I have a strategy I carry out every time I step on the basketball court. It’s been crafted over the years, it’s absolutely intentional and it’s what makes me capable of functioning as well as I do, which, admittedly, isn’t even always very good. But I stick with it.
If I start a game, I immediately find the player that looks to me like he’s going to cover the least amount of ground on offense. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not Michael Curry, Bruce Bowen or Tony Allen. Foot speed isn’t a strength of mine, grabbing cutters isn’t my idea of a good time on the court and at this point in life, gritting and grinding doesn’t sound very appealing. My goal is to free myself up to read passes and gamble off my man conserve as much energy as possible on the defensive end and then push the ball up the court as fast as possible.
Going all out on defense and covering ground like the Ghost of DeMar DeRozan won’t let me be the player I want to on offense, it’s physically impossible for me. So I don’t do it.
Now by no means do I tell this possibly damning tale to convince you that either Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings doesn’t work hard on defense. Jennings in particular puts quite a bit of pressure on opposing point guards, sometimes 94-feet of pressure, for the majority of his time on the court. And Ellis has his moments defensively too. But it seems as though Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jim Boylan needs more of a commitment from his players on the defensive end. At least that was what he said before Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers when asked about their defensive struggles of late.
“Sometimes, during the length of an NBA season, you’re out there, you’re playing, you think you’re playing as hard as you can play, but compared to how you played, you know, back in December, sometimes you can lose a little bit,” he said. “You see that around the league. It’s not uncommon. So we just have to get back tot he extra effort we were giving earlier in the season.
Under Scott Skiles, the Milwaukee Bucks could, generally speaking, always be counted on to defend well. Last season was a bit rough on this front, but for the most part, the Bucks were always a good defensive team under his guise. When he was relieved of his duties earlier this season, the Bucks were the typical Skiles Bucks – good at defense, not so good at offense.
Per NBA.com, the Bucks of this season had allowed 100.6 points per 100 possessions (defensive rating) and scored 98.8 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating) with Skiles at the helm. Those numbers held fairly steady for a while under Jim Boylan. But since Milwaukee’s win by more than 10 points on January 29, the Bucks have reverted to the pre-Skiles Bucks. Points by the bunch, on both sides.
Since January 30, Milwaukee’s offensive rating has moved to 102.3 and its defensive rating has ballooned to 105.3. Over the past six games, Milwaukee’s ratings have been 108.9 and 109.4 respectively. Extremes!
Why the shift?
So why have the Bucks gotten so bad defensively? Sometimes, the answer is so obvious that you don’t want to believe it because stereotypes and such, but the answer is pretty much exactly what you assume. The Brandon Jennings, J.J. Redick, Monta Ellis trio has been fantastic on offense and forgettable on defense.
In 113 minutes together, Milwaukee’s guard trio has a collective offensive rating of 118.1 and defensive rating of 119.5. That’s both as good and as bad as it gets on both sides of the ball for Milwaukee. I only wish we had access to lineup numbers from 2000-01 so we could compare Milwaukee’s current potent offensive trio to Milwaukee’s most famous trio of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell. I get the feeling that the little three of right now may compete from an offensive potency standpoint of late, but would fail to even compete with that lightly regarded defense.
The Jennings/Redick/Ellis trio is everything you expect. They shoot well, they struggle on defense and get killed on the glass.
I asked Jim Boylan specifically about his guards and how he felt they were fairing on defense and he was hesitant to place all the blame on his guards.
“Well, I think it’s something where our team defense needs to be a little bit better,” he said. “At the point of attack with the ball, defensively we need to have more of an impact. The NBA is a pick and roll game. So the guards have to do their job, be physical and get over screens and fight, battle and get bumped. The big guys have to do their job of trying to contain the ball. It’s not always easy, there is great players and teams run different kinds of sets to try and get you out of position.”
Ultimately, as it so often does, it came back to effort in Boylan’s mind.
“But I think if our effort is a little bit better and we play a little more aggressively, I think that’ll all take care of itself,” he said.
I suspect there’s a greater problem with that trio than just effort, but let’s play along for a second.
We’d all love to see every player playing with through the wall, slapping the floor and diving into the stands energy for 48 minutes, but that’s unrealistic. Humans get tired, even if they hook themselves up with an IV of Gatorade. So I can’t help but wonder if he’s asking for a bit too much out of his guys though.
Even NBA players can only be expected to have so much energy. Not unlike me, I’m sure there are times Ellis and Jennings feel the need to conserve energy on the defensive end, knowing the ball will be in their hands on the next offensive possession.
If he wants Ellis and Jennings to run a functioning offense every night, is it realistic to expect them to be able to defend at a high level for 40+ minutes as well? Under Skiles this season, Ellis averaged roughly 36 minutes per game. By no means is that an easy night’s work, but there’s a difference between 36 minutes and the 41.3 minutes he’s averaged since the All-Star break. Jennings splits aren’t as dramatic, but he’s seen a bump too: 37.9 under Skiles, 39.1 since the break.
The recent injury to Luc Mbah a Moute has hurt Milwaukee’s depth a bit, as it’s opened up more minutes at the three for Redick, but it seems as though it’d be wise for Boylan to work to reign in his guard’s minutes a bit. While the Bucks have had virtually nothing but nail biters since the deadline, surely there are still some opportunities throughout the game to get his guards a bit more rest. Perhaps if he did, they would find a bit more energy to battle through picks or close out hard on shooters in the fourth quarter.
If it truly is effort that’s been hurting Milwaukee’s defense late, I have a hard time faulting guys that are playing more than 40 minutes a night. It’s much easier to look to the guy who decides that and wonder if there’s more he can do to control those minutes.
All numbers provided courtesy of NBA.com.