Block Busters

The Stuff

NBA players shoot approximately 0.00 % when their shot is blocked. It is just not the best strategy to make a basket. But in 2011-12, the Bucks did not block an extraordinary amount of shots.

In 66 games, the Bucks blocked 335 shots. The league average? 336. They ranked 15th out of 30 teams. Right in the middle. So as you can see, the Bucks did not block an extraordinary amount of shots -- rather, they blocked a very ordinary amount of shots.

Here is the greater concern: The Bucks ranked 16th in defensive rating in 2011-12. Just a little below average – again, very ordinary. That marked a major drop in form on defense, as they ranked 4th in defensive rating just one season earlier.

Next season, the Bucks anticipate blocking quite a few more shots. And not allowing quite as many baskets.

The News

Never hesitant to shake up a team that needs shaking up, General Manager John Hammond acquired two premier shotblockers within a week of the official end of the NBA season.

First, the team swung a trade for Samuel Dalembert, a 6’11” 250-pound pure center who averaged 3.07 blocks per 40 minutes in 2011-12. For some perspective, that ranked just in front of DeAndre Jordan (3.01) and JaVale McGee (3.01), two young centers known perhaps best for their shot-blocking prowess. Dalembert, who has ranked in the top ten in blocked shots in his last eight seasons, is projected to start at center for the Bucks this coming autumn. And he will not be alone swatting shots in the frontcourt.

With the #14 overall pick, the Bucks drafted John Henson, a springy 6’11” 220-pound power forward from North Carolina. Henson averaged 4.05 blocks per 40 minutes as a junior, a number that would have ranked seventh in the NBA this past season. Of course, the pros are a completely different level than college, but the two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year projects to adjust quickly, with Draft Express noting that he “should be able to make an instant impact in the pros on defense.”

Dalembert and Henson will join a frontcourt that figures to feature a pair of players who are already among the league’s best shot-blockers.

The Return

Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders were both lottery picks in 2010. They stand within an inch of each other and weigh within 10 pounds of each other. And when they are on the court, they both block shots like just about no one else in the world.

In his second game with the Bucks, Udoh blocked four shots in a blowout 116-87 road win against the Trail Blazers on March 20. Blocking four shots in a game is impressive regardless of context, but Udoh blocked those four shots in 15 minutes. Udoh never played 35 minutes in a game with either the Warriors or Bucks last season, but he was a quick-starter who stood out not only for his shot-blocking but for his defensive awareness. The Bucks played much better defense with Udoh on the court, and he ranked in the top ten in the NBA in blocks per 40 minutes, even slightly stepping up his block rate after arriving in Milwaukee from Golden State.

Now the Bucks will have Udoh for the whole season, rather than just the final couple months.

And then there is Sanders, who once blocked eight shots in a game as a rookie – and then became an even more prodigious shot-blocker in his second season.

Sanders blocked shots at a better rate than Dalembert, Henson, or Udoh last season. In fact, he blocked shots at a better rate than anyone in the NBA, except for Serge Ibaka. His 4.71 blocks per 40 minutes  was not only second best to Ibaka (5.38) – it was the second best rate of any player averaging 10+ minutes per game in any of the last three seasons.

On draft day, Hammond reflected eagerly on the team’s newfound shot-blocking quantity and quality.

"I think right now, there's no reason for us not to have a quality shot blocker on the floor at all times. If that be Samuel Dalembert, if that be Larry Sanders, if that be Ekpe Udoh or if that be John Henson, we are going to be able to protect the basket."

The Question

Clearly, the Bucks are primed to block more shots next season. But will that necessarily translate to more efficient defense in the paint and overall?

In 2011-12, the Thunder led the NBA in blocked shots and ranked 11th in defense. Of the teams ranked in the top ten in blocks, five ranked in the top 11 in defensive rating. The Bulls (3rd in blocks, 2nd in defense), Celtics (7th in blocks, 1st in defense), and Heat (10th in blocks, 4th in defense) are the best examples of teams whose defenses vaulted into elite status thanks in large part to their shot-blocking threats.

Of course, simply blocking shots is not enough alone. The Wizards (2nd in blocks, 21st in defense) and Bobcats (8th in blocks, 30th in defense) can attest to that.

The Bucks must not only block shots – they must also alter shots, and ideally, prevent teams from even taking so many shots at the rim in the first place.

The Basket

Centers and big power forwards often had their way against the Bucks last season, and guards too often easily found their way to the basket. And these problems did not diminish as the season progressed, as Hammond accurately noted.

"At the end of the season, we had a very difficult time protecting the basket."

The Bucks certainly struggled to protect the rim, but they struggled even more to protect the paint in general. Opponents shot just 60.1 % at the rim against the Bucks last season, which actually made the Bucks the seventh best team in the NBA in field goal percentage defense at the rim.

However, that does not mean that the team was truly protecting the basket. Consider: They allowed the fifth most field goal attempts at the rim, shots that are by nature relatively high-percentage. And the team also allowed the eighth most free throw attempts in the NBA, another indication that the Bucks struggled to defend players driving to the basket.

The Challenge

All of the big men hold real promise – all of them face real challenges.

Can Dalembert replicate one of his best seasons? Can a slender Henson quickly adjust to the pro game? Can Sanders cut down on his penchant for fouling? Can Udoh continue to post positive differentials as he is mixed with different lineups? Can Gooden adjust to a new role once again? Will the team retain unrestricted free agents Ersan Ilyasova and Kwame Brown? And how will the minutes be divided among them?

The Blocks

Brandon Jennings – rookie – blocked Derrick Rose twice at the Bradley Center on Jan. 9, 2010. Those blocks came after Rose had blocked Jennings in the final seconds with the Bucks down by two in their previous matchup. I fondly remember those two blocks – those two blocks make me wish today was that night.

The Bucks will block a lot of shots this season. And we will still remember and want to remember and stop for a full minute to remember some of the best ones a few years from now – if the Bucks win the game.