As of Monday afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks had won five of their last ten, and sat just two games behind Indiana for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. I think it’s safe to say this is not the position Bucks’ fans expected to find their team in with two and a half weeks left in the regular season. Just twelve months ago the Bucks were wrapping up a cinderella campaign in which they posted the league’s second most efficient defense, finished ten games over 0.500, captured the 6th seed in the East, and took the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
With the Bucks’ returning six of their top ten players and adding a mix of veterans and youth to their roster, expectations were high. Even if the Bucks’ somehow manage to sneak into the playoffs, this season will be a disappointment. Their defense has actually improved but the team has struggled due to an absolute offensive implosion. To say they have regressed on offense is an understatement. In 2009-2010 the Bucks scored a modest 104.9 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks Offensive Rating has dropped 3.6 points since last season to a 101.3. The last time the Bucks posted a team Offensive Rating this low was the 1976-1977 season. The only reason they’ve been able to win 29 games is that their Defensive Rating is 102.6, 4th lowest in the league this season, and the franshise’s lowest since the 1983-1984 season.
Their offensive decline has been a battle waged on several fronts. The table below shows their performance in each of the Four Factors this season compared to last season.
From this graph we can see the Bucks are shooting a lower percentage this season, turning the ball over more often, and rebounding a lower percentage of their misses. They’ve improved their ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. However, that improvement has taken them from dead last in the league to 22nd this year. That’s not nearly enough to offset their decline in those other areas. The biggest drop-off has been in their shooting percentage and that’s where I want to focus.
The Bucks are playing at a slightly slower pace this season, 89.8 possessions per game, compared to 91.7 last season. This slower pace, combined with their increase in free throw attempts and turnovers, means they are taking far fewer shots per game. This season the Bucks are averaging 79.7 field goal attempts per game, compared to 85.3 last season.
Over the past two seasons in the NBA, a field goal attempt has been worth an average of 0.99 points (Total Points – Free Throws Made/Field Goal Attempts). If we assume the Bucks were shooting the league average, those 5.6 fewer field goal attempts they are taking this season, would cost them about 5.5 points per game. Factoring in the additional 2.8 free throw attempts they are taking, and assuming they make them at the average rate of 75.9%, would knock 2.1 points off that decline. So ignoring shot selection and shooting percentage, we would expect to see the Bucks per game scoring drop by 3.4 points. That hasn’t happened. Their per game scoring average has gone from 97.7 last season to 91.5, a drop of 6.2 points. The reason the drop is so much larger than expected, is of course the two components we didn’t discuss yet: shot selection and shooting percentage.
To examine these two pieces we’re going to turn to Expected Scoring. If you’ve missed my other posts on the subject, Expected Points uses a team or player’s FGA from each area of the floor and multiplies it by the average number of points scored on that type of shot to come up with an Expected Point total from that area. The Expected Point total can than be compared to the actual number of points a team or player scored from that area to arrive at a Point Differential. This point differential is an expression of how a player shot compared to the league average, but I like that the comparison is drawn with actual point totals. The average values of shots by location that I use (At Rim – 1.208, <10ft. – 0.856, 10-15ft. – 0.783, 16-23ft. – 0.801, 3PT – 1.081, FT – 0.759) were calculated by Albert Lyu of ThinkBlueCrew.
Let’s start with shot selection. The table below shows the percentage of the Bucks’ shot attempts which have come from each area of the floor this season and last season.
The two most efficient areas of the floor to shoot from are at the rim and three-pointers. The percentage of the Bucks’ shot attempts which have come from both of those areas has shrunk. Last season 45.2% of their shot attempts came from that 3-23ft., area between the rim and the three-point line. This season 51% of their shots are coming from that area. This change shows up heavily in their Expected Scoring numbers.
The table below shows the Bucks’ Expected Points, Actual Points, Point Differential and FG% for each area of the floor from this season and last. All numbers are per game.
Except for a slight improvement at the rim and on shots from 10-15ft., the Bucks’ Point Differential has decreased from every area of the floor. Even free throws have been unkind, as they’re attempting more but making a lower percentage. Altogether they’re averaging 4.19 fewer point per game than we would expect if they were shooting the league average.
Poor shot selection has been a problem, but the Bucks also struggle to make shots from efficient locations. Their three-point shooting has regressed significantly since last year. Their shooting percentage at the rim has increased slightly, but hasn’t left the atrocious range. How bad has it been? Their field goal percentage on shots at the rim is 6.5 percentage points below the league average. Only two other teams are shooting below 60% at the rim this season and the Bucks are still 1.7 percentage points lower than either of them. This is also the 4th consecutive season they have shot less than 58% at the rim. We aren’t looking at a new phenomenon.
Any mention of the Bucks’ struggles on offense has to include a mention of second-year point guard, Brandon Jennings. To place blame in its entirety at Jennings’ feet would be irresponsible, but he deserves a healthy share. Particularly when it comes questions of shooting.
As a rookie last season Jennings shot just 37.1% from the field. That’s the 4th lowest FG% in the history of the NBA, by a rookie who started at least half their team’s games. The good news for Jennings is that several players on that list, such as Chris Duhon, Jason Williams, Kirk Hinrich, Raymond Felton and Nick Van Exel, shot under 40% as rookies but have gone on to careers as solid NBA contributors. Some like Jason Kidd, Russell Westbrook and Chauncey Billups have even gone on to be stars. It should also give Bucks’ fans hope that making a large improvement in FG%, going from a rookie season to a sophmore season, doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for future success either.
One factor not in his favor, is that each of those players who went on to successful careers, after a poor shooting start, had some other intensely valuable skill which offset their lack of scoring efficiency. Kidd, Westbrook and Billups all had terrific size and strength for their positions. Kidd, Tinsley and Williams were tremendous passers. Jackson, Johnson, Hinrich, Kidd and Felton all contributed heavily at the defensive end. Although Jennings is a solid distributor and defender, I don’t know that he’s shown enough potential in either area to guarantee himself a long-term future as a sepecialist. If he can’t improve his shooting, and not just a little, it’s not difficult to imagine him taking the career path of Chris Duhon or T.J. Ford, an idea that would have been considered outrageous just a few months ago.
Jennings has made some improvements shooting the ball this season, especially in his shot selection. The graph below shows the percentage of his shots which have come from each area of the floor this season and last season.
He’s taking more shots from inside of 10ft. and has cut down significantly on his mid and long-range two-pointers. These are both great signs of him recognizing his strengths and being willing to focus his efforts there. The only problem is that he isn’t particularly effective at the rim, or on three-pointers for that matter.
Among players with at least 100 attempts, he ranks dead last in FG% at the rim, shooting 50.3%. We can feel quite certain that his struggles are not a fluke as he shot 42.7% at the rim last season. Although he’s increased his FG% at the rim by 7.6 percentage points he still shoots 13.8 percentage points below the league average of 64.1%. To add insult to injury, the Bucks’ Chris Douglas-Roberts, Carlos Delfino, John Salmons and Earl Boykins all shoot 10 percentage points or more below the league average at the rim. Altogether, 34.8% of all the Bucks’ field goal attempts at the rim, have come from these five players, who are all among the leagues 40 worst shooters from that area.
Among players with at least 200 attempts, Jennings has the 4th worst 3PT% in the league, at 32.8%. The Bucks have five different players with at least 100 three-point attempts this season. Three of them, Jennings, Ilyasova and Dooling, shoot below the league average of 35.9%.
The Bucks have four major rotation players, Jennings, Dooling, Salmons and Delfino, who shoot 40% or lower from the field. I’m including Delfino even thought he’s currently at 40.1%. Jennings has missed some significant time this season due to injury, but as the team’s starting point guard when healthy, he deserves some responsibility for the offense not running smoothly and for not finding easy shots for his teammates.
Among the 47 point guards who average at least 20 minutes per game, Jennings ranks 41st in Assist Rate, the rate of assists against possessions used. The players clustered closest to him on this list are guys like Aaron Brooks, Gilbert Arenas, Daniel Gibson, and Tyreke Evans, all players who are more scorers than creators. It’s difficult to know exactly how much responsibility he bears for the horrible shooting of his teammates, but I think we can agree that the answer floats somewhere in between “A whole lot” and “Some.” I think we can also agree he’s not doing much to improve his teammates’ percentages.
As a team the Bucks’ have the 4th worst Assist Rate in the league this season. This is a chicken-egg situation. Is their Assist Rate low because they don’t make shots? Or is their Assist Rate low because they don’t move the ball effectively, leading to bad shots? Again, the answer is somewhere in between. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jennings and the Bucks share some of the same offensive weaknesses, shooting and efficient ball movement. Jennings has the 2nd highest Usage Rate on the team, but plays significantly more minutes than Corey Maggette, who ranks first. As the player who has used the most possessions for the Bucks this season, this team’s offense is in large part an expression of his talents and abilities.
Part of the excitement surrounding the Bucks entering this season, was the feeling that they had many of the pieces in place for long-term success. They had a tough, mobile big man to control the paint. They had versatile shooters. They had strong rebounders. They had a lock-down wing defender. Finally, they had a potent, developing offensive weapon, in Jennings, to continue to build around. Many of the holes we’re seeing now in Jennings’ game were well identified before he was drafted. His 55 point explosion against Golden State in the second week of his rookie season may have obscured his true potential. The clouds are slowly lifting in Milwaukee. The Bucks may need to ask themselves if Brandon Jennings is the player the scouted in high school and Italy, or the player who rained down jumpers on the heads of the hapless Warriors. Either answer, even a combination of the two has huge ramifications for the future of the team.