Putting aside the Warriors, the biggest surprise success stories of 2014-15 were the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks morphed from deep Lottery team to a bona fide playoff team, while Atlanta went from fringe playoff team to number one seed in the East. Both teams were considered strong candidates to decline this year based upon Bill James’ Plexiglass Principle, which states that teams that tend to have huge improvements regress the following season. The assumption is that a positive huge anomaly is not sustainable long term unless something fundamental has changed with the team (i.e. you draft a David Robinson like the 1989-90 Spurs).
Well, both the Bucks and the Hawks have regressed a bit this year. Let’s take a look at both squads and see what has happened and whether the trend line is pointed up or down for the rest of the season and beyond.
Milwaukee’s Ugly D-Cline: The Bucks were beyond awful in 2013-14 (15-67) and were bad in all facets of basketball. In Jason Kidd’s first year as coach in 2014-15, the Bucks ran a tough, defense-oriented set that scored just enough to win (4th in defense and 26th in offense). The Bucks peaked at 31-23 with a balanced team. The advanced stats were mixed on who the Bucks’ most valuable player was. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the most valuable future asset, but it was clear that the only scorers of significance were Brandon Knight on the perimeter and John Henson in the post.
The Bucks then traded Knight for Michael Carter-Williams (when the Bucks were 30-23), and things went South (11-18) the rest of the way. The goal for 2015-16 was to improve the offense again by adding Greg Monroe and getting Jabari Parker back (he missed most of the year with a knee injury). Monroe has played well (22.5 PER, 2.1 BPM, both of which lead the team) but the offense has improved only slightly (from 26th to 22nd) and defense has cratered from 4th last year to 29th this season.
What happened? John Henson has been a strange bird. Previously, he was considered a good scorer with weak advanced stats. The last two seasons, he has scored but still been negative in offensive plus/minus and solid defensively. This year, he has lost minutes to Monroe and his PER is nice (19.1) but he is negative in OBPM (-1.1) and leads the team DPM. Monroe also has been good enough on defense (0.4 DBPM). Both are clearly not a problem here. Let’s run through the DBPM of the two teams to see if we can isolate the defensive culprit(s) by looking at the DBPM’s of the highest minute players for each team:
It should be noted that plus/minus stats can be a little volatile year-to-year so we should take the results with some degree of salt. Still, the results so far show a general decline, with the biggest fall off in Middleton. He was a three-and-D darling in 2014-15 because his advanced stats were so impressive last season. He has the threes in his repertoire again this season but not so much on the D side. Middleton still has value (in fact, he has improved offensively) but, without the defensive bump, his value is almost cut in half.
In addition, the non-Carter-Williams perimeter players have all declined defensively. Mayo and Bayless have been very bad and the other alternatives (Greivis Vasquez and Tyler Ennis) have been even worse. To make matters worse, Parker has really struggled defensively and Antetokounmpo has gone from very good to decent.
The future isn’t necessarily bleak. Monroe and Henson are good and there is no reason to think that Antetokounmpo can’t play better defensively. The problem is that the Bucks need to blow up the backcourt. If the guards can’t guard or defend, you have a problem. Carter-Williams has some value but the Bucks have made a critical error relying on limited guards and, in retrospect, would probably have been better off keeping Brandon Knight. The Bucks will have to hit on at least one starting guard in the draft or free agency this offseason or 2016-17 will be another season below .500.
Atlanta, a bit over its head before: The 2014-15 Hawks were one of the more unlikely success stories in NBA history. They jumped to 60-22 and a one-seed in the east without making any notable moves. The Hawks were really balanced (6th on offense and defense) but their record didn’t quite reflect their true ability. Atlanta was actually a 56-26 team by expected win-loss (which is still pretty impressive).
Another factor that indicated that Hawks weren’t necessarily dominant was their playoff struggles. They had trouble putting away a very blah Nets team in the first round, were very close against the Wiz in round two, and totally dominated by the Cavs in the Conference Finals. An unscientific assessment of that performance would lead one to conclude that the Hawks were really a decent 50-win team.
This season the Hawks are 24-17 and project to about 48 wins. The decline is almost perfectly in line with their playoff performance. The offense and defense are still good but not quite as good (9th and 12th respectively). The best players, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, are at least as good as last season. Jeff Teague, who was an All-Star level player in 2014-15, has declined a little bit and Kent Bazemore has been good but hasn’t been quite as good as DeMarre Carroll was last year (though Carroll has been injured and hasn’t played well in Toronto). The biggest problem, though, is Kyle Korver, who has gone from a career-year to, arguably, the worst year of his career.
Korver shot .492% from three last year and now is all the way down to .360%, by far the worst shooting from outside in his career. The Hawks have felt the pinch as a result. They were second in the NBA at .380% from three last season and now are at .340% (19th).
Can a three-point specialist come back from a bad year at age-34? Looking at comps, there is some hope. A sampling of older three-point specialists shows that a late career down year is not a death knell. Several players (Dell Curry, Jon Barry, Eric Piatkowski, Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, and Dale Ellis) all had a down shooting year in their mid-30s and came back to be shoot well again. There is one caveat to this point. While there was bounce back, none of the group ever shot quite so high a percentage as they did before the bad season. This means Korver should be able to play better but the heights of the last few years are gone for good.
In the end, this all adds up to an almost-50 win team, which is slightly worse than the 2014-15 team’s true ability. So, the Hawks are in a good place. They won’t win 60 games again (or even 55) but they are one of many pretty good teams in the East and should be for a few years.