It’s typical to say that dominant teams “can’t be stopped,” but that’s not quite right for the Milwaukee Bucks. They’re actually relatively easy to stop, posting a league-average offense so far in the absence of premier perimeter shotmaker Khris Middleton.
That’s pretty good, all things considered, but it’s not the reason for their success. Milwaukee can stop, and do stop, everyone else.
Through 10 games, the Bucks have arguably the most effective defense in the NBA since at least the 2004-2005 season, when Cleaning The Glass stats began. Giving up just 102.8 points per 100 possessions, the Bucks aren’t quite as stingy as other historical best defenses. But we are in a time of elevated offense league-wide, so when we compare the Bucks’ league-leading defensive rating against the average defensive rating, we see that no team since at least 2004-2005 has been as far ahead of the pack as this year’s Bucks:
Milwaukee has almost always had one of the best defenses in the league, so this isn’t a total shock. But how they’re doing it has been very different than in the past.
Traditionally, Milwaukee has relied upon deep drop defensive schemes anchored by their big men, particularly Brook Lopez, to wall off the rim. They helped aggressively in the paint and allowed loads of threes, but tried to limit them to only mediocre or worse shooters (snipers were generally more tightly guarded). If you were a 35% shooter on low volume, you knew Milwaukee would be an all-you-can-eat buffet.
But after getting blitzed by Boston’s role players during the playoffs, particularly Al Horford and Grant Williams (an astonishing 7-18 from deep in the deciding Game 7, many about as tricky as the clip below), coach Mike Budenholzer has adapted. (Remember when people criticized him for being unable to change his principles?)
Here’s an example of Williams literally walking into a wide-open three last year:
Allowing a barrage of threes from meh shooters was a good scheme for the larger sample size of the regular season, but it opened up too much variance in the playoffs, where a couple of hot games could (and did) spell Milwaukee’s doom. The Bucks are funneling everything into the midrange now, and it’s worked like a charm. The days of the drive-and-kick slowly slashing the Bucks to death are over, and offenses have had no answer.
Instead of stationing help defenders with a foot in the paint, Bud has realized that either Brook or Giannis is more than capable of protecting the rim by themselves. So off-ball defenders stay home on their men, and the on-ball defender chases hard over screens to both run ballhandlers off the three-point line and contest jumpers from behind. Contrast the clip above with one from this year, as defenders stay a step closer even to mediocre shooters like Julius Randle and RJ Barrett:
Jevon Carter (a bulldog point of attack defender finally getting extended minutes for the first time in his career) ably navigates the screen and manages to get back in front of Jalen Brunson. With Lopez sealing off the rim, help defense doesn’t have to compromise itself for Brunson’s sake, and with no easy shot or simple pass to make, Brunson has nowhere to go and gets stripped.
It’s very, very hard to beat a team that only allows two-point jumpers, as opponents are discovering.
Milwaukee has paid special attention to the all-important corners: they give up the fewest corner threes in the league – just 5.2% of opponents’ shots come from there. They allow the most long midrange jumpers, naturally. And the Bucks still protect the paint: they give up the fourth-fewest attempts at the rim and are allowing the fifth-worst conversion rate there, typical Bucks stats.
Brook Lopez is a Defensive Player Of The Year Candidate — he both blocks shots at the rim and deters them from even happening. If you like advanced stats, he leads the league in defensive RAPTOR; if you don’t, he also leads the league in contested shots and blocks per game. And he might be the third-best defender on the team!
Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive field goal % allowed for the 150 players defending at least 10 attempts per game. Most players are scared even to try him, and they routinely pass up opportunities to do so in favor of passing back out to the perimeter. (I’m getting tired of typing the phrase “leads the league.”)
It’s amazing we’ve made it this far without talking about Jrue Holiday, one of the best perimeter defenders around. His mighty hands are always reaching, pulling, and pushing, and he’s one of the few Bucks given license to cause havoc and chase steals. Despite being a point guard, he routinely draws top wing assignments, like Kevin Durant (whom he hassled relentlessly into a 6-14 shooting performance as the primary defender earlier this season despite giving up at least five inches in height).
Besides the change in shot distribution, the Bucks never foul (third in FT rate allowed) and recover 76.5% of defensive rebounds (third-highest in the league), so if teams don’t make their first shot, they don’t get to manufacture any cheap buckets in other ways. They’re even the fifth-best transition defense despite routinely playing bigger, slower lineups that theoretically should be more vulnerable to running teams.
And they’re doing all of this without Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton, their two best wing defenders. Imminent returns from injury should only help the team clamp down even harder.
Milwaukee has been so good with the same core group of characters for so long that it’s easy to overlook what they’re doing. We already knew Milwaukee would be a force, and they don’t have the new-car smell of the Cavaliers, for example, so it’s easy to pay them no mind. I encourage you not to make that mistake, as we’re watching a historically good defense still finding its groove and about to integrate two more plus defenders.
It’s still very early in the season, and the offense has had its issues. But right now, it’s hard to imagine another team scoring enough points to emerge triumphant in a seven-game series.If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to basketballpoetry.com to have more delivered directly to your mailbox every Tuesday and Friday! Also, please follow me on Twitter @bballispoetry. Thanks!