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Live By The Three, Die By The Three — Part 3, Now What?

We know what the numbers say, but what do our feelings say?

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

The three-point shot is as important in the NBA as it’s ever been, but how much does it actually affect the Milwaukee Bucks? Is it the main reason for their woes, or only part of the puzzle? In Part 1, we covered the offense, and in Part 2, we dove deep into the defense, and here in Part 3 we forge ahead and try to answer some of the questions we still struggle with.

How much do we need to discuss the role of the three in the Bucks’ offense?

Brett: At this point, the three-pointer seems to be something Jason Kidd is more than willing to embrace, given he has the personnel to do so. More than anything, the amount of threes they take, at this point, is going to in large part depend on: a) Giannis’/Jabari’s development/willingness to take them, b) the opposing defense’s willingness to let them take them, and c) the same as a) and b) for the players around them, to a lesser extent. That being said, it could probably be said that some of the team’s offensive staples (ie the corner set) doesn’t seem to directly try to generate threes, though I’m not sure you’re exactly trying to run Floppy (and the like) for much of anyone on this team outside of Khris Middleton. All this to say, I don’t find it to be a particularly productive conversation, outside of personnel and development, at this point.

Adam: I think Brett’s right that the personnel is more than available for this offense to be shooting at least a league average amount of threes. Outside of the three centers, and heck the way Henson is chucking jumpers I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re subjected to some late shot clock tomfoolery from him, but everyone on this roster is more than able to get up shots from outside. That being said, the team’s offensive stagnancy and the reliance on guys like Beasley and Monroe when Giannis or Jabari isn’t flowing and their transition game is sputtering feels like a bigger issue to confront at this point. The oft-repeated phrase for this team the last few years was, “well they need to get some shooters.” I’d say they have enough suitable ones in the stable now, so it’s a matter of integrating that into their offense in an efficient manner going forward. At this point, there are more depressing fish to fry.

Mitchell: They could stand to shoot more, but more than anything I want to see better off-ball movement. Whether or not this results in higher volume of threes is inconsequential; more movement will create more space for people to score, whether it’s inside, outside, or in between.

Was the previous defensive success (both earlier this season and in previous seasons) a fluke?

Mitchell: I know this will be unpopular, but no, I do not believe that it was a fluke. Two years ago, when this defense was introduced, the team had capable veterans playing valuable roles within the system, specifically Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley. Our current roster may have more advantages in terms of talent or tools, but Zaza and Dudley had a certain skill that our current team lacks: communication.

A defense that relies on so much movement and activity depends on trust between the players on the floor. I think that the trust is not there because there is not nearly enough talking going on while the team is on defense. Players like Matthew Dellavedova, Giannis, and Greg Monroe, shockingly enough, was so good in this area that the defense seemed like it had captured the magic of 2014-15...until one bad game turned into two, then three, and suddenly we’re on a 10+ game streak of legitimately bad defensive output.

Adam: The red herring three-point percentage from earlier in the season certainly made this year’s flash seem like a fluke, but I’m not ready to say that 14-15 season means it’s entirely flukey. Playing with five guys on a defensive string is hyper difficult in even a conservative scheme, so when the Bucks’ defense requires even more alertness from its players, its even easier for a single error to ripple through the team. I think there’s still room for improvement with enhanced communication, but it also requires supreme effort at all times, with little ability to ever hide someone for a possession or two, and a risk/reward factor that can make it crumple apart in a hurry. That, more than anything, feels like a factor that’s made the semblances of greatness feel more like flukes than something sustainable.

Brett: I think fluke is much too strong a word that discredits what Sweeney, Zaza, Dudley, Middleton and Co. were able to accomplish that season. There’s no denying that the scheme in all its novelty caught many teams off-guard, and they were consequently forcing turnovers at a league-leading rate — in that respect, the scheme was doing its job.

At the same time, maybe we should have been able to foresee its limitations at the time — the shot profile they were willing to give opponents looks no different than the much-maligned one we see today; the defensive rebounding issues that seem to accompany the scheme’s core principals have yet to resolve themselves on a consistent basis; the heavily cerebral scheme was made possible by heady veterans that weren’t likely to be long term pieces, a third of a season of still-good-defensively Larry Sanders, and two thirds of a season of no Jabari Parker. So maybe it wasn’t a fluke, exactly, but somewhat of a flash in the pan that greatly benefited from its novelty and surrounding circumstances.

Will things get better with the current scheme? How?

Mitchell: I have one name who will have a huge impact on the success or failure of this scheme, at least in the short-term: Suki Hobson. The Bucks’ Senior Strength and Rehabilitation Specialist guided Jabari Parker back from an ACL tear, and is assumed to have a major role in Khris Middleton’s rehab from a torn hamstring. Middleton simply makes this defense work better. He’s big, he’s versatile, he’s a willing communicator, and he has experience succeeding in Kidd’s scheme.

Beyond just the return of Middleton, it also slides all of the other Milwaukee guards down a spot in the defensive hierarchy. Tony Snell, who has done a fine job overall, no longer has to check the other team’s best guard full-time. Matthew Dellavedova has historically been a good defender but has struggled this year, and Malcolm Brogdon has great instincts and tools but is still a rookie.

Lastly, I believe that an additional change to the rotation at center will help a great deal. Greg Monroe has been fantastic (compared to last season), but he is only so good for so long, and John Henson and Miles Plumlee simply haven’t been getting it done. Maybe Thon Maker is the answer, or maybe the answer is somewhere else, but I firmly believe that putting more capable defenders at the 5 spot would be fundamentally beneficial to the scheme.

Adam: I would hope that they would get better the longer players are in the scheme, but I’m not so sure it can age well. Particularly with Giannis shouldering such a heavy load offensively and defensively, I’d worry that eventually he’ll be forced to exert less effort defensively in order to power the offense properly.

That being said, it does feel like their pick and roll coverage could be improved demonstrably by more lethal defenders at the five and one. None of the Bucks centers seem mobile enough to hedge on a pick and recover properly, an issue best exemplified in both of the Rockets’ games. In addition, their lead guard defense just needs to be more stout. Brogdon and Dellavedova are both competent, but I don’t think they have the ability to shut down jitterbug point guards whose penetration immediately short circuits the Bucks’ defense. If this defense hopes to be successful, they need better defenders at the two offensive positions that can shut down their scheme the easiest.

Brett: It’s trite, but with the timing of this question, it honestly can’t get much worse. Middleton’s return alone should — SHOULD — mean we never have to see Michael Beasley on the floor again (he was fun while he lasted!), and that alone should help to quell the all-too-common scoring outbursts of the Mike Dunleavys of the league. At the same time, Middleton won’t solve Jabari’s slipshod (h/t Zach Lowe) defense, the team’s lack of quickness at the 1, or lack of a meaningful presence at the rim.

But that’s why these first three weeks are as critical as the fallout of the past two have been. Khris’ return might help cover for these shortcomings, but now is the time where we have to decide: Is a wing (albeit a good one defensively) the answer to the myriad questions the defensive scheme has presented us, or are there fundamental shortcomings that exist despite his presence; will he “solve” the scheme, or will the pig still be a pig no matter the lipstick we put on it?

If you had 5 minutes to plead your case to the coaching staff, what do you say?

Mitchell: Things are bad right now. They’re bad across the board, but they’re seeming particularly bad right now. The defense might be the worst it’s ever been over the last 15 games. There are good reasons for that, and a number of them are under your control.

Be smart about this. You have the best “free safety” defender in the league, but you have to make sure he’s in position to do just that. If this scheme is the path forward, commit to it all the way. If there is even a shred of doubt (and the stats indicate that there should be), make the changes now! Whatever it takes, the goal for the next 30ish games needs to continue to be finding defensive techniques that both limit opportunities for the other team and setting Giannis free to do Giannis things.

Adam: This complex defensive scheme has remained one of my biggest gripes with this coaching staff. For years they discussed keeping it simple on the offensive end, which, sure, that makes sense to try and run simple sets for your younger studs. But then on the defensive end, they continue to run this hyperaggressive, incredibly complex scheme that accentuates their length, but also requires intense focus and high basketball IQ. Those ideas always seemed in direct opposition to me. I’d mainly ask them if the defensive learning curve is worth it.

Brett: 1) Smart players or no smart players, teams have adapted to it. 2) Even in its alleged glory (2014-15), it was still encouraging corner threes and rim attempts. 3) At some point, you’re going to have to pick between Jabari and the scheme, and that answer seems easy (heck, maybe Jabari is competent in something more conservative and simplistic). 4) Both the physical and decision fatigue the scheme puts them through is bound to wear down on these players at some point during any given season. 5) The playoff ceiling of a defensive system that fundamentally relies on the opposition making mistakes is not going to be high against the highly elite teams of the postseason, no matter how much your offense needs it for transition opportunities.

Pass a verdict on the Bucks’ defensive scheme: Keep It, Trash It, or Wait & See

Mitchell: I am still on Team Keep It, but I feel like I’ll be going down with the ship. The NBA is all about what you can do that’s more special than what anyone else can do, and I think that this specific scheme is the best way to highlight Giannis Antetokounmpo. That isn’t to say that it’s the only way to highlight Giannis, but I am hopeful that the number of plus-defenders already on the roster increases.

The way I see it, Giannis is the key to this defense. Without him, it doesn’t work. But just as important, an additional requirement is that he’s surrounded by capable teammates, which in my view is a big part of the reason the defense has fallen off so much. Of the players on the roster, this is the list of guys I would actually trust in this scheme:

  • Khris Middleton (if healthy)
  • Tony Snell
  • Greg Monroe (for roughly half of his nightly minutes)

And here’s the list of guys who I can see working in the scheme sooner or later, if things go their way:

  • Matthew Dellavedova (should be better than he has been)
  • Malcolm Brogdon (fantastic tools to fit in, but is still a rookie)
  • Thon Maker (even better tools, but even more raw)

So that means around Giannis, there are 2.5 defenders I trust, and 3 defenders that I’m hopeful about. It might be a tough recipe, but the ingredients aren’t there right now either. I don’t trust Mirza, I don’t trust Beasley, I certainly don’t trust Henson or Plumlee. With better ingredients, I think the defense will taste much better. Some will improve with age, and some might get swapped out for those that fit better.

Adam: Wait and see. I’m willing to give it to the end of this year to see if it can recover, but three seasons seems like a large enough sample size to determine the validity of it within the league.

Brett: You’re not going to scrap the scheme and teach something new over the All-Star Break, so you might as well stick with it for now. But when it inevitably doesn’t return to its top-5, or even top-10 status, I hope the teams decision makers can swallow their pride and let it go.

The bedrock of most gripes with the defense is a longstanding criticism of Jason Kidd’s coaching abilities. His detractors claim that he’s slow to make adjustments when things simply aren’t working, and the extended defensive shortcomings are a main exhibit for those arguing that case. After a certain point, the success of the defense and the verdict on Jason Kidd as Milwaukee’s head coach are going to be inseparable.

His supporters would counter that Kidd’s greatest strengths are player development and managing the locker room, which largely happen behind closed doors and fans can only speculate about. Of course, this makes it difficult to compare what Kidd does well (“Look how good Giannis is!”) to what he struggles with (“Look at all these metrics about the defense...”), which is part of why the conversation around him is so tenuous. The real question is what ownership prioritizes: how Kidd’s strengths contribute to the team’s success vs. how Kidd’s weaknesses (or that of his systems) detract from it.

No matter how you slice it, the unpredictability of the defense and the consistent exposure of the same flaws has brought a lot of heat onto the team from fans. How much of that heat is Coach Kidd feeling? How much should he be feeling? And what is the way forward?