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Live By The Three, Die By The Three — Part 1: Milwaukee’s Offense

We know the Bucks are weird and don’t always follow league trends, but does that nonconformity have a price?

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Editor’s note: all statistics are as of January 20th.

As a player, Jason Kidd was relatively slow to adopt the three-point shot. Despite ranking sixth in NBA history in both makes and attempts, it took Kidd 10 years to truly embrace the long ball and make it more than a backup plan. As a coach, is Jason Kidd following a similar path?

At the halfway point of Kidd’s third season leading the Milwaukee Bucks, the team had a slightly better-than-expected W/L record (20-21), and are widely regarded as a team on the rise. But in looking around at the elite tier of NBA squads, the three pointer seems to work for those teams more than it works for the Bucks. Is that observation accurate, and if so how much is the arc affecting Milwaukee as a team? Is the impact felt more on offense or on defense, and what can be done about it?

This series will explore Milwaukee’s relationship with the three-pointer during Jason Kidd’s tenure, both on offense and on defense, and hopefully come to a reasonable conclusion regarding whether they’re on the right track or not. Today, we start with the Bucks’ offense, moving on to the Bucks’ defense in Part 2, and concluding Part 3 with a discussion about what changes are recommended.


We’ve seen short bursts of the Bucks embracing the deep ball (setting several all-time highs this season for attempts during Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee tenure), but how much has their general aversion to threes hurt the offense?

So far this season, the Bucks offense seems to at least use the three effectively. Through 41 games, the Bucks averaged 8.5/23.2 from the arc, good enough for 9th-best in the NBA at a 0.367 rate. They might be in the bottom-third in attempts, but at least they focus on taking good shots, right?

Averages are great for telling the overall story, but as with most things in Milwaukee, the devil is in the details, and has been for quite some time. To get a complete look at how Milwaukee has used the long-ball, we have to start from when Jason Kidd took over, which gives us a considerable data sample to work with (205 games since 2014-15). Since that time, the Bucks’ per-game average for 3PM/3PA is 6.51/18.20, with a respectable conversion rate of 0.358. For comparison’s sake, the league average over those seasons for 3PM/3PA was 8.63/24.43 with a conversion rate of 0.354.

It’s important to note that those figures appear to be stable, which might be a bad thing overall, but at least gives us a firm footing from which to explore how the Bucks’ shooting has resulted in wins and losses. As we mentioned in a piece about scoring outliers, standard deviations give us an idea of whether or not a particular data point is significantly above (or below) average, or if it’s within a normal range. So let’s apply that to the Bucks’ offense over the last 205 games, by breaking them down into smaller segments of 10 (or 11) games a piece:

For the past two-and-a-half seasons, the Bucks’ average for 3PA is 18.20, with a standard deviation of 5.26. For the same timeframe, the team’s average for 3PM is 6.51, with a standard deviation of 2.84. After collecting and sorting all the game logs, we find that there are thirty-six games in which the Bucks significantly exceeded their average for attempts, and they have a W/L of 19-17 in those games. In the thirty-two games the Bucks have not met their average for attempts by one standard deviation (or more), they have a W/L of 14-18. If you put those together, you end up with a team slightly-worse-than-.500 (W/L of 33-35), which is not terribly different from how the Bucks performed overall.

In looking just at the first half of 2016-17, the Bucks shockingly have 20 games (55% of all outlier games) in which they exceeded their average in attempts during the Kidd era, and zero in which they were significantly below. In those 20 games, though, the Bucks are a thoroughly-unimpressive 11-9. So even though Milwaukee is shooting more threes, it doesn’t seem to be correlated with wins and losses.

Since threes are so efficient, it’s widely-accepted that more = better. Why is that not the case here? Part of the answer is the scheme, and another part is the personnel. Until this season, the Bucks were far behind the rest of the league in terms of reliance on the deep ball, and most of us tied that to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Greg Monroe taking on the lead scoring roles on offense. And while that might be the case, it doesn’t paint the whole picture of the Bucks’ offense the last three seasons.

Here’s the list of players who appeared in at least 25 games, played 12 minutes/game, and had a 3Par exceeding 0.300:

  • 2014-15: Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Ennis
  • 2015-16: Khris Middleton, Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo, Rashad Vaughn
  • 2016-17: Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic

Malcolm Brogdon (3Par: 0.295) and Jabari Parker (3Par: 0.217) help support the team’s outside efforts, but it’s more evident here than anywhere else how much the team misses Khris Middleton, who would easily take his place as the most relied-upon shooter on the roster.

But even without Middleton, the Bucks’ lukewarm approach to taking threes hasn’t translated into losing basketball, at least not directly, which is a testament to how impactful Giannis and Jabari (and somewhat Greg Monroe) have been on the offensive end. Additionally, the offense appears to be trending in the right direction (ORtg of 109.5, 9th best in the NBA), and still hasn’t gotten any significant contributions from young players projected to be frequent shooters, like Rashad Vaughn and Thon Maker. So should the Bucks focus on taking more threes? The answer is: Sure, maybe, but it isn’t really a pressing need yet.

The core of this team’s offense is going to be built around the ability to score at the rim. Giannis and Jabari will lead that charge, and while credible threats to score from distance could make their lives easier by creating additional spacing, we’re already seeing how well the Bucks can get their preferred buckets. This is not to suggest that the Bucks need to fully embrace an offensive strategy that predates the 3-point era, just that when it comes to how the deep ball affects wins and losses, the offense isn’t the problem.

Be sure to come back for Part 2 when we dive into how opponents use the three-pointer against the Bucks, and just how impactful it is against the Milwaukee defense.