive rating of 101.3. But that’s not nearly the worst part. Last year, they made their money on the defensive end, swarming around the court with their length and quickness, producing the second best defensive rating in the league at 99.3. This year, it’s been…not that. Their second worst defensive rating in the league, 106.9, is not an aberration, it’s a cascade of problems that have resulted in a disappointing season.

The Bucks are 15-23, and nearly half way into this season, have shown very few signs of actualizing.

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Manufacturing offense

They have been playing slightly better lately, a .500 team in their last 10 games, in part due to the improved play of Khris Middleton. Though he started the season cold, Middleton has been absolutely on fire, lately. Over his last 10 games, Middleton is averaging 23.6 points per game on 15.8 shots, 54.4 percent shooting from the field, 50.0 from three, 66.9 TS percentage and 88.1 from the line. He’s also playmaking, adding 5.3 assists per game.

Back at media day, Middleton said that he wasn’t too keen on the idea of being an offensive focal point.

“I’m not going to force shots. A lot of guys on my team know I hate playing that way, forcing shots, taking tough shots. Just playing off other guys and taking a shot when I’m open and trying to make a play when I can, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I mean, I’m not going to go out there and shoot 20 times a night or 15 times a night unless I have to or I’ve got it going. For the most part, I’m going to play off everybody else and just try to help out”

But Middleton has definitely had it going lately. Though that may be more usage than he wants, Middleton is, unfortunately, the only real shooting threat on the team. So although he may feel overburdened, he has no other choice because creating points can be such a challenge for a team full of non-shooters.

Although his shot is pure, Middleton can’t carrying the offense alone. In a piece for SI’s, The Cauldron, Ian Levy outlined some of the ways that non-shooters can be productive offensive players. He focused on DeMar DeRozan, but much of what he wrote holds true for Antetokounmpo, Parker and Carter-Williams.

One key is to get to the line. It is an essential part of creating efficient offense without being able to score from beyond the arc. The Bucks are bottom eight in the league in FTA rate,  0.260. That needs to be an area of improvement with the Bucks boasting incredibly skilled slashers.

To do that, the Bucks have to constantly attack the defense by moving without the ball and searching for backdoor opportunities. They need to catch the ball on the move to increase the their ability to beat the defender off the dribble.

Actions like this cause chaos for defenses. Close corner switching, backdoor cuts, precision passing and big wings who can post up are absolutely critical. But for a Bucks team that features three or four non-shooters at a time, it is a challenge to be creative enough to execute these sets all game long.

The rebounding struggle is real

Zaza Pachulia is one of the least appreciated players in the league. But if ever there was a team that intimately understands his value, it’s the Bucks. Since losing him, the Bucks rebounding has dropped to last in the league.

Pachulia isn’t a Dennis Rodman-level rebounding hound, but he boxes out hard, and prevents his assignment from getting the board. He is smart with his positioning, and sturdy as hell.  According to Nylon Calculus’ rebounding statistics, the Bucks chase only 90.5 percent of defensive rebounds, which is bottom five in the league. Monroe’s rebounding chase percentage is 32.5 compared to Pachulia’s 40.4, which is second in the league.

Pachulia snagged eight offensive boards in his return to Milwaukee on Friday. The Bucks simply did not box him out and he feasted.

Parker and Antetokounmpo are below average on the glass for small forwards, let alone power forwards. They both chase rebounds only 22.1 percent of the time, which is simply not enough for a team that wants to start two combo-forwards and a sub-elite rebounding center.

Defensive strategy

The Bucks have yet to find their berserk defensive strategy that worked so well last year. This year, the switching strategy isn’t working as well because guys like Parker and Monroe haven’t quite gotten the hang of their scheme.

Their projected starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe has played by far the most minutes of any combination and have struggled on both sides. Their net rating is -10.4, allowing 116.1 points per 100 possessions. Here’s some insight: the Bucks aren’t beating many teams if they can’t stop them.

Here, Parker doesn’t communicate well with John Henson, and Wesley Matthews gets a wide open three.

This is the type of thing that may develop over the course of the season, but has certainly not been working for the Bucks this season after being their biggest weapon last year.

So much goes wrong here. First, Carter-Williams doesn’t recover fast enough, and when he does, he flies out of the play, which results in Raymond Felton recovering a tip out.

Somehow, Dirk Nowitzki wins the battle for the rebound and they end up with a second look off a staggered PnR.

Next, Antetokounmpo gets lost in the paint even though he is supposed to be checking sharpshooter, Matthews. When Carter-Williams fails to box out the smallest guy on the court, the Mavs get an open three on their third shot of the possession.

When he misses, the Bucks again are caught ball watching. Barea Parker and Antetokounmpo are outside the arc, ready to play offense, but forget to collect the board as Barea gets his second offensive rebound on the play.

Nowitzki sets a screen for Barea. Carter-Williams switches onto Nowitzki and after a hedge, Antetokounmpo recovers as well, leaving Barea to sink the dagger.

This play sums up the Bucks defensively. These errors stem from poor communication and lack of effort. They don’t know where to be, when to switch, and they struggle to go after loose balls.

Last year’s playoff run pushed expectations ahead of schedule. Though the team is undeniably talented, it possesses flaws that take a great amount of well-rehearsed choreography to overcome. With two significant new pieces, and the loss of reliable veterans, the team simply hasn’t had enough time to grasp its own strengths and limitations.

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Will Gottlieb

Lifelong lover of all things NBA, I'm thrilled to share my words through bballbreakdown. Formerly a contributor at SBNation's BlogaBull, I now run Bulls Confidential. You can follow me on Twitter @wontgottlieb

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