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Eyes On The Prize: Focusing On Milwaukee’s Second Half

The Bucks have 35 games to get ready for the postseason, and their shooters are already locked in.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks’ 2020-21 season, depending on who you ask, has either been an exciting roller coaster or a miserable one. At 22-14, Milwaukee is sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference and remains two games behind the leading Philadelphia 76ers for the top seed. Milwaukee finds themselves in unfamiliar regular-season territory overall; rather than leading the pack by a comfortable margin, they are one of eight teams with 21 (or more) wins and 15 (or fewer) losses, and well behind the league-leading Utah Jazz who are setting the pace as the league’s only single-loss club at 27-9.

But as the refrain rang out over the past few years, the regular season doesn’t matter. At least, the regular season’s results don’t matter as much as they prepare you for the playoffs, a barometer that measured the Bucks far less favorably than metrics like Net Rating (where Milwaukee used to reign supreme during the Mike Budenholzer era, and are now merely third at +6.2 overall). So with that in mind, what are some things we should look for over the course of the second half of the regular season, in preparation for the Bucks’ third attempt at breaking through and making it to the NBA Finals? There is a long list of items that we can explore, but Milwaukee’s shooting is what we’ll focus on today.

Much and more has been made about the Bucks’ relationship with the three-point shot since Coach Bud took over. I’ve talked about it, Van has talked about it, everybody seemingly has talked about it, and for good reason. The three-pointer is a huge component in the Bucks’ success...or lack thereof.

This past offseason, the Bucks’ chose to bolster their offense with the additions of scorers like Bobby Portis, DJ Augustin, and Bryn Forbes. Each of these three reserves, along with mainstays like Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and Brook Lopez play an important role in the Milwaukee rotation on offense: find your spots and try to get hot. The Bucks’ offense can reasonably expect to get consistent production from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, who average a combined 49.6 points per game, and while Jrue Holiday has significantly higher upside as a scorer, his skills as a defender, playmaker, and floor general are a higher priority than his bucket-getting. These contributions from the “second tier” of players will largely come from behind the arc, and the Bucks will need every last shot of theirs to drop.

Milwaukee’s difficulty scoring baskets in the half-court didn’t rear its ugly head until confronted in the playoffs by the soul-wilting defenses that were the Kawhi-led Toronto Raptors and the bubble-superpowered Miami Heat, but postseason defenses are generally more competent and transition opportunities are more limited as a result. To counter that dynamic, general manager Jon Horst has given Mike Budenholzer the most prolific stable of shooters he’s ever had around Giannis and Khris (along with Jrue), so as attention to the Bucks’ three core pieces increases it will be vitally important that the next six in the presumptive playoff rotation cash in on the opportunities they are sure to get.

As things stand thus far, these six players are holding up their end of the bargain. Shooting a collective 39.9% from deep, the sextet of Brook, Donte, DJA, Planet Pat, Bryn, and Bobby make up well over half of the Bucks’ total attempts and makes from three, and their production will largely drive Milwaukee’s offense and keep enough pressure on the defense to avoid walling Giannis out of the paint. As an aggregated group, they are just over a full percentage point above the team average, suggesting that the Bucks’ improved shooting is mostly buoyed by their improved rotation. But will they hold up in a tough series against, say, the formidable Sixers or the high-powered Brooklyn Nets? Bucks fans have unpleasant flashbacks to the cold playoff streaks of Nikola Mirotic and Eric Bledsoe, and know all too well that regular season accuracy can be undone under the brighter lights of the postseason. How consistent can we expect these shooters to be when it matters most?

There is no surefire way to know, but we can take the last 2.5 years of data and make some assessments based on what we’ve seen so far. The Bucks have fully embraced the mantra of “Let It Fly,” landing in the top-five in three-point attempts in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, accuracy was left wanting as Milwaukee ranked 15th (0.353) and 18th (0.355) overall in both campaigns, and this weakness was not shored up in either the 2018-19 playoffs (0.336 in 15 games) or the Orlando bubble playoffs (0.358 in 10 games). So far this season, Milwaukee ranks similarly in terms of volume as before but is converting at a much higher rate (0.388, fourth in the NBA). Those three-plus percentage points are a major boost to the offense and are a confluence of several factors, each of which deserves more attention than we’re paying here. Much has changed with how Milwaukee uses their offense to find these shots, but the overall results are significantly improved.

When digging a little deeper at the team’s consistency, the improvements become more encouraging. Looking at the season as a whole is too broad, while using game-to-game metrics are too granular, but a method I find works well for identifying ebbs and flows is to use a three-game rolling average. This lets us smooth out some of the spikes in the data and get a better visual representation of how variance affects a team in a shorter amount of time, which is also applicable to playoff series. In the chart below, I calculated the Milwaukee Bucks’ three-game rolling average for three-point percentage, with trendlines for each complete season and a forecasted one for the current season. You’ll see a ton of noise (three-point shooting numbers are noisy!) but one bold line should stand out above the rest.

Milwaukee Bucks’ three-game rolling average 3P%, 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21

That bold trendline hovering at around 37-38% is the baseline that the Bucks are achieving thus far, and it is reasonable to expect them to maintain that pace. More than anything, the elevation of that trendline speaks to the improved ceiling that Milwaukee’s offense is consistently enjoying. The internal improvements and external additions have all come together to kick Milwaukee’s offense into overdrive, without necessarily demanding unsustainable production from the team’s trio of star-level players. That is a big-time investment in the postseason.

More importantly than the ceiling being raised, though, is that the team’s floor remains relatively stable and is not decreased to the same extent as their ceiling is increased. This might seem counterintuitive, but the common perception that teams that rely heavily on threes are prone to cold streaks that prove to be fatal in the postseason is not necessarily at play in Milwaukee. We can use standard deviation, which we also used in January 2020, to explore what that means.

Last season when we made these measurements, the Bucks rated as one of the most consistent shooting teams in the league. Their standard deviation was (at the time) the second-lowest in the NBA, meaning that they had a smaller expected window for their overall shooting output to fall within. As of now, their standard deviation remains low (although the low number of games means that the sample size is fairly small), suggesting that Milwaukee ought to perform at about this same level for the rest of the regular season.

The table below contains the figures for the Bucks’ expected three-point performance during the Budenholzer era. The first block has basic per-game averages for threes made, attempted, and percentage, and the second block is the for each figure (which equates to the size of the expected window). The third and fourth blocks are then the upper and lower limits of that window; any performance within these ranges can be considered “normal,” while anything outside of these ranges is an “outlier.”

We mentioned earlier that the ceiling was raised without the floor being lowered, and you can see this by comparing the “best case” and “worst case” three-point percentage in the bottom two blocks. Ever since Coach Bud arrived, the Bucks’ worst expected shooting performances were at about 31%, and that is no different now. But their best expected shooting percentage has skyrocketed this season, from 38% all the way up to 44%. That’s a nearly sixteen-point improvement from last year to now, meaning the reward for continuing to “Let It Fly” has gotten more valuable, while the downside has remained the same.

It has been noticed that the Bucks’ record is strong when their threes are falling, and that they suffer mightily when they go awry. Specifically for this season, Milwaukee is 13-4 when they shoot at (or above) their average mark of 38.8%, and 9-10 when they fall short. This is actually a far different proposition than the two seasons prior, where the cutoff was 35.5% (more than three points lower than the current mark) and the Bucks were a stellar 68-10 when exceeding their average...but still a very good 48-29 when not meeting it! Historically, Milwaukee’s record has not hinged so much on their shooting percentage, but that trend may not carry on, in large part because of the other issues Milwaukee is dealing with, particularly on defense.

But more important than regular season win totals, as we stated at the outset, is the team’s ability to manufacture points in a playoff environment. This article doesn’t cover the Bucks’ best assets in this arena; Giannis Antetokounmpo is the league’s premier scorer at the rim, Khris Middleton is a deadly shooter from both midrange and long distance, and Jrue Holiday is a versatile three-level scorer who can use his craft and feel to generate a basket out of seemingly nothing. These three players are going to make the difference when it gets down to the wire and will get all the attention, highlights, and praise (or blame) for the outcome. However, the shooting from the middle of the rotation is what will put Milwaukee in position to create and sustain leads, as well as fuel comebacks when shots aren’t falling early. As we have seen, there is ample reason for optimism going forward and the Bucks’ shooting will remain a major focus for the second half of the season.