The Milwaukee Bucks are 53-9 on the year, meaning they are currently on pace to finish with 70 wins, a mark that would be third best in NBA history behind only the ‘96 Bulls and ‘16 Warriors. On top of that, they recently set a new NBA record by clinching a spot in the playoffs through just 56 games, and have looked just as focused as before coming out of the All Star break.
With so much going right for the Bucks, led by the soon to be back to back (and this time *hopefully* unanimous) MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the ultra-consistent Khris Middleton (who deserves an All NBA team nod) it is easy to just assume that the Bucks are so good because of the starpower on display each game. Giannis has improved nearly every statistical category of his game once again, and is on pace to finish with a record setting player efficiency rating, while Middleton quietly has himself on track to join the elite club of 50-40-90 players while averaging 20+ ppg.
The thing about the Bucks though, is that outside of the dedicated/local fanbase, this team is still misunderstood on a large scale. Media coverage doesn’t focus on the Bucks the same way they focused on the Warriors during their similarly dominant days, and it is creating a doubt in the Bucks that can be sensed by following NBA discussion on any form of social media. When Khris has an off night, crawling out from the woodwork come all the internet trolls, doubters and naysayers to criticize his contract (which was the right move, can we stop with that nonsense yet?), and when Giannis has an off night — the Bucks are labelled a fraud, or compared to Budenholzer’s 2014-2015 Hawks team that took the league’s best record into the playoffs only to be swept by Lebron James and the Cavs in the ECF.
The national coverage the Bucks do get is not the type you’d expect for a historically great team that continues to break records and has shown no signs of slowing down. Instead of talks about building a dynasty, past teams and player comparisons, strategy breakdowns and in-depth analysis of just how good Milwaukee has been, national media outlets instead like to focus their attention on last year’s shortcomings and the summer of 2021, when Giannis is set to become a free agent. Giannis has continually expressed his love for Milwaukee and his desire to stick with the franchise as long as their championship goals remain aligned, yet media conglomerates have created a narrative that he either will or should leave. Bigger markets matter in the media too, and even if it is just a way of appealing to the masses for clicks and views, it is taking positive attention and praise away from a team (and player) that really deserves it.
With that being said, rather than pretending this team is destined for the same fate as last year, or drumming up the idea of Giannis leaving Milwaukee in 15+ months, let’s take the time here to observe and reflect on what is actually currently happening on the court with the Bucks, and why. A simple search will show you the team is towards the top of the league in many critical statistical categories, but I want to dive into the defensive ingredients in the masterful recipe for success that Mike Budenholzer has come up with to lead the Bucks on their historic run so far this season.
During the TNT broadcast of the Bucks @ Raptors on 2/25, a major talking point from Stan Van Gundy was that the Eastern conference’s top two teams defend the paint very well. Toronto is second in the league defending shots from the restricted area, but Milwaukee is a pretty large step in front of them in first. Opponents shoot 54.4% from the restricted area against Milwaukee and 58.5% against Toronto. For context, the other contenders right now allow the following percentages:
Los Angeles Lakers 60.5%
Los Angeles Clippers 62.1%
Boston Celtics 63%
Houston Rockets 65.7%
Miami Heat 66.1%
Opponents are attempting just 24.3 shots per game from the restricted area against Milwaukee, the least in the NBA. This means that teams are scoring just a sliver over 26 points per game at the rim against the Bucks. This is largely due to the fact that the Bucks have the three most effective rim defenders in the NBA in their rotation. Brook Lopez leads the league among players contesting at least 5 shots at the rim per game (he contests 6.5) by allowing only a 46.4% conversion rate. Nobody else defending 5+ shots at the rim per game has held opponents under 50%.
Splash Mountain has not been the same player from behind the arc this year, and that could prove problematic for the Bucks at some point, but for now his defensive output is more than making up for it. Even better yet, Giannis and twin brother Robin allow just 41.2% and 45.1% on shots inside the restricted area, defending 3.2 and 3.6 shots from the area each game. Everyone expects Giannis to have a heavy defensive impact on the game coming off an First Team All NBA season last year, but the play of Robin Lopez has been a pleasant surprise.
Robin’s numbers come in a smaller sample size than Brook’s, but the results have actually been relatively comparable. The quirky brothers have added to the camaraderie of the team this year with Robin often featuring in pregame WWE performances in the tunnel, but Robin has brought the energy and intensity to the court too. Filling in for 14mpg compared to Brook’s ~27mpg, Robin’s production is actually just about mirroring Brook’s. Per 36 minutes Brook Lopez averages 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and a monster 3.4 blocks on 42 FG% and 29 3P%. Robin? 13.9 points 6 rebounds 1.7 assists and 1.8 blocks on 50.6 FG% and 33 3P%.
Offensively, Brook has come back to earth this year and Robin is filling in there just fine, although Brook still seems to attract more attention when he spaces the floor.The good news is that as great as Robin has been on defense, even compared to last year Brook has improved to put together a DPOY-type season. Anchoring the best defense in the league, he trails only Giannis in defensive rating and only Hassan Whiteside in blocks. Giannis and Anthony Davis are the only players with more defensive win shares, but have played 160 and 220 more minutes than him on the year. He has truly completed his transformation from an average defender to one of the best bigs on that end of the floor on this planet.
With at least one of the three seven footers constantly contesting at the rim, teams have been forced to shoot from further and further away against Milwaukee. With so little available around the basket, opponents are shooting threes against Milwaukee at a league leading pace. Just last season the Bucks’ opponents attempted an NBA record 2968 threes, but at the current rate, this year’s opponents will attempt over 3150. At first, that might sound like a bad thing. The value and efficiency of the three point shot has been transformed in recent years, and continues to trend towards more attempts league-wide. However, this is actually exactly what coach Mike Budenholzer wants. By holding opponents to the least attempts in the paint, as well as fouling at a rate that is fourth lowest in the league, the Bucks have taken away basically all the easy buckets in favor of making the opposition rain from deep.
Defending the Three
Now that we’ve established what the Bucks are doing in the paint, we can look at how this in turn creates a ton of three point shot opportunities for opponents. Milwaukee ranks 11th in opponent 3PM from the left corner, and 21st from the right corner. Not the end of the world right? But opponents are making more threes from above the break against Milwaukee than any other team in the league. Oof — that sounds like a dooming statistic — but it hasn’t been.
By rotating out to defend the corner three (moderately well) and forcing more extra passes around the perimeter, the Bucks are winning a small but important battle. The corner is the shortest three on the court, and has long been known as a shooters paradise. The extra effort to close out on those shots is worth it because although it often means another player ends up more open above the break, regardless of the presence of defense, those shots are simply more difficult to knock down.
The combination of all this congestion in the paint while defenders fly around to close out on corner threes has the Bucks on pace to give up the most attempted and made threes in NBA history, while also finishing with the third best regular season record ever recorded. The NBA community has had a big blanket cast over them by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant that made many of us believe figuring out how to defend the three was the only way forward from here on. Mike Budenholzer’s genius is showing us otherwise.
With a current league best nine losses on the season, four of them have stemmed from anomalies in shooting performance from their opponents. Philadelphia went nuclear on Christmas Day, shooting 47.7% from range to tie their franchise record with 21 made threes in a game. Denver set a season high against Milwaukee on 1/31/20 with 22 made threes on 47.8% shooting, and San Antonio set a season high with 19 made threes against the Bucks on 1/6/20 shooting 54.3%. Most recently, the Bucks dropped a game on the road to Miami by shooting 7/34 (20.6%) from three themselves while Miami shot 18/37 (48.6%).
Nights like those should be few and far between, and they have been. Milwaukee lives and dies by their opponents success from three, but with Bud’s defensive scheme looking like a well oiled machine and the offense firing on all cylinders, its proving to be an effective strategy. The Bucks have been blowing teams out so often that the target has been on their back for months now. Teams are playing with extra energy, and despite getting every team’s best shot just about every night, the Bucks have not backed down. Milwaukee has yet to lose two games in a row this year. If they can keep that up through the playoffs, I’ll be seeing you all at the parade.
***All stats courtesy of NBA.com and are accurate as of 3/4/2020***