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Scheme or Personnel? Breaking down Milwaukee’s Defensive Quandary

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What’s more at fault for Milwaukee’s tumbling defensive performance?

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Just as a Ferrari needs custom, specified parts to conquer the roadways at its apex, so too does a demanding defensive scheme like Milwaukee’s require the proper pieces to play at its peak. For several years now, Milwaukee’s been crafting a militia of long-armed defenders primed to wreak havoc in a switch-heavy defense that relies on overloading the strong side and forcing offenses to search for passing lanes through their collective leviathan. Since Sean Sweeney helped implement the scheme with Kidd’s arrival, the results have gone depressingly downhill. Surprising first-year success imploded in the 15-16 season with continual blown coverage and a defense so porous even a sponge thought it had one too many holes. Now, after middling results again last year, we’re left with a fundamental question to answer: is the scheme well and truly broken? Or is it merely a lack of personnel to execute properly?

From an overarching perspective, Milwaukee’s defense was poor last year. They finished 19th in the league with a 106.4 defensive rating, tied with the defensively suspect Houston Rockets. Their high-pressure, helter-skelter scheme requires incredible precision. Even a single error can cause chain reactions that make the defense resemble third graders chasing a soccer ball. With a preponderance of defenders on one side, help defenders are often absent or scrambling from a potentially unnecessary double team. Thus, cross-court passes are generally the bane of Milwaukee’s existence, as are guards penetrating to find shooters in the corner.

Because of their preference to double in the post and generally trap up high, they also happen to give opponents shots from locations emblematic of the finest selections from a five-star buffet.

Bucks Opponent Shot Locations

Shot Location Restricted Area In the Paint (Non-RA) Mid-Range Left Corner 3 Right Corner 3 Above the Break 3
Shot Location Restricted Area In the Paint (Non-RA) Mid-Range Left Corner 3 Right Corner 3 Above the Break 3
Opp. Attempts (NBA Rank) 29.0 (5th) 9.7 (30th) 16.1 (30th) 4.2 (1st) 4.3 (1st) 19.4 (23rd)

(Note: All of the rankings are based on the actual quantity they give up. So while they may rank “first” in corner threes, that is, indeed, a dubious honor)

Now, there isn’t always a correlation between giving up a high rate of optimum shots like corner threes and putrid defense. Atlanta, who boasted the league’s fourth-best defensive rating, was second in terms of allowing the most corner threes by opponent. However, they make up for it by forcing significantly more shots from the midrange and less in the restricted area. Not to mention the fact Paul Millsap is a top-ten defender in the league and Dwight Howard, for all his acidic teammate qualities, remains a serviceable rim protector.

Regardless, that shot profile remains less than ideal, particularly given the league determining that midrange shots are the least efficient shot in the game. It doesn’t bode well that Milwaukee gives up the least of those in favor of bloated three-point numbers, or even shots at the rim. Regarding the latter, Milwaukee playing most of this past season without a passable rim deterrent (besides Giannis) doesn’t help matters. Again, allowing shots there doesn’t preclude a defense from being good, Golden State (the second-ranked defense in the league) gives up the fourth-most shots in the restricted area. But they make up for it by having a defensive demon like Draymond Green constantly around the rim. Plus they allow far fewer threes.

This is all tired ground though. As Bucks fans know all too well, Milwaukee’s been willing to concede these geographical advantages in favor of pushing teams late into the shot clock. As Chris Herring at 538 pointed out, that can oftentimes lead to worse shooting percentages. The goal, as many know, is to extend possessions in the hopes of teams either making a mistake against Milwaukee’s length or being forced into an off-kilter, low-percentage shot late in the clock. To this point, it hasn’t exactly worked that way. Teams find preferable shots on a silver platter. In contrast, Milwaukee has forced turnovers at a near top-five rate the past two seasons, but for all their youthful aggressiveness, they ought to be at least top-three for the gambit to seem fully worth it.

For some, questioning whether this scheme should continue is blasphemous. The proof is in the pudding, and its oppositional ideology to the NBA’s entrenched analytical ideas is ludicrous enough to make the argument. However, ever since that first year when Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley anchored the defense, there’s been a lingering question about personnel. Have they found the ideal grouping to execute this defense? The fact they’ve had the plodding Greg Monroe as their primary center has made that question almost seem rhetorical. They’re closer now though, and in examining the ideal grouping to execute the defense, the five-man pairing of Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Maker seem spit out of a laboratory.

The group only played 135 minutes in the regular season, but that was Milwaukee’s fourth-most played lineup by the end of the year. They posted a stingy 99.8 defensive rating in that time, and didn’t have to sacrifice offense to do so, scoring at an elite 111.7 rate. You can add in their 88 playoff minutes too with a 98.4 defensive rating (although a far poorer 101.0 off. rating). Those lockdown rates were better than the Spurs’ league-best defense, and even if you swap out Dellavedova for Brogdon, in those 99 minutes they boasted a 94.4 defensive rating. In fact, looking at Milwaukee’s top ten most played lineups, six of them have defensive ratings that would rank at or better than the league’s best over a full season. That’s not necessarily a good indicator considering three of those involve Jason Terry, and playing him a full season’s worth of minutes would gray his goatee to a ghoulish degree. Now, you can cherry pick lineups from almost any other teams to find defensive dynamos, but this core group has a decent sample size that I think they warrant some legitimacy. Either way, it’s instructive to look at those five-man lineups that, should Tony Snell return next year, could be intact going forward.

These terrifying collection of limbs can look like a rowdy concert crowd to unsuspecting guards. Traps feel genuinely ensnaring, and being locked inside one on the sideline can require a contortion artist to slip out of them. Here, Tony Snell and Thon Maker capture DeRozan, forcing him to kick it up top where a harried Kyle Lowry takes a deep leaning three-pointer.

This is precisely the sort of late clock shot they pine for, with Giannis bumping Lowry ever so slightly so Brogdon has a better chance to recover and contest. The out of bounds play below is another example of the scheme leveraging Milwaukee’s supreme wingspan to overplay the strong side. They feel comfortable rotating even more help towards the baseline, leaving Middleton there and sending Thon at DeRozan when he gets a small step on Snell. Thon’s presence forces a kickout, and Milwaukee believes that Thon Maker has the capability to make the gargantuan closeout and disrupt the open shooter above the break. It works out in this scenario, with Thon’s highway-long wingspan disrupting Carroll just enough to force a miss.

Still, these groupings aren’t fool proof, and those same gambles can lead to some spit in the eye. Here, Giannis bounds to the top of the key to make Serge Ibaka refrain from shooting while Maker recovers from his hard trap on Lowry. That shift leaves Giannis’ man, Norman Powell, waiting in the corner though. A Carroll cut brings Middleton into the lane, creating redundancies when Giannis slips down. Maker is forced to make a mad dash towards Powell, who’s comfortably performing jumping jacks in the corner before sinking the jumper.

Such is the life of this fire drill scheme, where mad scrambles are maddeningly commonplace. Still, quibbling with the numbers is hard to do when examining the fortitude of Milwaukee’s late-season starting lineup. Next season, should the scheme survive the offseason (Spoiler: it probably will if Kidd is retained), we’ll find out whether Thon’s presence can become enough to dictate the defensive flow throughout a full season. Backcourt defenders are always useful, but rarely as impactful as the abilities a nimble center can bring to the floor. Thon flashed the skills to do just that, and his recovery speed will be integral to its success.

His perimeter switching skills and recovery are essential, particularly against a rim-running center like Gobert. Even when he can make his way back though as in the clip below, the defense’s all-or-nothing mantra leaves Gobert with a decent shot at the rim. However, if Gobert was a more nimble pivot passer and had gathered the ball for a second longer, he had a plethora of perimeter options for open looks.

Of course, we again reach the paradox of this scheme. It’s meant to force the ball into inopportune ball handlers and apply maximum pressure while teams tread deep into the shot clock. Both happen here, and Milwaukee overloading the strong side does indeed help provide some cursory resistance to Gobert at the rim, but they’re also a gather and 90 degree head turn away from yet another open three from Hood or Hayward.

Repetitive recovery speed is a taxing process. One of the primary concerns with this scheme is its demanding pace, a practice that can work with elite-level athletes like Giannis or Thon, but seems problematic for flat-footed Asics wearers like Mirza Teletovic. Same goes for Greg Monroe, who is asked to come out incredibly deep onto the perimeter despite his questionable athleticism. He improved considerably on the perimeter this year, but if he gets thrown off even minutely by a guard’s move, it’s usually game over. Teams have defensive possession breakdowns all the time due to fatigue, but this is a particularly egregious example starting with Mirza’a weak hedge and ending with Monroe fruitlessly pawing at a Yogi Ferrell runner.

And really, this is the point where this question of scheme vs. personnel has to come to roost. Now, the numbers tell us there are definitely groups of players that could execute this scheme at a high level, holding teams to 2014-15 levels of defensive efficiency. However, filling an entire roster with that type of player is simply untenable. You can only have so many long-armed athletic players that even pan out, and Milwaukee will always be cycling through some series of late-age veterans filling out their roster’s lower rungs. Utah is a great example this year, where they brought in Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson and had Joe Ingles all running around. Their conservative scheme relies on allowing midrangers and letting Gobert rule the paint like a French patrolman. Do you reasonably think guys like Diaw or Johnson could scramble around all season long and into the postseason for Milwaukee?

We do have some partial examples of that situation. Aged veterans did that in Miami while Lebron was there, but this is an even more souped-up version of that manic machine. The reality is that expecting such concentration and performance over an entire season seems unrealistic, although Milwaukee can swap in parts and still maintain some level of defensive efficiency. Indeed, of those aforementioned six lineups with strong defensive numbers, three of them included Greg Monroe. Of course, the worst defensive lineup of those hemorrhaged points like a stuck pig with a 120.8 defensive efficiency, made up of Delly-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Monroe. Feasibly, the switchy middle of that lineup should be able to manage effectively, particularly with Giannis to cover for Monroe at the rim when Moose bumrushes on the perimeter. Alas, that was not the case.

Therein lies the issue with this scheme. Not only does the absence of a defensive threat at the rim thrust even more pressure on Giannis to exert recovery energy, but the amount of bigs who seem well-attuned to execute this scheme seem few and far between at this point. Basketball is a game where even the most-used team lineups rarely have the opportunity to share the court for much of the season. Even the second and third-most used five-man lineups in the league, which hailed from the Timberwolves and Clippers, suffered significant injuries to key contributors within those lineups in Zach Lavine, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that seriously diminished their time on the floor together. Yet, the Timberwolves most-used lineup with LaVine played 880 minutes. Milwaukee’s top minute-gobblers only played 390.

Swapping players in and out is a reality of the NBA game, although admittedly one exacerbated by Kidd’s dizzying substitution patterns. The point is that even if you find that pristine collection of vintage parts to keep your Ferrari humming, at some point, you may have to insert a rusted over fan belt that starts to make the whole thing whir. Keep it in there long enough, and it’s liable to break down, just as Milwaukee’s defense does. And believe me, this defense is a Ferrari. Rare, plenty of upkeep, special equipment to keep it purring. You can get around in style, and sometimes it even pays off. But a regular old Toyota Camry can get you to the same place, and it won’t be near as aggressive leaving 3-point shooters open in the corner. That’s where this answer probably lies. Milwaukee should absolutely maximize the peculiar athletic talents of its stars, but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of their dance partners tripping over themselves on the court. They can be aggressive in their own way, and Giannis has already displayed enough propensity as a roamer that I wouldn’t expect his havoc to wane.

A defensive lineup of Brogdon-Snell-Middleton-Giannis-Maker can be just as deadly without forcing Milwaukee’s reserves into the ground scrambling around. As Frank mentioned on this week’s Locked on Bucks, being unable to fashion an elite defensive unit out of this group seems difficult even for the most defensively deficient coaching staff. Settle for the sensible Camry Milwaukee, there’s still plenty of leg space in there.