The emergence of the Milwaukee Bucks as a contender in the Eastern Conference just might be my favorite story of the 2009-10 NBA season. Fans in Milwaukee haven't had much reason for hope since the Ray Allen-Sam Cassell-Glenn Robinson trio broke up in the wake of a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001. In that span, the Bucks have neither won more than 42 games in a season nor a playoff series. Expectations were that this year would be more of the same, with Milwaukee hoping just to contend for a spot in the postseason.
I wrote about the Bucks frequently early in the campaign, when Brandon Jennings was the blogosphere's darling and Milwaukee a League Pass favorite. Their fast start indicated that the Bucks were likely to make the playoffs, but those chances dimmed as Jennings slumped and Michael Redd was lost for the second consecutive season to a torn ACL.
Enter John Salmons, and credit Milwaukee GM John Hammond with a steal at the trade deadline. Taking advantage of Chicago's desire to clear additional cap space this summer, Hammond was able to add Salmons for the expiring contract of Hakim Warrick while maintaining the option to swap first-round picks. The addition of Salmons has proven a catalyst for the Bucks, who have gone 15-2 since the trade deadline to vault past the contenders for the bottom playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee is now closer to home-court advantage in the first round (5.5 games back of Atlanta and Boston) than it is to falling out of the playoffs altogether (6.5 games ahead of the reeling Bulls).
While Salmons is averaging 20.5 points per game since joining the Bucks, a breakdown of the numbers shows that Milwaukee has actually made greater strides on defense during the run.
Period Pace ORtg DRtg
Pre-trade 91.5 105.3 106.4
Post-trade 88.8 108.3 100.1
Already, the Bucks were winning with an above-average defense. Since the Salmons trade, however, Milwaukee has been locking teams up at the defensive end of the floor. Over the course of the season, no team has defended nearly this well, with the Boston Celtics leading the league by allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions. (The Bucks, with a 104.7 Defensive Rating, are fifth overall.) Let's take a closer look at how Milwaukee has done it by looking at the Four Factors and opponent shooting.
Period eFG% DR% FTA/FGA TO% 2P% 3P%
Pre-trade .495 .767 .362 .149 .485 .353
Post-trade .457 .782 .318 .142 .456 .306
Combined with the pace stat above, the numbers tell an interesting story. During his first year and a half with the Bucks, Scott Skiles was unable to build the kind of miss-forcing juggernaut he once helmed in Chicago. Milwaukee made up for it by forcing turnovers by the bushel, leading the league in opponent turnover percentage in 2008-09. Over the last month-plus, the Bucks have slowed things down and contested shots at an elite level. Their two-point percentage allowed would be slightly ahead of Orlando (.457) for the best in the league over the course of the season.
Meanwhile, opponents' three-point shooting against Milwaukee has been so bad as to presumably be unsustainable. The best three-point defense in the league belongs to the Lakers, who allow opponents 32.5 percent shooting. In fact, only one team has allowed a three-point percentage so low in the past decade (the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, another team that caught fire on defense after a midseason trade).
The Bucks have been forcing slightly fewer turnovers during their hot streak, but the tradeoff has been worth it--especially because Milwaukee is putting opponents on the free throw line far less frequently, something that has been a weakness.
The interesting thing about this is that while Salmons is regarded as a solid defender, he's not a standout at that end of the floor or viewed as an enormous upgrade on the player he replaced in the lineup, veteran Charlie Bell. Salmons does offer more size defensively than Bell, but I think there are a couple of other factors at play.
First, the arrival of Salmons has lessened the need for Skiles to play point guards Jennings and Luke Ridnour together. The small backcourt has seen its playing time cut in half since the trade. While both players are having strong seasons and the pairing was effective on offense, neither Jennings nor Ridnour is capable of defending shooting guards and these lineups were torched at the defensive end. Ridnour in particular is a poor defender, and his -6.6 net defensive plus-minus is worst on the team per BasketballValue.com, so cutting his minutes has helped the defense.
The other case of addition by subtraction was Warrick, whose -5.8 net defensive plus-minus was better than only Ridnour's on the Bucks. Milwaukee has capably replaced the 20 minutes a night Warrick was playing by moving Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who was splitting minutes at both forward positions, almost exclusively to the four. He is starting at the position as part of an athletic Bucks starting five that has outscored opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions thanks in large part to its outstanding defense.
Before we go too far in discrediting Salmons for Milwaukee's turnaround, let us note that he has been a key part of the team's smaller but still important improvement at the offensive end of the floor. Struggling in Chicago, Salmons has been excellent since joining the Bucks, posting a .584 True Shooting Percentage and using 23.2 percent of the team's possessions. Salmons has helped take some of the pressure to score off of Jennings, who has proven a much better playmaker than he was given credit for but continues to struggle with his finishing and midrange game.
The question now is how far this Milwaukee squad can continue its run. The Bucks are likely to be the fifth seed in the East and go on the road to face either Atlanta or Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. Milwaukee has beaten both teams in thrillers at the Bradley Center this month, and lost to the Hawks in overtime in Atlanta on Feb. 28. The Bucks' schedule-adjusted point differential with Salmons is better than either potential foe has managed over the course of the season. Maintaining this level of play over the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs will be difficult, but Milwaukee has a legitimate chance of reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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