The Milwaukee Bucks Have a Top Defense. They Need to Change It.

Mike Budenholzer has gone old school with fantastic results, but his strategy may be a disaster come playoff time.

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Nov 9 2018, 3:00pm

Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have a top-three defense and, whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the floor or not, are brick-walling opponents with a game-plan that couldn't be more different from the blitz-happy aggression encouraged by Jason Kidd over the past few seasons. Once upon a time, Milwaukee’s goal was to sew the game with chaos. They'd trap, recover, and scramble all over the court. It was compelling, controversial, and, given Milwaukee’s unprecedented length, theoretically a good fit. The Bucks forced a ton of turnovers and occasionally made Kidd look like he knew what he was doing, but they were inevitably done in by poor communication, missed rotations, and untenable execution. Pure talent and questionable shot selection aside, it was their defensive issues—Milwaukee surrendered a ton of corner threes and layups—that weighed them down.

Milwaukee isn’t playing like that anymore, which is ironic because their new head coach, Mike Budenholzer, enforced a similar strategy in Atlanta. Instead, they’ve adopted a conservative base defense—right now they rank 27th in opposing turnover percentage—that was en vogue half a decade ago but has since been swallowed whole by the three-point revolution.

The approach plays out as such: When offensive bigs run up to set ball and flair screens, Milwaukee’s defenders will drop back and stay in the paint. They want ball handlers to either meet their length at the rim or submit via a mid-range pull up. So far, so good! Only four teams are forcing more long twos; after they finished dead last in opponent shot frequency at the rim in 2017-18 and 2015-16, the Bucks currently rank first.

For the regular season, it’s a low-risk, medium-reward tactic that fits their personnel and maintains order. Switching is mostly frowned upon, which simplifies defensive rebounding (long an issue for the Bucks) and reduces the negative side effects that long rotations tend to have, which is evident when you look at how often they foul shooters relative to the past four years.

It feels unfair to attack something that’s obviously working, but this scheme can only do so much against the best offenses in the league. This is something I touched on in greater detail earlier this week in a column about Joel Embiid’s individual defense, but the same principles apply: Against the league’s most potent offenses, any plan that doesn’t account for pull-up threes is antiquated and futile. And guess what: Milwaukee is allowing a higher three-point rate above-the-break than any team in the league!

In the Bucks' season opener, the Charlotte Hornets went 16-for-38 from deep. The Kawhi Leonard-less Toronto Raptors went 9-for-45 (Kyle Lowry took nine threes and missed them all). Milwaukee's first loss came against a Boston Celtics team that jacked up 55 triples (more than ever before in franchise history) and tied a league-record by making 24 of them. The Sacramento Kings finished 14-for-36 and, in Milwaukee’s second loss, the Portland Trail Blazers drilled 17 of their 43 tries.

None of this is a coincidence. The Bucks want teams to take floaters and tough mid-range jump shots, but in doing so they’re conceding a ton of pull-up threes. Even though the Golden State Warriors don’t like running a bunch of high pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry, Fiserv Forum would spontaneously combust if they did.

Five years ago, guards and wings (and some forwards!) didn’t have the freedom to jack threes up off the bounce. During the 2013-14 NBA season, only four teams launched more than six pull-up threes per game. Today, two-thirds of the league eclipse that volume. What Milwaukee wants/needs is for the ball-handler's man to earn his money at the point of attack. Either fight over a screen and take away the shot by pressuring from behind, or duck underneath and either allow a poor shooter to shoot his shot or recover in time to take it away.

This is where Milwaukee’s length and tenacity comes into play. Khris Middleton, Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, and Donte DiVincenzo are not terrible at navigating on-ball screens. But against just about anyone, it’s still extremely difficult work.

But pull ups aren’t the only threat. The league has never had more big men who can and will stab you from beyond the arc. And when their man is deep in the paint, trying to stop penetration, a kick back pass usually results in an open look.

Bledsoe has no interest in switching onto Al Horford, knowing it would let Kyrie Irving surgically remove Brook Lopez’s ankles from his body. But it’s unclear if leaving Horford wide open is a better strategy.

It makes sense to drop Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova because rim protection is good and neither guy is particularly mobile in space. But to have them do so while seemingly ignoring specific matchups is not the wisest move. Watch how the Celtics take advantage by having Horford set a flare screen for Irving. Ilyasova might as well take a nap.

And the strategy applies across the board! Why don’t Giannis and Malcolm Brogdon make life easier for everyone involved by switching this? Instead they give up an open three to a good three-point shooter.

This brings us to the future, and how Milwaukee will solve a problem that doesn’t currently exist. They may not feel this way, but adding an athletic big who’s more comfortable switching and scurrying on the perimeter—while still providing offensive substance—should be a priority before the trade deadline.

If they run into an opponent who plays Lopez off the floor, the rangier Thon Maker isn’t good enough to fill those minutes. The Bucks struggled mightily with Giannis at the five last season, too. (That doesn’t mean it can’t work—they have more two-way players this year—but assuming Budenholzer doesn’t venture too far from a formula that’s yielding terrific results throughout the regular season, how hard will it be for the Bucks to adjust after a sharp left turn in the playoffs?)

It’s a fascinating conundrum and one worth keeping an eye on as the season goes on. Milwaukee’s legitimacy as a true title contender may hinge on it.