The regular season is rapidly approaching. That means it’s time for the now-annual tradition of our Calculated Countdown series examining a particular stat that corresponds to the number of days until tipoff. Today, that figure focuses on whether Milwaukee can continue forcing opponents into halfcourt sets.
3 Days to Tipoff
Milwaukee ranked “3rd” last year in terms of percentage of their defensive plays in a halfcourt setting
We’re getting down the nitty gritty here folks. Which also means I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel with regard to stats I’ve found diverse enough to interrogate further. Hopefully they’re still breathing fire into some sort of debate in the comments, but today’s may require a broader focus than usual. It’s in regards to the Bucks playing a decent amount of halfcourt defense last season, 81.6% of their defensive plays came within that context last year in fact, good for third in the league per Cleaning The Glass.
Now, right off the bat, let me say that while halfcourt offenses are typically the least efficient (in comparison to putbacks, transition, etc.), forcing opponents to play against your set defense by no means correlates to a stellar defense. Case in point, the horrific Bulls played in their halfcourt defense at the highest rate in the league, yet they also ranked 27th in points per possession, per Cleaning the Glass. However, three of the top five defenses in the league (Boston, Utah and Toronto) did all rank in the top ten in terms of forcing opponents into their halfcourt sets.
During Kidd’s reign, the Bucks ranked 3rd, 25th, 9th and then 3rd again last year in terms of playing in the halfcourt defensively. Everyone knows how those defensive seasons went down, the blip of success in year one followed by several seasons of stinktacular defense. As per usual, we’ll go to Bud’s teams in Atlanta to get an idea of whether this was a strategy Bud opted into. From start to finish, his teams ranked 14th, 13th, 19th, 18th and 27th last season. We’ll consider tossing out last season given the woeful personnel Bud had to work with. Atlanta also ranked 15th, 5th, 2nd, 4th and 26th in terms of defensive points per possession over that time, per Cleaning The Glass.
Golden State forces opponents into playing their halfcourt the least among the entire league, yet they still pop with the league’s best defense. That’s partially because while there are differences here that equate to a sizable chunk over the course of a season, it’s likely a little more negligible than other statistics. Golden State’s 78.1% defensive halfcourt percentage is after all just 3.8% points lower than Chicago’s first place rank. Halfcourt defense is still the dominant possession type, leaving us with the (probably obvious) takeaway that core defensive talent and principles are still foremost in my mind when devising what a stalwart Bucks D could look like. What is worth some further exploration is something Budenholzer himself has pointed out as a primary emphasis: transition defense.
Milwaukee may have allowed the least percentage of transition plays last year, but any time they did, teams had an easy time putting points up. Their defensive transition points per play (124.7) was 23rd in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. An underrated part of Milwaukee’s voodoo defense season in 14-15 was their transition defense, where they ranked 2nd in the league at the same statistic as above, allowing just 113.9 points per play. Since then, they’ve never ranked higher than 18th in 2016-17.
Once more let’s turn to Bud’s track record for a closer peek at guesstimations for this upcoming year. Starting from his first Atlanta year, his squads ranked 12th, 1st, 2nd, 5th and 11th in defensive transition points per play. Over that time, the best his teams ranked in terms of frequency of transition plays allowed was 7th in 14-15, otherwise they were near average or in the bottom half of the league. It seems tough to say that sort of success is some type of fluke, and it’s also the type of plays that can add up over the course of a season. With superior athletes in Milwaukee like Eric Bledsoe, Giannis Antetokounmpo and others, getting back to prevent transition buckets should be an even easier sell and success story than it was in Atlanta.
Cleaning up the halfcourt hullabaloo that was Milwaukee’s laugh-inducing defense the last few seasons is paramount. But there’s plenty of fringe adjustments that Bud’s hiring can bring to this squad. Here’s hoping superior transition D is one of them.