Who Will Be The Final Eight Standing In the Wild, Wild East? Stage One: The Bucks

Posted: 01/06/2016 by levcohen in Basketball
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Who would have thought that the more interesting conference in the NBA this year would be the Eastern Conference? Over the past handful of years, as has been widely documented, the Western Conference has been the stronger and more intriguing of the two. It was expected (or, at least, I expected it) to be more of the same this year. Well, the expectations were flat-out wrong. Now, the championship is likely to go to a Western Conference team, because in Golden State and San Antonio, the WC has the two best teams in the NBA and probably two of the very best teams in the last decade. Throw in Oklahoma City, another top-four team, and the class of the Western Conference is clearly stronger than the non-Cleveland top of the Eastern Conference. But after that? Well, in the Western Conference, the 15-18 Utah Jazz are not only holding the eighth seed right now but also holding a full two game advantage over the closest competition. And on the other side, we have the super balanced and super competitive Eastern Conference. Consider: the second seed in the conference right now is the Bulls, 2.5 games behind the Cavs… and the ninth placed Magic are all of three games behind the Bulls. What we have looming is an 11-12 team scrum for the eight playoff spots. We can safely knock out the Sixers (although with Ish Smith back at the point, you never know!) and the Nets. The Bucks, too, have been very poor this year and have showed an ability to prevent short losing spurts, as evidenced by their five 3+ game losing streaks this season. They had a hectic offseason and haven’t been able to maintain last year’s modest success despite adding Greg Monroe, now maybe their most productive player, to the team. The pieces just haven’t fit in together, largely because this team just can’t spread out defenses due to their lack of three-point shooters (they rank 27th in the league in three point makes per game and 29th in attempts) aside from two players, Khris Middleton and Jerryd Bayless, who make about 70% of their threes. With four completely ineffective shooters in their starting lineup, the offense often gets bogged down, relying too heavily upon Michael Carter-Williams drives and Monroe post moves. It’s not that Monroe is a poor post player; in fact, he’s one of the best in the league. But the offense lacks cohesion because its youthful players don’t really know how to supplement Monroe off the ball, while the defense has taken a hit with the replacement of Monroe for Zaza Pachulia (+3.23 DRPM, 16th in the NBA) at the center position. The defensive struggles are still a bit weird, as this team was built on wing length and interchangeability and was the second best defense in the league per possession last year (also: Monroe is actually a decent defender), but regardless, the Bucks don’t look likely to make the playoffs. That leaves 12 teams legitimately fighting for eight spots. Let’s start with the teams that I’m pretty confident will make the playoffs: Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, and, well, that’s about it. So that didn’t really help. We still have nine teams vying for five spots. Can we get rid of any of the lower-tier teams? I don’t really take the Knicks’ chances seriously, but I also don’t think it’s fair to cross off a team that’s been so scrappy and has five combined games left against the Nets and Sixers. No, I think we’re going to have to do this methodically, going over each of the nine other teams and trying to find the five that will emerge. This is a really difficult task, and I’m going to do it in subsequent posts three teams apiece. But since I think I left a little bit on the bone with the Milwaukee thing, I want to revisit that first.

When I came to the Bucks, I figured I’d find a clear explanation for their expansive struggles, because how else does a young team go from 41-41 (+.4 point differential) and feisty in the first round of the playoffs to 14-23 (-6.1) and seemingly headed for a top-eight pick? Said clear explanation I expected to have something to do with Monroe (either a worse offense because of a stylistic move to the post or a worse defense that tied directly into Monroe’s poor defense), because the team is largely unchanged otherwise. But the Bucks have actually been a more efficient offensive team this year, while Monroe ranks 33rd in the league in DRPM at +2.52. Now, maybe the RPM statistic is vastly inaccurate and Monroe is in fact a poor defensive player (that’s certainly what I thought before beginning this post), but the sheer +2.52 number made me want to investigate a bit more. By other advanced statistics, Monroe isn’t rated quite as generously defensively. Win Shares estimates that he’s generated a full win based on his defensive play, a rating that ranks 45th of 70 guys who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season (Pachulia ranks 19th). And his Defensive Rating, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, is 106, slightly below-average (Pachulia’s D Rating is 101, 27th among full-time starters). But in checking Monroe’s advanced statistics, I also noticed something peculiar about certain other Bucks’ ratings: a lot of them are bad. Here’s a little chart of the Bucks’ other four starters and their advanced defensive statistics from last year and this season.

DRPM 2014 DRPM 2015 D Rating 2014 D Rating 2015 (prorated over 82 games) D Efficiency 2014 (lower is better) D Efficiency 2015 (lower is better)
Carter-Williams .78 -.15 2.9 1.3 103 109
Middleton 4.09 -1.32 3.5 .4 102 112
Greek Freak 1.5 -.76 4 1.6 101 108
Jabari Parker* -2.66* -.91 1* .2 103* 112

*- Parker played 25 games last year before ACL tear. The 2014 numbers are in said 25 games and NOT prorated over a full season

Pretty striking, huh? This is actually one of the weirder things I’ve seen in some time, and it might just be the entire answer to the “Why are the Bucks bad?” question. Every single guy has been significantly worse this year. Carter-Williams, a long and athletic point guard, has regressed from pretty good (above-average across the board) to thoroughly sub-par. He’s 24 years of age. The numbers disagree on Parker, with RPM preferring him this year but the other two favoring him last season, but I think we can agree he was never a good defender; he was drafted as a score-only forward who was always going to struggle mightily on the defensive end. But he certainly hasn’t gotten any better. Oh, and he hasn’t yet celebrated his 21st birthday.

But those two are nowhere near as confounding as Middleton and Greek Freak, each of whom, by the way, should be very good defensive players. Last year, both Khris and Giannis were among the best defensive players in the NBA, with each ranking in the top sixth in defensive efficiency, the top 5% in Defensive Win Shares, and Middleton inside the top-10 in DRPM. This year, Giannis, who recently turned 21, is at best an average defender. Middleton, 24, is significantly worse. It’s possible that Middleton could have been super motivated in a contract year last season and that he just tried much harder on defense. I usually am very suspicious of that argument. The problem with these guys is that they are so young that it’s hard to know which season is the outlier. One would think that a full season of evidence would be more predictive than a half-season’s worth, but the sample size is big enough that it’s very hard to ignore the results this season. And it hasn’t just been an advanced-stats phenomenon. The Bucks, the second-best per possession defensive team last year, are 28th this year and are allowing seven more points per 100 possessions. The surprising thing is that the defensive downgrade can not be blamed on Monroe. Sure, he’s a slight downgrade from Pachulia, but the heart of this team is Middleton and Giannis, and those guys are -2.8 in 25.5 minutes per game together this year (giving up 106 points per 48 minutes together) after being +2 in 19.2 minutes per game last year (giving up 93 points per 48 minutes together). It would take a return to last year’s defensive levels for these young Bucks to make any sort of playoff run. Let’s see if they can make it happen.

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