This is a different Bucks team.
The record tells you as much — 10-7 and fourth in the Eastern Conference entering Sunday’s games. This is not the 2014 Bucks. The team’s disaster of a season last year — Brandon Knight not adequately replacing Brandon Jennings‘ production, Larry Sanders‘ constant injuries and issues and O.J. Mayo‘s struggles from the floor.
The Bucks won all of 15 games last year. They are well on their way to a great turnaround this season. Even if that turnaround is just barely out of the Eastern Conference’s cellar when all is said and done.
How did this transformation happen?
Drafting Jabari Parker helps. The number two overall pick from last year’s coveted 2014 NBA Draft is averaging 11.5 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game as he eases into his rookie year.
Brandon Knight has emerged from his struggles of last season to put up some impressive numbers in the early going of this season. He is averaging 17.3 points per game, actually down from last year, but his field goal shooting and assists are up (6.1 per game this year compared to 4.9 per game last year).
Jason Kidd has come into the fold now and he has surprisingly changed the team into something of a defensive juggernaut. OK, maybe juggernaut is too strong a word. This team is not among the best defensive teams in the league.
But the transformation from one of the worst defenses to at least a mediocre one talks a lot about what Jason Kidd has brought to the Bucks this year.
“For us, being a young team, we’re just focused really first on defense and and not letting our offense dictate our defense,” Kidd said after his team lost to the Magic in Orlando. “We haven’t scored a lot of points, but we have given ourselves a chance to win due to our defense.”
Getting a young team — average age of 23.9 years old with only Zaza Pachulia at 30 or older — to play defense is no easy task. It takes the most discipline and commitment to master. It is rare to find good teams at defense that are also young. Particularly this young.
Last season, Milwaukee had the second worst defense in the league, giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions. This year the Bucks have the fifth best defense at 98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. Again, that may not last thanks to the small sample size but that is still an impressive turnaround. Even if it is just through 15-20 games.
Adding Sanders back helps. He was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate when 2.8 blocks per game in 2013. He had a career-best 2.0 victories over replacement player that year and a 3.9 defensive box plus-minus (a stat devised by Basketball-Reference that calculates the plus-minus contributed by a player while on the court over an average team).
Sanders can be a defensive beast and the time he missed last year hurt the Bucks defense tremendously. Sanders is still getting back to his form, but he has added plenty to the Bucks’ defense.
There are still growing pains for sure.
According to ESPN’s Hollinger Power Rankings, the Bucks have played opponents with a .401 win percentage and .387 in their last 10 games (entering Saturday’s games) in which the team has gone 7-3. This is a team that has taken advantage of a relatively weak portion of the schedule.
Saturday’s game against the Rockets was going to be more of a test of the team’s defense.
The Rockets put 117 points on the Bucks and won every quarter. Houston’s experience — Harden scored 34 points and the Rockets shot 50.6 percent from the floor and hit on 13 3-pointers — won out on the day.
James Harden (HOU) — 34 pts., 8 assts.; Donatas Motiejunas (HOU) — 20 pts.
Jabari Parker (MIL) — 19 pts., 9 rebs.; Ersan Ilyasova (MIL) — 18 pts.
Game to Watch (11/30): Bulls vs. Nets, 3 p.m.
As much as the Bucks have been good on defense, their offense has struggled. That is to be expected too with a young team. And they are going to have to grow with each other — along with their second-year head coach.
“There is going to be some growing pains, we’ve got a lot of younger players,” Knight said after the loss to the Magic. “We want to continue to work through those and learn from our mistakes.”
Houston has a pretty good defense too and held the Bucks to 44.6 percent shooting on Saturday night. Sometimes, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not going to be able to length himself to the rim all the time. Sometimes, Brandon Knight is not going to be dishing the ball efficiently. Sometimes, Larry Sanders will give in to his darker side.
The Bucks are going to continue growing.
One thing that has been clear in the first month of the season is that even with few changes from last year’s disaster, the Bucks have improved greatly under Jason Kidd. This is a brand new ball club.