It probably isn't a smart assertion to ask you to pay attention, quickly, to the Milwaukee Bucks' division-leading start. It's true that the team has made its hay with a series of wins against lottery types in the East, plus two impressive wins over the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, but with those Pacers struggling and the Chicago Bulls still trying to find their way without Derrick Rose, it is more than conceivable that the Bucks could stick to the top of the Central division standings for a few more weeks if not months.
And in stark contrast to coach Scott Skiles' reputation as a stern taskmaster when it comes to tossing out play calls or minutes to those that don't exactly keep up on the defensive end, the Bucks are making their way by pushing the rock to ridiculous levels. The Racine Journal-Times' Gary Woelfel is amongst the few (c'mon; you haven't been watching many Bucks games) to have noticed:
Ever since Scott Skiles became the Milwaukee Bucks head coach, he has insisted that he's wanted his team to push the ball as often as it could.
In those four-plus seasons, though, the Bucks seldom looked to get into the open court. Instead, they were primarily a half-court, run-the-shot-clock down type of team. In other words, hardly a fun team to watch from a fan's perspective.
The Bucks actually haven't deployed a frenetic, up-tempo offense since Terry Stotts was at the helm during the 2005-2006 season. That's when the Bucks constantly ran. During that season, in back-to-back games, the Bucks had games of 125 and 132 points.
Completely and totally true, assuming you ignore a few things.
Woelfel is great, and we'd trust his basketball opinions and analysis over quite a few, but though Skiles' teams are routinely hard to watch (something about all those passes ending up in a contested 20-footer), his Suns, Bulls, and Bucks teams have long been around the tops in the league when it comes to possessions per game.
Of course, a high possession per game count doesn't exactly link directly to a good or even average offensive mark at the end of a contest, but the trait flies in the face of Skiles' reputation as a dour fundamentals obsessive. I mean, the cat is totally a dour fundamentals obsessive, but he doesn't mind it when his teams push the ball. Especially when his teams, by his choice or not, feature Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt.
The Bucks, though they were pretty average on offense last season (13th overall in offensive efficiency) were third in the NBA in possessions per contest. Ellis and Jennings were around to push things for a part of that push, but Milwaukee only got to field that smallish backcourt for 21 of its lockout-shortened 66 games after the deal that sent Monta from Golden State to Wisconsin. It's true that this jump in pace was pretty significant considering Milwaukee's 25th ranking in pace during 2010-11, but also note that Skiles' group in Chicago regularly ranked in the top reaches of pace even with the half-court happy Kirk Hinrich in charge of things.
Milwaukee's running, and they're an actual enjoyable watch. The offense, if we're honest, has dipped from 13th to 17th in efficiency despite all the big scoring numbers Gary pointed out in his column, but that doesn't take away from how intriguing the team continues to be. Considering that Scott Skiles is in charge — apologies for the shot at the respected coach — that in and of itself is as remarkable as the team's early division-leading burst.
What isn't as warming is hybrid forward Ersan Ilyasova's start to the season. We'll turn, as we usually do with all things Bucks-y, back to Gary Woelfel:
'Ilyasova is shooting a dismal 28 percent from the field, 28 percent from 3-point range and a horrific 43 percent from the free throw line. Last the season, he shot 49 percent from the field, 46 percent from beyond arc and 78 percent from the line.
Ilyasova, who worked diligently during the offseason to get bigger and stronger, admitted he has felt the pressure of living up to his big contract.
"I have had trouble sleeping lately," Ilyasova said. "I just got to keep working and find my rhythm."
Ersan was somewhat of a hot commodity following his fantastic play in 2011-12, but he's had issues trying to fit into a Bucks frontcourt that seemed to get more and more crowded as the 2012 offseason moved along. It's worth pointing out that Ilyasova wasn't exactly benefitting from that lacking Bucks frontcourt last season, he played only 27 minutes a contest last year in comparison to 24 this season, and his shot attempts per minute are nearly identical from last year to this.
He just isn't fitting. So far, at least. As it is with Milwaukee's early start, attention to fast-paced detail, and Ilyasova's struggles, it's just a blip in a season that lasts until spring.
It would still be great to see these two extremes — the fast pace and Ilyasova's hopeful return to the mean — find a way to combine.