Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week: the veracity of the Milwaukee Bucks’ defensive turnaround, a quirk of in-season tournament play, the specific superpower of the Orlando Magic, and more. This is the Kram Session.
Under Review: Have the Bucks Really Turned a Corner?
Well, that didn’t take long: The Bucks are back! Following a rocky early start, during which Milwaukee—after swapping in Damian Lillard for Jrue Holiday, after replacing Mike Budenholzer with rookie head coach Adrian Griffin, and after inking Giannis Antetokounmpo to a new contract extension—went just 5-4 and played Charmin-soft defense, the Bucks have won five games in a row.
Now the Bucks are 10-4, on pace for 58.5 wins—a precise match of their 58-win total last season, which landed them the no. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. (For their sake, we can ignore what happened after that.) Just a week and change ago, the Bucks seemed to be in deep trouble, but as they prepare to face the Celtics on Wednesday on ESPN in their much-anticipated first clash of the season, they seem to be doing just fine.
The funny thing about the early part of the season is that like five minutes ago it was reasonable to go "hey, what's up with the Bucks" and then you blink and they're 10-4 with a top-fiveish offense and (since they started playing drop again) a top-10ish defense. https://t.co/2ucEYpNLWQ— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 21, 2023
Or are they? A deeper dive into the Bucks’ winning streak suggests that none of the concerns that plagued them at the start of the season have abated. They may have moved up into a tie for second place in the Eastern standings, but they still have plenty of flaws to address to reach their loftier ambitions this season.
First things first: The Bucks offense will likely be as extraordinary as billed. Milwaukee ranks fourth in offensive rating now, even though Lillard’s made only 33 percent of his 3s.
That’s not a real reason for concern, as early-season 3-point declines aren’t predictive, even for older players. Players are just naturally streaky from beyond the arc, and Lillard has bounced back from worse stretches before. Last season, for instance, en route to scoring 32 points per game, Lillard had a 12-game span in which he made just 29 percent of his 3s.
Over the past half decade, Lillard has tended to heat up as the season progresses. (Leaguewide 3-point accuracy rises by a small amount over the course of the season.)
But Milwaukee’s defense is still a glaring problem, flashing bright red. After a terrible start on that end of the floor, thanks in part to a more aggressive scheme than what the Bucks had used in previous seasons, they took a step in the right direction in their fifth game, a win against the Knicks in which they reverted to their former defensive approach. As Griffin said afterward, “Sometimes as coaches, we’re too smart for our own selves, and so a couple players came to me. … They wanted Brook [Lopez] deeper in the drop, and I was smart enough to listen to ’em, and it paid off tonight.”
It would be easy to point to that Knicks game as the Bucks’ eureka moment, after which they turned their season around. And on the surface, that narrative fits. Before the Knicks game, the Bucks ranked 29th with a 119 defensive rating; since then, they’re a much more palatable 16th, with a 113.9 rating. And before that game, Lopez—last season’s Defensive Player of the Year runner-up within the “drop” system—was averaging just 0.5 blocks; since then, he’s averaging a league-high four blocks per contest.
Yet on closer review, it seems that other, flukier factors have played just as big of a role in Milwaukee’s apparent defensive improvement over the past 10 games.
For one, the Bucks have benefited from facing lousy offenses in that stretch. During their winning streak, the Bucks have beaten the Mavericks’ third-ranked attack, plus offenses ranked 19th (Charlotte), 22nd (Washington), 23rd (Toronto), and 27th (Chicago). They’re not exactly beating the ’86 Celtics.
Facing worse offenses has also skewed the outlook for the Bucks defense, making it look better (or at least less full of holes) than it actually is. Out of their 10 opponents since that fateful Knicks game, eight have met or exceeded their season-average offensive outputs against Milwaukee. In that span, only the Knicks and Hornets scored below their season averages against the Bucks.
Put another way, the Bucks have faced three top-10 offenses since the Knicks game—and the Nets, Pacers, and Mavericks have averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions. With that context, it doesn’t sound as if the Bucks have solved much of anything.
Milwaukee’s greatest problem is still an inability to defend the perimeter. Lead guards on opposing teams are averaging 29.5 points per game on 60 percent true shooting against the Bucks, which is basically what Donovan Mitchell has done this season. (Read more on that issue, and the methodology, here.)
The Bucks still don’t get back on defense; they allow the league’s highest transition rate, per Cleaning the Glass, as opponents get out and run after a whopping 41 percent of live-ball rebounds. And when Milwaukee does defend in the half court, it’s allowing 1.06 points per pick-and-roll, according to Synergy tracking, which ranks 28th, ahead of only the lowly Hornets and Jazz. The Bucks are 25th in defending isolations, at 1.05 points per iso.
Add the fact that Milwaukee’s defensive 3-point luck has swung—before the Knicks game, Bucks opponents made 51 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers (second highest); since then, that number is just 35 percent (sixth lowest)—and it’s unclear whether the Bucks have actually made any sustainable strides on defense, other than protecting the rim better with Lopez sitting back in the paint.
Griffin is still searching for solutions to this roster’s fundamental defensive problem: Without Holiday, the Bucks don’t have any stout defenders aside from Giannis and Lopez. The new coach has even turned to a hearty amount of zone defense. The Bucks have used zone on 5.5 percent of their defensive possessions, per Synergy, the third most in the NBA; last season, for context, they ranked 28th, with a 0.4 percent zone rate.
Ultimately, even accounting for the Bucks’ surface-level defensive improvement over the past couple of weeks, they still rank 24th in defensive rating. And we’re just about at the point of the season when we can start to trust a team’s stats; research shows that defensive rating in particular stabilizes after around 15 to 20 games.
This is the expected trade-off of the Bucks’ Lillard-for-Holiday swap—and once Lillard’s shooting comes around and Khris Middleton’s minutes increase, that exchange may well prove to have been worth it. The Bucks’ win against Dallas this weekend was a proof of concept for the team’s new potential path to victory, as Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving combined for 74 points, Giannis and Dame combined for 67, and the Bucks used a big fourth quarter to eke out a win at home.
Even though his shot isn’t falling as predictably as usual, Lillard has been as sublime as advertised in the clutch. He leads all players this season in clutch points (39, or 7.8 per game), clutch plus-minus (plus-30), and clutch free throws (17 for 18). And, perhaps most crucially, Giannis has been happy to defer to his new teammate at the end of close games: Lillard’s usage rate in clutch situations is 45 percent, versus just 28 percent for Giannis.
But the defensive issues that caused such consternation among Milwaukee’s players and fans during its inconsistent 5-4 start haven’t gone away, even though the wins are now piling up in typical Bucks fashion. They’ll face perhaps the starkest possible stress test on Wednesday, against the Celtics’ spaced-out, star-filled starting lineup, in what may be the first of many high-profile meetings this season.
Zacht of the Week: 41 Percent
The Orlando Magic still can’t shoot, and the Orlando Magic still can’t score. Over the past four seasons, they ranked 25th, 27th, 28th, and 24th in 3-point percentage, and the last time they finished in the top half of the league in scoring efficiency was 2012, right before they traded Dwight Howard.
The Magic are one of this season’s early success stories, with a 9-5 record and a top-three defense, but they’re bumping up against the same offensive struggles: They rank 29th with a 33 percent mark from distance and 25th with a 110.2 offensive rating, per CtG.
Yet Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley doesn’t want to focus on his team’s continued shooting problems because he knows they’re still relatively early in the rebuilding process and laying down a strong foundation nonetheless. During his team’s recent trip to Chicago, he said, “The one thing that we’ve talked about is: What is our superpower, and what are we capable of doing? And that’s our ability to get to the rim, our ability to get to the free throw line, and defense.”
The stats bear out Mosley’s claims: A league-leading 41 percent of Orlando’s shot attempts have come at the rim, per CtG, and the Magic rank third in free throw rate after ranking fifth last season, which was their first time in the top half of the league since 2010-11. Paolo Banchero got to the line at a historically high rate for a rookie in 2022-23, and both he and Franz Wagner can get downhill against any kind of defense.
Part of driving the lane is kicking out to shooters when the defense collapses—and that’s where the current iteration of Orlando’s roster falls short. Over the past few seasons, the Magic have either drafted or traded for five guards picked in the top 15. Rookie Jett Howard (considered a reach at no. 11 last summer) has played only 23 minutes thus far; none of the other four are knockdown shooters.
Young Magic Guards’ Career 3-Pointers
At the moment, the Magic simply don’t have the personnel to leverage their ability to get to the rim into an efficient, well-rounded offense. “I know we talk about 3s and we talk about being able to make shots, but it has to fit who you are,” Mosley said. “If we’re a team that’s trying to say we’re going to hunt down 3s but our two forwards are able to find mismatches and get to the paint and get to the lane, then we would be doing our team a disservice if we didn’t use those things to create an advantage.”
The broader advantage of the Banchero-Wagner foundation is that if Orlando is aggressive in building around the two budding star forwards, it should be able to address this problem within the next year—even if none of the team’s young guards prove they deserve a long-term starting role. The Magic project to have oodles of cap space next summer, and even if they don’t land the rare star who reaches free agency, they can offer contracts to accomplished shooters like Buddy Hield, Gary Trent Jr., and Grayson Allen.
It would help if they could find a shooter who also doubles as a strong creator for others. With a team-high 4.5 assists per game, Banchero has boosted his playmaking in his sophomore season, but he’s also seen a corresponding uptick in turnovers. That’s another area where the slow development of Orlando’s guards hurts. But as long as Banchero and Wagner are in uniform, the Magic will be able to rely on their specific superpower to stress opposing defenses.
In-Season Tournament Update
Tuesday brought more in-season tournament drama as the inaugural edition of the NBA’s new competition approaches the end of the group stage. The Pacers and Lakers became the first teams to qualify for the quarterfinals, the former with a scintillating 157-152 win in a track meet in Atlanta. And Philadelphia became the first of the league’s top teams to be officially eliminated from the competition, via an overtime defeat against Cleveland.
Generally, two losses will be enough to prevent a team from reaching the knockout stage. In the Eastern Conference, we’re now down to eight teams with zero or one loss: Indiana, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, New York, Boston, Brooklyn, and Orlando. And in the West, that count also includes eight teams: the Lakers, Phoenix, New Orleans, Denver, Houston, Sacramento, Minnesota, and Golden State.
But there’s one realistic exception to that two-losses-and-you’re-out guideline: There’s chaos brewing in the apparent Group of Death, West B. All five of its teams could finish group play with 2-2 records if the Rockets beat the Nuggets and the Clippers beat the Pelicans on Friday and then the Mavericks beat the Rockets next Tuesday. All three of the teams that need to win in that scenario are at home.
It’s worth taking stock of the remaining teams to identify the top Cinderella candidates for the single-elimination rounds. The Pacers are an obvious and incredibly fun choice. The Magic could also fill that position if they upset Boston to stay alive on Friday. And out West, both the Kings and Timberwolves—two teams that haven’t won a playoff series since 2004—are 2-0 in group play heading into a massive meeting in Minnesota on Friday.
A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words
Want to have fun as an NBA rookie? Try being a rim-running center next to Luka Doncic.
Take That for Data: One Late-Game Quirk of In-Season Tournament Play
An unusual final play ended the 76ers-Hawks game last Friday. With 0.7 seconds left and a 10-point lead, Philadelphia inbounded the ball to close out a certain victory—except instead of waiting for the remaining time to expire, as most teams are wont to do in similar circumstances, the 76ers passed to Joel Embiid, who shot and missed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Why would the reigning MVP do such a thing? The answer was right there, on the uniquely multicolored court: This was an in-season tournament game, and point differential is a key tiebreaker in the tournament standings. Embiid wasn’t the first player to make such a decision this month, so I sought to determine whether the point differential wrinkle has actually changed, on a noticeable, leaguewide level, how teams are approaching the very ends of games.
To test this theory, I used Stathead’s Shot Finder to search for all shot attempts that came (a) from the winning team, (b) in the last five seconds of a game, and (c) with at least a seven-point margin (i.e., a three-possession game). Five shots this season meet those criteria—and all five happened on a Tuesday or Friday in November, meaning they came in tournament play:
- Harrison Barnes against the Thunder (up seven)
- Mikal Bridges against the Magic (up 18)
- Matt Ryan against the Mavericks (up 21)
- Kevin Huerter against the Spurs (up seven)
- Embiid against the Hawks (up 10)
There could have been even more. Embiid also tried to beat the buzzer against Detroit in a tournament game but hoisted his 3-pointer a split second late. (The Pistons weren’t happy about the attempt. “They don’t know the rules,” Embiid countered.) And after Barnes’s miss against the Thunder, Huerter grabbed the rebound with a second left but didn’t make any attempt to shoot, leading Domantas Sabonis to explain that he should have; when Huerter was in a similar situation a week later, he showed that he’d learned his lesson.
Compare this early set of shots to data from previous seasons, and it’s clear that the point differential incentive has impacted the end-of-game strategy. Over the past five seasons, there were an average of only eight such shots all year. And we’re already at five, all on tournament days, in 2023-24.
1. The narrow gap between All-Star and All-NBA
On a recent episode of the Lowe Post podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe was talking about Lauri Markkanen and said, “He may be—and this is totally fine—an All-Star who doesn’t ever crack All-NBA. That’s a good player; it’s not a great, great player.”
That observation got me thinking about the fine line between an All-Star, as one of the top 24 players leaguewide, and an All-NBA player, as one of the top 15—not least because a different NBA Zach (LaVine) in the news fits this description as well. LaVine is a two-time All-Star but a zero-time All-NBA honoree, which places him on a list of 23 players this century with multiple All-Star appearances but no career All-NBA nods:
- Four-time All-Stars: Paul Millsap, Rasheed Wallace
- Three-time All-Stars: Khris Middleton, Richard Hamilton, Steve Francis, Antoine Walker
- Two-time All-Stars: Zion Williamson, Bam Adebayo, Jrue Holiday, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Roy Hibbert, Luol Deng, David West, Rashard Lewis, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Glenn Robinson, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Finley, Allan Houston
What does this list of players tell us about roster construction? It’s not just that All-Stars of this caliber can’t be the best player on a Finals team. It’s that they can’t really be the second-best player either, unless there are multiple teammates who can share the supporting load, as in the case of Middleton and Holiday or Wallace and Hamilton. (Adebayo has been the second-best player on multiple Finals teams, but I assume that he’ll make an All-NBA team at some point to graduate from this list, especially as All-NBA moves to a positionless model.)
Teams that relied on these All-Star but not All-NBA talents as top options tended to peak before the Finals, like Millsap’s Hawks, Hibbert’s Pacers, and the current Bulls with LaVine and Vucevic. That history suggests any team considering a LaVine trade better have two superior players already in place—say, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, or De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, or LeBron James and Anthony Davis—who can relegate LaVine to third-banana status.
(For those curious, the record for most All-Star trips without an All-NBA selection is Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens’s nine; he somehow finished second in the MVP vote in 1967-68 without making an All-NBA team. The record for most All-Star trips with just one All-NBA nod is Chris Bosh’s 11—and he’s the 21st century’s best example of how a contender can thrive with an overqualified third option.)
2. Embiid vs. Jokic, Part 4?
Analyst Taylor Snarr debuted his estimated plus-minus ratings for the 2023-24 season this week. It’s still early, but these rankings are an excellent snapshot of player impact because they use both box score and on/off data to, well, estimate how many points per 100 possessions a player adds or subtracts for his team.
Here are the top dozen players by EPM thus far. It’s a collection of MVPs and MVP candidates, plus breakout stars like Scottie Barnes, Tyrese Haliburton, and Tyrese Maxey—and one notable rookie not named Victor Wembanyama. Chet Holmgren already looks like an absolute star.
Estimated Plus-Minus Leaders
And at the very top of that leaderboard, separated by a margin so fine it might as well not exist—especially in such a small sample—are Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, who already have a decent-sized gap between them and the rest of the league after just a dozen games. Embiid and Jokic have finished first and second, in either order, in MVP voting in each of the past three seasons; who’s ready for yet another MVP race between the titans of the modern NBA?
3. Pistons-Wizards next week is a must-win for Detroit. Yes, really.
Earlier this week, I dove deep into the odd, contradictory start to Cade Cunningham’s NBA career and explored what the disparity between scouts’ and advanced stats’ views of his game might mean for his future.
The Pistons’ present looks even worse though, as they’ve dropped 12 games in a row since a 2-1 start. Their past two losses took a different route to the same outcome: The first was a 29-point blowout in Toronto, after which coach Monty Williams questioned his team’s “competition level”; the second was a four-point squeaker against Denver, which the Pistons led late before a Nuggets team missing Jokic (ejection) and Jamal Murray (injury) won anyway.
Why talk about the Pistons’ losing streak now? Because here are the opponents in Detroit’s next nine games: Pacers, Wizards, Lakers, Knicks, Cavaliers, Pacers, 76ers, 76ers, Bucks. Pay attention to that game against the Wizards next Monday. (I can’t believe I’m recommending you pay attention to a game between the 2-11 Wizards and 2-13 Pistons.) If Detroit can’t win that game at home, the Pistons have a realistic path to 21 consecutive losses.
Stats through Monday’s games.