When I was mulling over what name to give this piece, I got stuck on the old saying “live by the sword, die by the sword.” As far as cultural artifacts go, this one has been around for a while, and as such is easily reappropriated for whatever topic you want. Memes are funny like that.
When it comes to the Milwaukee Bucks and their relationship with the three-pointer, the easy choice for a tile was “live by the three, die by the three.” But something stuck out in my mind, a certain familiarity, beyond the fact that it’s been done a hundred times over. No, it’s been done a hundred and one times over, because I used it already. In 2017. No, really!
(Note: it’s been only three years since that three-part Brew Hoop series, and some of the stats mentioned in the articles are a reminder of just how fast the NBA has changed, and how poorly some of my takes have aged.)
Since his arrival last year, Mike Budenholzer did not revitalize the Milwaukee franchise. He revolutionized it. Giannis Antetokounmpo was still on his way to perennial All Star-dom, but the status of “super-duper-star” may have eluded him without Coach Bud’s influence, and how the Bucks handle the three ball is very much part of it.
In case you’ve only just recently joined the Bucks bandwagon, here’s a (mercifully) brief history lesson. The team won a championship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971. Then they were just kind of...around, and had a renaissance in the 1980s under Don Nelson. After that, they again were meandering aimlessly through the NBA landscape, and minus a few notable blips on the basketball radar, the Bucks just...never mattered.
Then Giannis got drafted in 2013. No one knew it then, but it was the catalyst for change. MVPs can do that. He was the league’s most exciting mystery, and Milwaukee was the least exciting organization. They were the worst team in the NBA (15-67) during Giannis’ rookie season, and they were rewarded by finally getting sold by longtime owner Herb Kohl...and the surprise introduction of head coach Jason Kidd.
We won’t delve further into Kidd’s tenure here. The best summation is a comparison: as a player, Giannis improved every year, while as a coach, Kidd stagnated and never did. In this way, they were basketball antonyms. The results bear that out when comparing Kidd’s four years to Budenholzer’s two; from 2014-15 through 2017-18, the Bucks had a 160-168 record (0.488 win percentage). From 2018-19 to present: 99-28 (0.780 win percentage). Kidd’s Bucks were run of the mill, Bud’s Bucks are cream of the crop.
There are a number of distinct reasons for Milwaukee’s meteoric rise to the top tier of the sport. The front office made some hard choices, but committed to Giannis as a centerpiece and surrounded him with complementary talent. The personnel shift affected both sides of the ball, but the Bucks’ relationship with outside shooting is one of the most highly-visible.
You see, while the Bucks were dawdling in the NBA’s doldrums, the league was rapidly evolving. Over the course of the last six years, pace increased overall by nearly 7% (from 93.9 per 100 possessions to 100.3). However, three point takes went up by a whopping 50% (from 22.4 per game to 33.6), while three point makes went up by 65% (from 7.8 per game to 11.9). Kidd couldn’t (wouldn’t?) keep up with these trends, while Budenholzer has kept Milwaukee ahead of them. Take a look at those trendlines, and notice how the green and cream bars are only exceeding the average over the past two seasons.
The Bucks have embraced the long ball. Overdue or not, it’s a welcome dynamic and one of the keys to their league-leading record. That said, the three is not a panacea for for Milwaukee. They use it more, and they use it effectively, but it does not drive their success on its own. Moreover, their defense is remarkably susceptible to getting burned because it provides ample opportunities for opponents to get hot; this statement applies to both Kidd’s and Bud’s defensive systems, just in different ways. Curious that the three ball is associated with the Bucks’ weaknesses across two regimes, who in most other ways could not be more dissimilar.
As we look at the team’s success for this season, we’re glad to see them rank in the top-5 in three-point attempts and makes per 100 possessions, but something that gnaws on us is their relatively pedestrian conversion rate. At 0.357, the Bucks are exactly in the middle of the pack (on a per-100 basis) for this season and at the tippy-top of the bell curve for average accuracy across the past six seasons of Milwaukee basketball. Not only that, but the 0.357 mark is the average Bucks 3PT% and opponents’ 3PT% during the same timeframe, which explains why the three-ball is such a double-edged sword for Milwaukee. They take a lot and make an average amount, but they allow a ton and opponents make an above-average amount...and that’s been the case across both Kidd’s and Bud’s administrations.
So how is it that the Bucks are still able to leverage shots from behind the arc, when the stats tell us that it’s actually more useful for their opponents? I ask this question specifically from the perspective of considering threes on their own; it’s been well-documented that the Bucks’ main driver has been sealing off shots at the rim, and how creating such a large disparity in overall field goal percentage keeps them out of the Danger Zone! from game to game. But as Fred VanVleet showed us in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, those spikes in three-point percentage matter, and can tip the balance of a seven game series, which is what the Bucks really care about at this stage of the game.
In part two, we’ll explore the idea of game-to-game consistency, both in Milwaukee and across the NBA, and see if we can extrapolate anything from the last 1.5 seasons of Bucks basketball. In the meantime, let us know what questions you have, and what you think in the comments!