There hasn’t been a question about what the Milwaukee Bucks needed to do to improve over the past few seasons. Virtually every night, they help opponents to below average shooting percentages and point totals. Stops on stops on stops. More often than not though, Milwaukee found a way to be even worse offensively. Like, almost historically bad.
Simple enough. An easy to diagnose problem with a reasonable fix. Improve the offense and the wins will come rolling in.
So the Bucks improved their offense during the off-season, hoped for good health and waited to reap the benefits.
Like so many good plans, this one has gone awry. While the Bucks have improved from the 30th (also known as: the worst) ranked offense in the league to 15th, their defense has suffered a drop just as dramatic. Last year’s 4th ranked defense is this year’s 19th ranked defense. Given those equal rates of improvement and decline, it’s no wonder that after 29 games, Milwaukee has the exact same record they did last season: 12-17.
So what’s the problem on defense?
“There’s breakdowns everywhere,” Drew Gooden said after Wednesday night’s frustrating loss to the previously 5-23 New Orleans Hornets. “There’s breakdowns at the point of the ball. There’s breakdown at the second line of defense with the bigs helping.”
Gooden was asked if it’s more of a mental or physical thing at this point and quickly pointed out the mental aspect.
“It’s more ‘want to,'” he said. “It’s on the players to go out there and execute defensively and offensively.”
Whether the Bucks want to be the best, the most average or the worst defensive team, there’s no question that the physical loss of Andrew Bogut has been tremendous. While Gooden did an admirable job on Dwight Howard Monday, neither he or any of the Bucks other bigs can rotate as well or be a shot-blocker like Bogut. When Bogut has been on the court this season, Milwaukee has given up 97.8 points per 100 possessions. When he’s been off, the Bucks have allowed 108.2 points per 100 possessions.
“It’s tough not having Bogut out there, he’s one of the top shot-blockers in the league,” Gooden said. “So we have to be that much better defensively. On the ball and off the ball.”
Bogut’s absence also has put more strain on Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders. Their gambles are probably still paying off at about the same rate, but without Bogut behind them, they are being penalized much more when they fail to get a steal and have a man beat them into the paint.
“We’ve had two or three guys that are way too risky on their men and gambling a little bit too much,” Skiles said before Wednesday’s game. “Normally it’s a one in 10 proposition against a team of any quality. If you’re going for a steal 10 times, you’re getting one. Too many times something bad is gonna happen. We’re talking about it, we’re trying to get that a little more under control, be a little more solid.”
Given the current state of both the team and the defense, Luc Mbah a Moute’s analysis of why Milwaukee has seen so many more breakdowns this season was probably most adept.
“I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” he said.
That seems to be the biggest problem right now. Brandon Jennings has cited a lack of passion in general and Skiles has talked about the lack of aggression he’s seen, but the team seems to be struggling to identify where the biggest gaps they have defensively are. It’s tough to plug a hole if there’s so much water in the boat that you can’t figure out where it’s coming in. The sheer amount of defensive problems the Bucks are having right now combined with the lack of practice time to fix them is wreaking havoc.
The off-season offensive upgrades have kind of worked out. Mike Dunleavy has been good and both Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih have had their moments. Gooden’s healthy season has certainly been a net gain on offense too. But the only way those upgrades mattered was if the Bucks were still one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Until they figure out a way to get back in the top five defensively, the Bucks are just another average offensive team that isn’t getting the stops it needs.