Between the Jason Kidd hiring and the expectation that Jabari Parker could win the Rookie of the Year award, Milwaukee Bucks fans have reasons to be excited. A 7-5 start to the season after a terrible 15-67 campaign last year has only added more hope.
And it's Milwaukee's vastly improved defense that's behind the fast start. The Bucks rank fourth in the NBA by allowing 97.7 points per 100 possessions, which is an incredible turnaround from last year's team that was 29th in the league at 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That difference explains why the league's youngest team owns a winning record despite mostly playing games decided by a few possessions.
How do players who are relatively new to one another while learning from a new head coach find success on the defensive end? From personnel to scheduling, several qualities have gone in Milwaukee's favor.
1. Personnel (and availability) helps
It all starts with the health and versatility of the big men. Kidd went with bruiser Zaza Pachulia down the stretch in a 122-118 triple-overtime win over Brooklyn, but also gave the Nets doses of John Henson, who was able to match up with small units featuring Kevin Garnett at center. Add in Larry Sanders' shot-blocking abilities, and the Bucks have three different big-man options to match up with anyone. It's helped that Pachulia and Sanders are healthy -- they combined to play in just 76 games last year -- and that Sanders' off-court issues from last season are in the rear view mirror.
In addition, Parker, Khris Middleton and second-year forward Giannis Antetokounmpo have incredible length on the wings. It's Antetokounmpo who has especially used hustle and his unique nose for the ball to frustrate opponents. In the backcourt, Brandon Knight stands 6'3 at point guard and O.J. Mayo's weight loss from last season has him playing more spirited defense. Both have been solid in defending the three-point line.
2. They're hustling and buying in
Yet it's the effort that most defines Milwaukee's rise. Transition defense is an easy way to judge that, and Milwaukee is second (behind the Clippers) by allowing only 9.1 fast break points per game, according to TeamRankings.com. The Bucks are also No. 1 in opponent fast-break efficiency, which is especially important since they are the fourth-most turnover-prone team in the NBA and also in the bottom third in shooting percentage.
Take this play against the Nets as an example. Antetokounmpo lost the ball on offense, yet his four teammates ran back with Brooklyn on the break. Though they failed to pick up Mirza Teletovic, who they should know is going to pull up for a three, Antetokounmpo hustled back just before the forward got his shot off. Did Antetokounmpo alter the shot? Maybe just enough.
Even in half-court situations, Kidd has the Bucks understanding basic rotational philosophies. During the overtimes against the Nets on Wednesday, Milwaukee's defense sometimes had two players crash into the lane to help on drives, but there were still secondary rotations from their teammates to prevent shooters from getting open looks. Milwaukee was helping the help defense.
3. The schedule has been easy
While all of this is nice, the Bucks will probably come back down to earth to some degree. Their schedule hasn't exactly been imposing to this point, as they've only played against one team with a top-10 offensive rating (the No. 9-ranked Bulls). Here's a quick look at their wins.
- Sixers -- Offensive rating: 30th in the NBA (0-11 record)
- Pacers -- Offensive rating: 25th in the NBA (No Paul George, David West, George Hill or C.J. Watson)
- Grizzlies -- Offensive rating: 13th in the NBA (Very, very good win, but on the Grizzlies' fourth game in five nights)
- Thunder -- Offensive rating: 29th in the NBA (Without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson)
- Heat -- Offensive rating: 11th in the NBA (Without Dwyane Wade)
- Knicks -- Offensive rating: 14th in the NBA (3-10 record)
- Nets -- Offensive rating: 17th in the NBA (Another solid win)
Add in that the Bucks fell to three teams well under .500 at this point (Detroit, Orlando and Charlotte), two of which have the third- and fourth-worst offensive ratings, and it's too early to crown this a complete turnaround.
So maybe this is fool's gold to some extent. But it's clear the Bucks have started somewhere by buying in and have the tools to build on it.