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 to deter their opponents from chucking from the 3-point line.
9 Days to Tipoff
Milwaukee ranked “9th” last year in terms of percentage of 3-pointers allowed
One of the oldest sports axioms is, of course, that defense wins championship. Yet as the Milwaukee Bucks boasted a team affectionately dubbed all-length, their defensive efforts seemed to find them tied up in Gordian knots possession after possession. Jason Kidd’s much-maligned scheme may not have hit its nadir statistically last season, but it seemed to repeatedly buckle under the weight of years of unfulfilled potential and an inflexible rigidity. Even when it broke free of the mold, showing elasticity with some sporadic switchiness, Kidd or Prunty’s hardheadedness somehow always snapped it back into place. The result: a shot chart that year-after-year proved to be a Dutch boy with a finger in a different part of the dam.
Milwaukee’s penchant for divulging threes to their opponents buffet-style actually improved last season, when they catapulted to the 9th least 3-point attempts allowed in the league, per Cleaning The Glass, at 29.9% of their opponents shots coming from beyond the arc. That was a massive leap up from the year prior, when Milwaukee ranked 24th in that category, 27th the year before that and 29th in 2014-15 when the league hadn’t caught onto Kidd’s parlor tricks. Suffice it to say, it’s been an eye-gouging defense when the math didn’t add up in Milwaukee’s favor.
As most every fan knows though, Bud’s defensive stats paint a similar story. Sacrificing the 3-pointer to opponents was par for the course, and the lowest ranking his teams ever ranked in the above category was 14th in 2015-16. Yet Bud’s teams consistently ranked from average to exceptional in their defensive rating. One facet of that is of course personnel, having Al Horford and Paul Millsap to anchor a defense is a fabulous starting point. However, they also managed to not hemorrhage shots at the rim, as Milwaukee did year after year.
While most focused on the bludgeoning 3-pointers the Bucks gave up consistently, they also failed to prevent their opponents from pummeling inside at will. Last year, their 3-point defensive improvement was all but mitigated by surrendering the most percentage of opponent shots at the rim by a wide margin. Their 39.6% was worst in the league, with the Lakers second worst at 36.6%. The gulf between Milwaukee and Los Angeles was equivalent to the difference between LA at 29th and Sacramento at 10th (33.6%). Atlanta, for what its worth, was 6th at 33.0%, even with...suboptimal personnel at Bud’s disposal.
Where does this leave Milwaukee then? Well, it’s hard to augur precisely. This is the tweet I’ve been pinning most of my hopes on all offseason.
Worth noting for MIL fans: Bud dialed back the Hawks defense significantly this season. They went from among most aggressive to most conservative PNR defenses w/ their big men. He's adaptable. https://t.co/f52QQpiMcM— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 16, 2018
The key point for me is the last word: adaptable. Finding an answer for Milwaukee’s wonky personnel requires a coach willing to bend the scheme to what his player’s talents may demand. Switching was wildly successful for Milwaukee in a few games against Boston, but who knows how such a scheme would hold up throughout the entire year. Particularly so if Brook Lopez is playing major minutes. I’d expect the bigs to drop back in pick and roll coverage, especially when Henson or Lopez are on the court. When Thon emerges or Ersan moonlights at center, let’s hope Bud’s adaptability comes to play. The 3-point bugaboos may not deter dramatically based on Bud’s track record, but at least he’ll shore up one of the primary problems that plagued Milwaukee’s defense last year.