Waiting in the shadow of the suspension this season, the Milwaukee Bucks are just trying to finish what they started.
Sitting 53-12, including 28-3 at home and first in the East, Bucks does everyone’s steamrolling during the 2019-20 season. The ruling MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has completed a spectacular year resume that will give him another individual trophy.
For the most part, 34.5 Greek Freak points per 36 minutes will stand out as the most impressive number of the season, and that gives them the best chance of winning in the playoffs.
But it is not true.
Milwaukee’s offensive success shouldn’t be covered up, but that’s not what makes them a big favorite for gold.
In fact, what makes them dangerous is how focused they make life miserable for the aspirations of the opponent’s score, especially in halfcourt. Giannis not only has the Bucks defended at a level that seems confusing in today’s speed-and-space style, but he is on his way to becoming a strong Player of the Year candidate for a team that has historically been difficult to score against.
Over the 70 years of NBA history, it is quite clear how much offensive talent has developed. There are no seven legs with the highest ball handling and transition skills as we have seen in the modern era with Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Karl Towns, and Nikola Jokic. Those are just a few examples, but they each exemplify the types of players that would be considered aliens if they were miraculously dropped into the 1980s or previous eras.
Acknowledging the difference in offensive skills from then and now, the only objective way to measure team defense is to the degree that they dominate their peers. In other words, it is unfair to judge the Bucks today through a defensive ranking lens – permitted points per 100 possessions – when there is no way they might be able to match raw defense statistics from the 1960s. Why? Well, because the Celtics from the Bill Russell era did not play against the strange creatures that we see producing at a high level today.
Here it is relative defensive rank help. That is a fancy way of saying, “how far below the league defensive average does Team X have against its opponents?”
At present, through 65 matches with the strong possibility of no more regular season matches, the Bucks have held opponents to only 101.9 points per 100 ownership. The average defensive rank for all teams during the 2019-20 season is 110.4, giving them a relative score of -8.5 for this year. It was tied to the fifth sting defense in NBA history relative to their competitors:
The only teams that matched or surpassed this type of aggressive defense were four Celtics iterations of the 1960s, 2008 juggernaut led by Kevin Garnett (Defensive Player of the Year) and one leading assistant coach named Tom Thibodeau, and San Antonio Spurs during the First Team Duncan
What also cannot be understood is how far is the distance between Milwaukee and the No. 2 defense in the league, Toronto, with this additional context. While the Bucks has a defense rating of 8.5 points per 100 ownership better than the league average, Toronto is only 4.8 above the average. They have symbolized what it means to be in their own league, at least in defense.
Toronto finishes the regular season No. 2 overall, the percentage of effective field targets allowed is 50.2%. That’s 2.6 percentage points below the league average. Meanwhile, Milwaukee sits at 48.6% permitted -% eFG is relatively -4.2%.
Most teams around the league will be frank about their ideology on both sides of the floor. For almost all coaches, the answer is the same: Limit outside shooters from doing the most dangerous damage and live with mid-rangers.
Mike Budenholzer and Bucks, however, believe in different formulas. When he took the job in 2018, he made it a priority to cut everything in the paint. With Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez being the main obstacles, they did not disappoint him.
This season, on average the NBA team allows 35.4% of the opponent’s goal to try to be on the edge (within four feet). For Bucks, that is only 29.3% and the only figure below 31.0%.
But that is only the frequency of shots allowed. Their brilliance extends to how often they prevent the team from succeeding within four feet. Opponents connected at only 54.7% of their edge effort, which gave the Bucks first place with a large margin. The next toughest team to score against inside is Portland, which allows a 59.1% success rate on that shot (layups, hooks, and dunks).
So, the difference between team No. 1 and No. 2 in defensive rim efficiency (4.4 percentage points) is the same as the margin between No. 2 and No. 14
Budenholzer usually invites a three-point opportunity against his defense, as long as it’s an over-broken effort (both wing and key). He will uphold his men to protect the paint, ask the big one to retreat during the screen-and-roll action, and believe that the rotation of the underside can be closed in a corner shooter.
This is why, when teams play in Milwaukee, on average 30.3% of their shot attempts come from threes. This is the highest proportion in the league, which usually sounds like an adverse game. Budenholzer hopes his elite guards and defense wingers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, will do enough to fight the screen to help reduce some of the three points of attack. The last two seasons, of course they have.
Although the mathematical approach doesn’t sound great and seems like a risky bet for Milwaukee, it proves to be the most effective. Even though this is a very deep league with shooting talent, the Bucks know they have a better chance of eliminating anything “easy” inside.
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