2-5 since the All-Star break, with the Golden State Warriors awaiting them tonight in Oakland. After the loss to the Warriors, Milwaukee will have played its worst eight game stretch of the season.
While most acknowledged the Bucks took a step backwards at the trade deadline in hopes of a brighter future, it’s been a bit surprising to see how badly Milwaukee’s struggled. Being the worst offensive team in the league produces that sort of result though, even for one of the best defensive teams in the league.
That’s where the Bucks are at. They’ve maintained a level of defense that has been exceptional, limiting opponents to just 94.8 points per 100 possessions over the past seven games, good for fifth in the NBA. Actually, there are some other similarities between the pre and post deadline Bucks. Defensive rebounding has been an issue all season (third worst opponent offensive rebound percentage pre and fourth worst post). And the Bucks are still a high turnover team (17.1 TO ratio pre and 18.2 post). The new Bucks have just added another weakness to the mix.
They’ve turned bad offensive basketball into an expectation.
Milwaukee’s offensive rating since February 20 according to NBA.com/stats has been 89.9, meaning they would score just about 90 points per 100 possessions. The second worst team over that stretch was the Denver Nuggets at 91.1. The same Denver Nuggets who have been actively and loudly awaiting the end of this miserable season and fired their coach on Tuesday … right before they dropped 106 points on the Bucks.
Milwaukee had found itself in December and January. Players fell into roles. Jabari Parker went down and Jared Dudley reinvented himself as a small ball stretch four. John Henson emerged from the shadows as an impactful center. Khris Middleton was scoring all over the court. Brandon Knight kept shooting and making shots, his teammates be damned.
But shots have stopped going in, roles have changed and faces have come and gone. These are not the December or the January Bucks. The March Bucks are a different animal. So far that animal is more lemur than tiger.
From December 1 through February 11, Milwaukee was 20-15. The Bucks made 40% of the 18.7 threes they attempted per game. Brandon Knight, OJ Mayo, Khris Middleton and Jared Dudley led the three point charge. Since February 20 when the team returned from the All-Star break, Milwaukee has made just 31% of the 17 threes they have attempted per game. Lower conversion on fewer attempts. Bummer and bummer.
Jared Dudley has gone just 3-16 from three in a reserve role. Jerryd Bayless, who could reasonably expected to pick up some of Knight’s scoring load has made 5-16. OJ Mayo has only played in four of the past seven games and is questionable against the Warriors. Knight has yet to make a three for the Bucks in the second half of this season. Some of his loss has been offset by an uptick in Ersan Ilyasova‘s attempts and makes per game, but his four attempts and 36% success rate hasn’t completely filled the gap.
Most disconcerting is the timing of Milwaukee’s struggles. Against a soft schedule that’s included the Lakers, Jazz (admittedly improving) and Nuggets (twice), Milwaukee’s been this offensive team? What’s going to happen against the Warriors? Or against the Pacers and Grizzlies in a week? Maybe this is all a matter of shots simply not falling. Jason Kidd has said after a couple different games of late that the team has been getting good looks and shots just aren’t going in and he doesn’t want the guys to get too down. He’s trying to stay positive. Maybe that’s true and maybe shots will suddenly start falling again.
But there does seem to be some logic to the lack of 3-point success.
A big strength of Carter-Williams appears to be his ability to find open players on the perimeter when he drives into the paint or posts-up. Unfortunately, he’s often finding Giannis, who is one of the only players on the team as unwilling to shoot the three as Carter-Williams. Giannis has attempted less than half a three per game and MCW 1.4 per game since February 20. In the Denver game alone, I counted five instances in which MCW drove or swung to an open Giannis in the corner. On each of those occasions, Giannis failed to shoot the open three.
I remember talking to people about spacing being a potential issue for the Bucks if they had too many non-shooters on the court. Especially last game it seemed like the Nuggets defense collapsed on a lot of MCW drives and Giannis was in the opposite corner, not a threat to even shoot a three, much less make one. When those two have both been on the court, Milwaukee shot just 26% on threes coming into Wednesday’s game.
That’s something an NBA wing has to be able to do. We know Giannis is a work in progress and when he makes that progress, it will be a very big deal. But for the time being, it’s hurting both the Bucks offense and MCW. Especially since if Giannis drives, it’s not like he can kick out to Carter-Williams for three the way he once could to Knight. Giannis kicked to Knight for threes 27 times this season. He’s yet to assist on a MCW three.
MCW is playing to his strengths and it frequently isn’t helping to serve his offense or Milwaukee’s offense because there’s an awkward fit between him and his wing.
This is likely all part of Milwaukee adjusting to a brand new point guard with a different sort of style. Maybe Giannis will play a bit more power forward and slide more towards the top of the key in the coming weeks, with guys like Mayo, Middleton and Dudley filling to the corners. Maybe MCW will get a better feel for where to go when Giannis catches and drives and be able to fill in lanes for open layups or floaters off his wing’s drives.
It’s a learning process right now for Milwaukee, one that’s taking precedence over immediately winning more games. We can’t lose sight of that, even if the losses keep piling up.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I have to make sure I don’t lose sight of that and that’s why I bring it up in everything I write lately. But the idea that things should get better than they are now rather than get worse is something new here in Milwaukee. Watching a team be built and intentionally bet on a player who isn’t as good right now is different. As the Bucks are learning how to play together, we’re learning how to be patient and cautious observers, me more than most.
Even as a cautious observer, sometimes it’s been a bit tough to watch this team lately. But as will they, we’ll keep at it and watch for the little signs of development over the coming weeks. A few more threes here and there. Giannis and MCW playing off of each other. Maybe even the occasional long ball from Giannis.
Unless things change drastically over the next few weeks once these guys are comfortable, those little signs of progress may have to be “wins” going forward.