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Solid Rebounding has Quietly Been the Key to Milwaukee’s Early Success

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The offense gets the attention but Milwaukee’s old Achilles heel is strengthening.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Milwaukee Bucks Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks are undefeated and 7-0! Much of the attention is, deservedly, going to Mike Budenholzer’s staff putting in a modern offensive scheme. Milwaukee has scored the majority of their points from the paint or from three (very good) and have nearly abandoned the midrange jumper (even better). The ROI of their shot profile has catapulted them into the top 10 in offensive rating (6th according to nba.com). There has been another factor to Milwaukee’s improved play though, and that is their significant improvement in the rebounding department. Milwaukee and effective rebounding has never been a compatible pair, but this season their courtship is developing. At the moment, Milwaukee ranks 6th in the league, with a defensive rebounding rate of 78.2%, per Cleaning the Glass.

A history of rebounding woes

Milwaukee’s improved rebounding is something that fans haven’t seen in quite a while. Since Andrew Bogut suffered his horrific injury, Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding has been terrible. The Fear the Deer team of 2009-2010 had a defensive rebounding rate of 76.4%, which was fourth in the league. Since then the Bucks have finished in the bottom five each season, with their highest finish being 26th back in the 2014-2015 season. The aftermath of the Bogut inury left Milwaukee without a bigger body down low, as protector Larry Sanders and John Henson took over the majority of the center minutes. Both of these players are competent at blocking shots but rebounding was never their specialty. That trend would continue with Jason Kidd’s time as coach when Milwaukee finished 26th, 30th, 28th, and 30th. Kidd himself was aware of the team’s rebounding woes and made a joke about it when D.J. Wilson was drafted in 2017. Kidd’s scheme focused on creating turnovers, which often caused players to run around and spend more time on the perimeter. With Kidd’s dismissal, there was going to be questions on how Mike Budenholzer would transform, or simply improve, the defense and rebounding.

Brand new everything (sorta)

The hiring of Budenholzer was a welcome change for the Milwaukee Bucks, but there were concerns about his team’s iffy track record with rebounding. In the previous four seasons, Budenholzer’s team finished in the bottom half of rebounding, ending at 22nd, 25th, 19th and 27th last season. However he has brought his renewed defensive style, focused on allowing fewer shots at the rim and the arc. Milwaukee currently ranks 2nd in the league on opponent shots at the rim, per cleaning the glass, and on corner threes they rank 5th.

Milwaukee’s new scheme is letting opponents attempt midrange shots. Forcing teams into these inefficient shots lets Bucks players remain closer to the hoop and work on rebounding as a team. Milwaukee has plenty of players contributing to their renewed efforts. Per cleaning the glass, Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks in the 100th percentile for rebounding among forwards, Khris Middleton is in the 90th percentile for wing players and Donte DiVincenzo is in the 89th percentile for wing players.

Those may be small sample sizes but it is encouraging considering last year, the Bucks only had one player, Giannis, finish higher than the 80th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage last year among Bucks players at over 1000 minutes. Even though the majority of the prior year’s roster remains, there has been some critical change in personnel. Gone is Jabari Parker, Jason Terry and most of Thon Maker’s playing time. Hello Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo and Ersan Ilyasova (again). These three players are net positive rebounders and provide value to team rebounding. Lopez doesn’t grab a lot of rebounds, but he ranks 6th in the NBA in box outs per game, which allows for other players like Ersan, Giannis etc. to grab the rebounds remaining.

Is this sustainable?

The Bucks rebounding success is going against trends of both the franchise and Mike Budenholzer. There has been a combination of opponents missing shots, especially from three as was evident in the Toronto game, and playing against offenses that ranks on the lower end of the league. As the season goes on, this team will better understand the system and as we have seen on offense, will rely on players being in the spots they need to be. I don’t believe this is a fluke and the Bucks will maintain a top-10 defensive rebounding rate as long as Lopez, Ersan, and Giannis are healthy. The Bucks have been off to their best start in decades and the little things like rebounding are big factors as to why.