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One Step Forward, One Step Back: Will the Bucks Defense Ever Change?

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Perplexed. Baffled. Confused. Bewildered.

Annoyed. Incensed. Upset. Furious.

These are all words that can describe fans of the Milwaukee Bucks, and sometimes (depending on the situation) Bucks players. The latest target is a popular one: the Bucks’ defense and (by extension) head coach Jason Kidd’s adherence to a failed strategy.

Many fans noticed a significant change mid-way through the team’s recent road trip, and remarked how much more controlled and measured the defense appeared. Unsurprisingly, the team was playing better, winning more, and performing at a higher level on defense.

Oft-referenced and must-follow Twitter user @AllTheBucks has been on top of his game, and recently has been closely monitoring the behaviors of Milwaukee’s much-maligned defense, tallying plays when the team shows signs of ultra-aggression (the old, bad defense) or appropriate reactivity (the new/adjusted, good defense).

The tweet above shows the main differences between the Bucks’ early-season win against the Portland Trailblazers, and their recent rematch in Oregon. As we can see, the defense had (as it usually had) been blitzing ball-handlers and hedging screens, which opens up the lanes opponents use to punish the Bucks with open threes and looks at the rim. Of late, they are more likely to switch or drop on P&Rs, which had been a major driver of the team’s improvement.

The tweet below covers the same ground, quarter by quarter, for the team’s loss last night against the Boston Celtics. The numbers tell the same story that our eyes did: the Bucks opened by playing super-aggressive defense, went down by a fair margin, and went back to a more conservative approach for the rest of the game.

Against an elite team like Boston, giving up a significant lead and playing from behind is a recipe for failure, and even when things do work out it’s rarely a sign of anything good. Losing games is understandable, even expected! But losing games because the team willingly and knowingly departs from an approach that actually worked?

Inexcusable. Unacceptable. Untenable.

Previously, many supporters of the scheme (and Kidd by extension) put the onus on the players to deliver, since they’re the ones actually on the floor. With the recent trade for Eric Bledsoe to place additional talent around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the roster was in a better position to compete because of the overall talent increase.

As has been made abundantly clear with last night’s loss in Boston, it seems that talent can only take you so far when the scheme fails to put players in a position to succeed. In the first quarter, the Bucks’ talent was playing at a disadvantage, and they simply couldn’t catch up to the Celtics. With the coaching staff in place in Milwaukee, this is a trend we can expect will continue.

This is the decision that should rile up the #FireKidd movement. Taking adjustments, however overdue, and apparently removing them from the game plan is unforgivable. Progress can only move forward if you get out of its way, and the Bucks will not progress unless the schematic flaws of the defense, picked apart by so many opponents, gets out of their way.

It is vexing to watch the changes put in place over the last three games evaporate within the first three minutes of last night’s contest. When something is working, it is generally best to leave it alone and avoid fixing it. If something is broken, fixing it is the best option.

The Bucks defense was broken, and then the coaching staff fixed it. No amount of “energy and effort” can replace the number of hedged screens replaced by switches, but at least the switches seemed to be working. Kidd and his staff, by all accounts (except their own), took what was broken, fixed it, and then broke it again.

Turn your ire towards Jason Kidd if you wish, but expect more of the same because it certainly doesn’t seem like fan feedback is a priority for him. For whatever reason, and the reason will likely stay unknown to fans, Kidd and his staff keep doing things that get between the Milwaukee Bucks and success. Sooner or later, something has to give, else the Bucks will end up in the worst place of all: NBA purgatory with a superstar who wants to win.