Alex Boeder's Holiday Wish List
I hope. Because that is really all I can really do, from here.
It is a helpless but thrilling feeling. We examine and predict and break down the possibilities. We watch. We rise and we fall, with the team.
Yet no matter whether you are on press row at the BMO Harris Bradley Center or in Turkey, all you can really do is hope. In the end, I don’t have any effect on what happens. We all probably hope for slightly different things, and that is fine. But we all hope.
And after 26 games, I know a little more about what exactly to hope for.
The Bucks head into the holidays and new year in a three-team race in the Central Division along with the Bulls and Pacers. With Derrick Rose and Danny Granger still sidelined with injuries, none of the three teams figure to run away with the division any time soon. And in the East, it is pretty clear already that there are nine (possibly ten) teams fighting for eight playoff spots: The locks (Miami, New York), the rest of the current top eight (Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Boston), and the two on the outside looking in (Philadelphia, Orlando).
So while the playoffs are an attainable goal, the team has plenty of room for improvement if they are to really leave a mark in 2013. Thus, I have identified and outlined ten things that I feel are both possible and necessary in order for the Bucks to keep giving us hope transitioning from holiday season to playoff season.
Lift Starting Backcourt Shooting Percentage
Monta Ellis (19.5 points per game) and Brandon Jennings (17.3) compose the top-scoring starting backcourt in the NBA. But when it comes to eFG% (and efficiency, generally), they both rank toward the bottom of the list among guards playing major minutes this season. Combined, Ellis (18.0 field goal attempts per game) and Jennings (16.5) take roughly 40.3% of the team’s field goals each game – and together they score about 38.7 % of the team’s points. Clearly, the blame for the 27th ranked offense should not so narrowly focus on the starting backcourt. But we can and should expect more from both of them. Ellis currently sits with a career-low 41.8 eFG%. Meanwhile, Jennings has a 44.9 eFG%, down from his career-best mark of 47.6 last season. So, the good news is that there is real reason to believe the backcourt will shoot better than it has so far, resulting in a higher-scoring, more efficient offense.
Play Second Half Like First Half
The Bucks are doing just fine in the first halves of games this season. They are outscoring opponents in the first quarter and rank as the sixth best team in the NBA in the second quarter, with a +1.3 average margin. But they are not finishing nearly as fast as they are starting. Just like last season, the third quarter remains problematic for the Bucks. But quite unlike last season, the Bucks have regressed to actually become the third worst team in the NBA in the fourth quarter this season. Notably, the team stalled late in losses to the Spurs, Timberwolves, Bulls, and Bobcats. Again, the team has most of the same key personnel that made them one of the best fourth quarter teams in the NBA last season, so this is a fixable problem.
In so many years past, it seemed like the Bucks always had a key player or two out with an injury during just about part of the season. This season, it has felt like just the opposite. They have run into the Celtics without Rondo, the Bulls with Rose, the Pacers without Granger, the Kings without Cousins, the Hornets without Gordon or Davis, the Timberwolves without Love or Rubio, and so on. And while the Bucks have suffered their share of injuries – notably to Luc Mbah a Moute, Beno Udrih, Mike Dunleavy, and Tobias Harris – the team is also one of the deepest in the NBA. However, the team was not specifically built to withstand injuries to the backcourt. While they ran off four straight wins without Udrih – and Ellis and Jennings have always played tons of minutes throughout their career – the offense has not always hummed along. They need everyone healthy. But they really need Jennings, Ellis, and Udrih healthy.
Establish Starting Lineup
Each time I have asked coach Scott Skiles over the past few years about whether he would like to have a set starting lineup, the answer has been roughly the same: yes. But conditions have not typically allowed (injuries) or encouraged (inconsistencies) Skiles to pick and go with the same steady five players. So far this season, the Bucks have tried seven different starting lineups. And honestly, they have all done okay – none of the seven lineups have posted a record of more than one game under .500. But none of them have overwhelmed or clicked to the extent that they have become the presumptive starting group. Eleven Bucks have started at least one game this season – and that doesn’t even include two of the team’s most productive players in Udrih and Dunleavy. The team will need some consistency to succeed in the long run. And that is what Skiles is looking for.
Take Back Defensive Boards
A few weeks into the season, the Bucks were the very best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. At the time, I warned that sample sizes were small and may be dangerous if taken too seriously. But the defensive rebounding seemed real – Samuel Dalembert was living up to his reputation on the glass, Larry Sanders was evolving into a dominant rebounder before our eyes, and guys like Dunleavy were cleaning up the rest. But since then, the team has fallen all the way down to 24th in defensive rebound percentage – call it a pleasant surprise turned unpleasant surprise. The tumble really gained momentum when the Bucks allowed 20 rebounds in a home loss to the Bulls on Nov. 24. While the Bucks have locked down defensively over the past month, they need to start cleaning up all those misses they are forcing.
Make More Threes
The Bucks rank 28th in three point percentage. They rank 26th in three point attempts. So, yes, the three ball has been mostly vanquished from the team’s offense. Problem is, the Bucks don’t have a classic post scoring presence, and they struggle to finish at the rim. They also don’t often get to the line and make free throws at a high rate. Of course, shots at the rim, free throws, and threes are the most efficient plays in basketball – thus, the 27th ranked overall offensive efficiency. There is reason for some hope when it comes to the threes, though. Ersan Ilyasova is down from 45.5 % last season to 33.3 % this season – his numbers should go up. Dunleavy, current team sharpshooter at 40.0 % -- has missed seven games but recently returned. The more he is in the lineup, the better. Meanwhile, Ellis (20.9 %) and Udrih (28.6 %) are shooting career-lows. How far up the team’s three point shooting numbers go is hard to say – but it should only go up.
Get Service From The Youth
The team has already received important contributions from Tobias Harris, John Henson, and Doron Lamb this season. Harris, the second-year forward, has started 14 games, none of them more impactful than the first one: an 18-point, 6-rebound effort in an opening night win in Boston. Henson delivered one of the best games by any rookie against the defending NBA champions in Miami with 17 points and 18 rebounds in an overtime loss. Lamb didn’t miss a shot and helped the team forge a 27-point comeback win in the second half in Chicago. All three have understandably gotten lost in the rotation at times, but with the offensive struggles, Skiles will likely call on and need the youth deliver unexpected offensive punch (and defensive competency) a few more times – and in the case of Harris, it will need to be more expected than unexpected.
Improve Transition Defense
First things first: The Bucks are a much better defensive team (9th) than offensive team (27th). But that doesn’t mean improvements cannot be made on both sides of the ball. The team is playing fast this season – seventh fastest in the NBA. That caters to Ellis, Jennings, and really the entire team on offense, which ranks 10th in fastbreak points per game (14.8). Unfortunately, opponents are taking even more advantage of the fast paced games. The Bucks allow the second most fastbreak points of any team in the NBA – 16.0 per game (the Lakers allow the most). Opponents are playing at “Milwaukee’s pace” and beating them at their own game. These are easy points going the other way. The Bucks were much better in this regard last year.
Defend Home Court
Every team in the NBA has a better home record than road record – except the Bucks. And so here is one area where you don’t want to be consistent: The Bucks are an even 7-6 at home and 7-6 on the road. That away record? Swell. Pretty much on par with the Grizzlies (6-5) and Heat (5-4), of royalty. If the Bucks win more than they lose on the road for an entire season, that is an honest accomplishment. It is so difficult to win in road arenas in the NBA. Except, it is not exceedingly difficult to win in Milwaukee for opponents. So far, anyway. The Bucks have already dropped home games to the Celtics, Bulls, and Cavaliers – all of whom they have already beaten on the road. They have been blown out by the Grizzlies, Knicks, and Clippers at home. The team must show better at home.
The Bucks assisted on 62.0 % of their field goals last season – third most in the NBA. This season, that number is down to 58.7 % -- 18th overall. The teams in front of them last season, the Bulls and Celtics, are second and third this season (the Spurs are first). In the first two games of the season, the Bucks racked up 26 and 32 assists respectively in wins at Boston and against Cleveland, picking up where they left off last season. But since then, the ball has not moved so purposefully, the shots have not fallen, and the free-flowing offense is stuck. It’s not as though the players are not sharing the ball or willing to pass – it’s more due to spacing issues due to a lack of perimeter shooting threats as well as off-the-ball movement that does not always sync with the point guards. I don’t have stats on number of dribbles, but it seems like the team is dribbling more and more. This is essentially the same team that was regularly dishing out 30+ assists late last season, so there is reason to believe they can again be among the more prolific passing teams in the NBA.
My passions? Writing and the Bucks, to start. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009-10 – almost all of that time writing for BrewHoop. I have also written for the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, etc. You can follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.