How Are The Bucks The Best Defensive Team In The NBA?

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.

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball. He founded it in…

11 Comments

  1. Can’t see this bunch staying at #1 but they’ll remain a very, very good defensive team. Love what Skiles has done, love what we’re seeing from Bogut and Ilyasova, and holy crap I just realized you didn’t even mention Brandon Jennings in this piece. Nice.

  2. The moves toward a team with a lot more hustle were there to see, it’s just not obvious how far that gets them. But having a team willing to work up a sweat on D is clearly Skiles’ intent. And to think they took heat for not even trying to re-sign Charlie V….

    And I don’t know why Bell being the +/- leader surprises you, he’s a Skiles player to the core. If only he could shoot….

  3. This all started when they drafted Luc last year. Finally some defense to go with the shooters.

    Speaking of shooters, have you guys seen Jefferson play with the Spurs? He’s so bad at D they’ve benched him a few times this season. I was glad to see he and Charlie go, just wish they could have gotten more from the Jefferson trade.

    If you check out the statistics web pages, you’ll see the best 5 man lineup is Jennings, Bell, Delfino, Warrick and Bogut. Luc is up there too.

    I’m going to take a picture of the winning record and frame it. Hope it lasts.

  4. Bell is surprising to me because he’s statistically been the Bucks worst defensive player ever since he signed his current contract. Bell gives terrific effort, but he’s been limited severely over the past few years. I noticed he no longer has the huge bulky knee brace on that he had last year, perhaps that’s helping him this year.

    But he still has a single digit PER, so maybe this is just a mirage

  5. Is Bell a statistically bad defender, or just bad +/-? Cuz you certainly would lose something with him not able to score, that’s the plus part, no? ;-)

    I’ve read he’s finally healthy after limping thru last season, so that may have a bit to do with it.

  6. His defensive rating was worst on the team in each of the last two years among players who played regular minutes. I definitely think it had something to do with him having an anchor attached to his right knee though.

  7. Just to let you know, Defensive Rating has nothing to do with Pace Factor. The very nature of the statistic being adjusted for a standardized number of posessions means it is pace-adjusted.

  8. Yeah, that’s stupidity on my part. I wasn’t thinking. I was thinking about how points per game can be more of a reflection of pace rather than actual defense. Thanks Rashidi.

  9. I’m not going to worry about them not getting much back for RJ if they’re going to play this well. I’ll be happy they freed up the money to solidify the team in the future. I love that I can say “solidify” and not “rebuild after they let Mike Redd go.” If Scott Skiles can turn these Bucks into a top-5 defensive team this season, then he should get Coach of the Year, hands-down. Defense hasn’t been a prerequisite on this team since, what? 1993? 1987?

  10. Mike: You hit that on the head with your second guess. The last time the Bucks were top five in the league defensively was the 1986-87 season. Under Don Nelson.

    How things change.