The Milwaukee Bucks are 8-2, and looking like a team very much on the rise. The team ranks in the top-5 in Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, Pace, three-point attempts, three-point makes, effective FG percentage (on both sides of the ball), and rebounding. Head coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t the most exciting choice at the time, but he has ushered in a new age of Milwaukee basketball, and seems to have fully embraced the evolution of the NBA.
At the same time, the Bucks have already had weaknesses exposed over these first ten games. Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t looked fully comfortable in his role, and his usage rate (and turnover rate) has gone way up. Khris Middleton has become the shooter we all wanted him to be, but Eric Bledsoe has been up-and-down, and Malcolm Brogdon still dribbles too dang much.
Beyond all of those minor issues, a major schematic vulnerability in the defense has become evident. With Budenholzer’s deep zone drop scheme, the Bucks’ center (be it Brook Lopez or John Henson) maintains position at (or below) the free throw line when opposing teams deploy a pick-and-roll set. Lopez and Henson are not the most agile defenders, and would not do well on the perimeter, so this strategy works great! The paint is effectively sealed off, and the guard defender (be it Bledsoe, Brogdon, Donte DiVincenzo, Tony Snell, or any other wing) fights over the screen to funnel the ball-handler into basketball no man’s land: the dreaded midrange.
That is, of course, unless you face off against a team with guards who are comfortable pulling up off the bounce, either from behind the arc or after navigating into that non-paint two-point area. Kemba Walker did it, and nearly toppled the Bucks on opening night. C.J. McCollum did it, dropping 40 in Milwaukee’s first bad loss of the season. And last week, Kyrie Irving did it in tandem with the Bucks’ other kryptonite: a pick-and-pop big who can shoot, dribble, or pass (in this case, Al Horford).
This presents a philosophical quandary; either the Bucks need to focus on winning consistently, or consistently winning. What that means is this: under the current mandate, the Bucks are going to win a lot of games against average (and below) teams who lack the talent to capitalize on Milwaukee’s weak points. But could that eventually come back to bite them against the NBA’s elite? And at the same time, if the rigidity of Bud’s scheme is relaxed and the team switches more to be opportunistic, that may result in stronger showings against the Trail Blazers, Celtics, and (gulp) Golden State Warriors of the world...but is that reward worth the risk of losing out on good fundamentals that can carry a team to 50+ wins?
The Bucks have only lost two games (and pulled out a third), but the way they played them exposed a weakness that may not hold up when the going gets tough in April, May, and (yes we’re saying it) June. So here’s the question: should the Bucks focus on instilling good habits regardless of the opponent, or should they be more flexible and switch things up (literally) against teams that don’t play to Milwaukee’s strengths?
Adam: Here’s my thing, this team just spent four darn years instilling some wackadoo scheme designed to supposedly take away all angles, at all times, allowing no clean shots when it was working to maximum capacity. It was like J-Kidd expected this team to be Neo from the Matrix. It was ridiculous, and I think it’s going to take some time for the core players to work that from their system and feel like Bud’s is second nature. It’s been successful to this point, and I think imparting what he wants the identity of this team to be should remain the focus.
Mitchell: Mike Budenholzer knows how to coach NBA basketball better than I do, and I think it’s fair to say that the same comparison applies between Bud and Jason Kidd. Kidd was chasing perfection, and the league simply evolved beyond what he could manage. There is definitely merit in focusing on good habits over short-term victory, sort of a corollary to keeping one’s own house in order. But at the same time...
The players are aware of it. Bledsoe mentioned adjustments just came too late. Antetokounmpo said they let Lillard and McCollum get too comfortable early.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) November 7, 2018
Here was Middleton's full response when I asked about the scheme problem with guards that can shoot off the dribble: pic.twitter.com/ObX6qPCt4g
I have some serious concerns about the importance placed on forming good habits, when it comes at the cost of displaying a blueprint of how to beat your team in the playoffs.
Adam: That certainly makes sense, but I’d also say Middleton’s last point regarding tipping his hat to making tough shots might be the most important. Bud places an outsized emphasis on his players to fight around screens, remain engaged and ensure those pull-up jumpers don’t feel like popping shots in practice. The elite players that will remain in the playoffs are certainly the ones that can short-circuit what Bud is building, but I think allowing those jumpers might be a worthwhile gamble.
Even looking at guys who attempted those types of shots last year at high volume reveals an elite list of players who don’t hit at outrageous rates. There’s a lot of pretty okay eFG% in there. If Dame Lillard hits 36% of his pull-up threes against the Bucks, I don’t think that’s necessarily a subpar outcome if Milwaukee does its job on the offensive end.
Mitchell: I’m glad that Damian Lillard’s pull-up 3pt% isn’t that scary, but not that C.J. McCollum feasted to the tune of 40 points on 26 shots (including 5/10 from deep)...and he was comfortable doing it. Maybe the mid-range math problem had a fluky result last night, but what about when the regular season is done and guys like Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse have a chance to fine-tune everything to do one thing only: beat the Bucks?
I’m not worried about the Bucks holding steady and winning a bunch of games. I am worried that they’re gonna win a bunch of games, get to the playoffs, and then get beat because other coaches make counters to the Bucks’ systems, and Coach Bud takes too long to counter those counters. That’s what the Atlanta Hawks were infamous for. I don’t want to be those Atlanta Hawks! We can’t always rely on Playoff Thon Maker to deliver us from defeat!
Adam: This is the million dollar question right, the primary beef most folks had with the Bud hiring. His iffy playoff record speaks for itself, as even that 60-win team’s hyper-efficient machine seemed to sputter when the going got tough. Here’s where I’ll at least make a leap of faith. I was a fan of the Bud hiring at the time, and I think it’s shortsighted to think even an aged coach is too set in his ways to evolve over time. We’ve seen Terry Stotts grow leagues beyond his Milwaukee years, Rick Carlisle’s become a masterful coach and I’m going to give Bud the benefit of the doubt for now.
I think he’s going to be less stringent on the scheme as the season goes along. We already saw him break out switching as a case of emergency at times this year, so clearly they’re installing some sort of package. But, as Brian Windhorst notes, teams aren’t accustomed to using that switching style, all day, every day. Perhaps Bud doesn’t think it’s ready for prime time yet, particularly when he’s relying so heavily on players in Henson and Lopez who aren’t really built for it.
Mitchell: Bud’s right, in the short-term, in the regular season. Lopez and Henson should not be on the floor if the Bucks are going to switch. The rotation solution to that problem would have to be Ersan Ilyasova (more nimble than you think!), Thon Maker, and Christian Wood. That is not an inspiring argument to make, to be clear!
Maybe I’m just impatient. Maybe it’s just annoying to see the team lose in (arguably) preventable ways, even if those ways are a huge departure from the team’s previous frustrating performances. But I would hate for Bud’s Bucks to top out as an Eastern Conference also-ran because they couldn’t move the needle when it mattered most, instead focusing on taking the safe route. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, you know what I’m saying?
Adam: Completely. I’m struggling with it myself, but am trying to take the long-view with these things. Bud’s turned this team into one conjuring up Finals fantasies in some people’s eyes with his savvy scheme. I’m choosing to believe he’s not obstinate enough to go down with a sinking ship. He’s seen the results firsthand in Atlanta. Here’s hoping he can evolve, just as we hope his players will.
Who made the more convincing argument? Do the Bucks need to change course, or keep everything nice and steady? Is ten games too early to even tell, especially when the team has won 80% of their contests thus far? Let us know in the comments, and the poll below!
On defense, the Milwaukee Bucks need to...
This poll is closed
Keep doing what they’re doing.
Stay the course for now, change later.
Make changes now, shift the scheme as needed.
Scrap the conservative approach, switch everything!