Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Andrew Bogut's Back Injury - A Blessing In Disguise?

It should come as no surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks’ play has improved since their big man, Andrew Bogut, returned to the lineup. After missing five straight games between November 24 and December 1, Bogut’s been back on the floor for the Bucks’ last five. Since his return, the team has notched four wins (after a 6-12 start)- including an impressive 103-99 win at Dallas that snapped the Mavs’ 12-game winning streak. During this run, they have averaged better than 98 ppg, an improvement of more than 6 ppg over their league-worst average of 92.

Clearly Bogut’s return has been a catalyst for the improvement, but it’s not merely his presence on the floor that’s helped. Increases in his aggressiveness and activity in the paint at the offensive end suggest that he’s returned to maximum effectiveness. This is due to the fact that while he was resting his sore back, he had an opportunity to nurse right elbow as well, which was gruesomely injured late last season and had not looked 100% in the season’s opening weeks.

Prior to his back injury, Bogut took the floor in 12 games, averaging roughly 34 minutes of burn per game. In that time he averaged 11.6 ppg, 11 rpg and 2.7 bpg on 48% FG and 46.3% FT. In the five games since his return, Bogut’s averaged 20.8 ppg, 14 rpg, 3.4 bpg on 55.1% FG and 45% FT.

It’s worth noting that he’s been on the floor about five more minutes per game since returning, but these numbers suggest more than just an uptick in minutes- there’s been a fundamental change in the way he’s playing. Prior to sitting out, Bogut was attempting just 10.4 shots per game. This number has jumped to nearly 16 per game over the past five, with 15 of those attempts, and no less than 10 in any game, coming from within 10 feet of the bucket. For the season, he’s averaging 5.8 shots “at the rim” and hitting 64.6% of them. Over the past five games, that number jumps to 7.8 attempts, with a conversion rate of 69.2%.

On two of these occasions (wins v. Orlando without Dwight and Houston), Bogut attempted a staggering 20 shots within 10 feet of the rim. Against the Magic he attempted 13 shots “at the rim,” making 10- Dwight or no Dwight, that’s an aggressive and efficient night on the offensive end. In the win over Houston, Bogut was outstanding, producing his first 20-20 game of the year (24-22), blocking five shots and hitting 11 of 20 from within 10 feet (these were all of his shots for the game). As for offensive efficiency, he was at his best Monday night in Dallas, when against one of the league’s hottest team and one of its top three, he attempted 10 of 12 shots from with 10 feet, eight of them- all of which he made- at the rim. He finished the game with 21 points (this would have been higher had he made more than one of six free throw attempts) on just 12 shot attempts, along with 14 rebounds.

However, the key to Bogut’s recent success isn’t simply that he’s now going inside, catching the ball and shooting the ball, whereas before he was not. It’s true that Bogut is looking for his shoot more on the inside, but the key to his stellar play of late has been his activity on the offensive boards, where he’s averaged an excellent 5.4 orpg over the late five games, including games of seven and eight offensive boards. This is up from his pre-injury average of 3.5 orpg. Compared to the opening weeks of the season, Bogut’s earning an extra two possessions per game for the Bucks (and consequently, taking two away from the opposition- it’s a zero-sum game) and creating more opportunities near the basket for himself thanks to his extra work on the offensive glass. For the season, his Offensive Rebound Rate (ORR; % of available offensive rebounds he grabs) is 13%, good for sixth in the NBA among players averaging 25+ minutes per game, and better than the league average for centers, which is 9.5%. Over the past five, his average ORR has been 15.8%, with two games over 20%, including an awesome 24.6% against the Magic- the presence of Dwight Howard would certainly have impacted this, but that’s an awesome number against any NBA competition.

The improvement in Bogut’s game since his return to the lineup- and the subsequent improvement in the Bucks’ record- is undoubtedly due in some part to the recovery of his sore back. However, that time spent on the sideline seems to have worked wonders for his right elbow as well, which Bogut himself admitted in the preseason, still had a ways to go. Each of the areas in which he’s improved in recent weeks requires not only physical play, but flexibility in, and the ability to extend, one’s arms. Bogut’s improvement suggests that he’s got greater strength, mobility and confidence in his recently healed right elbow.

This is not to say that the elbow wouldn’t have reached 100% had he not sat. While the rest probably didn’t hurt, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that his elbow was rounding into shape before the back issues. Consider that in the four games before he took a seat, he had blocked 18 shots, including a career-high seven against the Golden State Warriors on November 13. He’s continued the block party in his return, swatting at least two shots in each of the last five, and racking up 13 blocks in a three-game run against the Heat (the only loss since his return), Pacers and Rockets.

All that, and not a word about his spectacular last-half-second tip to secure a win against the Indiana Pacers a week ago. I’ll give you one guess as to which hand he used…

NOTE: Tonight, Bogut and the Bucks try to keep their recent hot streaks alive, as they finish out their Texas swing by taking on another of the league’s top teams, the red-hot San Antonio Spurs. The game is scheduled for 8:30 Eastern time. Look for Bogut to continue his string of big numbers, as the Spurs don’t really have a big man other than Tim Duncan with both the height and physicality to check him.

With that said, I’m not sure that Bucks have the firepower to hang with the Spurs. As well as Bogut and Brandon Jennings (20.8 ppg, 5.2 apg, 10 made 3-pointers in his last five) have been playing, inconsistency or flat-out ineffectiveness from, or injuries to, the rest of the crew (Corey Maggette, Ersan Ilyasova, John Salmons, Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden), it’s tough to see the Bucks upending the NBA’s model of consistency.

Given the their excellent perimeter defense and the continuity and efficiency with which they’re playing on offense, look for the Spurs to cruise to their 21st win of the season, and sixth in a row at home- though Bogut (I’m thinking 25-15?) may keep it close.

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