We may be just 12 games into the new season, but it sure feels like the Milwaukee Bucks are heading down the same road they traveled last season. A road plagued with stop signs, red lights and crosswalks. It was never a smooth drive for the Bucks last season en route to the NBA’s worst offense.
So far, the Bucks have sputtered along with the league’s sixth worst offense. We’ve seen the same offensive droughts and shooting troubles. We’ve seen turnovers. We’ve seen inaccurate shooting from deep. We’ve seen a lot.
Occasionally though, there have been signs of life. There is reason to be hopeful that they’ll find a detour away from those offensive potholes that tripped them up last season.
To be frank, sometimes Stephen Jackson has been good and Milwaukee’s offense largely relies on that happening more frequently than it has.
Jackson, along with Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih, was acquired over the summer to provide Milwaukee with another playmaker. The Bucks wanted more players around point guard Brandon Jennings that could create easy looks in an offense that largely left the Bucks with difficult jump shots last season.
The early return on Jackson this season has fallen in line with the return on the rest of the Bucks. He’s looked old, he’s looked slow and he often looked selfish. That’s just a description of Jackson’s road games though. At home, like the rest of the Bucks, he’s been a different player.
At home, Jackson has shot 48%. He’s averaging 20.5 points and five assists per game. Perhaps most importantly, he’s made 38% of his threes too.
On the road, Jackson has shot 32%. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 2.9 assists per game. Perhaps most importantly, he’s made just 26% of his threes.
The Bucks are 4-0 at home this season and 0-8 on the road.
For one of Milwaukee’s most important playmakers, Jackson hasn’t been able to make many plays on the road. It’s possible Milwaukee’s road heavy, travel heavy early season schedule played largely without Andrew Bogut has been the culprit. Jackson has told us all to wait. He’s said he’s working his way into shape and spent the early part of the season adjusting to an epidural shot he received prior to the start of the season.
Whatever the problem with Jackson has been on the road, it’s going to be crucial for Milwaukee that he figures it out.
After shooting less than 30% over his first five games, Jackson averaged 26 points and seven assists in two Bucks home games last week. He still took some questionable shots, but those shots are much easier to digest when he’s sprinkling in assists and getting his teammates easy looks that boost their confidence.
Jennings certainly has taken notice of Jackson’s diverse set of skills.
“Jackson, he causes a lot of confusion out there for defenders and gets a lot of attention,” Jennings said after Milwaukee’s 102-93 victory over the Pistons on Thursday. “So once he gets going, a lot of guys are trying to stop him and then that’s when I’m able to make things happen for everybody.”
Most importantly, when the active and accurate version of Jackson has been on display, Jennings has been freed up to make things happen in the fourth quarter. Unable to contact his coaches, the Bucks young point guard spent the majority of the lockout summer playing pickup games and exhibitions that doubled as dunk contests with other NBA stars. But he did find time to chat with two time NBA MVP Steve Nash about what he needed to do to take another step forward.
“I asked him when he got that MVP two times, he said he just made plays down the stretch,” Jennings said. “So, that’s something I really worked on this summer, not always shooting it, just making plays for everybody, trying to get the best possible shot.”
Jennings is averaging 7.2 points in the fourth quarter this season, three points higher than his next highest scoring quarter. Even better, he has just three turnovers in the fourth quarter this season. With Jackson and other additions like the aforementioned Livingston and holdover Carlos Delfino helping to carry the offensive load, Jennings has taken a step forward this season despite struggles against the Mavericks and Sixers. His fourth quarter work has been crucial in his improvement, but his most significant improvements have come in his mid-range game and his ability to finish at the rim.
Jennings made just 51% of his shots at the rim last season. On 50 attempts this season, he’s connected on 59%. He shot just 38% on shots from 10-15 feet last season. He’s made 56% of those shots this season. We aren’t talking about the shy girl at the dance standing alone in the corner either. Jennings has led Milwaukee in field goal attempts per game in each of his three seasons with the team. When he’s making shots, the Bucks offense can go from comatose to vibrant.
So maybe things aren’t as gloomy on the offensive side of the ball as they have appeared thus far for Milwaukee. Sure, the home/road splits still haven’t been attractive and the three-point shooting is going to be inconsistent at best until Mike Dunleavy returns.
But road struggles don’t mean cement another depressing season. Defensively there is still reason for optimisim, despite a middling defensive rating of 103.8 . That number should improve if center Andrew Bogut can stay on the court. So long as the Bucks can land somewhere in the middle of the pack on offense, they’ll flirt with a .500 record and a playoff spot in the East.
Whether that’s the sort of future Bucks fans should be eager to look forward to is a separate discussion. For now though, it’s something the Bucks can realistically shoot for. And unlike last season, the shot just might go in this time.