For the first time this season, the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t seem like themselves against the Boston Celtics. Up until that point though, the math was working wonderfully. Everything the NBA intelligentsia said they should do, they did. Improved pace, increased 3-point attempts, fluid ball movement, forcing opponents into midrangers on defense. You couldn’t draw up a sea change better manufactured to get NBA scribes abuzz about a team finally realizing its potential after years as a perpetually under performing pet favorite. (Editor’s Note: All stats below don’t take into account the beatdown of the Sacramento Kings)
The only statistic above not working in Milwaukee’s favor this year is the uptick in 3-point attempts allowed, partially a factor of Boston’s bonanza from deep skewing the figures. Everywhere else, the requisite modern NBA buzzwords apply. Pace and space create the bevy of wide-open looks from deep. Their juiced up offense looks smooth as silk, a free-flowing machine that’s ran ragged over the league to start the year. That sort of leap was expected. What wasn’t was the rapid rise up the defensive standings.
That ascension found its first foible last Thursday when Boston picked at cracks in the sealant through their pick-and-pop attack. For a young team still installing an identity, how much should Bud read into those exposed faults versus sticking with the system? Sunday’s battering of the Kings clearly pointed to the latter, but it creates an intriguing coaching question for a team whose expectations seem to rise with each passing win.
For years, the Bucks were a team whose defensive performance fell far short of what their talent indicated they were capable of. Jason Kidd’s gambit to crank their rangy gifts to 11 failed miserably. Budenholzer, in contrast, seems content dialing it back to a soft six, shifting to a conservative drop pick-and-roll coverage. Before Boston, this was often the result of those changes.
John Henson stands pat in the lane, letting Jonas Valanciunas set his pick high for Delon Wright. Brogdon’s job is to force his way around JV’s massive frame, chase down Wright and recover to force him into a midrange jumper or back out to the perimeter. That’s done in tandem with Henson, who’s tasked with corralling Wright long enough to let Brogdon slip back into position, while protecting the rim and providing enough space that a midrange jumper might be tantalizing to the ball handler.
It’s a savvy scheme. One that plays directly into the minds of guards with subpar floor vision, a la Delon Wright. I venture to guess there are plenty of guards, particularly backups, who see that open space and instinctively feel they should either shoot it or drive to the basket and test Milwaukee’s centers. For Delon, his iffy shot means he’s unlikely to pull up immediately, but he still feels enough space that he forces up an off-kilter push shot with his lengthy limbs. That is a huge win in the Bucks’ book. Lead guards can easily feast from the midrange, but it’s rare that someone will knock down enough shots to really hurt you from there.
The primary difference between the above clip, and the highlights below, is the action of the center. JV is grooming his chops from deep, but he’s still used to rolling towards the basket. That muddles the above action, lets Henson feel comfortable planting his feet in the paint and makes for an ugly possession. Ideally for Toronto, Wright probably would’ve kicked it out, cycled out of the lane and let Toronto shift its weak side wing players around the arc to give Lorenzo Brown more options as they probe the Bucks’ defense again.
The ability for guards to short circuit this system has been borne out a few times already. Kemba Walker’s hairtrigger shot let him pull up quickly off the initial pick before Eric Bledsoe could recover. Kyle Lowry had opportunities, but he was off the whole night from deep. This was the first vulnerable spot in Milwaukee’s defensive armor, but one that seemed like a worthwhile gamble. How many guards have the potential to efficiently nail those difficult jumpers and damage Milwaukee to that degree? Five, six? Every NBA defense makes some sort of concession, and the Bucks bet seems smart that there aren’t that many players in the league that can exploit their design. Then came Boston, as Brad Stevens took Al Horford’s annoyingly methodical play and hammered Milwaukee’s defensive armor another way.
I doubt anyone wants to relive all those treys, but the video does illustrates another potential fallibility in Milwaukee’s scheme. Pick-and-pops are one of the most simple tricks in the book, but until recent years, they might’ve involved the big man pulling up for a deep two. Nowadays, they’re popping out to the 3-point arc, with Horford setting up real estate several times. He’s a unique threat in that he can also pump-fake, dribble to the basket and keep the offense flowing. Still, the point stands that Milwaukee dropping their big leaves acres of space for an opposing center should they choose to chuck from beyond the arc.
The more important trend to monitor going forward will be how Bud chooses to adjust, or not adjust, his scheme going forward. And therein lies the question worth pondering: Does a one-game blip if it’s against a foe you hope to topple in the Playoffs warrant adjustments? Or should the underlying system take precedence?
Every team enters the season with the same goal: win a championship. That manifests itself in far different ways depending on their proposed trajectory for that year. For some, like Atlanta, that means strapping in for a tank to acquire more talent. For others, like Houston, it’s drilling day, after day, after day, the type of instinctual habits they believe are necessary to topple Golden State’s titanic offense. These goals help guide our understanding of a team’s approach over the course of a season. Milwaukee’s early season success seems to have rejiggered expectations for some given the dearth of talent in the East. Yet they’re also a team adapting to an entirely new identity. Does it make sense to muddle what’s been a winning formula thus far?
This quote, courtesy of Eric Nehm’s always informative line of questioning, makes Bud’s intentions quite clear:
Obviously, it was a big topic against the Celtics as the Celtics leaned on the middle pick and pop with Horford and the Bucks played their base defensive scheme for much of the game.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) November 3, 2018
Here is one of Bud's full responses on the topic: pic.twitter.com/aScnEyWwyU
Praising Bud’s systemic approach to this team was all the rage this offseason. Even the billionaires were leading this charge. Instilling the elemental pieces of his system took precedent, and the rather baffling result in Boston was proof that Bud was all in. Even as the Celtics continued to pummel Milwaukee from outside, Bud refused to switch until briefly breaking it out early in the fourth quarter. Was that the right decision? At this point in the year, I say yes.
Thus far, the results have been proof positive that Milwaukee’s system is working. Their 2nd best net rating backs that up. The trends will start to dip back the other way eventually. Teams are currently hitting the 7th worst 3-point percentage against them, and a mean regression coupled with the number of attempts they’re allowing remain the most troubling aspect of this team. And yet, they’re off to a better start than I would say even the most optimistic prognosticators thought. Getting supreme buy-in from this team to Bud’s system seems tantamount to them approaching their lofty aims.
There are still troubling traces of year’s past, to be certain. The occasional overhelping, gambling for steals when staying home is preferable and reverting to isolation basketball when the system gets gummed up. Eliminating those muscle memories from a team whose drilled the same sets for several years requires patience. Bud knows that, which is why he’s sticking to his fundamentals for the moment, bumps in the road be damned.
For all the warranted defensive quibbling, the trend that may warrant more observation in my eyes was lapsing from the offensive system Milwaukee’s installed all year. Coach Stevens essentially forfeited the paint in order to stay home on Milwaukee’s shooters. Their 3-point attempts lapsed down to 29, and they made up just 23.9% of their points that game, their lowest mark all year. In contrast, points in the paint ticked up to 54.9%, their highest mark of the year. Nothing was more telling than their percentage of assisted field goals (48.8%) versus unassisted field goals (51.2%). That’s the first time this year the latter mark has been higher than the former, an indication that the type of whirring ball movement that’s characterized their early season success fell off.
One of the primary bugaboos with Bud’s hiring was his mild lack of playoff success and inability to adjust within a series. Even during his 60-win season with Atlanta, their playoff march was uninspiring at best. Some of that could be tied to sticking stringently to his system. In this case though, it feels more important to maintain the fundamental shift in his player’s minds. Change can come slowly, and this baseline is vital to establish before deviating too drastically. The fourth quarter showed that Bud clearly has some type of switching scheme he’s installing in practice. Whether he didn’t want to put something on tape for opponents is a question we can’t know for certain, but I’m doubtful he’s someone who would go down with the ship if it came to pass for his scheme.
To be clear, I am not concerned by an early season, 4-point loss on the road to an upper echelon team that nearly set the NBA record for 3-pointers in a game. From a process perspective, it’s useful that the Bucks saw this type of counter in the initial stages of the season. More stress tests like that can hopefully help Bud adapt in the long term. Golden State should offer another fine example, no matter the outcome. For the moment though, the fundamental math behind Milwaukee’s scheme continues to be in their favor. If it shifts for the worse as the year drags on, I suppose we’ll have our own stress test to measure Bud against.