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Adrian Griffin’s Bucks, 41 games in

Are the Bucks and their first time coach improving or just spinning their wheels?

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Sacramento Kings v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe that half of the NBA season is now in the rearview mirror. The Bucks capped off the first half with one of the worst performances in franchise history, getting absolutely plastered off the floor by a Cavaliers team that was missing 40% of its starting lineup, albeit without Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were walloped so badly that the Cavaliers could have missed every single three-pointer they attempted, and the Bucks still would have lost by four.

Now, one game isn’t the end of the world and just last week the Bucks beat the snot out of Boston (albeit on a SEGABABA, but still, the games don’t count for nothing) behind a cavalcade of threes, and Boston threw up the white flag at halftime.

Zooming out beyond just the past week or so, what exactly are Adrian Griffin’s Milwaukee Bucks right now? Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks are fifth in offensive rating, 21st in defensive rating, and have slipped to ninth in net rating for the season. The Bucks have spent much of the season as a top five offense and rarely turn the ball over, with the league’s fifth lowest turnover rate. Behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, only three teams get to the free throw line at a better rate than Milwaukee. They also shoot the lights out, with the league’s third best eFG%. And while the Bucks are a good three point shooting team, their shooting has not been so insane as a team that it should lead us to believe that the offense is a mirage. The Bucks are shooting 37.9% from three on the season, which ranks eleventh in the league.

Now, that isn’t to say that everything is going perfectly on the offensive end. Fifth is, honestly, probably an underperformance given the star talent level at hand. Damian Lillard’s efficiency has not been up to expectation so far this season. He is posting his worst eFG%—excluding the season he played through an abdominal injury—since 2015–16. His shooting from three has been more hit-and-miss this season, at just 35.2%, versus his career average of 37.1%. Excluding that injury-riddled season, this would be his worst three-point shooting season since 2014–15. Those numbers will probably improve, and given his volume, that will help the offense.

Much has been written about the lack of pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs between Lillard and Antetkounmpo, and I do think that that is a structural issue with the offense that they do not go to this look enough, but it has been very effective when utilized. Personally, I would just like to see more reps of it so that those two can iron out all the nuances before the playoffs. The Bucks offense feels much more like its thriving solely on the immense talent of Lillard, Antetokounmpo, and Middleton rather than being a coherent unit.

The Bucks’ problems are primarily not on the offensive end. It would be better if their offense ratcheted up the efficiency, and I think eliminating some quite inefficient shots from their game (Bobby Portis is third in post-up frequency in the entire league and is averaging 0.92 PPP on those shots) and actually having more cohesion plus better spacing on the weakside of actions would go a long way to improving the offense from merely very good to truly elite. Really, the issues are on the defensive end of the floor.

Lucky To Just Be Bad

The Bucks rank 21st in defensive rating, but they’re even kind of lucky there. Teams have much more control over their own three-point shooting percentage than their opponent’s. On wide open threes (no defender within six feet of the shooter), of which the Bucks allow 19.4 per game, no one has allowed a lower percentage than the Bucks, at just 35.5%. The league average this year is just shy of 40%. On threes that are classified as open (defender 4–6 feet from the shooter), the Bucks allow the ninth lowest percentage at 33.5%, and the league average is 35%.

The Bucks’ defensive rating benefits from wayward opponent three-point shooting, accounting for volume, by the third largest margin in the league, behind only Houston and New Orleans, at approximately 2.5 points per 100 possessions. After normalizing opponent wide open three-point shooting across the league, the Bucks’ defensive rating plummets from 21st to 28th, marginally worse than the “lost a record number of NBA games in a row” Detroit Pistons. 21st is not an acceptable level of defense for a team that is supposed to be contending for a title. The fact that they’re actually kind of fortunate to be 21st should be flashing DEFCON 1. This defense stinks.

The Bucks’ net rating has been slipping over the past few weeks, and after the shellacking at the hands of the Cavaliers, has fallen to ninth in the league. If you replace the raw DRTG with the three-point normalized DRTG (which I will call adjusted DRTG), the Bucks adjusted net rating falls to 15th at just +0.8 per 100 possessions. Other teams that are supposed to be in their title windows now, or have played their way into it this year include Boston at +9.2, Oklahoma City at +7.4, the Clippers at +6.1, Philadelphia at +5.9, Minnesota at +5.3, and Denver at +5.1. The gap between even Denver at +5.1 and Milwaukee at +0.8 is about the same gap as from Milwaukee to Memphis, who is barely an NBA basketball team at this point, and is sitting at -3.2 in adjusted net rating.

Another alarming part of this all is that the Bucks are struggling like this while having played the third easiest schedule in the league according to Dunks & Threes. The Bucks are far from an elite basketball team right now despite having a top three player enjoying his greatest offensive season, a walking elite halfcourt offense in Damian Lillard, and proven high-level winning players in Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. So, what is going wrong?

You Coach The Team You Have

Before diving into what is the problem for the Bucks defense, starting with what isn’t is probably more important, and that’s Brook Lopez. Since the arrival of the small-ball Warriors and the counters by Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets, fans of all teams keep trying to kill off their big centers. And despite that, these big centers routinely anchor the best defenses in the league. Brook Lopez nearly won Defensive Player Of The Year last year (and should have won, in my opinion), so we know he is a high-level defender.

In a fantastic article, which I recommend you read, Seth Partnow of The Athletic noted that the Bucks have struggled to protect the rim much more this year than in the other years where Brook Lopez played. The Bucks are 13th in opponent rim attempt rate (ORAR) after being no worse than second in any of the seasons where Brook Lopez was not injured. It appears this is not a Brook Lopez problem, though, as Lopez still ranks as the third most valuable rim protector in the league by Partnow’s Points Saved metric, which accounts for both contest frequency and opponent FG% allowed. Lopez’s on/off numbers in protecting the rim remain in the elite category.

So if it isn’t the man in the middle, what is the problem? Well, there are multiple issues at hand. First and foremost, it’s partially a personnel problem. Malik Beasley and Damian Lillard both stink as perimeter defenders, and they play together a lot. Combine this personnel issue with the tactics the Bucks use defending on the perimeter, and you have a massive problem. The Bucks’ perimeter players begin to apply pressure quite high up the floor, which is creating big runways at Brook Lopez, frequently putting him in untenable two-on-one situations where he cannot either contest the shot well enough or he has to concede either a dunk to the roller or an easy offensive rebound. Here is a cavalcade of situations where the Bucks’ high-ball pressure has led to scrambles over the past few months, courtesy of Bucks Film Room:

The Bucks are reducing opponent three-point rate, but they’re just getting eaten alive inside the arc despite having one of the league’s best rim protectors. One perk of perimeter ball pressure is supposed to be an increase in turnovers, but that is not happening at all. No team in the league has a lower opponent turnover rate than the Bucks, landing them exactly where they were last year when they played a much more sound and conservative defensive structure. Of course this team isn’t going to generate turnovers: the primary perimeter defenders are Damian Lillard, Malik Beasley, and Khris Middleton! We’re three months into this. If Griffin hasn’t realized this is a terrible idea by now, what are we doing?

Another problem all of this scrambling has created is that the Bucks have gone from an elite defensive rebounding team for years to a slightly below average one, ranking seventeenth in Cleaning the Glass’ DRB%. They never ranked worse than third under Mike Budenholzer, even when Brook Lopez missed most of the season. The perimeter defenders are pressuring too high, too often, and forcing Lopez into difficult decisions, leaving more opportunities for opposing bigs to clean-up misses. The scrambling also leads to defenders having to closeout harder and sometimes close out across a shooter, which allows not only bigs, but also wings to come in for easy offensive rebounds. Rebounding and defense isn’t just an effort problem (though the Bucks could probably use some higher effort), it’s primarily downstream of the schematic decisions that you make.

In addition to the issues on the perimeter and with rebounding, the Bucks have also bled some in opponent free throw rate. Now, the Bucks aren’t a team that fouls like crazy, but they have slipped. Under Budenholzer, the Bucks ranked second twice and first twice in opponent free throw rate. In 2019–20, their worst season in this regard, they ranked sixth. This year, they’re down at eighth. They went from free throw rates typically around 15–16% to 19% this year. That isn’t a big deal in and of itself, but it does end up being worth a little bit. When combined with the plummeting everywhere else, just adds to the problem and is yet another example of some loss of defensive efficiency

You do not need great defensive personnel to get competent defense. Neither the Sacramento Kings nor the Denver Nuggets have better frontcourt defensive personnel than the Bucks do, and they have their own issues in their backcourts, and yet both of them have adjusted defensive ratings just inside the top ten. The Cavaliers spend most of their time with undersized guards in the backcourt, and no one would describe Max Strus or Dean Wade as stoppers, and yet they sit fourth in adjusted DRTG. The personnel isn’t making it easier, but the Bucks still have two DPOY-quality defenders in the frontcourt. The defense has no excuse to be this bad. Griffin has had more than enough time to fix this problem. It’s become clear that he cannot coach this defense to the level it needs to reach to be a true contender.

A World Of Trade-Offs

Another big issue with the Bucks defense is the transition defense. The Bucks actually rank a respectable 13th in Cleaning the Glass’ Pts+/Poss, which accounts for both frequency and opponent efficiency. A big reason for this is that the Bucks only allow a 117 ORTG off their misses, which ranks ninth in the league. But you’ll never guess what’s going on under the hood. Opponents are shooting with blindfolds on from three. Opponents are shooting just 27% from three on transition 3PA against the Bucks this year. The league average is around 38%. It appears once again the Bucks are getting lucky, especially considering the vast majority of transition 3PA are wide open.

The biggest issue is how often opponents are able to get into transition against the Bucks. The Bucks allow a staggering 38% of their own misses to turn into transition opportunities for their opponents. This the worst in the league by a sizable margin. The gap between Milwaukee and the 29th-ranked Atlanta Hawks is nearly the same gap as from Atlanta to 19th ranked Cleveland. Sometimes teams will trade allowing more transition opportunities to try and get more bodies on the offensive glass and pick up more points that way. I would argue that allowing a very high number of transition opportunities for your opponents is a bad trade-off to make, but in the Bucks’ case, they’re not even doing that: they rank 27th in ORB%. They’re not getting back adequately on defense and they’re not adding nearly enough to their offense to make this worth it. There are routine miscommunications, confusion, and a lack of effort when defending in transition, and this has been a problem the entire season.

What Exactly Is Adrian Griffin’s... “Thing?”

Halfway through the season, I still don’t know what Adrian Griffin’s “thing” is supposed to be. He was marketed as a defensive coach, and yet he’s overseen the worst defensive collapse in the league this year. The Bucks’ offense is efficient, but hardly getting more than the sum of its parts given the immense offensive talent that it has. In-game strategy? I don’t buy that argument at all. Fans like to see coaches switch stuff up because action feels better than inaction, but I’m not sure I can convey my disagreement with this any better than this tweet can:

You shouldn‘t get credit for your base setup being entirely wrong and taking the “throwing spaghetti at a wall” approach to fixing it. Bucks fans are so jaded by Budenholzer’s rigidity that some have twisted themselves into thinking that making adjustments—any adjustments—is actually good. Is it too much to ask for the coach to just put the players in a competent setup in the first place?

Maybe Griffin’s thing is that he’s able to create a setup to play the best teams? After all, the Bucks did wax Boston last week. The Bucks actually have the best net rating in the league against opponents with a top ten net rating. But I bet you can guess what’s going on here. No one has had opponent’s shoot worse from three in those situations than the Bucks, who have seen under 32% of their opponent threes go in. Three-point variance is a cruel thing. Rather than typing out all the math here, if you’re interested just check out the thread below:

If the Bucks shoot 45% from three in the playoffs and their opponents shoot poorly from three in the playoffs, I’m pretty confident the Bucks will win the title. However, I have a very low level of confidence that that level of fortune will continue.

The Bucks are running out of time to do what is just as necessary now as it was when back in November. The offense has not been more than the sum of its parts, the defense has been horrendous, the team has bled basically all the little efficiencies that added together to make them a great team, and the players seem increasingly frustrated, including Giannis.

The Bucks’ roster does not allow for a ton of creative scheming defensively. Just by shelling up, not fouling, securing defensive rebounds, and making life a little easier on Brook Lopez, they should be able to go from a legitimately bad defense to one that is solid enough given their offensive firepower. They don’t need a mastermind; they just need someone to pick the low-hanging fruit. Maybe there’s a veteran head coach sitting around who has experience working with pick-and-roll heavy offenses and coaching competent drop defenses. Maybe he even got some time with the players in training camp. Tick tock, Jon, your title window is running out of time.