(Note: all stats are of January 31st)
In Part 1, we covered the large-scale evolution of the NBA, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ place in that movement. In Part 2, we dove into the Bucks’ reliability shooting threes this season and showed, through the power of standard deviation, how a team ranking low in accuracy can still be considered dangerous. Part 3 was originally going to be a deeper analysis into shooting across the NBA this season, to see if we can figure out how to identify short-term trends might inform our opinions as we draw nearer to the postseason.
Instead, two of our order (oldresorter and R983) convinced me that I was not telling enough of the story, and that exploring the nuances of offensive performance was not enough. Even though there’s an argument to be made that shooting often relies as much on luck as it does on skill, it’s still important to consider the other side of the ball. So we’ll take that detour and evaluate the same stats we did in Part 2, with a focus on defense.
Here’s the trouble, though. There is a fairly strong argument that, at least through the metric of 3PT%, shooting performance on threes is influenced by luck just as much as by skill or effort. With three point attempt rates skyrocketing league-wide and the effective range of shooters expanding to the logo, offenses are finding more and more ways to work threes into their schemes that simply can’t be countered by defenses...and league-wide average accuracy on threes has hovered in the mid-30s for years. This isn’t to wave away the impact of defense on three-point attempts. These shots are obviously still defended, but the impact is harder to suss out as compared to, say, defending shots at the rim. What NBA defenses can do more reliably is control how many threes they allow, and who they allow to take them.
But let’s start with the basics. The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the league’s best teams, and their defense is vulnerable to the three pointer. But just how serious – and unique – is that vulnerability?
Milwaukee ranks in the bottom-third of the league for 3PT% allowed, while none of their purported peers in contention for the NBA Finals this season are outside of the top-12. That said, the extremes on this scale are fairly extreme; three teams (Miami, Toronto, and Denver) allow less than 34.0%, while two allow more than 38.0% (Golden State and New York). Everybody else falls within this four-point gap, but it gets interesting when looking at the standard deviation for this same metric. On this front, which indicates consistency of performance, Milwaukee is tied with Utah with the league’s lowest 3PT% st.dev. (0.069, or 6.9%), which means that the Bucks have the smallest expected window of performance that their opponents will fall into.
As is the case on offense, the benefits of the defense’s consistency are lessened by the Bucks’ place near the top of the bell curve for their averages. It’s not that teams have these massive spikes in 3PT% (although that happens too), but that teams are simply able to perform better in this area against the Bucks, by virtue of what their defense concedes.
Once again, this is more than a worthy trade off! The Bucks have single-digit losses, all to good teams (maybe the Spurs aren’t “good,” but they’re at least decent), and are far ahead of their competition in the East. The largest proponent of their success has been sealing off the rim on defense, and the cost of that has been allowing opponents sort of a “head start” in their outside shooting.
It’s been said, time and time again, that the Bucks’ opponents always hit shots above their averages, and that this weakness is one of the biggest threats to the team’s postseason hopes. How much water does that opinion hold? Do teams the Bucks play really outperform their averages, and if so, how much?
Short version: yes they do, and by a significant margin. Teams simply take more threes, make more threes, and make them at a higher rate when they play Milwaukee. Essentially, if the Miami Heat (averaging 12.7 3PM/game) come to town, the assumption should be that they hit close to 15 threes when they face off against the Bucks. And if they do even better than that? They’ll probably be in position to win a close game. Opponents are basically getting spotted 5-6 points based on the opportunity to make shots against the zone drop defense.
What’s interesting, though, is that threes are not a remarkably higher percentage of an opponents’ total field goal attempts; this is likely due in part to the Bucks’ league-leading pace, which fuels both sides with more possessions with which to launch threes. Here’s the real question: does it matter? Does it affect Milwaukee’s ability to win games? When comparing the Bucks’ total season log to those benchmarks, the answer may surprise you.
It’s important, just not as much as you’d think. The Bucks do indeed run the risk of losing games if their opponent shoots well from deep. That attribute is shared by 29 other NBA teams, the EuroLeague, the NCAA, and your local pick-up game. The Bucks don’t win games because of their three-point defense; they win games in spite of it. And when they lose, it’s often enough because teams hit a preposterous number of their threes, which can happen regardless of defensive efforts.
This season, the Bucks have a 7-4 record when opponents make 17 or more three point shots. Those 11 games constitute roughly one-fifth of the season thus far, meaning that the Bucks allow a ton of made threes every five games or so. And when they do, they still win over 60% of their games, because they’re that damn good.
I’m glad we took this detour, but if you were interested to learn more about what Part 3 was supposed to be about, fear not! We’re going to see what sort of micro-trends we can find from the NBA this season, and how it might affect the Bucks when things matter most: in the playoffs.
In the meantime, check out the comments while you wait for today’s Phoenix game to start, and I guess there’s another sports event scheduled for today too, but there’s plenty of stoppages, meaning there’s plenty of time to parse out the Bucks’ three-point defense. It’s the next big thing!