Can the Milwaukee Bucks Continue Their Impressive Start?
After just seven games, the Milwaukee Bucks already have on-fifth of their win total from last year. The blatant tanking of the Philadelphia 76ers was a major storyline last season, but the Bucks actually ended the year with the worst record in the league at 15-67.
Are the Bucks suddenly better than they were last season?
Looking at their Pythagorean wins from last year, they were expected to finish with 20 wins based on their point differential, although they actually finished with five fewer than that. Point differential has shown to be more predictive of future success than the actual previous year’s record, so the data said we should have already been expecting a better Bucks season just based on regression.
Also, the Milwaukee roster had some bad luck all season, regardless of whether they manufactured it themselves (see, Larry Sanders in night clubs), or if it happened naturally (see, Larry Sanders breaking his face). It was a season where everything went wrong, but it was just one season. This year brought renewed health, a future franchise player, a new owner group, and a new head coach – many reasons for optimism.
Speaking of Larry Sanders, the Bucks defense is one of the biggest reasons for their solid start this year. Last season, the Bucks finished with the second-worst defense, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. In their first seven games this year, they’re only allowing 96.3 points per 100 possessions, good for fourth in the league, only behind the Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors.
Although Sanders is only playing 24 minutes a game so far, take a look at the Bucks defensive efficiency with and without him, courtesy of nbawowy.com.
|Opp Point Per Possession||Opp FG%||Opp TS%|
|Larry Sanders ON||0.944||39.1%||47.4%|
|Larry Sanders OFF||1.054||43.1%||50.7%|
This roster still has a ways to go on the offensive end, but young point guard Brandon Knight is having easily his best season and rookie wing Jabari Parker has looked very good in moments. Even O.J. Mayo is having a good offensive year so far.
There seems to be a trend of young lottery teams gathering defensive talent and later focusing on building up their offensive skill sets as they get older. Andrew Wiggins going first overall in the NBA Draft this summer is a prime example of this. Both the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers fit this mold – rookies Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, K.J. McDaniels, and Nerlens Noel all have enormous defensive ceilings, and their respective franchises are fine with them developing offensively over time.
This is not to say Brandon Knight and Jabari Parker are defensively in that class. However, the Bucks are just a year removed from signing Larry Sanders as a long-term piece after he showed that he has the potential to be an elite rim protector in this league. Second-year man Giannis Antetokounmpo and 23-year-old John Henson are also freakishly long and have intriguing defensive potential.
Can the Bucks keep this up? According to Kevin Pelton's article yesterday, the Bucks have had the third-easiest schedule so far this season. However, Sanders and Henson should continue to be forces in the middle, and if they can manage their foul trouble, there is no reason the Bucks can’t continue to be much better on the defensive end than they were a year ago.
Our algorithms predicted the NBA would get more balanced this year – the win difference between the lower teams and the upper teams would be less than last year. This is proving true through the first couple weeks, and gives hope that perhaps the Bucks can have meaningful games well into the new year. Could they perhaps be the Suns of last year?