The Milwaukee Bucks’ best offense is either Giannis Antetokounmpo doing something great, or their defense creating turnovers that lead to fast break situations. The issue is having your defense create offense requires good execution, not to mention the inherent risk of such a gamble. On Media Day, one of the themes from the players was making sure to have a Top-5 defense, with mentions from both Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova.
Obviously Media Day exists for as many positive and PR friendly statements as possible. The goal of a Top-5 defense stood out to me the most though, mainly because it seems the Bucks go through two extremes. Either the defense is clicking and suffocates opponents, or the possession ends with a wide-open three in the corner. The Bucks’ defense under Jason Kidd has finished 4th, 23rd, and 19th. Is a Top-5 defense possible? Of course, but how likely is that to happen?
How the Bucks can achieve Top-5
The biggest argument for the Bucks achieving a Top-5 defense is the personnel at their disposal. Last season, the Bucks were without their second best defender in Khris Middleton for the majority of the season with a torn hamstring. During that season, the Bucks finished 19th in the league with a defensive rating of 106.5. While that is not good, the encouraging sign is that the lineup of Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Middleton, Giannis, and Thon Maker had a rating of 99.8; which would be the highest defensive rank of any team and is a tad higher than Golden State’s “death” lineup (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green) which had a rating of 98.4. While it’s still a small sample size, it provides an idea of how effective this lineup could be. This five man group could also be considered the most athletic and consist of the team’s five best defenders.
The 2014-2015 lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Middleton, Giannis, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia had a defensive rating of 97.4 which finished in the Top-10 of lineups that had at least 300 minutes played together. It’s an easy argument that Brogdon is an upgrade over MCW, and Tony Snell in the lineup gives the team an above-average on-ball defender for the other team’s best player. This also allows Khris to not be played at the two position, which is what he had been playing the majority of his career, and play the three which most say is his natural position. Today’s two are faster than we have seen and with Khris being larger than most he would be better guarding team’s threes who match his physical profile more. Not to mention Giannis has substantially grown as a player, and Thon is far more mobile than Zaza.
With this group as the starting lineup, they will have more time on the court, develop chemistry, and gather familiarity. The team overall has continued its continuity and that will serve to help players like Delly, Teletovic, Thon and Brogdon as those four will have a full season of this defensive scheme under their belt. That can have them be more confident on which places to be and when and there will be less defensive breakdowns to allow open lanes on the court. Each player will know where their teammates are supposed to be, and function more as a cohesive unit.
Despite flaws, the Bucks still finished in the Top-10 last season in steals, blocks, and turnover percentage last season. This shows that there are portions of the defense that’s successful and doing more of the little things like communicating can go a long way. The times the Bucks defense is good can truly fluster and smother opponents, like in Games 1 and 3 in the playoff series against Toronto. The Bucks’ length can cut off passing lanes and force opponents to attempt a more aggressive pass. This can lead to steals and deter opponents into trying to make that pass in the future which could cut down the amount of open threes the Bucks notoriously allow. With better luck, like shots not going in or a player successfully jumping a passing lane, and fewer open threes allowed, better rotations and players staying active, this defense has the capability to finish in the Top-5.
The argument against a Top-5 result
No matter who you put on the court, it all goes out the window if the other team knows how to exploit your scheme. It’s no hidden secret that the Milwaukee Bucks allow way too many open threes to have a successful defense.
Per basketball-reference.com, last season Milwaukee allowed 2312 three pointers with opponents making 816, which resulted in teams shooting 35.3%. While the percentage ranked 9th, that doesn’t necessarily mean the defense is great with the threes attempted and made ranked in the bottom-ten in the league (22nd in 3PA and 20 in 3PM respectively).
During the first season, teams were not sure what Jason Kidd had planned for a team that record-wise, was worst in the league. Kidd seized the opportunity for improvement, creating 17.4 turnovers a game and a turnover percentage of 15.4% both of which were first in the league. Milwaukee was also able to cause opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 48.7% which ranked 8th.
Fast forward to 2017 and while the opponent turnovers still ranked in the Top-10, the effective field goal percentage dropped to 51.8% which ranked 20th. As more tape is available, a well coached team with capable players can exploit the aggressive Bucks scheme. Teams can beat this by making one good skip pass or quickly swinging the ball to an open player from three whether it’s above the break or in the corner.
The corner three really hurt the Bucks, as teams shot an average of 4.3% of threes in the right corner and 4.2% in the left, both of which were most in the league. Corner threes have the highest probability of being made, more so than above the break threes. If a team is averaging 8.5 per game, and successfully make around 3 per game, that can give teams nearly 9-10 points per game which, most of the time, can be the difference between winning and losing.
While three pointers are the more noticeable and impactful defensive flaw the Bucks have, the team has also struggled to do better in the rebounding department. Milwaukee only grabbed 40.4 rebounds per game which ranked second to last in the league. Opponents would also grab 10.3 offensive rebounds per game which gives teams 10.3 more chances at a basket or free-throw. Thon’s low Total Rebound Percentage, combined with players scrambling to either find a body to box out or surround the hoop and allow a long rebound, negates any of the good work that the team’s defense had performed the previous 24 seconds.
Overall, the personnel seems like the best fit for Kidd’s aggressive defensive scheme. He has his best five man lineup in the past three years; assuming creating turnovers stays as consistent as it has been recently, Milwaukee will need to do the little things like communicating and quicker rotations to truly improve the defense. The core issues for Milwaukee’s defense are still very simple; swing the ball and find the open man for three, or grab the offensive rebound and start over.
While improvements to rebounding can improve and help, the continued three point barrage other teams can apply to the Bucks is worrying. Overall, I believe this team can achieve a Top-10 ranking, but a lot would need to break in the Bucks favor and there are teams like Utah, Golden State, and Memphis to prevent a Top-5 ranking. So let me know in the comments your thoughts; can this team finish in the Top-5? If not, where do you see the Bucks rank at the end of the season?