One quote that stood out to me on Bucks media day was this one from Joe Alexander of all people:
(Defense) is not so much a path to more playing time. I think of it more as a guarantee to not play if you aren’t playing defense.
Believe it or not, Scott Skiles has injected his spirit into the 2009-10 Bucks and pushed them to the top of the league in defensive rating. Two years ago the Bucks finished the season very last in the NBA in this same category. From 30th out of 30 to first in just two seasons. How did Skiles work this miracle?
It all starts with Andrew Bogut. Bogut has been criticized over the years, sometimes fairly sometimes unfairly, for failing to live up to the large expectations of being a number one pick. Specifically being a number one pick in the same draft as Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but the Aussie has really come on as a defensive player the last two years. This year Bogut leads the entire NBA in defensive rating with 88 points per 100 possessions. What’s most impressive about that statistic is that the Bucks aren’t shutting teams down with a slow down offense. The Bucks rank 11th in pace factor. So Bogut ranks ahead of second place Kevin Garnett by over a point every 100 possessions, even though Garnett plays for a team that ranks 25th in pace factor. Bogut is second among all centers in charges taken and tied for first in the league in charges taken per game with seven in five games.
As impressive as Bogut’s charge numbers is the fact that he’s still remaining a shot blocker while using his body to cut off lanes. Bogut slumped to one block a game last year after setting his career high two years ago with 1.7 a night. Bogut has returned to the level he was at two years ago with 1.6 a night this year thus far. Bogut ranks second to Marcus Camby in “defensive plays” (blocks + steals + charges drawn) per game at 3.6 per game. What opposing teams should be most scared about though, is that Bogut has yet to return to the rebounding form that allowed him to average over ten a game last year. Bogut has been stronger after a rough first two games and seems to be on the road to a nightly double double again. But Bogut along doesn’t take a team from worst to first.
Having a roster of interchangeable parts keeps players on the toes and aware all the time. None of the Bucks seems unsure of their role, one possible outcome when teams are as deep as the Bucks, rather it seems to have made them more aware of their defense. Players know someone on the bench can come in and do their job. Skiles has instilled a mindset into the players so they know if they don’t defend they will not be on the floor. When Hakim Warrick wasn’t defending Danilo Gallinari’s outside shot to start the Knicks game Saturday, Skiles wasted no time in bringing in Ersan Ilyasova.
Ilyasova has been one of the most productive players on the Bucks this year. What Ilyasova brings to the table is hard to quantify in statistics, advanced as they may be getting. While Ersan is frequently drawing charges (his three drawn rank him second to Bogut) it’s his maximum effort that really stands out. Whether he is grabbing a rebound, taking a charge or going to the hole, Ersan puts everything he has into each play. When Ersan sets a screen he gets as wide a base as any player I’ve ever seen on the Bucks. When he sees a rebound up in the air that he won’t be able to grab, he tips it and tips it until it’s either his or knocks it out to a teammate waiting on the perimeter. Ersan plays the pesky defense that opposing teams hate, constantly slapping at the ball when it’s exposed, trying to poke it away when it’s not; there is absolutely a reason he’s second on the team in fouls.
The best way to quantify how productive Ersan has been is like this: he’s had a total of 23 stints in five games, in 12 of those stints the Bucks have outscored their opponent, in four they scored the same amount and in only seven have the Bucks been outscored. On the year Ersan’s plus/minus is plus 37, good for second on the team (behind Charlie Bell, sometimes these things aren’t perfect).
Bucks fans can bask in the glory of the moment; a team that’s over .500 and the best defensive team in the NBA. While fans of Milwaukee have rarely had the opportunity to bask in anything lately, they certainly have had any fleeting moments of joy quickly blow up in their face. Will this team fall back to the pack? I wouldn’t count on too far of a slip as long as the Bucks are able to remain healthy. Scott Skiles won’t allow it and the players are following his lead.