Why are the Bucks not Horrible?

Posted on February 25, 2010 by


Before the season started Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated.com offered the following assessment of the Milwaukee Bucks: Milwaukee lost its second- and third-leading scorers (Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva), while its No. 1 scorer (Michael Redd) and top rebounder (Andrew Bogut) are returning from major injuries. And it’s possible that part-time starting point guard Ramon Sessions could walk as a free agent. Coach Scott Skiles will keep the defense playing at a high level, but points will be hard to come by.

Mannix ranked the Bucks as the 28th best team in the NBA.  In other words, Mannix thought that only two teams (the Nets and Kings) should be ranked below the Bucks.

Mannix was not alone in this assessment.  In the NBA preview of ESPN the Magazine (insider access required), the Bucks were listed as the 14th best team in the Eastern Conference.  Like Mannix, only the Nets were ranked lower by the experts at ESPN.

After 56 games, though, the Bucks’ record stands at 28-28.  And Milwaukee’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 0.6 suggests that this team is slightly above average.

Certainly Milwaukee isn’t great.  But why isn’t this team awful?

It’s easy to focus on Brandon Jennings, who currently leads Milwaukee in scoring and shot attempts.  Jennings was selected with the 10th pick in the 2009 NBA draft.  But it was unclear how good he would be as a rookie.  Jennings skipped college and did not exactly post amazing numbers in his one year in Europe. 

At the start of the season it looked like teams had a made a mistake in passing on Mr. Jennings. But after an amazing start his overall productivity has slipped quite a bit (despite ranking second among all rookies in scoring). As Table One reveals, after 56 games Jennings has posted a 0.059 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and currently only ranks 6th on the team in Wins Produced.  Although not bad for a rookie, it is not enough production to transform a bad team into the average squad that currently resides in Milwaukee. In sum, Mr. Jennings is not the answer.

Table One: The Milwaukee Bucks after 56 games in 2009-10

For an answer, let’s look at the five players who are producing more than Jennings.  Of Milwaukee’s 29.2 Wins Produced, 24.3 can be traced to the play of Andrew Bogut, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Luke Ridnour.  Of these four, the only surprise is Ilyasova.  Back in 2005, the Bucks selected the 18-year old Ilyasova in the second round of the draft.  He debuted in 2006-07, and as one can see, played quite poorly.  In 2009-10 – at the age of 22 – Ilyasova is now an above average power forward.  With the addition of Ilyasova the Bucks now have an impressive frontcourt.  Bogut is clearly the most productive player on the team at center.  And at the two forward spots the team has Ilyasova, Delfino, and Mbah a Moute.

At guard, though, Milwaukee has problems.  The only above average performer is Ridnour.  It’s possible for Salmons to offer something, although that hasn’t happened yet.

Obviously a team that is hovering around the average mark has weaknesses.  But these weaknesses are not the focus on this discussion.  What we wish to understand is why the Bucks were underestimated before the season started. 

When we look at what this team’s veterans did in the past we see a team that could have expected to win 25 of their first 56 games.  In other words, even if Ilyasova hadn’t improved this team wouldn’t have ranked among the league’s worse.  Again we wonder why this wasn’t seen.

One suspects that the problem lies in the evaluation of players like Delfino, Ridnour, and Mbah a Moute.  The former was quite productive – from a Wins Produced perspective — in both 2006-07 and 2007-08.  And both Ridnour and Mbah a Moute were above average last season.  None of these players, though, are scorers.  Given the importance placed on scoring totals, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Bucks were undervalued.

For more on this topic – and anything else related to the Milwaukee Bucks — one should read the Courtside Analyst (formally Bucks Diary).  Ty Willihnganz consistently offers NBA analysis that is well worth reading. 

– DJ
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.