We’ve seen this movie before. The Milwaukee Bucks, after having established themselves as regular season juggernauts, face off against an evenly-matched opponent, but the other team is particularly adept at things that the Bucks are weak to. Nevertheless, Milwaukee sticks to the script, stays the course, and executes the plan...and they lose.
We saw it in the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, who won the championship. We saw it in the 2020 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat, who got to the NBA Finals. We saw it in the 2021 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks...wait, hold on, that’s not right.
It’s still preseason.
Glibness aside, we need to consider the timeline. It has been 65 days since the end of the playoffs, when the Los Angeles Lakers took out the Miami Heat. It has been 25 days since the start of NBA free agency, the period where the Bucks turned over half of their roster. And it has been 12 days since the start of training camp and group workouts, and only 5 days since the beginning of preseason...with only 7 days remaining until the start of the regular season. What used to take months is now allotted only weeks, and the learning curve is steep enough as it is before things get accelerated.
That being said, the Bucks did lose in all-too-familiar fashion in each of their first two preseason contests, giving up 39 made threes in just two games, and fans are largely upset about one thing: head coach Mike Budenholzer and his perceived lack of adjustments. As I said on Twitter, they’re correct. The Bucks ran their base defense that they’ve run for the past two seasons against Dallas, and they were exploited by open above-the-break three-point shooters. We have seen this movie before, and we’re not happy about it.
In my opinion, though, it’s simply too early for the outcry that has washed over Bucks Twitter. It’s a matter of when, rather than what.
Bucks’ beat newcomer Jim Owczarski noted in a training camp piece that there is a focus on teaching, that the strategy is for Milwaukee to align on their base scheme, for players old and new to all get on the same page. The Athletic’s Eric Nehm posted the same in early December, shortly after Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin, Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes, and rookies Jordan Nwora and Sam Merrill all met their new teammates and coaches, and one another.
[T]he roster has gone through an overhaul. Just five of the Bucks’ top 12 contributors in minutes played from last season — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton — are still with the team, and their returning players accounted for only 50 percent of the team’s total minutes played in the 2019-20 season, the fourth-lowest percentage in the NBA.
The Bucks are spending training camp not only trying to figure out how they can improve but also trying to figure out how this team is supposed to play together given all the new faces.
The team needs time, plain and simple, to figure each other out and learn how to play something. Given the team’s personnel (particularly Brook Lopez at center), it makes sense that sticking with the zone drop as the base defense is the starting point for the Bucks, and I fail to understand the logic behind making adjustments to something that isn’t built yet. It’s like pouring the concrete for a house, and immediately starting to put up walls before the cement is even dry.
A valid counterpoint is that the house being built is using a bad blueprint; the zone drop was solved and Mike Budenholzer didn’t adjust when the spotlight was on Milwaukee in the postseason. My response to that is to question the alternatives available and the downstream impact that has on the team. Ditch the zone drop for something that’s more switch heavy? Turn over the table and simply play more of a straight man-to-man? Maybe, those approaches have their benefits, but would our players be better utilized in those schemes? I don’t know that the answer is a definite “no,” but I think it’s a far cry from a definite “yes.”
For example, if you take Brook Lopez out of the zone drop, what do you ask him to do on defense? He’s certainly not a switch-defender at this stage of his career, and if you can’t plant him in the paint to muck up the offense...what exactly is he good at? Or take Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who excels in a help-side role and as a grab-and-go defensive rebounder. If he’s asked to navigate screens and close out on shooters on the perimeter more often, how much of his impact do you lose?
All that said, yes, the Bucks need to demonstrate that they can not only make adjustments, but make them when matchups demand it and do so proactively rather than reactively. This was their undoing in the postseason for two years’ running, and the team obviously cannot afford a third with Giannis’ future in Milwaukee yet undecided.
The good news: they know that already! Mike Budenholzer knows it, and Giannis Antetokounmpo knows it, and they’re saying it clearly.
Throughout the preseason, Budenholzer has talked about trying some different things this season defensively, including switching.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) December 15, 2020
I asked him if he thought the preseason was a time they just needed to focus on their fundamentals first. His response: pic.twitter.com/Dxzs6Rcrfs
To me, the problem with saying this is a message to the coaches is that you are ignoring the fact that Bud said the exact same things last week in regard to the longterm picture and not the first two games of preseason.— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) December 15, 2020
The point I am making is that the Bucks whether it be coaches or players have never admitted they needed to change anything. It's been stick to the plan that got us here. Now Bud and the players are talking about lessons learned...that seems like a positive thing to me.— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) December 15, 2020
The point is not to chastise fans who are sounding the alarm. As stated earlier, the pattern is easily recognizable, and Milwaukee doesn’t have another year to act as a buffer for securing Giannis long-term. The Bucks did lose, and they did lose in predictable ways, and up until this point we have not seen them make the changes necessary to avoid that going forward. If Milwaukee simply sticks with the zone drop all season long, it could once again be their undoing.
euro guards who are comfortable getting in front of the chasing PG on pnr, then patiently stay in the paint, are really tough on the zone drop, dragic now doncic.I worry that in yr 3, exceptions r becoming the rule in zone dropping. If it weren't a gimmick, wouldn't more do it?— oldresorter (@oldresorter) December 15, 2020
We still need to give them a chance to put things together. The stakes could not be any higher this season; everyone is painfully aware of that. Concern is warranted given the team’s poor track record the last two years, it just has to avoid going overboard. Based on the reporting we have, the Bucks do have a plan for how to avoid yet another disappointment, and that plan is largely aligned on what fans want.
Let’s let them try it for a while before sounding the alarms.