What's better than one guard who thinks he can hit every shot taken once he crosses midcourt? Two guards who think they can hit every shot taken once they cross midcourt. Meet the Milwaukee Bucks.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
What happened to the Milwaukee Bucks' defense between 2010-11 and 2011-12? It fell from No. 4 to No. 16. The obvious answer: Andrew Bogut played 65 of 82 games in '10-11, and he played 12 of 66 in '11-12. He was, of course, traded for Monta Ellis at midseason. So you would think the defensive slide would be made permanent or continue. But that doesn't account for Ekpe Udoh.
The 2010 draft product, who came over with Ellis from Golden State, is chronically reputed by advocates of adjusted plus-minus as an elite defender. The figures at BasketballValue.com back that up; 82games.com's unadjusted numbers show the Bucks were 5.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Udoh was on the court.
Keep in mind that this team had Bogut, one of the top defensive centers in the game, for a dozen early-season matchups. (The Bucks were about 10 points better on defense with Bogey in there.) I'm not sure Udoh can be considered a reasonable facsimile of Bogut -- probably not on offense -- but if Scott Skiles needs a defensive anchor, well, he has a defensive anchor. He just needs to play him more. (The other center options tend to be strong defensive options, too. Samuel Dalembert is an elite rebounder and shotblocker, though his positional defense and propensity to goaltend leave much to be desired. John Henson, slim as a slot canyon, is another defense-first option up front. The rookie, however, is obviously less proven. Let's just leave Drew Gooden at power forward, OK?)
Beyond Udoh, the Bucks have a plus defender in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Ersan Ilyasova is quite a help as an excellent glass-cleaner. Brandon Jennings starred heavily on that No. 4 defense two years ago. He can do so again. Ellis is a defensive downgrade on John Salmons, but Monta is a decent ball-hawk. This defense can be excellent again, if Skiles wants it to be. But it might mean benching better offensive options.
Another reason to be optimistic about the Bucks: their splits after the All-Star break. Per Basketball-Reference, Milwaukee had a scoring margin of -2.3 points per game before All-Star Weekend last season. After the break, the Bucks were +2.8. That's a big shift and, if kept up over a full season, that +2.8 would definitely land the Bucks in the East playoff bracket.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
Ellis was traded to the Bucks at midseason last year. Including field goals, free throws and turnovers, he used a bit more than 20 possessions per game for Milwaukee. On the season, Jennings used a bit more than 20 as well. This does not count assists. Combined, they used up about 41 possessions per game. The Bucks averaged 94 possessions per game. Ergo, if the pair remain in Milwaukee all season and do what they did last year, some 43 percent of the Bucks' offensive possessions will be shots or turnovers by Jennings or Ellis.
That's not particularly outlandish -- that figure for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City was 56 percent -- but the difference is that Westbrook and Durant are way, way, way more efficient than Jennings and Ellis. Monta's true shooting percentage in Milwaukee last season was .493. That means he averaged less than one point (0.986) for every shooting possession he used (including free-throw trips). The league average was 1.046. For someone who takes about 18 shots per game, that's one point off the board for Milwaukee. That actually makes a difference over the course of a season.
The struggle for Milwaukee will be spreading that ball around. The last thing that the Bucks need is an offense devoted to two highly inefficient guards earning their assists passing to each other on the perimeter. The Bucks were No. 13 in offensive efficiency in 2011-12; among the heavy rotation players, Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy and Mbah a Moute were the most efficient players. They had really low usage rates, though we know Ilyasova and Lil' Dun can carry loads. Skiles has to find a way to transfer shots from the backcourt to the forwards to improve this offense.
(One thing the guards do that really helps the offense is prevent turnovers. Though Jennings and Ellis aren't efficient scorers, they manage to get shots with giveaways. That helps the defense, too.)
It will be miraculous if ...
The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference isn't renamed to honor Ekpe Udoh by 2016.
"Monta Ellis needs to be more aggressive."
"Brandon Jennings needs to be more aggressive."
Mike Dunleavy doesn't get his default Google bio photo changed.
John Henson smashes former Buck Jon Brockman's inevitable pancake-eating records in Milwaukee.
Brandon Jennings is able to keep business separate from play and not sweat his lack of an extension this offseason.
Monta Ellis gives a clear answer on whether he'll opt out in 2013.
The Bucks are not on constant League Pass Alert status.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Brandon Jennings
Team X-Factor: Ekpe Udoh
Team Finish: third in Central | 10th in East
(OK, this was hard. I wanted to put the Bucks in the playoff bracket, and I do think they'll be right on the cusp at worst. I'm just not sure they'll get it done, and the team I have in the eighth spot -- preview coming next week -- is better at the top of the roster. I'd already put the Raptors at No. 9 because I believe in Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas. So, Bucks, No. 10. Don't hate me, Milwaukee!)
Best Championship Hopes: NRA Quickest Trigger Award.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.