Partnow: Is it too early to be worried about the Bucks’ ugly defensive numbers?

The Milwaukee Bucks are experiencing one of the odder starts in the NBA this season.

Originally, I had planned to look into how all the teams with new coaches had started this season. But I found myself going deeper and deeper down my local rabbit hole. The effort to determine what early season performance is real and likely to persist versus which is short-term statistical noise nearly always leads to more questions than answers.

For the Bucks, it hasn’t been a disaster as their 4-2 record extrapolates out to a pace of just under 55 wins. But through those six games, they have been outscored by three points per game and, according to the definition used by Cleaning the Glass, they have been outscored by 5.6 points/100. That level of play translates to a win total in the high 20s or low 30s rather than the championship contention level nearly everyone — myself very much included — expected.

Subjectively, Milwaukee has seemed to be a team struggling to find something rather than being a team that knows its championship identity. With a new and first-time head coach in Adrian Griffin, some growing pains were to be expected — a contrast to the nearly metronomic regular-season performances under Mike Budenholzer. Under Bud, the Bucks might not have been an inspiring regular-season watch but on most nights the impression was one of competence and consistency.

How much of the worry about the Bucks’ start is a result of the sheer difference in vibes from the old regime to the new? Further, at this juncture, two weeks-plus-a-day into the new season, very little is set in stone. So, some degree of patience is wise.

Eric Nehm has written extensively about the Bucks’ defense in these opening six games, noting their seeming inability to contain the ball, uncertainty around how to best use Brook Lopez and their reliance on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual brilliance to bail them out as early season issues.

However this soon in the season, simple variance and schedule luck can overly influence a team’s statistical profile. Milwaukee has likely caught the sharp end of that stick, with opponents hitting 49.0 percent of midrange attempts (compared to league average of 42.5 percent) and 38.2 percent on above-the-break 3s (NBA average is 35.5 percent thus far). Even to the extent those numbers reflect something real about how the Bucks are defending, both numbers could be expected to come down even if nothing changed with the Bucks’ defense structurally.

That structure is important because we tend to get a better sense of how a team plays far earlier in a season than we can have any real confidence in knowing how well they will play. The kinds of shots a team takes, how much they push in transition or how much they slow it down, the degree to which they can work the offensive boards or not all start to come into focus close to a month into a new campaign, whereas the effectiveness doing those things might take a half season or more to become clear.

This is true even more so on the defensive end, when the combination of shooting variance and imbalance in the opposition each team has faced can turn “Small Sample Size Theater” into a long-running production.

In terms of defensive shot profile, Milwaukee has remained excellent — at least on the surface. According to CTG’s “Location eFG” measure which simply collates the volume of shots a team takes or allows from various court zones, the Bucks lead the league in forcing opponents into the toughest mix of shots. This is familiar territory, as Milwaukee was never lower than seventh in the measure under Budenholzer, and, if we exclude the 2021-22 season where Brook Lopez missed a huge chunk of the year, never worse than third.

As usual, this placement is based in large part on Milwaukee’s ability to limit shots at the rim. They lead the league, with only 23.0 percent of opponent attempts coming from within four feet of the basket.

But here is where things get weird. They are dead last in accuracy allowed on these shots.

Over the Budenholzer era, the Bucks were typically elite in both, finishing in top five in Rim Attempt Rate and the top seven in Rim FG% Allowed in each of those five seasons. This in itself is slightly counter to the overall trend. Across the last few years, there is a slight inverse correlation between rim attempt rate allowed and the accuracy allowed on those shots.

This is likely driven in part by subtle differences between how scorekeepers in various arenas determine whether shots have been attempted from within the restricted area or not. The stingier the scorekeeper, it is likely the percentage on that smaller number of shots will be higher because of the operation of a statistical phenomenon known as Simpson’s paradox. In this case, in arenas where shots in the 3- to 5-foot range tend to be classified as not occurring in the restricted area, these not-quite-layups get excluded from rim attempt percentages leaving the comparatively higher value attempts from right at the rim, which are typically dunks or layups, behind. A team playing 41 games in such an arena will thus tend to show up as allowing fewer but higher accuracy rim attempts.

To the extent this affected the Bucks, their rim defense in prior seasons was more than enough to overcome it. This year not so much.

Some of this is a result of the most visible issue with Milwaukee’s defense thus far: an inability to keep opponents from playing on the break. Opponents have made 85.7 percent of their rim attempts against the Bucks while playing in transition. While this is higher than average, the worry is more about the volume of fast-break layups than the conversion percentage.

The average team fast breaks on around 30 percent of their live ball defensive rebounds. Thus far, Bucks’ opponents have done so on 43.1 percent of opportunities, an enormous number. As a result, the Bucks are dead last in the degree to which transition has increased their defensive rating, a stat tracked by Cleaning the Glass as “Points+.” The operative theory behind this stat is that counting fast-break points is insufficient, as the team would still get the chance to score on a possession on which they didn’t fast break. Thus the important thing is knowing how many “extra” points transition play has caused.

According to this Points+ stat, the Bucks cost themselves 5.3 points/100 of Defensive Rating with the transition defense off of their own misses. Charlotte sits 29th at 2.7 points/100, with the 2.6/100 difference being as large as the gap between the Hornets in 29th and Boston Celtics in fifth, illustrating the size of the Bucks’ problem getting back on defense.

But as with all things early season, even this is subject to caveats. Opponents have made 48.6 percent of their transition 3s against Milwaukee. While fast-break 3s tend to be more open and taken by better shooters than average, this still only equates to the league as a whole shooting around 38 percent on transition threes. So to the extent Milwaukee can expect a few more misses in the normal course of things, it closes the gap some degree, but not close to all the way.

Further, it is not just transition that has been a problem for the Bucks. On the season, they are dead last allowing 75.0 percent efficiency at the rim in the half court, an area in which they have typically excelled and the league as a whole scores at a rate in the mid 60s. If one is looking for signs of the ship righting itself, it is worth noting that over the first four games of this season, the Bucks allowed 84.2 percent at the rim in the half court, while in the last two contests with Lopez returning to a more familiar paint-patrolling role, this has declined to an more manageable and equally familiar 61.2 percent.

Does any of this matter or portend a rocky season for one of the preseason title faves?

At this point you’d be a fool to be certain either way, but at least there are some clear areas upon which the Bucks can focus their efforts to improve.

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

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