Losing Ersan Ilyasova Is a Crushing Blow to the Milwaukee Bucks

(Note: Ilyasova reportedly agreed to a three-year contract with the Fenerbahce Ulker in the Turkish Basketball League.)

Over the course of a year, from the 2010 draft to the 2011 draft, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired a lot of competitors for the starting power forward job. As Jake pointed out in this space a few weeks ago, drafting Tobias Harris created a logjam on the roster at the 4-spot: Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders, Jon Brockman, plus rookies Harris and Jon Leuer.  That’s a lot of power forwards, even if Luc and Tobias play some small forward and the big guys split minutes backing up Bogut at center.

Ilyasova’s unhappiness stemmed from the roster glut and the summer of 2010 was its catalyst. The Bucks signed Drew Gooden, drafted Larry Sanders, and chipped away at Ersan’s confidence. Bucks management should have made it excessively clear to Ersan that he was their guy.  They failed to do it, planting him on the bench and giving him sporadic minutes early in the season. It was clear by season’s end that he was not happy.

So losing Ersan to Fenerbahce Ulker may not seem like a big deal now, especially since his departure has been hinted at for many weeks now. His name reportedly came up in trade discussions with Houston before the lockout, and when John Hammond was asked about Ilyasova’s status on the Bucks, he didn’t say much except to brusquely state that Ersan was still under contract. But Ilyasova brought a skill set to Milwaukee that allowed the Bucks to play their highest level of basketball.  The stretch-4 — that is to say, a power forward who can make opponents’ defenses expand and create space inside — has become the norm among elite NBA teams.  Ersan filled that role for the Bucks and if they lose him to Fenerbahce or someone else at lockout’s end, then it will pain them in a number of ways.  (It remains to be seen if the Bucks can force a buyout or retain his rights should the lockout end this year, but it’s hard to foresee the Bucks getting anywhere near replacement value for him.)

1)  Drew Gooden was a terrible defender in 2010-11.

Can it be chalked up to Gooden’s plantar fasciitis?  You’d better hope so, because the numbers will horrify you. According to Synergy, Ilyasova was allowing 0.87 points per possession compared to 1.00 for Gooden.  Similarly, players guarded by Ersan shot 115/281 on field goal attempts (40.9%), while players “covered” by Drew made 86 out of 174 attempts (49.4%).  (It should be noted that this discrepancy shows up on nearly every type of shot: isolation, pick-and-roll, post-ups; only in spot-up jumpers do the numbers mirror each other.) To make matters worse, Gooden forced opponents into a lower percentage of turnovers, too.  (Note: Sanders put up numbers similar to Ilyasova, while Mbah a Moute played his you-know-what off on defense. His numbers are stellar.)

Are the numbers for Ersan Earth-shattering? No, but on a solid Buck defense, he’ll keep the dam from breaking. Gooden will not.

2) The NBA’s Elite Teams Utilize the Stretch-4

The 2010-11 Finals showcased two of the league’s finest power forwards, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh, neither of whom fits the ‘classic’ power forward mode of previous eras.  Their strengths both lay in being able to score away from the hoop.  In fact, since San Antonio won in 2007, the league’s best teams have featured power forwards with the ability to shoot long jumpers and score facing the basket.  For example, Orlando made it to the 2009 Finals with Rashard Lewis as their power forward.  Even the Lakers and the Celtics — two teams who bashed their way to success with long, physical interior players — owe much of their success to stretch-4s. In 2008 and 2009, the Lakers used Lamar Odom along with Pau Gasol as their primary inside tandem while Bynum was hurt or ineffective.  The Celtics started Garnett at power forward during their title run, but their fourth-quarter lineup told the real story.  The Celtics slid Garnett over to center in the crunch and brought in James Posey off the bench.  In 2010, the Celtics and Lakers matched up head-to-head with enormous lineups featuring Garnett and Gasol as power forwards, but that Finals was more the exception than the norm, and in the Lakers’ case, they still had the flexibility to play either style of power forward.

In the Bucks’ situation, playing with shooters opens up space on the floor by forcing defenses to guard jump shooters at all times.  When players like Ersan and Carlos Delfino are on the floor, there is more space for Bogut to score in the post without double-teams getting in his way. There’s more room for Brandon Jennings to penetrate and slash his way to the hoop. Together, they can run a pick-and-roll without a third defender sagging off his man to provide help. As Zach Lowe pointed out in his piece on Jennings,

Floor-spacing helps. When that third big man isn’t in the paint, Jennings is an aggressive attacker. If only someone on this roster could work as a consistent floor-stretching big man next season …

Ersan didn’t have a great 2010-11 season, but of the players on the Bucks, he is the stretch-4 option.

3) Ilyasova actually had a better shooting year than most people realize.

Quick analysis often judges a player’s long-range shooting based upon his three-point field-goal percentage. And yes, Ilyasova had a down year in that department, dropping to a career-low 30%.  But his shooting percentage on long two-point shots was remarkable.  A look at the NBA’s leaders at power forward last season (among players playing 25+ minutes per game) gives the following list of players:

Dirk Nowitzki, 52%
Pau Gasol, 49%
Ersan Ilyasova, 48%
Luis Scola, 48%

That’s good company, right?  Those would be remarkable shooting numbers for any player on the floor, let alone a power forward who can defend and rebound.  Plus, not only did Ersan hit nearly half his long twos, but he also shot nearly 90% from the free throw line.

Shooting 30% from three isn’t great, but mathematically, it’s the same as hitting 45% of your two-points shots.  On the worst-shooting-team-in-the-league Bucks, maybe that’s not so bad.

4)  Ilyasova is young, but not inexperienced.

Ilyasova has multiple years of experience at the world’s highest levels of basketball.  In 2004-05, he played eleven games for the Turkish League team, Ulkerspor. (Ulkespor eventually merged with Fenerbahce to form the squad that he just rejoined.)  He was 17 years old. After being drafted by the Bucks, he spent two years in the US; one in the D-League and one with the Bucks. Two years with Barcelona and two more with the Bucks followed.  Now, at 24 years old, Ilyasova is entering the prime of his career, having experienced 6+ years of pro ball, an NBA playoffs, and a trip to the FIBA World Championship Finals. Compare his situation to the other young Bucks.  Larry Sanders has a year in the NBA, Jon Leuer is a rookie hoping to make an NBA roster, and Tobias Harris is one year removed from playing high school ball on Long Island.  Sanders has the greatest potential to make an impact in 2011-12, but that happens only if he gets a better grasp on the team’s defensive schemes and rotations. And while Sanders has a chance to be a better defender than Ersan, he will not have the same impact on offense that Ilyasova does.

Maybe the Bucks were going to lose Ilyasova anyway after another year (or less). Maybe not. But the inevitability of the move doesn’t replenish the roster with talent. Together, Milwaukee’s other power forwards may have the skills that Ersan has, but no one player is qualified to replace him.  If he stays in Turkey after the lockout ends, the Bucks WILL miss him.

Tags: Drew Gooden Ersan Ilyasova Larry Sanders Milwaukee Bucks Power Forwards Stretch-4 Tobias Harris

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