This was supposed to be a pretty potent Milwaukee Bucks offense.
Sometimes, that’s accurate.
Specifically, the Bucks are a terrific transition offense team. Milwaukee is fifth in the NBA with an average of 1.27 points per possession in transition. The transition game has been very kind to both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Jennings and Ellis rank 37th and 25th in the league respectively with 1.13 and 1.19 points per transition possession on 40 and 42 transition possessions each. Jennings significant increase in steals this season (3.5 per game – he’s never averaged more than 1.6 per game) has helped these two get out on the break early and often.
Scott Skiles has also noted that Jennings in particular has made much better decisions in transition this season. He noted that Jennings was throwing up fewer difficult shots and doing a better job of finding his teammates running the floor for easy looks. His improvement in first getting the Bucks into transition and then converting on those opportunities when they happen has been a key in Milwaukee’s torrid pace through the first 11 games this season. Milwaukee currently leads the league in pace, with an average of 95.4 possessions per game according to Basketball-Reference.com.
That’s the team Bucks fans were promised this season. A high scoring, ball sharing, powerful offensive force of a team that would be spurred by its ball-hawking guards and shot-blocking bigs.
But as good as the Bucks have been when they’ve gotten up and down quickly this season, they’ve been as bad in the half court.
In losses this season, running has been much more difficult. Milwaukee’s scored only 17.2 points off turnovers and 15.6 fast break points. In wins this season, those numbers have been 22.7 and 19.2. Specifically in late game situations against the Heat and Bulls, Milwaukee failed to get into transition much at all. It became a half court game. Against the Heat, that more or less means an automatic loss for the Bucks. The talent differential is too great. But against the Bulls, and teams that are similarly without much star power, Milwaukee is capable of winning. Unless they continue to struggle to execute in the half court like they have most of this season.
When games have bogged down, Milwaukee’s inability to connect on threes has been a big issue. Through 11 games, the Bucks have made just 30% of their 3-point attempts. If that number held throughout the season, they would be the first team since the 2001-02 Philadelphia 76ers to make fewer than 31% of their 3-pointers. In losses, the Bucks are down to 19.8% shooting from deep. Sure, the Bucks have had bad shooting months in the past, but with the way Milwaukee’s roster is currently constructed, these shooting troubles have the feel of something much worse than just a month of bad luck.
Jennings and Ellis may be dynamite in transition, but their poisonous from behind the arc. Jennings has always launched threes with little regard, but this season he hasn’t even been able to find one of those multiple game hot streaks that made his lust for the long ball acceptable in past seasons. Over his past three games, he’s made just 2-of-17 3-point attempts. On the season, he’s made 17-of-58 (29.3%).
But there’s at least hope that Jennings could come around given his past performances. There’s less reason to be very optimistic when it comes to Ellis. Excluding a sparkling 2010-11 season during which he made better than 36% of his threes, Ellis has shot 30.3% on threes over the course of his career. Through 11 games this season, he’s bottomed out, making just 20.9% of his 43 attempts.
These are two of Milwaukee’s primary 3-point threats thus far this season. Mike Dunleavy has attempted 48 threes, but outside of those three, only the guy who resembles a much sadder version of Ersan Ilyasova has attempted two or more threes per game. Where will the quality volume come from? Improvements from Jennings, Ellis and Ilyasova are necessary, but not guaranteed.
A lack of quality 3-point shooting would be such an issue if the Bucks thrived at getting to the free throw line, but Milwaukee currently ranks last in the NBA in free throws per field goal attempt, with just .155 free throw coming for every field goal the Bucks attempt. This again falls at the feet of the men who drive the Bucks offense: Jennings and Ellis.
Among the 62 players who currently average at least 15 poitns per game, Jennings ranks 56th in free throw attempts per game and Ellis ranks 35th. Among those same players, Jennings ranks 13th in field goal attempts per game and Ellis ranks 3rd. Two guys who shoot a lot, haven’t made many threes and aren’t getting many free throw attempts.
Two guys who have a lot to do with the Bucks struggles in the half court thus far.