An Introduction to the Milwaukee Bucks: Playoff Edition

Anyone who’s spent any time around me since the GIANNIS! extremely GIANNIS! underrated 2013 Draft is rolling their eyes right now. Let me explain: back in 2008, I cosigned the Brandon Jennings experiment in which he took a non-traditional gap year; forgoing college and playing pro ball in Europe for a year before being eligible for the 2009 Draft. The Bucks took him, which I applauded. I also once stood not five feet away from not only Brandon Jennings, BUT ALSO Wale, after Wizards-Bucks game circa 2012. I remember when I first saw the name Giannis Antetokounmpo pop up on Chad Ford’s Draft Board. I watched this grainy footage and was instantly hooked.

So, my connection to the Bucks; albeit loose, is…

Fine. I concede. It doesn’t really exist. But, I’m rooting for a young team to develop and take the right steps in order to create the best opportunity for Giannis to reach his potential. Is that so bad? (Aside: In no more than three years, my favorite NBA player will not play for my favorite team. This affliction is common among modern NBA fans; I consider myself lucky to have avoided it this long.) This team is also coached by NBA Champion Jason Kidd, a man with whom I have a deep allegiance. (Aside: 2011, BABY!!). I have reasons to like them, but ultimately I’m the worst kind of NBA fan when it comes to the Bucks. I’m a hop on. A fair-weather fan. A bandwagoner. A hypebeast. But my affinity for Giannis is everlasting; pre-hype, per-hype, and post-hype.

Away we go.

Giannis had a solid series, but was on fire to start Game 3. He got it going early, then started to stretch to the peripherals of his game; shooting a number of mid-range jumpers. When those shots stopped falling, he refined his game into his comfort zone. Let’s take a closer look. Studying his playoff and regular season shot charts, provided by StatMuse, we can see that his shot selection did not vary from his typical pattern. What did change, however, was his efficiency around the hoop. Contested shots near the rim were a weakness for him over the course of the season, but he hit a high rate of those shots against the Bulls. Here are a couple examples:

These are the type of touch shots that Giannis should start to hit more often as his shooting stroke improves and mechanics work themselves out. He has a long frame and such pieces often take a little longer to synchronize than those attached to players like Kelly Olynyk. One hopes that he’ll end up doubling his 2014-15 3-point mark of 15.9 percent within a couple years. However, given the threat of his drive, his jumper need not be flawless for him to be effective. But it’s hard not to imagine what could be, when we see, well, what could be:

As for NBA Champion Jason Kidd, he has coached very well during his first year at the helm in Milwaukee. In 2011, he won his first and only ring. He retired after playing the 2012-13 season for the 54-win Knicks (Aside: doesn’t that seem like an eternity ago?) and made his coaching debut the next year, with the Nets. He then realized the terrors of working for Billy King and Mikhail Prokhorov, leading to his attempted power grab. Subsequently, the Nets traded him for a second time. So he’s coached for two years, with two different teams; each team at a completely different stage in the franchise cycle. Oh, by the way, he made the playoffs both years, actually winning a playoff series with the Nets. This type of success requires a deep well of basketball knowledge and a huge amount of mental dexterity. His mastery of the former was always obvious; but now he has demonstrated latter quality as well.

Back to the hoop de ball; in the second quarter of Game 4, Kidd stuck Jared Dudley on Joakim Noah and it worked wonders. Dudley hedged really hard on pick and rolls, preventing ball handlers from getting into the teeth of the Bucks defense. The Bulls looked confounded; they began to over-dribble and their shots felt either forced or rushed. There were instances in the fourth quarter in which the Bulls didn’t even get a shot off.  Kidd used Giannis on Pau Gasol and Noah, but Khris Middleton and Dudley were more effective in this role because they can stretch the court on the offensive end. This takes one of the Bulls bigs out of the paint, giving guys like Jerryd Bayless and Michael Carter-Williams room to create. Dudley’s defensive IQ is also a huge asset in Kidd’s match up, trappy zone. There are elements of Carlisle’s zone scheme here; it’s probably no accident that Brandon Knight was flipped for two guards (MCW and Tyler Ennis) who played zone in college. MCW fits very nicely into the Bucks ‘length, length, length’ themed roster. Hold that thought.

Kidd has simply done wonders for these players. He’s gotten former fringe starters OJ Mayo and Jerryd Bayless to buy into their bench roles and they’ve excelled in the right moments. Michael Carter-Williams has become a more efficient player across the board since arriving in Milwaukee. One cannot overstate the overall benefit of leaving the 76ers, who make a herky-jerky Bucks team look like the Showtime Lakers. In fact, his plus-minus improvement of 7 points (Sixers: -0.2; Bucks: 6.8) isn’t quite that impressive given that the Bucks average point differential was 0.4, which towers over the Sixers’ mark of -9. However, MCW’s shooting percentage really improved as he showed a feel for mid-range jumpers, particularly off of screens on shots like these:

The percentages bear this out. (Sixers: 30.5 percent shooting from 3-10 feet; Bucks: 40.8 percent. Sixers: 31.3 percent shooting from 10-16 feet; Bucks: 52.4 percent. Small sample size caveats apply.) Again, a lot of this success is due to a higher availability of open shots. MCW still does most of his damage getting into the paint, creating shots for himself and others. But that threat will continue to open up his mid-range shot. If Carter-Williams continues hitting, it should give him another level of confidence and decisiveness, adding another facet to his game.

Though the Bucks slowed down after their three-way trade in mid-February (finishing 13-22, including playoffs), their game began to take shape by the time the playoffs rolled around. Jason Kidd, an unofficial Rick Carlisle disciple, had these young Bucks working fluidly on offense and defense. This cohesiveness broke down at times, as it does with any young team; there’s still a feeling of discomfort and uncertainty on the court.  In the playoffs, they were bailed out by unlikely heroes converting big shots. All things considered, we’re seeing more deliberate play from the inexperienced members of the roster. This is usually a sign of confidence, a precious commodity among young NBA players. We have learned not to underestimate Kidd’s tactical ability or his team’s ability to execute. Now we must trust in their hunger to improve.


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