The possibly unrealistic defensive expectations of Jim Boylan

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

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, 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

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  1. Good article. Jenning and Ellis are pathetic on the ball defenders. But at the same time, they are relied on way too much to carry the offense.

    The Bucks need more easy opportunities to score around the basket. But they don’t have the kind of upfront players that can do that consistantly -except for one guy. John Henson. Yet Boylan seems very reluctant to play Henson much at all. Not sure why as we know Epke, Larry and the “Goose” are not ging to do anything much with their backs to the basket. Give Henson 20 plus minutes a night and take some of the heat off the guards.

  2. That’s why its a good fit when mbah moute is at SF to balance out the defensive inefficiencies of the Bucks. That’s part of the coaches job as well to find the best balance of offense and defense. I don’t get the rotations when they have jennings, ellis, reddick, dunleavy, and udoh out there. Ya they will score a lot but they will also give up a lot. Not only that, only one person can shoot at a time so why play all your best offensive players at the same time? When ellis or jennings is not on the floor, any 2 of Reddick, Dunleavy, illyasova will be sufficient. Also, they are going to have to reduce some of the minutes of ellis at some point. His defense will struggle even more if they dont and his offense will too because he wont be able to get his legs underneath him at the end of games from being so tired.

  3. @bucks1988 the only reason that wacky lineup w/ dunleavy at the 4 and udoh at the 5 was in play last night was b/c the blazers went 4 out w/ aldridge at the 5. you would have seen a much more conventional 4 and 5 in the lineup had the blazers not made this late move to pick up easy 3 point baskets.

  4. One thing to keep in perspective is that there are
    20 teams who are playing better defense this season
    than the Bucks. I suspect that since Boylan took over
    as coach, that number is even worse. Just in the last
    couple of weeks, it seems, the Bucks have fallen from
    18th to 21st. So the question is how do these other
    teams get the job done on defense moreso than the Bucks?

    I also wonder if Ish is so bad that he can’t get some
    meaningful minutes especially in the first half and
    then maybe late in the third quarter? Maybe 12-20 minutes?

    Another point: It makes me mad that we traded Tobias
    (yes, I bring him up again) apparently for the reason that
    he wasn’t a good defender and rebounder. Now it turns
    out that the Bucks are pretty bad on defense, anyway,
    and now also without the one frontcourt guy who could create
    his own offense going to the hoop or pulling up from
    the outside. It’s worth adding that Tobias has been a
    solid rebounder for the Magic. (See an analysis of Tobias
    by Jacob Frankel on the Magic version of this blogsite.)

    If, as rowe499 says above, John Henson can get us some
    points around the basket, why not play him some more?
    He’s shown the ability to haul in a goodly catch of rebounds,
    as well. Let’s not waste him like we did Tobias!

    • The Milwaukee Bucks organization has been bad/incompetent for years, they have invested in players nobody wants and been reluctant to pay players that are relatively good. It seem the fans and media are more interested and finding blame or pointing the finger and singling out players than looking in the mirror. The point is the Bucks ORGANIZATION created this MONSTER! They should all be award pink slips and shown the door, exept Hammond, he has only been here for 4 or 5 years. I would give him 3 more year in reference to his new contract….

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  6. OH NOOOOOOO………..T O B I A S again. We wasted Tobias, we will burn in hell for trading Tobias,the Magic will WIN the East Conf. cuz of Tobias. PUFF , PUFF, and pass it over. :)

    8points, 6 fouls for Tobias, against the Bucks ABOVE STATED porous defense on Sunday afternoon. Please , please can we get by the Tobias
    references! Sfisch and Tobias sittin in a tree….. k i s s i n g

    Bucks “D” has not been great all season, flashes of “lockdown” pressure
    have shown up once in a great while. This squad will NEVER be a defensive juggernaut. Undersized guards, poor rotation, gambling for steals, ticky tack fouls-only LARRY can keep it respectable with rim presence! Brandon consistently gets blown up by opposing guards flying past him into the paint. Ellis is not much better, although steals late in 4th quarter can change balance of game. Ers, the charge taker…YIKES.

    This team counts on offensive B A N G!!!!! to beat their opponents. This will not change after 60 plus games. We just have to live with it and stay POSITIVE

    Go BUCKS Go

    • A sincere hello to happyfeethustle.
      I appreciate the happy-face symbol
      as a sign of good-natured back-and-forth.

      Oh my dear lost and lamented Tobias!
      Besides my sports-mourning, I do think
      bringing him up is a good reminder for
      not making the same mistakes with John

      Also, it’s good to question authority!
      I want the Bucks to be good, too, not
      just mediocre, and I’m not all that
      confident in our coach or GM — although
      I’m giving them a chance.

      According to Jeremy above, as I understand
      him, the Bucks defense has gotten significantly
      worse just since the start of this season.
      So I wonder why, and throw in some thoughts
      for improvement, which may or may not make
      good sense.

      Anyway, for me, the debate is fun and the
      differing opinions are appreciated — all
      of it in a positive spirit. One thing we
      all seem to agree on within this site:
      Go Bucks!

    • Ouch the truth hurt. Which brings us to either better players or better coaching… Possibly both…

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  8. There is reason Boylan has been a assistant all these years. He is not a very good coach. One questions his rotation,motivation skills, being creative & initative, strategy and methods.

    • I root for Jim Boylan because I remember
      fondly his contributions to the 1977 Marquette
      championship in the NCAA tournament.

      However, I, too, have some concerns about
      his ability to be a head coach in the NBA.
      Not everyone is cut out to be a head coach,
      and there’s no shame in that. It’s a difficult
      job requiring multiple skills. In the NFL,
      for example, one can be a genius as an offensive
      or defensive coordinator but not have the
      capacity to succeed as a head coach. It seems
      that it would be somewhat the same way in the NBA.
      To be a very good assistant coach is worthy of
      much praise and is a satisfying career.

      Not that I’m giving up on Boylan, or claim to know
      a lot about his short tenure as head coach of the
      Bucks, but I do think he should be evaluated by the
      front office and the fans with a kind but critical
      eye — with the criteria that scott46 mentions above.

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