A glance at the NBA standings at this early stage of the season will certainly produce some surprises. Toronto and Memphis lead their conferences, respectively, while last year’s Finals pairing–the Heat and Spurs–find themselves 7th and 5th in their respective conferences.
Yet, no early result is perhaps more surprising than that of the Milwaukee Bucks, who, as of this writing, find themselves 5th in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Despite the much-discussed “tanking” that teams like the Philadelphia 76ers took part in last year, it was Milwaukee who finished with a league-worst 15 wins, a mark they seem sure to pass before the calendar flips to 2015. How is Milwaukee doing it?
Firstly, they’ve improved immensely on defense. The addition of Jason Kidd and the return of Larry Sanders have certainly helped their case, but the Bucks are smartly constructed to be a good defensive team. Many of their primary contributors–Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Sanders–are long, rangy athletes who affect shots and passes, and their most oft-used lineups all produce above-average defensive ratings (they are 8th overall at 103.6 after finishing last season dead last at 111.8). Jumping 22 spots in points allowed per 100 possessions is nothing to sneeze at, even if their offense has dipped slightly from 103 points per 100 possessions to 102.3.
Brandon Knight has been a nice surprise, but Jabari Parker has been solid, if unspectacular, and Giannis has regressed from 3, but the Bucks make do with a bunch of funky lineups that keep their opponents off-guard. The Bucks don’t have a lineup in the top-35 in terms of total minutes played, per NBA.com, and they’ve played a whopping 9 players at least 300 minutes (about 18 minutes per game through 18 games). Their interchangable parts, and, more importantly, their willingness to be interchangable is what makes them so interesting to watch and hard to deal with on both ends.
Their stats profile overall suggests they are an average basketball team, but when you were one of the worst teams in the history of the league last season, that’s a huge improvement.
There are, however, ways that they can improve their offense, and NBA 2K15, especially online, doesn’t reward depth. We’re looking for efficiency on both ends.
The Bucks are unique in that they have the ability to be both big and small at the same time, something we can definitely take advantage of what I feel is a key cog on the Milwaukee roster: Khris Middleton.
That’s right, Khris Middleton. Middleton is one of those unique guys that has the skill set to work wonders in NBA 2K15. He shoots 36% from 3 on 2.5 attempts from game and has a standing 3 and moving 3 rating of 80 and 78, respectively, both above-average for his position group. Pairing Middleton at Small Forward with Parker at Power Forward (where he can use his speed against slower opponents while not giving up at ton of size) opens up the floor for interesting Pick and Roll and Pick and Pop opportunities:
Parker’s drive to the middle occupies the attention of 3 defenders, leaving Middleton wide-open for the wing 3.
Combining those two forwards with Brandon Knight at Point Guard is a no-brainer, as Knight’s improved play has earned him a huge bump in ratings, including nice boosts to standing 3 (84) and moving 3 (82). Knight has decent size at 6-3 and is a good free-throw shooter with an easy stroke from the line and as a jump-shooter which allows him to be a nice outlet on that Parker-Middleton action from before, or any other sort of action you want to use:
This is simple stuff, but look at how the defense reacts to all the shooting on the floor. Any sliver of space is enough to give up a good look at a 3, and Parker charging hard towards the middle is suboptimal for any defense. If you can make the shots, this is a killer group.
The other two pieces of our lineup are more interesting, as Milwaukee’s real-world depth makes this a potentially tricky decision. OJ Mayo is a good shooter (87/77), but his limited size (6-4) make him a tough primary Shooting Guard next to Knight. Teams like the Warriors and Rockets can take advantage of Mayo down the stretch, and the Bucks have a lot of guys who can approximate Mayo’s shooting while bringing other things to the table.
You know where this is going, right? Yeah, we’re playing The Greek Freak at Shooting Guard. He’s 6-11 with 79/76 ratings from 3, good ball-handling, rebounding, and defensive ratings. He’s perhaps a little slow to guard elite 2s, but he’s so long that you can take a step back and still contest everything, so he makes up for his lack of footspeed:
Wade isn’t a good shooter, so you can take a step even further back, and Wade has nowhere to go. Elite shooters may be able to take advantage, but Giannis’ length mean’s arms’ distance is a lot further than for most players.
If you find yourself getting torched by teams like the Suns, Giannis may not be the best choice for this position, but against most teams he shouldn’t be too much of a liability.
Besides, his varied skills open up so many playcalling options for you, including pick and rolls and pops with him as either ball-handler or pick-setter:
Here, he’s the ball-handler with Jabari Parker setting a pick for him, and then rolling to the basket. Parker occupies enough of the defense’s attention at the mid-range that Giannis is able to easily get to the rim for the finish.
Giannis is actually setting the pick here, and Parker’s defender (Shawne Williams) is forced to play from the outside in due to Giannis’ ability to get the ball and shoot or finish, which leaves Parker open just enough to hit the midrange jumper.
Your choice at Center will definitely be a matter of preference and matchup. Against smaller teams or teams with a deft-shooting bigman, Ersan Ilyasova can match up well while providing good shooting around the perimeter. In a Knight-Giannis-Middleton-Parker-Ilyasova lineup, Parker is the worst 3-point shooter (70/68), which means you have a nice selection of shooters, and Knight, Parker, and The Greek Freek are all capable ballhandlers. Your offense should be a constantly whirring machine of screens on and off the ball, looking to get any one of your shooters an open look or allowing Parker to take slower guys off the dribble for easy drive-and-kick opportunities.
You can even use Ilyasova in set-plays:
This is a traditional “floppy” set, only with a weird set of screeners. Parker, the nominal Power Forward, is setting both a down screen and a back screen to free up the Center, while Middleton sets a screen for Antetokounmpo, himself a screener at the beginning of the play. All of the varied action confuses the defense enough to free up an easy midrange shot for Ilyasova.
If you need to beef up your defense, Milwaukee has one of the better defensive big pairings in the game of Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders, both capable defenders and decent finishers around the rim, though Zaza is a much better Free Throw shooter (85 to 56). John Henson is an interesting piece for Milwaukee, but he’s redundant in most situations, unless you need to go super-big. The Bucks are better served keeping their 3-point shooters on the court at all times, because they don’t have an elite 1-on-1 player at any position. You need to create mismatches and work your team as a whole unit to get the kind of good shots that will make you an elite player in NBA 2K15.
It’ll be interesting to see how Jason Kidd adjusts his rotation over time. He’s obviously still trying to figure out exactly what he has in this team, and the parts work well-enough together in most configurations that he’s getting good results, but for the Bucks to take a major step forward offensively they need to create more 3-point shots for their good shooters, something we’ve done here while keeping their freakish length top-10 defense mostly-intact.