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Moving The Needle: What Milwaukee Needs To Revive Their Status

The Bucks are in the midst of a coaching search; what would make the biggest difference?

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Conference Finals are moving along and, along with 25 other teams, the Milwaukee Bucks are stuck watching at home. They already made one of the toughest decisions facing them this offseason by ending the tenure of head coach Mike Budenholzer, and hiring his replacement is the next decision on the docket.

There has already been a veritable legion of candidates who have come through Milwaukee in the past couple of weeks, and inevitably among them is the person who the Bucks will trust to lead them back to the tier of contention they were expected to reside in during this current postseason. Who that person will be is anyone’s guess; there is some grassroots support for hiring a first-timer, but those in the know expect the team to go with a more experienced option.

The job of a head coach isn’t an easy one, but the description can be summed up in one phrase: managing without control. The coach doesn’t (usually) have direct control over the players that the front office supplies the roster with, nor does the coach have direct control over the execution performed by the players themselves on the court during games. They plan, they strategize, they influence, but ultimately control of who the team has and what the team does is actually outside of what coaches can do by themselves. However, coaches do control things like practice habits, playing time, lineups and rotations, and timeouts, and all of these things can be used together to navigate the chaos of a live basketball game and lead the team to success. This is why the main job of a head coach can be so difficult, because finding alignment across these areas requires building a strong culture and maintaining an environment where everybody involved is with the program.

Like him or not, Mike Budenholzer was exceptionally skilled at this part of the job, and it will likely serve him well in his next venture. If they’re lucky, the Bucks have enough organizational inertia to keep alive the culture that Coach Bud helped build, and their next head coach simply has to keep the ship afloat rather than build it fresh. In some ways, one of Bud’s greatest successes is creating the atmosphere that allows the Bucks to cast such a wide net when searching for their next sideline general; the variety of perspectives and strategies offered during the interview process will (hopefully) increase the chances of landing on one that will work.

So what will work for these Milwaukee Bucks? What moves the needle in the right direction?There are more tough choices to make after deciding who the next coach will be, and most of them revolve around filling out the roster. For the purpose of this exercise, we will assume that the team will largely retain the major contributors they had last season; this is also the most likely path forward given the team’s salary situation and subsequent CBA limitations. With that premise in mind, here’s some of what the next head coach should consider.

What’s the playoff priority: offense or defense?

Since the 2018-19 season, the Milwaukee Bucks have been a regular season wonder. Per Cleaning The Glass, the offense ranked in the top-10 for four out of five seasons, and the defense landed in the top-5 for three out of five seasons. But things changed for the worse in the playoffs; since their NBA Finals victory in 2021, the Bucks had two consecutive playoff meltdowns in the following two postseasons. Last year, the offensive rating dropped from 115.6 in the regular season down to 106.1 (nearly a 10 point drop), and against the Heat last month, the defensive rating rose (which means fell) from 111.5 to 120.0 (another decline of nearly 10 points).

The caveats for each are obvious; last year, Khris Middleton missed most of the playoffs, and this year it was Giannis Antetokounmpo getting hurt and playing below 100% against the Heat also shot an ungodly percentage from deep. Such is the downside of a top-heavy roster like the Bucks; if one of your main guys goes down, the system short-circuits. This becomes frustrating when juxtaposed against the 8-seed Miami Heat, who lost Tyler Herro to a broken hand and weathered his absence to (so far) a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Boston Celtics. No two systems are identical, but some are simply more resilient than others.

Of course, building a system around your roster makes sense, which is why making smart adjustments to that system when needed is the skill in high demand across Bucks fandom. This was where Mike Budenholzer fell short; sticking to the script works across large sample sizes, but the playoffs are a different game where outliers have an outsized impact and end up ending your run prematurely. So no matter what, a coach who is willing to make more (and faster) adjustments is highly valued, but which end of the court should the new coach prioritize: offense or defense?

Assuming that the Bucks keep their main guys together, Milwaukee will have a First Team All-Defense guard in Jrue Holiday, a First Team All-Defense center in Brook Lopez, and a DPOY finalist in Giannis Antetokounmpo. With those three as the fulcrum of a team defense, it’s entirely reasonable to believe that the Bucks could skate by as “good enough” on that end. It might result in a handful more losses in the regular season, but it could also bring a handful more wins in the playoffs...when the ultimate number of wins you need is only sixteen, so each one matters that much more. Eschewing offense at the expense of defense might also be woefully misguided, but no path towards progress is without risk.

That offense, though...the offense is what caused the Bucks to fall behind their opponent almost every single time things got rough in the playoffs. The defense may have kept them competitive, but their lack of when-the-going-gets-tough scoring felled the Bucks against Toronto in 2019, and the Heat in the Bubble in 2020, nearly against Brooklyn in 2021, and against Boston in 2022, and most recently against Miami again in 2023. Winning a championship cures what ails you, but sooner or later (as it just did with Coach Bud) when the same problem keeps coming up, something’s gotta give.

As a team, the Bucks’ offense has been solid in the regular season and gets worse in the playoffs. The 2023 postseason (well, their five-game first round series...) is the only exception, where Milwaukee actually improved on their regular season mark by a whopping 0.2 points per 100 possessions, but nobody here will take that number at face value when we saw the team’s scoring grind to a halt in consecutive fourth quarters in Games Four and Five. No, I’m not still bitter about that...

On the other hand, Milwaukee’s defense has almost always improved in the playoffs...which follows the league-wide trend. Everybody’s defense gets better in the playoffs, partly because you’re only getting teams with good defenses, and partly because the environment promotes it. Effort increases, contact permitted by officials increases (the good old “let ‘em play” routine), and scoring takes a hit as a result. The Bucks should still try to be, y’know, good at defense, of course. No one is asking them to become the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns. But it has been the half-court offense that sinks Milwaukee when the stakes are at their highest, and as such it needs to be addressed by Budenholzer’s successor.

What should the offense emphasize?

The current Milwaukee Bucks’ offense is, by design, a free-flowing system that promotes read-and-react play from the players rather than called-in sets from the sideline. Play random! Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the best rim attackers in the history of basketball, and surrounding him with a pair of skilled isolation scorers (Middleton and Holiday) and capable three-point shooters usually results in scoring more points than the other team. This path gets blocked in the postseason, though, when opposing teams have time and bandwidth to build effective walls against Giannis’ run-and-dunk drive-and-kick game, and unless the rest of the team catches fire, Milwaukee struggles to keep pace.

We saw exactly this in the 2023 first round loss; without Giannis, the only game that Milwaukee managed to win was Game Two, when the Bucks hit 51.0% of their threes. The shellackings they took in Games One and Three, plus the fourth quarter collapses in Games Four and Five, all carried the same sort of offensive woes. Giannis’ absence loomed large, but the Bucks couldn’t score effectively, particularly in the half court.

This is not a new trend, either! Milwaukee has never been a strong half court playoff team, which is the time of year you need your half court offense to function. This is why upgrading this part of what the Bucks do, while avoiding too big of a drop off elsewhere, should be a priority. It has been noted that defense generally toughens up in the postseason; this means that the regular season is where one can find indicators (not guarantees) of what will work in a seven-game series. So that’s what I did.

With Milwaukee’s current roster, there are a handful of results worth writing home about. Using the NBA’s Playtype stats page, I pulled the 2022-23 regular season totals for each Buck to get a sense for how many possessions they used on offense and how productive they were (using points per possession) compared to the league average (which is 1.141) for all playtypes this season. Because we don’t yet know what the Bucks roster will look like and we’re assuming (for now) that most of the core group will be back, I considered only players who accumulated at least 400 possessions in the NBA Stats database. That list includes Giannis, Khris, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, and Jevon Carter (who has a player option alongside Middleton for next season). Jae Crowder and Wes Matthews were both predictably well below the threshold, while Joe Ingles and MarJon Beauchamp were just under the 300 possession mark. Without further ado, here are the plays that the Bucks had that outperformed the league average for points per possession:

Bucks 2022-23 PPP Plays

Player Playtype # Possessions Points per Poss
Player Playtype # Possessions Points per Poss
Giannis Antetokounmpo Transition 507 1.16
Grayson Allen Spot Up 230 1.26
Brook Lopez P&R Roll Man 229 1.32
Jrue Holiday Transition 209 1.22
Jevon Carter Spot Up 206 1.18
Brook Lopez Cut 143 1.41
Bobby Portis P&R Roll Man 136 1.22
Grayson Allen Transition 122 1.25
Giannis Antetokounmpo Cut 107 1.37
Brook Lopez Transition 107 1.27
Brook Lopez Putbacks 100 1.23
Giannis Antetokounmpo Putbacks 99 1.59
Bobby Portis Cut 83 1.39
Pat Connaughton P&R Roll Man 36 1.42
Grayson Allen Putbacks 14 1.36
Khris Middleton Cut 13 1.39
Grayson Allen Cut 12 1.67
Brook Lopez Handoff 11 1.36

There are a few things that stand out on this table. First, there is not a single Milwaukee player who scored in isolation or pick-and-roll ball handler plays at a rate better than league average last season. The best isolation mark on the team belongs to...rookie MarJon Beauchamp, at a whopping 1.00 points per possession. And the team’s top scorer when handling the ball in a pick-and-roll? Why, that would be Giannis himself at 1.05 PPP!

This reveals a relative talent void that Milwaukee will need to consider filling. The Bucks have skilled bigs who are good at scoring when they’re put in good position, but there is no one on the team who offers dynamic scoring from a traditional backcourt role. Generally speaking, the Middleton-Giannis P&R is one of the team’s best sets in crunch time, because Khris is the team’s best playmaker. He played so relatively little last season that it’s understandable that he didn’t rank highly in these metrics...but availability is getting to be a concern for him! And Jrue Holiday – the only other legitimate ball-handler the Bucks can boast – has never been efficient in these regards, and this season was no different; he led the team with 481 possessions as the P&R ball handler, but he only managed 1.00 points per possession. Giannis does enough as it is; he should not be the team’s best option to operate a pick-and-roll with the ball, too. As a team, the Bucks were far from excellent in this regard (0.93 PPP, 13th overall), but there’s not really anyone on the Bucks that is currently a safe bet to produce consistently when handling the ball.

This deficit reflects in the team’s isolation scoring output as well. As a group, the Bucks didn’t rely on iso-ball as much as some might guess, logging only 588 total possessions (16th overall)...and it’s good that they didn’t use it more, because they managed a pitiful 0.80 PPP on the year (29th overall, better only than the Spurs). To be fair, there are only a handful of qualifying players who managed to beat the league-wide average (for all playtypes) of 1.14 in isolation, including expected names like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and DeMar DeRozan (curiously enough!). A large part of this was the absence of Khris Middleton, one of Milwaukee’s best “bail us out!” offensive options, but in general, the Bucks were bad in isolation and as a result they ought to continue avoiding it as a pillar of their strategy.

Another takeaway is how much the Bucks (rightfully) rely on their size. Nearly half of the items on this list involve one of Milwaukee’s three bigs (Giannis, Brook, and Bobby) in half court plays (P&R roll man, cuts, and putbacks). It’s no surprise that Lopez and Portis shine in these areas; given their reputation as skilled scoring bigs, they have routinely kept the team afloat with their interior abilities. And while Giannis might be the most terrifying transition scorer ever, it’s notable that his possessions as a roller don’t make the cut by this analysis. The Greek Freak only logged 116 possessions as the P&R roll man – scoring 1.09 points per possession – for reasons that deserve scrutiny. Was Middleton’s absence a sticking point here too? Is Giannis’ gravity inside the arc so great that passes weren’t open? Or did the team simply not rely enough on Giannis as a screen-setter? And if so, was that due to coaching...or personal preference? After all, Giannis doesn’t seem to hold screen-setting in the highest regard...

The last big insight I took from this table is the relative lack of scoring punch provided by the backcourt. Grayson Allen might have been the Bucks’ best perimeter scorer with Middleton on ice for most of last season, but even outside of Allen...there wasn’t much to work with. Pat Connaughton’s lengthy shooting slump and Holiday’s streaky accuracy both undermined the Bucks’ spacing; only Jevon Carter managed to join Allen as value-adding outside threats when spotting up, and Carter wasn’t entrusted with significant playing time in the Miami series. Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder simply didn’t play enough to make a sizable difference, and Jrue Holiday being an positive only in transition is likely a by-product of his unfortunate mis-casting as a second option on offense.

This is, of course, not the only way to look at the offense. Scoring above league average on every play type is impossible, and different players have different strengths that need to be leveraged in order to bolster the scoring output. What this exercise means to do is identify what parts of the Bucks’ offense works presently, and what a new coach would be wise to keep going forward while still making changes that helps the offense in the aggregate.

Adjusting Giannis’ offensive workload

So let’s talk about what works, and what doesn’t, as it relates to the team’s premier player. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored the most points in his career last season, but few Bucks fans would claim that he had even a “good” campaign. He ended up third in the voting for MVP because he’s incredible, but on offense...Giannis wasn’t all that great! In the table above, Giannis didn’t just lead the team in transition opportunities, but the entire league by nearly 100 possessions. That he scored above league average on a per possession basis on such a scale is remarkable, but outside of his transition exploits, Giannis’ offense has very much taken a step back, and it happened as the team relied on him more than ever before.

Per Cleaning The Glass, Giannis has ranked in at least the 95th percentile for Usage % every season since 2015-16, culminating in a career-high 39.1% last season. There is, of course, benefit to giving your best player the ball, and Giannis’ resumé shows it; he was in the mix for the league scoring title (5th in both points per game and total points), his assist rate was an astounding 31.4%, and he drew a shooting foul on nearly one-quarter of his shot attempts. He has been an excellent player for nearly a decade now, and there is no sign of that slowing down anytime soon.

But these areas of excellence do not come without drawbacks. Giannis’ shooting numbers tanked in 2022-23, and it wasn’t just because of his woeful marks from the foul line (64.4%) or behind the arc (27.8%). Besides his attempts at the rim, Antetokounmpo seemed to lose all touch on all other shots inside the arc; he made only 28% of his shots between 4 and 14 feet (12th percentile for his position) after six consecutive seasons of hitting 36% or better in this range. This is a major issue when nearly one-fifth of his field goal attempts come from this range, and it further magnifies the possessions lost when he takes a jump shot from beyond 15 feet.

Of course, one solution to this is for Giannis to simply get good at making these shots again. Perhaps it’s that simple, but if it were actually that easy, we would have seen it happen with his free throws by now. It hasn’t happened. No, there’s one path for Giannis to get back to his levels of efficiency on offense, and a new coach is going to have to guide him down that way. His usage rate needs to decrease, and the biggest decrease ought to happen with his jump shots.

Giannis’ 2022-23 regular season shot chart, half court only

There is always some logic to the notion that Giannis “needs” a jumper to be at his best. When defenders play so far off of him with the ball that he can gather his rhythm and let it fly, the threat of a jumper makes it so that defenses think twice before conceding so much space. The catch, though, is that such a threat must be credible, and at this stage Giannis’ jumper is anything but.

It makes sense that Giannis had to step up last season; Khris Middleton only played in 33 games! The Bucks don’t have much else in the way of offensive creators besides him, Giannis, and Jrue Holiday. It’s entirely possible that Middleton’s presence – again, presuming the roster construction remains unchanged – is enough to return Giannis’ responsibilities on offense back to areas where he dominates: putting pressure on the rim, drawing fouls, and kicking the ball out to open teammates.

But we have seen Giannis’ penchant for taking ill-advised jump shots, especially when the defense drops away from him, for years now. With superstars of his caliber, you generally accept those questionable decisions as a part of the overall package. MVP candidates get to do what they want. But as the Bucks’ recent playoff history shows us, the offense has too thin a margin for error to afford as much of them going forward, and whoever takes the helm of the coaching staff will need to find balance with Giannis in this regard.

In looking back over the numbers from the Bucks’ disappointing 2022-23 campaign, I am actually left with feelings of encouragement. Despite the relative age of the roster, there is legitimate talent on offense here, which when coupled with the defensive bona fides and obvious strength in transition, paints the picture of a genuine contender. This version of the Bucks, as old and creaky as they may be getting relative to their peers, is not a lost cause. Not yet, and not without the right leadership.

What the team needs most, though, is a reimagining of how they can generate points in tough postseason environments. You might be able to rely on Giannis singlehandedly outrunning the Detroit Pistons on a random Tuesday in March, but those windows will slam shut against a motivated playoff opponent. NBA teams are at their best in April and May specifically because they find ways to take away what their opponent likes to do most. What can the Bucks do to prepare for next season that will provide the necessary countermeasures and fuel their offensive engines enough to avoid stalling out? What moves will move the needle most? These are the questions that is hopefully driving the team’s search for a new coach, because those answers will successfully guide the team down the path.