Return of the Defense?

Holiday cheer was not the mood of the post-game press conference after the Bucks gave up 129 points at home to the Kings sans DeMarcus Cousins on Thanksgiving Eve.

Even when the head coach is ejected from a game (like Jason Kidd was that night), they still bring him out to address the media afterward. “Everybody has to understand what is happening and what we are trying to do.” That was the heart of Kidd addressing the defensive issues.

Then I followed up by asking if Kidd was looking for defensive leadership from anyone in particular on the team. To which he replied: “Anyone wearing a white jersey tonight would be nice.”

Sometimes those one-sentence answers – after which everyone pauses for a moment and a half – say a lot more than the one-minute answers.  

(The Bucks were wearing white jerseys that night.)

Return of the Defense

In the five games since, their defense rates as sixth-best in the league. Too early to say the Bucks are truly back on track on that side of the ball. But it also suggests that it may have been too early to write off the defense altogether.

While the 2015-16 defense (26th ranked overall, even including the improved form over the past couple weeks) has hardly resembled the 2014-15 version (second ranked overall, and pretty consistently excellent), they are extremely similar in at least one regard.

And that is this: The Bucks are forcing (or, allowing, depending on how you look at it) opponents to shoot from almost the same places with almost the same frequency.

The thing that really jumps out is how great they were defensively despite allowing opponents to shoot the most efficient shots on the floor (from 0-3 feet and threes) with such regularity.

In a general way, they encouraged opponents to play a version of so-called Moreyball – an offense like the Rockets run which heavily favors layups, free throws and threes while virtually abstaining from mid-range jumpers – and somehow came out ahead, way ahead.

Turns out, a part of that “somehow” seemed to be veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, who departed in the offseason. They owned yesterday and not much of the future, so it seemed, and that is certainly true. As far as today goes though, when it comes to a hyper-aggressive and switching-based defense, the margin for error is thin. And the need for communication is thick.

Surprising (surprising to me, anyway): The Bucks are still defending shots around the rim extremely well this season. Second best in the league in that 0-3 feet range. Problem is, they are allowing a lot of those shots. And even if you defend “extremely well” those shots near the rim, they are still high-percentage attempts. Yet while not ideal, that has also not been a major change from last season.

Then what has changed? Well, opponents are now hitting a lot of threes, for one thing. And not shown on the charts above is the fact that the Bucks are putting opponents on the line frequently (second most often in the league, more specifically). The combination of giving up a lot of shots at the rim, threes and free throws is just too much.

Just look at the threes, for example.

Fortunately (and not coincidentally), things have trended in a better direction recently on all of these fronts, including four straight games holding opponents to fewer than eight threes made.

So, is this just a matter of the new players working their way into an effective defensive system? If the Bucks can move up from 26th in defensive efficiency after this December schedule, then yes, probably yes.

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