Ten games into the season, the Bucks have won six games and lost four. In the Eastern Conference standings, they sit half a game behind the number three seed and half a game above the number eight seed. To say that their status is undetermined is an understatement.
They have only been beaten soundly once — to the Memphis Grizzlies, owners of the league’s best record. Each other loss — to Boston, Charlotte, and Miami — has been a closely contested affair where the Bucks came up just a wee bit short at the end. And it’s those close losses that raise the most questions about this team, its potential and its future.
The three narrow defeats have a lot of common factors.
Wretched three-point shooting: Avert your eyes — the Bucks shot 3-19, 2-16, and 5-29 in the three games.
Free throw disparity: the Bucks typically shoot fewer times from the charity stripe than their opponents, but in these three games, they were outshot 34-26, 30-11, and 33-12.
Fourth-quarter defense: Scott Skiles’ strategy early in the season appears to be to run through the players in his rotation through three quarters, then put in his best defenders to lock a stranglehold on the final twelve minutes. In these three losses, though, the Bucks have given up 32, 25, and 27 points in the fourth quarter.
The Heat and Celtics were the two Eastern Conference finalists a season ago. The Bobcats may be the most improved team in the East. While there’s no shame in losing these three games, the Bucks have blown a chance to build off a positive start to the season and announce themselves as actual contenders. Now they’re just one of the teams in the mix with a whole slew of others.
Among the questions that stand out at the ten-game mark are the following:
How is the playing rotation going to shake out in the frontcourt? For now, it seems that the starters are Tobias Harris, Ersan Ilyasova, and Samuel Dalembert, while Mike Dunleavy, Ekpe Udoh, and Larry Sanders are the finishers.
But two changes loom.
First, Luc Mbah a Moute is slated to return from injury and begin practicing on or near December 1. Where does Mbah a Moute get minutes? At the small forward or power forward spots? Does he get to start in place of Harris at some point?
Scott Skiles isn’t quite sure what Luc’s role will be.
“No idea. We just going to wait and see what it is. Are we playing well at the time? Do we have roles established or is the opposite happening? We’ve got to wait and see where we are at that time and see when he comes back and just make the decisions accordingly.
“Hopefully, there is some sort of period of time where we can get some practice time with him practicing and kind of see where he is, instead of just showing up at the gym one night and declaring him ready to play.”
The second potential change is John Henson’s development into a player who gets regular minutes. In his first game with extended playing time, Henson put up a ridiculous 17 points and 18 rebounds in 27 minutes. While he isn’t nearly as effective as Ekpe Udoh or Larry Sanders on defense yet, he has the potential to get there with better positioning — and he’s already ahead of the pair offensively.
He has range on his jump shot that goes beyond what Udoh and Sanders can contribute — possibly to three-point range, but that remains to be seen. He has a lefty jump shot that’s more of a go-to move than anything in Udoh and Sanders’ collective repertoire. Perhaps most impressive: his offensive rebound rate is an obscene 21.1% in 73 minutes of playing time. It’s a small sample, but if it were enough minutes to qualify, it would put him on top of the league standings.
Against Charlotte and Miami, he picked up big chunks of playing time that he had not seen before. For the Bobcats game, it came when Skiles picked him over Ersan Ilyasova after Ekpe Udoh got in foul trouble and eventually fouled out. For the Miami game, it happened when Sanders was ejected with two technicals.
Those two events won’t happen on a regular basis.
So where does Henson get his minutes?
For one, Ersan Ilyasova won’t be an issue — at least not until he improves. Scott Skiles noted that his 5-year, $40 million forward won’t be getting any extra minutes in an effort to bust his slump.
“It could, but I’m not going to do that at the expense of the team,” Skiles said. “I’ve got other players that are productive right now. I got to think about the whole team.
“He’s got to work himself out of it with the minutes he has and not use that as an excuse because that’s what it is: an excuse.”
But that still doesn’t make much room for Henson, if Udoh and Sanders are getting starter-like minutes in backup roles. As long as Skiles trusts the defensive stylings of Udoh and Sanders, Henson will likely get his minutes in one of two ways: They could come from Ilyasova and Dalembert, by shrinking their totals even further than those normally seen by name-only starters. Or the spare minutes could free up when Larry Sanders gets into foul trouble (always a possibility, he has 48 fouls in ten games).
Will Larry Sanders ever be able to compose himself?
Sanders has developed into a force this season. According to NBA.com, the Bucks give up 93.9 points per 100 possessions with Sanders on the floor and 106.0 points per 100 possessions with him off it. Wow. Simply wow. He is a difference maker of remarkable consequence.
He picks up fouls so quickly and yet, he’s such an impact to the game, that you can see Skiles willing to yank him early if it means having him available for the fourth quarter.
Sanders already has three techincal fouls this season. He was shelved for a preseason game by his own team for conduct issues. And many times in these first ten games, his teammates’ ‘hugs’ have saved him on numerous other occasions when Sanders was ready to boil.
What makes Sanders’ reaction Wednesday such a head scratcher is that he clearly fouled Dwyane Wade on the play in question. Wade made a hard, sharp Euro step move through the lane. Sanders whacked him on the shoulder.
Then Sanders flung the ball at the rim to draw the first technical. The second one came moments later when he made the Robert DeNiro, “I’m watching you” move at a referee by putting his fingertips to his eyeballs. Larry was probably telling him to watch the play closely, but if the ref had, he would not have swallowed the whistle on that sequence anyway.
Sanders needs to respect the game and himself and simply do better. If he doesn’t, he will have created more problems for himself by further establishing a reputation that is budding but not quite fully developed.
He doesn’t need to be the next Rasheed. Nobody is feeling that need.
When will the Bucks win over the hearts and minds of the NBA’s officiating crews?
The Bucks are caught in a Catch-22: They need to even out their free throw disparity to win games. At the same time though, they need to win games (and control their tempers) so that they might earn the benefit of the doubt from referees. The NBA always has a positive correlation between the teams that shoot free throws at the highest rates and those that win the most.
But a correlation is different than a cause-and-effect relationship. Free throws may lead to wins and vice versa. The relationship works reflexively too.
But how many wins can this Bucks team get and how far can it go?
LeBron is most likely the best basketball player on Earth. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are phenomenal players, too. But watching that game Wednesday convinced me that the Heat are (in a twisted and much better way) a lot like… last year’s Bucks team?
Yes, I know that sounds crazy, and the Heat are going to do a lot better than Drew Gooden and Company. But hear me out.
The Heat have gone small. They play Chris Bosh at center — and his impact on offense at center is enormous. He draws out the interior defenders to make more room inside for LeBron and Wade. The Heat will score a LOT of points.
But they are going to yield nearly as many. Miami is giving up 106.7 points per 100 possessions this season. The Bucks were able to score quite freely off circular cuts that swung them through the heart of the lane. There was nobody there to stop them. A skinny rookie rebounded on them as if he were Wilt Chamberlain. While the talents of their Big Three should carry them easily into the second round of the playoffs, can the Heat win with a soft underbelly like that? The answer is probably ‘Yes’, but it’s not an unquestionable one.
To wit: the Heat scored an impressive 50 points in the paint — many of which came right at the rim. They also gave up 52 points in the paint to the Bucks. The Bucks took them to overtime on a night when most of their players performed lousily.
If they play better, the Bucks win that game. But as always, the question is, “Exactly how do they do that?”