In retrospect, we probably could’ve seen last year coming. It was clear from GM Jon Horst’s offseason that for the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks, continuity was king (well, besides Malcolm Brogdon of course). And why shouldn’t it have been? They were coming off the deepest run in 20 years and found themselves a couple bounces of the ball away from going up 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Bringing back a sizable chunk of the roster for Coach Mike Budenholzer to craft, tweak and tinker with in hopes of reaching the promised land seemed astute enough. Just one teensy problem with that, Bud’s not exactly a tinkerer, he’s a bricklayer.
Admittedly, that was one damn fine set of foundational bricks he laid. His blue squares catapulted Milwaukee’s offense into modernity. The zone drop scheme put them among the NBA’s most elite defensive company in terms of historical regular season efficiency. So, when it came to the 2019 media day last year, it wasn’t exactly surprising that he waxed poetic about Horst’s ability to largely keep their core intact. When asked how their approach may be different in year two, here’s what Bud had to say:
“I think that hopefully the continuity that we have, we feel like we’ve laid a foundation for how we want to play both defensively and offensively, and certainly the hope is now can we give even more attention to detail, can we take our execution on both ends to another level while still playing with a lot of freedom.”
Take Bud’s answers to media members with as much salt as your doctor recommends, but that seems like a solid enough summation of how he approached last season. The team didn’t deviate much from the foundation he laid; they still let it fly, Brook Lopez still kept his feet glued to the paint, etc. Even when asked specifically about how they might improve from the Toronto series, Bud didn’t talk about any sort of drastic switcheroo, but instead preached the “attention to detail” pieces they didn’t execute:
“Areas where we can improve, I think defensively we can be even sharper, even better, can we stay with shooters, lower their 3-point percentage, stuff like that...”
Both of those pieces read like the type of criticisms lobbed at his scheme for much of the year. The hope was that the math would just keep working in their favor, only their formula got outwitted once more in the Playoffs by a Miami Heat team primed to break down the zone drop with capable ball handlers, penetrators and solid perimeter shooters. Lowering 3-point percentage has always felt more like a fools’ errand with this scheme, to the point that we were able to routinely write off losses as “it’s a make or miss league” more often than not when outlier shooting nights got the best of them. In Bud’s defense’s defense, it was a solid gamble! It worked unbelievably well in the regular season, but couldn’t hold up in the Playoffs.
The team gambled on continuity last season and lost. But looking at Horst’s quotes, it did feel like Bud was perhaps more wedded to his system and Horst was envisioning. When asked if Robin Lopez might’ve been signed specifically to give the Bucks the ability to matchup with Joel Embiid in the Playoffs, Horst discussed how he hoped the elder veterans might help Bud when it really matters:
I think an evolution of player development, an evolution of coaching, an evolution of front office work and building a roster is to figure out how to get good in the regular season and really figure out how to win in the Playoffs. And I think there’s no doubt that Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, keeping George Hill and of course the bigger transactions, those are all intentional decisions to have success not only in the regular season but most importantly in the Playoffs.
And I think those guys give us versatility, flexibility for matchups, hopefully gives Coach more options and more weapons to use throughout the course of any series and throughout the course of any Playoff run. So, yeah, I mean that’s a very intentional thing…but to be a better Playoff team, that’s the reason behind the moves that we made and the decisions we made.
Horst might’ve gambled on the wrong players to add versatility to the Bucks’ roster, but the very fact he’s mentioning “flexibility” or “versatility” feels like he might’ve felt a little differently about the roster he handed off to Bud. Versatility in terms of players and versatility in terms of scheme are very different concepts. Bud stuck rigidly to the foundation he laid, and players slotted in regardless of skill. Marvin Williams may be a better two-way player than Ersan Ilyasova, making him a more versatile player, but Bud’s schemes weren’t flexible enough to accommodate any semblance of versatility up and down the roster.
So here we are, prepping for a 2020 season where Horst has reshuffled not only the primary components of Bud’s roster, but effectively re-built the entire latter half of his bench. Gone are the veterans supposed to add flexibility, in are younger versions with the hopes that they can be better complements to the Bucks’ big three. Continuity, once such a luxury, is out the window as Bud must acclimate new additions in the most compressed NBA offseason in history.
The very first question Bud answered this year was about how to improve. His words, while buttered in coachspeak, struck a different tone:
“...it feels like we can always get better in a lot of different areas. I think that you get to the Playoffs and you’re tested, both defensively and offensively and you’ve got to be elite. I think our ability to maybe be more diverse, to be able to do different things, is important.”
He said something similar later in the session, specifically in regards to defense, where he was so unwilling to shift from his philosophies:
Certainly we appreciate what we’ve done on a regular season basis and the stats and so on and so forth, but it’s more important that you’re the best in the Playoffs and I think that we’ve got to continue to build those habits and maybe build more diversity, more versatility defensively, whether it be players and or ways we can play and defend, because that’s what it takes in the Playoffs. So I think we’ve got a great foundation, we’ve got a great base, and we’ve just got to continue to get better and get it done at that level in the Playoffs.
Even his comments about individual players trended towards laying out their versatility. Whether it was Jrue Holiday’s defensive ability to play up or down a few positions, Torrey Craig sliding up to play the four or Bobby Portis replacing the backup big role Robin filled with a more athletic skillset.
Now, some of this is likely born out of Horst’s organizational decision to give the roster a facelift. There’s no real way for Bud to break down the beauty of continuity when half the team wasn’t around last year. It’s possible Horst wanted to take away some of Bud’s familiar leanings too — in particular his predilection to play veterans over younger players. There aren’t many “young” players who will likely make an impact when gut check time hits this team, but at the very least we’re not relying on a cadre of over-30 somethings pushing their last legs to their physical limit. I mean, Marvin Williams retired like an hour after Game five.
Thanks to the overhaul, Horst has made this regular season meaningful once again. Every game, Bucks fans will probably be trying to see whether Bud is willing to deviate from his ingrained systems, and I’m not talking about Jaylen Adams, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Sam Merrill trying out zone for 48 minutes. The other day, he was asked about the addition of Mike Dunlap, the former Charlotte Bobcats coach, to his staff and mentioned him bringing the possibility of different defensive schemes. Maybe another veteran voice will help push him to change. For his sake, it better.
Because the scrutiny is real for Mike Budenholzer, despite the fact he’s already one of the best coaches in franchise history. He can say organizationally they don’t view this as a championship or bust season, but for him, it’s possible it’s an “NBA Finals or bust” year for his job. The rub on Bud for years has been his inability to pivot in the Playoffs, something I thought he did a decent job of shrugging off against the Boston Celtics in 2019 by incorporating some switching and other wrinkles to completely outclass Brad Stevens’s squad. But any sheen from that has worn off with the collapses against Toronto and Miami.
It wasn’t just that the team didn’t try anything different defensively against Miami, it was that they looked woefully unprepared to do anything different. Those reps and preparation are built in the regular season, which is why it’ll be beneficial to pay far closer attention to the eccentricities of Bud’s schematic approach game-to-game. We won’t know an answer on whether he’ll play his stars more minutes until the Playoffs, but in the regular season we can have some idea whether his versatility comments are lip service or a legitimate step forward.