Fives games isn’t really enough to make many meaningful observations, but it’s just enough to start to form some opinions about a basketball team. Last year we already had a good feeling about Larry Sanders and his potential for a breakout season. We were weary of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis and sure that Tobias Harris was going to make an impact for the Bucks.
Two for three, I suppose.
With that in mind, here are some very early musings on just what’s going on with the Bucks so far.
It’s far too early to complain about rotations or lineups.
Larry Drew doesn’t know quite what he has yet on this Milwaukee Bucks team. His team battled some injures in the pre-season and he almost had his lineup together on opening night, though Ersan Ilyasova was coming off the bench. Well almost stayed almost, as Brandon Knight went down one minute into the season opener in New York with an injury that cost him a few games. The lineup many predicted the Bucks would most frequently use, at least early this season, Knight-OJ Mayo–Caron Butler-Ersan Ilyasova-Sanders has played exactly zero seconds together this season.
Given that Sanders is now out for six weeks thanks to a thumb injury we all wish wouldn’t have happened, it’ll be quite a while before Drew is able to use that lineup he’d most like to use going forward.
For the time being, Milwaukee’s most frequently used lineup has been Nate Wolters-Mayo-Butler-John Henson-Zaza Pachulia, a lineup featuring just two opening night starters. And even that lineup has only played 42 minutes together! That’s the only lineup that’s played more than 20 minutes together thus far. It’s far too early to make any conclusions about what Milwaukee’s rotation should look like, at least based on this season. If you believe Wolters (originally I had Sanders here, but, you know) and Henson should be playing late minutes for development or that Knight should be getting the lion’s share of point guard minutes so the Bucks know what they have, that’s fine, and I get the reasoning behind that.
But if you’re the kind of person that’s bemoaning early season rotations and expecting Drew to know exactly what he has with his injury decimated roster … just relax. He’s got 77 games left. He’ll figure something out at some point.
Now I know I just chastised everyone about not jumping to conclusions too early, so consider this not a jump to conclusions, but an observation of something predictable that’s happened thus far: Despite being a dominant 3-point shooting team, the Bucks haven’t been very good at offense this season.
We kind of thought before the season that might be the case. The Bucks don’t feature a lot of players that are great at creating shots for others. Wolters has been a capable point guard, but not exactly someone who can come in and break down a defense. He’s been careful with the ball and dished out some assists, but mostly, he’s just kept the ball moving and other guys have hit threes after he’s passed to them. Without someone to create easy shots or much of a pace, the Bucks have struggled to get many good shots inside the arc.
The looks on the left side of the floor, where Mike Dunleavy once roamed and made hay, have been particularly unkind to Milwaukee. But more more an issue has been Milwaukee’s inability to convert inside nine feet. This chart doesn’t necessarily reflect those stats, but the Bucks rank in the bottom seven of shots made within both five feet of the hoop and nine feet of the hoop.
Brandon Knight’s athleticism and size at the point guard spot may help out here a bit and perhaps more touches on offense for John Henson would be useful, but this team shows all the symptoms of a team that’s going to struggle in the half court all season long. Especially with Delfino, a creative offensive player, and Sanders, a reliable finisher last season, each due to miss significant time.
Drew said last week he was purposely looking to control the pace of the game and play at a bit slower tempo than he anticipated earlier in training camp due to the number of injuries the Bucks have dealt with so far.
“We have to control the rhythm of the game, given what our situation is from an injury standpoint,” Drew said. “We don’t have the bodies that I was anticipating our hoping we would have thus far.”
Through five games, the Bucks are ranked 26 in the league in pace, averaging just 91.8 possessions per game. As a comparison, each of the last two Bucks teams ranked third in the league in pace, with 94.7 and 93.7 possessions respectively. Forcing a couple of extra possessions generally favors the more talented team and certainly the deeper team, so Drew’s theory holds some weight there.
But at some point, the Bucks are going to have to capitalize on the capabilities they have at the wings. A lot of guys on this team can handle the ball in transition and make some decisions, which should make it easier for the Bucks to push the ball up the court quickly for an occasional easy basket. When a team is struggling as much in the half court as the Bucks have been, transition basket opportunities should be greeted like water in the desert.