ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles has always claimed defense as his calling card. But last year, especially after the Bucks shipped center Andrew Bogut to Golden State for Monta Ellis, defense became the Bucks’ most glaring weakness — both in the frontcourt and backcourt.
With Ellis and point guard Brandon Jennings together in the backcourt, the Bucks were, however, one of the fastest, highest-powered guard combinations in the league. Milwaukee had offense, but without a firm defensive standard, the Bucks seemed doomed from the start.
This season, Skiles is determined to get back to that defensive standard without it being at the expense of his offense — a delicate balance that could very well mean the difference between a trip to the postseason and many key officials getting a change of scenery next season.
“We felt like going into last season, one of the things we talked about with the guys was could we keep our defense similar to the year before and get better offensively, and if we could do that, we’d have a very good year,” Skiles said on Monday at the Bucks’ media day. “Well, we got a lot better offensively and got a lot worse defensively. Now, it’s flipped. We’d like to be a top 10-type offensive team and get our defense back to a level that we need it to be at. We knew and talked about many times before we did it the implications of moving Andrew and what that would mean for us on the interior . . . We knew coming into the summer that we had to get some more size, some more length, and we did that.”
It’s true — the Bucks’ focus during the offseason was almost solely on building length and adding big bodies to a frontcourt that had no true center and limited versatility. Now, after adding two defensive-minded centers in Samuel Dalembert and Joel Pryzbilla and a high-potential, long power forward in John Henson, the Bucks have filled those holes on paper.
But will those moves solve all of the Bucks’ defensive woes?
At the very least, the changes will allow many players who had been forced to play out of character last season to return to their normal positions. That could make a significant difference for someone like forward Drew Gooden, who filled in most of the year at the center spot and was forced to muscle up against larger players inside, despite being banged up for most of the year. It could also make a difference for a healthy Luc Mbah a Moute, who could be a serious defensive stopper in the three spot, as opposed to playing the four like he did last season.
“Two true centers kind of put things where they’re supposed to be,” Mbah a Moute said. “(Bogut) was always our main center and our only center. He had a rough few years, so we always had to adjust because we didn’t have anyone down in the middle. Having all those bigs is going to be good for everybody, kind of just settling back into their natural positions. A guy like Drew last year, being down at the five, banging with seven footers, with those two guys, now he can move back to the four.”
With that kind of assured defensive upgrade, the improvements could stretch to the backcourt as well, even though the undersized backcourt of Ellis and Brandon Jennings hasn’t gotten any bigger. But with guys behind them that can fill in the holes that Bogut once did, Ellis thinks the team’s defense will be significantly more efficient.
At the very least, having big men who can be more versatile and physical inside surely helps Ellis and Jennings to create on the perimeter. It’s something that has Ellis and Jennings both optimistic.
“We got length now,” Ellis said. “We got guys who we can throw the ball into and score . . . Me and Brandon don’t have to score 25 points, 30 points to win. We don’t have to do that anymore. When it come on the defensive end, only thing we have to do is hold our man to four or five dribbles. And if they go to the basket, we got the big guys there to wipe the guys out.”
It’s a defense that Skiles hopes can be a top-10 — and possibly top-5 — caliber unit, even after finishing in the bottom 10 in most categories last season. Of course, to make that kind of change, Skiles will most definitely need significant defensive improvements out of Jennings — who he said didn’t have a good year defensively last season — and Ellis, who are still at a disadvantage because of their size.
But for the fifth-year coach, that kind of improvement simply boils down to making a firm commitment on the defensive end. “If you do that, anyone could have a very good defensive team,” he said.
That may be easier said than done without a game-changing center like Bogut in the lineup. But with Skiles in charge, that defensive mindset won’t be changing any time soon. And with the most obvious offseason focus on adding size and improving defensively, there’s no reason to think that the Bucks can’t make some degree of progress on the defensive end.
But will it be enough to push them into the playoff picture?
“Yeah, why not?” forward Ersan Ilyasova said. “Always our mentality was a defensive team. By offense, you can win a couple of games, but being a defensive team, you can win a championship . . . Sometimes you can’t shoot at a high percentage, but you have to rely on something. If you have defensive skills on the team, it’s always something you can count on.”