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Mantra, Quantified: Some Numbers Behind “Getting Better Every Day”

Head coach Mike Budenholzer preaches the virtue of constant self-improvement. Does that show in the numbers?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Editor’s note: all are data points as of Thursday, November 25.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer is, as we have seen, one of the best coaches in the NBA. With the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, he won Coach Of The Year by taking a mediocre team past the 60-win threshold, and in 2019 he repeated that same feat with the Bucks. And, oh yeah, he silenced his critics by making adjustments to help the Bucks win the NBA Finals. To achieve that level of success, you need a great many things, but universally-speaking, near the top of the list must be one thing: consistency.

When it comes to messaging, boy oh boy is Mike Budenholzer consistent. Whether it’s at an introductory press conference, a pre-game scrum for some random mid season road game, or addressing a crowd at a championship parade, you know damn well that Coach Bud is going to talk about “getting better every day.”

To the unfamiliar ear, it seems almost like a compulsion. Coach Bud, a member of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, is well-known for giving the press nothing, and that’s when he’s feeling generous. If ever asked about his approach to leading the team, regardless of the circumstances, you’re bound to hear phrases like “just keep improving,” “get better every day,” and “take your vitamins.”

But the secret is the simplicity. Budenholzer isn’t trotting out a canned response, no matter how well-rehearsed it might sound. It’s the truth, plain and simple. Mike Budenholzer’s coaching philosophy is to simply get better, every day. That’s it. Honestly, it sounds not just like a smart way to work, but a smart way to live. But what does it look like?

Separating the efforts of coaches and the efforts of players is a fool’s errand. One is on the court and the other is not, yet the results belong to both. So when considering the Bucks, who boast a fine collection of talent on the roster, it would be both easy and accurate to simply compare Milwaukee’s players to whoever their opponent might be and conclude that Milwaukee is, more often than not, simply better. Therein lies the difficulty (futility?) with attempting to draw a clear line between process (which coaches control and players influence) and results (vice versa), especially when all of the numbers available publicly are focused on results. I know results is what the Bucks care about most, but process matters.

In any case, we can still give it a shot. Sometimes, if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, enough noodles stick and make the shape of...something. So let’s launch away.

“Basketball is a game of runs.” It’s a common phrase that’s been used often enough to be treated as fact, even though there is some research that suggests it’s not quite so. In any case, a short-term run is not enough to go off of, and the variability of runs (both in terms of frequency and length) makes them too nebulous a measure. However, there is one division that applies evenly to all teams but is still small enough to generate a large enough data set: quarters.

Reminder: all data points are as of Thursday, November 25.

12 minutes is generally enough time to put together enough possessions for one team to take an advantage. There’s usually some back and forth within a quarter, or between quarters within a game, but over a long enough period (say, 48 regulation minutes) the general trends will take effect and the team that performs better will hold the advantage when the final buzzer sounds. Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season (aka the beginning of the Budenholzer Era), the Milwaukee Bucks have played a total of 294 regular season and playoff games. That comes out to 1,176 regulation playing periods, plus the 15 overtimes, giving us a total playing period figure of 1,191. Because overtime periods are only 5 minutes long, cannot be predicted, and are dwarfed by the number of regular quarters, we won’t do any generalized analysis on them. We can, however, look at the standard four quarters, and see what these numbers tell us:

The Bucks have achieved historically-good results in the Bud Era, and the numbers bear that out. On average, Milwaukee outscores their opponent by at least a point in all four quarters, though that number dwindles as the game progresses. On the whole, the Budenholzer Bucks outscore opponents by 2.5 points at the end of one, then another 2.1 points by halftime, another 1.8 points by the end of the third period, and an additional 1.1 points by the end of the game, for a grand total of +7.5 points per 4 regulation periods. This is not as strong of a metric as points scored vs. points allowed per 100 possessions (also known as “net rating”) but it generally aligns and serves our purposes here. Either way you look at it, sustaining that level of production over the course of years is impressive. The standard deviations (link for anyone who needs a refresher) are fairly stable on both sides at between 5.9 and 6.4, save for the second quarter where Milwaukee seems to have their biggest boom-or-bust potential while opponents have the least variance (comparatively).

Over the first 20ish games of this season, the Bucks have actually gotten out to the strongest start during the first quarter over the last four years, only to have opponents get back into the game in quarters two and three. This is largely because of the Bucks’ weakened rotation due to injury; lesser players are playing more prominent roles, and other teams are capitalizing on the opportunity until Mike Budenholzer puts a capable closing lineup into the game. As Milwaukee returns to a fully-healthy roster, this trend will likely dissipate in due time.

But we’re still looking at a large-scale view, so let’s get back to discussing quarters and the advantages (or deficits) that the Bucks build over the course of them. It’s one thing to consider their average rates of points scored and allowed, but what about the differences at the natural break points in the game, the scoring margins at the end of quarters? To that end, I logged the score at the end of each playing period for the entire Budenholzer Era, and grouped the EOQ differences by five-point ranges (the main chart on the left). The charts below illustrate how often Milwaukee finds itself having an advantage at the end of quarters, including a detailed view of how many times the Bucks had ended a quarter at each mark between down 7 and up 7 (the bars in light green).

As you can infer from the trend lines, Milwaukee finds itself up more often than not. They’re over twice as likely to end a playing period up big (by 8 or more) than down by a similar margin, and they maintain that favorable trend for periods that end with the score within a smaller range (difference of 7 points or less).

This is the type of basketball inevitability that Milwaukee has been pursuing, and the type of winning that Bucks fans have come to expect. They don’t necessarily rely on supernovae to build leads, but consistent out-execution of the opponent to build smaller leads, more often. After all, it’s easier to pull off three separate 5-0 runs than one single 15-0 run.

The data above gives us an understanding of where the Bucks have gone over the past three-plus years, but what about the actual path they took to get where they are now? To put things chronologically, I simply chronologically sequenced every set of quarters (and overtimes) game-by-game and assigned a Period Number to each. This way, we can see exactly what the Bucks’ performance has looked like from point to point over time, where the first quarter of Bud’s first game as head coach is Period 1, and the Bucks’ most recent fourth quarter is Period 1191. Time is the x-axis, and each vertical bar represents the number of points the Bucks led – or trailed – by at the conclusion of each period.

This image gives us a lot of noise, but it’s important to use it to establish context. There’s a lot that goes into a single basketball game, and the final score would look the same if you won a single quarter by a lot or won each quarter by a little. So what would the Bucks’ EOQ Difference look like if we kept a running total of their overall plus-minus on a chronological basis, similar to a stock index? I’m glad you asked, because the red line below is precisely that: the cumulative difference of the Bucks versus their opponents over the past 3 14 years.

Look at that nice and healthy upward growth. Most successful teams will have a similar trend line, but the Bucks have been one of the most successful teams ever over the past three years. Milwaukee in the Bud Era is a blue-chip stock gaining value steadily, and it’s largely due to the mantra of getting better, every day.

But just like in the stock market, you don’t actually improve endlessly. There are downs paired with the ups, and in basketball the timing of a dip can be absolutely devastating. For reference, here’s an annotated version of just the cumulative difference chart, the same red line as above. I highlighted some of the most notable segments in recent Bucks history, particularly some memories we’re not so fond of.

  • The 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. The first major adversity that the Bud Era Bucks encountered was all the way into the Conference Finals, in the form of the Kawhi-led Toronto Raptors. Milwaukee ran roughshod over the league, pure and simple, from the get-go. The Bucks were world-beaters for the majority of the regular season, and they quickly dispatched the Pistons and Celtics while the Raptors slugged it out against the Magic and Sixers. At one point, the Bucks had put together a playoff record of 10-1; 4-0 against Detroit, 4-1 against Boston, and a 2-0 lead against Toronto. In fact, by the end of Game 3’s first overtime period, the Bucks had accumulated an overall margin of +865 that stretched back to Opening Night...but then they lost the second overtime, and the remaining periods inside Games 4 through 6 by a combined 36 points. It was their worst three-game stretch of the season, by far, and it came at the absolute worst time possible.
  • The 2020 “Disney Bubble.” If not for the coronavirus, things may have gone way differently. Before COVID-19 shut down NBA operations, the Bucks were back with a vengeance. Shaking off the lackluster finish to their surprising run to the Conference Finals, the Bucks were winning at an even more impressive pace, once again eclipsing +800 cumulative points over the course of the playing periods of the 2019-20 regular season. But then the league was put on ice for months, and while the Orlando bubble was a welcome reprieve for fans amidst the global pandemic, the Bucks simply did not have it. Over the course of the 18 games Milwaukee played at Disney World, they posted a miserable cumulative difference of +14, much of which came in the first round 4-1 victory over the Magic. Reminiscent of the meltdown in Toronto, the Bucks were a woeful minus-34 in the playing periods that comprised the Semifinals series against the Miami Heat. The skid that started in the handful of games preceding the shutdown may have been just that, a temporary slump...but no matter what might have been, what was the case is that Milwaukee lost its way.
  • The 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The third time was evidently the charm, as Milwaukee’s rate of improvement (by this slapdash metric) was significantly stifled. Still positive, to be sure, but nowhere near the historic highs that the Bucks’ stock had reached in the two seasons prior. The investment in on-court diversification paid off in a big way, and in no way more evident than the knockdown drag-out fight that was the Brooklyn Nets series. In fact, the Bucks actually lost value overall in the series, as measured by end-of-quarter score differential; over the 29 playing periods (seven games with four regulation quarters, plus one overtime in Game 7), Milwaukee had actually dropped 20 points. Much of this was due to the 39-point Game 2 shellacking the Bucks suffered, but the gut punch really hit in Game 5. Despite building a 16-point lead at halftime, the Bucks lost the third quarter by 10 and the fourth quarter by 12, leading to an overall swing of minus-38 points.
  • The 2021 NBA Finals. Surviving Brooklyn led to another scary series in Atlanta, not terribly scary because of the Hawks but because of almost losing Giannis for the duration of the playoffs. Still, getting through to the Phoenix Suns with a hobbled superstar would have been a tremendous achievement, and yet the Bucks kept fighting and stuck to their habits, their persistent incremental improvement. Unlike the tough situations the Bucks had found themselves in for years before, Milwaukee bent without breaking, and took the Suns’ best shots without falling. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter of Game 4 where the Bucks took back the advantage by cumulative playing period difference, and while Phoenix nearly retook that particular lead in quarter two of Game 6 (an 18-point period win by the Suns that brought the series margin down to just plus-2 for the Bucks), Milwaukee won the third by 5 and the fourth by 7 to seal the victory...and the title.

This exercise doesn’t have any eureka! moments, and it certainly wouldn’t withstand the scrutiny of professional analysts. However, what it does illustrate is the type of sustained success that the Bucks have found, for which much credit is owed to Mike Budenholzer and the coaching staff for instilling a mantra that resonates with the team. Obviously, the chart is only just now trending back in the right direction, as the Bucks are coming out of a rough patch of injuries and illnesses with core contributors on the roster.

I wonder how far back one could go with this method, to see just how far below zero the Bucks had fallen before Budenholzer got here and Giannis became a perennial MVP candidate. I also wish that I had the wherewithal to conduct this exercise for every NBA team, to figure out what “average” looked like and identify any other teams that stand out (one way or another) with this metric. Perhaps that could be a project for another day...but for now, I’ll settle for what thoughts you have to share. Do you find any value in comparing the quarter-over-quarter progress of a team? Is the stock index imagery effective for illustrating the type of consistent improvement Milwaukee has made as a basketball franchise? What other angles to you see that are worth exploring? Let us know in the comments, tell us what you think!