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Live By The Three, Die By The Three — Part 2: Milwaukee’s Defense

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The Milwaukee Bucks have a bad defense. The Milwaukee Bucks have a good defense. ...Wait, what?

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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

In Part 1, we looked at the Bucks’ offense and how much it has been impacted by the three-point shot. The short answer is: not much. Today, we take a deeper dive into the Bucks’ defense, and try to find the answer to those same questions. How much does the three affect Milwaukee’s defense, and how much does that impact wins and losses?

Defense

Using the same model when discussing the Bucks offense, let’s start by taking a look at what the Bucks defense has allowed over the past 205 games. For reference, the league average over that timeframe for 3PM/3PA was 8.63/24.43, with a conversion rate of 0.354.

Over this timeframe, Bucks opponents average 9.16/26.23 from behind the arc, good for a 0.350 conversion rate. The frequency measurements are marginally above league average, and opponent accuracy is slightly below. But the standard deviations for these figures are larger than those for the Milwaukee offense (3.34 for 3PM and 6.55 for 3PA) meaning there’s more variation game-to-game in terms of what the Bucks give up from deep.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is not as strong of a correlation between threes allowed and the Bucks’ record, which seems to go against conventional wisdom. In the 28 games where opponents shot significantly more threes than average, the Bucks have a record of 13-15. In the 27 games where they allowed significantly fewer threes than average, their record is 17-10. Obviously, in games where the Bucks defend better, they have a better chance of winning, but the opposite doesn’t appear to be demonstrably true for the inverse.

Going off of a simple comparison between frequency and end result isn’t the end of the conversation. We have seen the deep ball burn the team time and time again, whether it was a momentum-breaker in a close game or salt on the wound of a blowout loss. Sometimes the Bucks can overcome it...but more often it makes life harder than it needs to be.

This brings us back to our core concern: Are the Bucks good at defending against threes? Fans might have chosen their sides on the matter, but what do the numbers suggest? To this end, let’s take a dive down the rabbit hole of the NBA’s official stats site, and look at a few different measurements.

First off, how many threes are the Bucks actually giving up, and where are they most frequently coming from? This part of the conversation has already been mentioned in detail on Brew Hoop in a recent FanPost, and we extended the same idea to the timeframe of this exercise (from 2014-15 to the midway point of 2016-17, 205 total games).

Running the totals for shot attempt location over the past 2.5 seasons shows the Bucks’ most glaring flaw: they allow a ton of threes, including an absurd number of shots from the corners. It has been said that Jason Kidd’s strategy is high-risk/high-reward, and this chart shows the downside of that risk. Not only does Milwaukee give up a ton of threes, they are giving them up in some of the worst possible spots! Teams that are patient enough to move the ball around on Milwaukee’s high-flying defense end up with easy threes that can be hit regularly. That’s a systemic problem, not one borne of “energy and effort.”

The answer at this point is that the scheme should simply be packed up and shipped out, right? Some Bucks fans might preach that as the solution to our woes, but it is not the whole story. After all, the Bucks did have a top-flight defense two seasons ago, and were still in the top-10 only six weeks ago. So instead of focusing on the volume of threes the team gives up, let’s look at how well (or poorly) the Bucks are defending those shots.

With this chart, we come to one of the main tenets of the defense: force the opponent into taking uncomfortable shots over the length of our defenders, even if you have to run through a brick wall to get to your man. The goal is to make the other team take more time than they want to get their shot, which can create mistakes, force hurried, hopefully missed shots, and generate turnovers. Over the past 2.5 seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks have been a roller coaster: when they are able to defend the shooter tightly (within 4 feet), they are able to drastically reduce the number of shots that go up, as well as interfere with the ones that still do.

However, the entire process of defending a shooter tightly necessitates maximum “effort and energy” from all 5 defenders, and the Bucks haven’t always deployed defenders capable of this feat. All it takes is one cracked link to break a chain, and that is evident from the frequency of “Wide Open” (6 or more feet) shots that the team allows.

If you’re looking for hope whether the scheme will eventually work in Milwaukee, your attention should be drawn to the Bucks’ 3P% Allowed for when they are defending both “Tight” (2-4 feet of space) and leaving opponents “Open” (4-6 feet of space). At conversion rates of 28.8% and 32.9% (respectively), the Bucks are well-below league average in this area, which is a testament to how much havoc a team armed with long-limbed defenders can wreak upon offenses.


At this point, nearly any discussion around the Bucks defense becomes a variation on “the chicken or the egg,” where the defense is either bad because of the scheme (which is partly true!) or because of the players’ failure to execute (which is partly true!)...but it’s at least accepted that the defense is, in fact, not good. Then again, so much of the team’s foundation is built upon creating transition opportunities and forcing turnovers, which is precisely what this defense is designed to do...so maybe it really is ”energy and effort?”

When it comes to the 2016-17 season, where the Bucks started out great and then went way downhill since mid-December, are the Bucks allowing too many threes or are opponents starting to hit more threes? As it turns out, the answer is yes.

As we mentioned, the Bucks defense gives up a ton of three pointers. This isn’t in dispute. The focus of the overall debate is whether or not the scheme is worth the risk. As we can see from the above charts, the number of attempts allowed this season is above league average but relatively flat...whereas the number of makes allowed and overall accuracy is trending WAY upwards. In a word, this is troubling.


At the end of the day, we’re left with a frustrating conclusion. The numbers show that the Milwaukee Bucks are good at defending against threes, except when they’re not, and it feels impossible to predict whether or not the Good Bucks or Bad Bucks will show up on any given night. However, even when they do allow a high volume of outside shots, it hasn’t drastically affected their ability to win games...which suggests that three-point defense alone isn’t responsible for the Bucks’ failure to break out into the next tier of NBA teams.

An obvious caveat to this whole discussion is the sheer unpredictability of three point shots in general. While the overall trend in attempts and accuracy has been going up for years (decades, even), nobody can foresee a particularly hot or cold night for any team. Squads like the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets might be more likely to have success because the deep ball is a cornerstone of their offense, but they might miss a ton of shots even if the defense concedes everything. Not that this excuses bad defense, but it is an important part of the overall picture.

If nothing else, this helps to clarify some of the sticking points around the Milwaukee defense, but we’re still left with important questions. Is the defense getting worse, or is it simply that they were so good early in the season and the recent struggles are just a sharp reversion to the mean? Is the scheme right for the team going forward? Will things get better? What has to change?

Find out our answers to that (and more) in Part 3!