Bucking the Offensive Trend

Chart updated 4/17/2012 | Download Chart (.xlsx)

The Question
Quick: Name the five NBA offenses that have improved this season.

Wait, only five out of 30 offenses have improved this season?

Actually, yes. Offense is down, way down, in the NBA this season. But you – Bucks devotee – are forgiven for not realizing that. After all, the Bucks are working in the triple digits (23 games of 100+ points) regularly now, just one season removed from running the least efficient offense in the entire league.

The Numbers
The average offensive rating – which measures points per possessions rather than per game to control for the different paces teams play at – this season is 104.6. Last year, it was 107.3. To put this in traditional numbers, points per game are down from 99.6 to 96.2.

The Bucks? They are suddenly well above average, with a 106.1 offensive rating, after posting an NBA-worst 101.6 offensive rating last year. From 30th to 11th. Here is what this all means: Not only have the Bucks become a lot better at scoring, they have done so at the same time that almost the entire NBA has become quite a bit worse at scoring. Essentially, they have swum upstream against a strong defensive current.

The Answer
The Bucks are the most improved offensive team in the NBA this season, as shown in the chart above, leading an exclusive group of five teams resisting the league-wide downward offensive trend. Something quickly jumps off the page about these teams.

What do the Clippers, Pacers, Timberwolves, and Nets have in common? Three out of four gained a dynamic new point guard. The Clippers added Chris Paul, the Timberwolves welcomed Ricky Rubio, and the Nets experienced their first full season with Deron Williams. The Pacers made an offensive splash after signing David West. Meanwhile, the Bucks have undergone a complete transformation that is nowhere near attributable to a single new player.

But what is going on with the other 25 teams? Seven teams this season have a worse offensive rating than the 30th ranked Bucks of last year. “Linsanity” did not prevent the Knicks from having the largest drop-off (-7.6) of any team, and the defending champion Mavericks (-6.7) have also suffered major dip. Even the best offensive team in the NBA right now – the Thunder – have taken an offensive efficiency hit, down from 111.2 last season to 110.0 now.

The Explanation
Okay, there is not one convenient explanation for why scoring and offensive efficiency is down across the league. But the consensus is that the condensed schedule resulting from the lockout – consider that the Bucks just played 10 games in 16 nights – is one of the chief culprits.

“Three games in four nights, things like that. Offensively, your legs might be dead as far as shooting the ball,” Larry Sanders told me before a recent game when asked why offense is down across league.

Logic holds that offensive sharpness is more liable to suffer from fatigue than defensive sharpness. One of the starkest differences separating professional players from you and me or even college players is their unfailing ability to reproduce the exact same, picture-perfect form on each and every shot. They have rehearsed for a lifetime, and it shows. That is why you always notice when someone’s form looks off – because it is so rare.

The Shooting
The Bucks finished last season dead last in the NBA in traditional categories such as points per game and offensive rating. Now they are in the top half of the NBA in those same areas. You can mark some of that to new personnel. Mike Dunleavy is hitting 48.0 % of his shots from the field and 41.9 % on three-pointers, one of the purest offensive seasons by a Buck in recent memory.

But the returning Bucks are also driving the improvements. Seven players – Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, Drew Gooden, Larry Sanders, and Jon Brockman – remain on the roster from the team that finished last season. And six of them are shooting a better percentage from the field, with Brockman being the only exception.

But they are not perfect – they don’t always shoot the ball well.

The Passing

“In quarters or halves where we don’t shoot the ball well, we have to keep the ball moving because eventually we will. The guys have done a very good job of that. Unselfish play has not been an issue,” Skiles recently told reporters.

That is for sure. The Bucks lead the NBA averaging 23.9 assists per game, one season after finishing last in the NBA averaging 18.8. And not only are they racking up assists, they are doing so with discretion – the Bucks rank second in the NBA with a 1.707 assist-to-turnover ratio. And so the new offensive success is a shared success. 

Added Sanders: “Chemistry is a lot different this year than last year also.”

The Depth

In a season with such a merciless schedule, the teams with the most depth are bound to thrive. Enter the Bucks, who have started 10 of the 13 current players on the roster, and whose second unit is generally regarded as being almost as good as the first unit.

The Flip Side

Defensive efficiency has fallen from 4th to 17th this season from last season, not exactly canceling out the offensive improvements, but severely minimizing them.

The Solution

Remember from the introduction how the Bucks have scored 100+ points 23 times already this year? Well, they are 17-6 in those games. But they still have the occasional lapse on offense – witness late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s home loss to the Pacers – and it is those times when then the defense needs to step back up.

“Even if you score 110 in a game and shoot 46 %, there is a pocket in that game where you struggle a little bit offensively. There always is. And you have got to be able, during that pocket, to get some stops,” Skiles said before the loss to the Pacers.

And so the challenge over the final six games will be the same one facing the team all year, which happens to be precisely the opposite challenge the team faced last season. Skiles said this before a recent game, but the refrain has echoed throughout the Bradley Center all season:  “Our offense obviously is capable of scoring on a lot of teams. We just need to get our defense straight.”

Indeed. Milwaukee has allowed 105+ points in three of its last four games. Down by 2.0 games to the Knicks and by 2.5 to the 76ers, the only way the Bucks might still have a chance to play on in the playoffs is if they find a way – right away – to buck that trend too.

Bucks.com welcomes Alex Boeder as a new feature writer. Alex was a contributer to Brew Hoop and SB Nation. You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexboeder or email him at adboeder@gmail.com.

* Stats via basketball-reference.com