NBA Mailbag Questions & Answers (1/5/24)

It’s mailbag time! Are the Bucks legitimate title contenders given their atrocious defense? What’s wrong with Golden State? Should Shai Gilgeous-Alexander be leading the MVP race? Check out below for answers to your questions.

“Can the Bucks win a title with the 21st-ranked defensive rating? How can they improve on that end?”

The Milwaukee Bucks are absolutely explosive on offense and feature two All-NBA caliber players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. In addition, Khris Middleton provides excellent tertiary scoring, while Brook Lopez and Malik Beasley space the court. Milwaukee can score with the best of them, and they subsequently rank third in Offensive Rating.

However, the defense is utterly abysmal at the moment, as they are 21st in Defensive Rating. Based on historical data via Statmuse, that mark essentially removes them from championship contention. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, there have been 47 seasons. Here is the breakdown of where every champion finished their respective regular season in Defensive Rating:

  • Top 3 Defensive Rating: 42.5%
  • Top 5 Defensive Rating: 59.5%
  • Top 8 Defensive Rating: 74.4%
  • Top 12 Defensive Rating: 95.7%

The only teams to not finish top twelve were the 2001 Lakers (22nd) and 2023 Nuggets (15th). For Los Angeles, they were coming off a title and fielded two of the three best players in the world. The Lakers sleepwalked through that regular season and went 15-1 during their subsequent championship run.

Meanwhile, Denver found another gear defensively during the playoffs because the shortened rotation allowed them to feature their best defenders. The Nuggets also lacked negative defenders that could constantly be hunted; for example, Jamal Murray was an unspectacular but fine defender who could hold his own.

The Bucks though? Their backcourt of Lillard and Beasley is rough to say the least. Milwaukee’s weak point-of-attack defense has opponents infiltrating the paint with ease, and stretch fives pose serious issues for Brook Lopez.

As for improvement, there are two paths for Milwaukee: external or internal. A trade for defensive help makes the most sense, but the Bucks lack assets. They cannot trade any first rounders, and opponents own swap rights on all of their remaining firsts. Therefore, Milwaukee fixing their defensive issues via trade is essentially out of the question.

At this point, Lillard is what he is defensively. Milwaukee must pair him with a bigger defensive guard in order to somewhat compensate, and that definitely does not describe Malik Beasley. Rookie Andre Jackson Jr. fits the bill though. The 6’6” guard is an athletic, high-feel defender that has displayed tantalizing flashes. Milwaukee should consider starting Jackson Jr. next to Lillard and aligning their minutes. The offense takes a hit, but that’s the least of Milwaukee’s worries with Lillard, Antetokounmpo, and Middleton on the roster. Plus, keeping Lopez on the court with Lillard as much as possible would also be wise because rim protection is crucial with guards blowing past Lillard.

Overall, I am comfortable claiming that the Bucks will not win the championship with their current defensive output. There may be a light at the end of the tunnel through lineup tweaks and shortened rotations, but historical data paints a grim picture unless drastic improvement occurs.

“What is going on with the Warriors? And what moves can they make before the deadline to get back to winning basketball?”

Stephen Curry is averaging 27.7 points on excellent 45/41/92 shooting splits…and yet, the Warriors are losing their minutes with him on the court for the first time since 2011.

If Curry’s shots are removed, the Warriors own a 56.75 true shooting percentage – this mark would rank 24th in the NBA. Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Jonathan Kuminga take the most field goal attempts for Golden State outside of Curry. They rank 402nd, 517th, and 248th respectively out of 520 players in True Shooting Points Added, which measures “the number of extra points added by true shot attempts made above league average” (per Basketball Reference). In other words, Golden State cannot hit the side of a barn.

Now, they still rank 12th in Offensive Rating, and the Warriors are actually generating decent looks. Per ShotQuality, Golden State is 10th in expected points per possession. With positive shooting regression, their offense becomes passable, although issues still plague them. The Warriors need another ball handler that can create for himself and alleviate Curry’s burden. Jordan Poole’s impact during their 2022 title run is a perfect example of a solution. More reliable shooting is a must too.

To me, the defensive concerns run deeper though. Their 20th-ranked Defensive Rating can partially be attributed to Draymond Green’s absence, but it’s mostly driven by an inability to defend the perimeter. Klay Thompson and Chris Paul are both negative defenders at this stage of their careers, while Andrew Wiggins has fallen off a cliff from the 2022 playoffs. Their old roster needs fresh legs and more length.

The Warriors must subsequently be hyper-active at the deadline and move their young talent and picks for win-now pieces. Here is a potential trade for Golden State:

Warriors Acquire: Malcolm Brogdon, Matisse Thybulle
Blazers Acquire: Chris Paul, Jonathan Kuminga, draft capital

The Warriors exchange Chris Paul for a superior shooter and defender in Malcolm Brogdon while simultaneously acquiring an elite defensive wing.

Other names that Golden State could target include Dorian Finney-Smith, Jordan Clarkson, and Jerami Grant.

Overall, the Warriors must cash in the hoarded assets because Curry will not be playing at this level forever. The current roster is not championship material, and hopefully the Warriors recognize this reality.

“Shai for MVP”

Michael Jordan is the only player in NBA history to average at least 31 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2.5 steals in a single season. However, Gilgeous-Alexander is currently on pace to join him. The rising superstar has Oklahoma City sitting third in the West at 23-12.

Gilgeous-Alexander would be the likely frontrunner in most seasons, but the competition is fierce. The following graphic depicts his current status and my key pillar MVP stats.

MVP

As you can see, Embiid’s historic season dwarfs Gilgeous-Alexander’s in box score stats, advanced metrics, and on-court success. Nikola Jokic is also decimating opponents, while Luka Doncic (who leads the NBA in points plus assist points created per game) cannot be discarded either.

Although “SGA” is definitely in the top three for MVP candidates and a threat to win, it’s Joel Embiid’s award to lose at this moment.

NBA MVP Odds

Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

Hot NBA Stories