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Bucks Dictionary: “Drop” Pick-and-Roll Defense

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In order to prepare ourselves for the upcoming Milwaukee Bucks’ season, here are some basic schemes you should know.

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Welcome to the brand new Bucks Film Room course titled “Bucks Dictionary.” Throughout this series, I’ll be breaking down different concepts the casual Milwaukee Bucks’ fan should know as they’re watching the game. The information will (hopefully) be presented in a friendly way that provides the readers with plenty of visual examples.

In our inaugural seminar, we’ll define the “drop” pick-and-roll coverage Milwaukee primarily ran under Mike Budenholzer last season. This was the most common defense they implemented following a pick for the ball-handler, and it was a huge reason why they had the best defensive rating in both the regular season and playoffs.

“Drop” Pick-and-Roll Defense

Definition: A type of pick-and-roll defense where the man guarding the screener drops well-below the level of the screen in an attempt to prevent shots at or around the rim.

Brook Lopez, highlighted with a red box, is tasked with defending Rudy Gobert who is setting a high screen at the top of the key. Instead of providing help at or near the level of the pick, he has sunk to the free throw line.

Lopez continues to back pedal deeper into the lane in order to avoid the ball-handler, Donovan Mitchell, from getting to the rim. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s primary defender, Khris Middleton, is completing a “rearview pursuit” (a term we’ll fully define in the next course) in order to get back in front of his man.

By the time Mitchell is ready to loft a floater from the lane, Lopez is inside the restricted area. This may seem like he’s too deep, but he’s able to use his 7’5” wingspan to contest the shot and even block it. Picture-perfect execution.

Here’s another example:

Purpose

For Milwaukee, the “drop” pick-and-roll defense had three primary purposes:

  1. To protect the hoop.
  2. Funnel the action to their bigs down low.
  3. To avoid their bigs switching onto smaller, quicker players.

In their first season under Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks’ defense prioritized limiting opportunities around the rim. And it worked! On their way to the best defense in the league, Milwaukee only allowed opponents to connect on 57.5 percent of their attempts around the rim-tops in the NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. Furthermore, opposing teams only took 30.3 percent of their shots in that area when facing the Bucks which was also fewest in the league.

Some believe the Bucks implemented this drop coverage due the limitations of Lopez’ defensive mobility. He is thought of as a slower player who struggles to defend at the perimeter, as most seven-footers do. I believe it was actually applied because of his strengths.

Milwaukee’s defense funneled the ball-handler into the lane and the waiting arms of players like Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo. When Lopez was on the court last year, opponents connected on a putrid 57.4 percent around the rim. It was 56.5 percent for Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have now added seven-footer Robin Lopez who will give them another above-average rim defender.

Despite many fans and analysts calling for the Bucks to implement a switching scheme at various times last season, Budenholzer stayed true to his primary coverage throughout most of the regular season. This helped him avoid mismatches like Ersan Ilyasova defending Kemba Walker at the three-point line or Lopez tasked with slowing down Kyrie Irving. It kept the responsibilities simple and forced teams to take the types of looks the Bucks wanted them to take.

On this play, Donte DiVincenzo, who is defending the ball-handler at the top of the key, runs directly into a screen. Fortunately, Lopez is waiting in the lane, as he’s implementing the drop coverage aspect of the pick-and-roll defense. The ball-handler hesitates at the three-point line, as he momentarily decides to pass on the tough, pull-up three. That’s exactly the shot the Bucks would be happy with giving up in this situation, as is a semi-contested J in the mid-range. Instead, the ball threads deep into the paint and into the waiting swat of Antetokounmpo. Played to perfection by Milwaukee.

Part of the big man’s responsibility on the pick is to keep both the ball-handler and roller in front of him. This can be a difficult task as the on-ball defender is fighting “over” the screen. However, Milwaukee’s bigs mastered it last season.

Lopez did a fantastic job in this example, as he keeps both Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka in front of him throughout the entirety of the clip. That’s no easy task especially considering the snake dribble Leonard uses to keep Malcolm Brogdon on his back and out of the play. Regardless, Lopez does a great job keeping his back to the basket and chest open to both players. This allows him to efficiently swivel his hips and block Ibaka’s layup at the hoop.

Unfortunately, this 1-on-2 disadvantage can play into the offenses favor if they have a big who can exploit the dropping big. That’s increasingly common in today’s NBA where every player, big and small, is expected to contribute from behind the arc.

The Boston Celtics were one of the toughest teams for the Bucks to defend with this drop pick-and-roll coverage due to Al Horford’s pick-and-pop abilities. He sets a screen on the left-wing for Irving on this clip before settling near the top of the arc. Irving drags the play on before tossing it back to his center.

A half-second before the ball is passed to Horford, it’s easy to tell why this is such a difficult predicament for Ilyasova. He’s a mere six feet from the basket and has to cover all the way up to the three-point line. He does his best to close out, but can’t quite contest the three enough to force a miss.

Another weakness in this coverage is the ball-handler’s ability to hit a pull-up three with the screener’s defender out of position to challenge the shot.

As soon as Jusuf Nurkic makes contact with Eric Bledsoe, Lopez, who is tasked with defending the basket and keeping both ball-handler and screener in front of him, immediately begins backpedaling deeper into the paint. This provides Damian Lillard with the opportunity to quickly pull up off the dribble and drain the semi-contested three.

There are only a few players in the league who are proficient enough to make this a consistent nightmare for the Bucks. Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker are a few of the others.

Milwaukee will likely continue to run this coverage throughout the regular season in 2019-20. They did mix it up a lot more in the postseason especially against the Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

In the next course, we’ll cover what it means for the on-ball defender in these pick-and-roll sets to go “over” and complete a “rearview pursuit.” In the meantime, please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments about specific Bucks’ basketball-related terms you’d like to see explored in more detail.