Jan 27, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (1) drives against Milwaukee Bucks power forward Drew Gooden (0) in the first half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to Summon Irrational Hope about the Bucks

Last season, the Bucks finished the strike-shortened, 66-game season four games below .500 (31-35).  They fizzled in the final two weeks and missed the playoffs.

This year, through 29 games, Milwaukee sits just three games behind Indiana for the Central Division lead (with Chicago between them). Their 20-18 record puts them two games above .500 (20-18), a mark they have floated at or above for the whole season.

Despite the rosy uptick, the relevant statistics paint a different picture.  This team has nearly the same flaws as last year’s team — and margin of victory (MOV) anything, they may actually be worse.

Offense Four Factors Defense Four Factors
20 11-12 0.27 -0.50 -0.23 105.5 105.2 93.7 .481 12.9 27.7 .194 .489 14.6 70.9 .217
17 12-13 -1.11 -0.32 -1.43 102.1 103.2 93.9 .467 13.1 28.1 .185 .477 14.7 71.0 .214


Remember when the Bucks were leading the league in defensive rebounding through the first week or so of the season? Nope, neither do I.  They now rank 28th in the league at 71.0%.  As such, their rebounding is virtually identical to last season’s team.  Defensive rebounding cost the Bucks a game at the hands of the Pacers, and it nearly killed them against Toronto before they improved in the second half.

With any luck, extracting Marquis Daniels from the starting lineup and inserting Ersan Ilyasova will give the Bucks a boost on the boards.

Negative free throw rate differential? Also similar to last year’s team, except that it’s a whisker worse.

The Bucks do well to force a high percentage of turnovers, but they were solid in that department last year too.

When it comes to basketball’s ‘Four Factors’, though, the one that matters most is effective field goal percentage (eFG%).  As coach Scott Skiles reminded the media on a near-weekly basis before his firing mutually-agreed exit, it’s a make-or-miss league.  And the Bucks are missing more than their opponents are.

Last year, the Bucks had a -.008 differential in eFG%. It has actually sunk to -.010 this year despite the improved defensive presence at the rim.  The Larry Sanders Show has boosted the Bucks into the league lead in blocks per game this season, but their shot making has nosedived just as hard as their shot prevention has improved.

The reason seems fairly clear:  Having Drew Gooden in the lineup loosened up defenses when it lured opposing centers away from the hoop.  Substituting Larry Sanders in his place has returned those big men under the basket, making it more difficult for the Bucks (and their naturally poor finishers) to score at the rim and in the restricted area.  At the rim, Brandon Jennings’ field-goal percentage has dropped from 54% to 48%, while Monta Ellis’ has  dipped from 58% to 56%.

So all these numbers beg a number of questions.

Are 2012-13 Bucks any better than last year’s version?

Why are they lined up for a playoff spot?

How did their stats get worse at the same time as their record improved?

Is their any reason for hope here?

The short answers, in order, are “no”, “the East is rancid”, “natural variance/strength of schedule”, and “no”.  Those are probably the most pessimistic answers, too.  Here are the few glimpses of hope.

Jim Boylan

Scott Skiles didn’t want to coach the Bucks.  Boylan does.  That makes a difference.

Boylan is 4-2 over his first six games, so he’s just a hiccup from having the same .500 record that Skiles did this season.  But there is optimism with a new chief running the show, and crunch time plays designed like this one won’t hurt his cause, either.  The scheme doesn’t differ much from what they usually run, but it sure does beat watching a Monta Ellis isolation play try to stumble around and find points in the dark.

John Henson

The Bucks have only had one truly productive first-round pick since Andrew Bogut: Brandon Jennings.  John Henson has the potential to be the second.

His overall rebounding rate when he’s been on the floor is 21.5%.  That is not a good number; that’s an elite number.  It helps that it comes from a small sample, and it also benefits him that his slotted rotation partner is Ekpe Udoh, a player who helps his team’s rebounding without actually getting the rebounds himself.  But Henson’s skill is this area is undeniable.  His agility and long arms get him up higher and faster than many of his opponents.

He also has a better knack for scoring in the paint than most of the Bucks’ bigs — better than Udoh, Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova or Samuel Dalembert.  He knows and uses the proper footwork on basic post moves, and his ability to score with both hands is a plus.

He just has to get stronger. Watching him work against Dwight Howard this week was sufficient proof of that fact.

Larry Sanders

Larry Sanders: the NBA’s Most Improved Player or the NBA Defensive Player of the Year?

Perhaps that is overstating his accomplishments this season.  But Sanders is doing rare stuff.

He is on pace to become the first player since the NBA started keeping track of blocks in 1973-74 with a total rebounding percentage over 18% and a block percentage over 9%.

There are various ways to ‘cook the books’ and compare Sanders’ season to some historical greats.  This is one of them, a comparison of players who could block a ton of shots, grab rebounds, and score a bit too. (From the always interesting Basketball-Reference.com website/database.)

For single seasons; played in the NBA/BAA; in the regular season; from 1946-47 to 2012-13; qualified for Minutes Per Game Leaderboard; requiring Block Pct >= 7 and Total Rebound Pct >= 17.5 and Points Per 36 Minutes >= 11.5; sorted by descending Block Pct.

Totals Shooting Advanced
Player Season Tm G TRB BLK TOV PF PTS FG% BLK% TRB% PTS/36
Larry Sanders 2012-13 MIL 37 318 118 48 137 302 .541 9.4 18.7 11.8
Marcus Camby 2004-05 DEN 66 661 199 103 177 683 .465 7.4 18.9 12.2
Dikembe Mutombo 1993-94 DEN 82 971 336 206 262 986 .569 7.4 18.9 12.4
David Robinson* 1991-92 SAS 68 829 305 182 219 1578 .551 7.4 17.7 22.2
Hakeem Olajuwon* 1989-90 HOU 82 1149 376 316 314 1995 .501 7.0 19.5 23.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/19/2013.


Well, gee, those are a few good players.

Given the relative scoring prowess, Sanders compares more directly to Camby and Mutombo than he does to Robinson or Olajuwon.  But perhaps the best comparison — by size, skill-set, and shot-blocking — is Bill Russell.

It’s okay to dismiss me at this point.  Sanders had 10 fouls in a Summer League game against mid-level talent six months ago; Russell has more championship rings than fingers.  Sanders was suspended for a preseason game by his own team for being a hothead. Russell took opponents out of their games using pscyhological weaponry.  Comparing Sanders to a player who won 11 titles in 13 years goes beyond ridiculous. I know, I know.

But the style is the thing.  If you’re one of the dozens of people who have dedicated enough of your life to watch Sanders in all 38 games this season, then I think the clip below may look familiar.

(Again, I may be delusional. I’m okay with that.)

The NBA of 1964 and the NBA of 2013 are eons apart.  Players have more skill, more size, more athleticism.  Drop Bill Russell into the NBA in 2013, and he may not be the cornerstone of a dynasty, but he is still going to be a dominant player.  Which of the NBA’s current 450 players would he most resemble?

You already know my answer.


The Bucks may be divinely ordained to be the East’s eighth seed — a team worthy of a few competitive playoff games and a quick exit.  They may not be able to compete with Miami or New York. Heck, they may not even be as good as the Milwaukee team that finished up the strike-shortened 2012 season.

They do , however, compel as good theater.  As the second half of the season approaches, grab a seat and enjoy the show.

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Tags: Brandon Jennings Larry Sanders Milwaukee Bucks Monta Ellis

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