This version of the Milwaukee Bucks — a night-to-night force capable of burying its opponent on either end of the floor — serves as a testament to what effect coaching and environment can have on an NBA team. It is striking to juxtapose this team with the stagnant, imprecise bunch that limped into the playoffs last April: year removed from a wholly underwhelming season, the Bucks have leapt into the top five in pace, offensive and defensive efficiency and 3-point shooting. There is no great ingenuity behind this revolution — Milwaukee’s scheme contains traces of nearly every effective offense in recent NBA history. But simply by breaking bad habits and modernizing the team’s offense, Mike Budenholzer has set the Bucks free.
Even the most basic changes play like revelations, from organized movement in the halfcourt to strategic placement of shooters around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee has cut out nearly all of its mid-range heaves from a year ago and tacked on over 15 3-point attempts per game. With so much space available to him, Antetokounmpo is more dangerous than ever, and the weapons around him more threatening than in prior years.
Antetokounmpo has long been gifted enough to power his way to the rim against most any opponent and is among just a handful of players in the NBA who all but guarantees a top-10 offense. But even the best players (save for perhaps LeBron James or Steph Curry) need structure and support, and Antetokounmpo finally has it.
In that sense, Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova (making a combined $10.4 million!) have been instrumental in transforming Milwaukee’s offense. Both have been deployed in a manner that makes them essential and each is having his most efficient season to date. Lopez makes life easier for everyone else on the floor — when he isn’t drawing defenders away from Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, he might be facilitating sets from the high post or clearing space with impenetrable screens. He doesn’t merely stand behind the arc, he brings possessions to life with smart movement and an ability to launch over tight closeouts from preposterous depths:
As a result, Milwaukee’s best players are playing more freely than ever. Middleton has been empowered to attack more aggressively off the dribble and scorch nets if provided any modicum of space. That, and an overdue change in shot selection has led to the best season of his seven-year career. He’s sliced his mid-range diet down by nearly three attempts per game and hunts 3-pointers rather than turning to them as a fallback option. While Middleton benefits from playing next to Antetokounmpo, as any secondary star would, the inverse is also true. The space he helps create allows Giannis more room to charge into the lane, where he shoots nearly 14 times per game. Place the ball in his hands, and Middleton can capably run the show:
His blend of shooting, ball-handling, playmaking and defense would work in any environment, but it feels especially vital in Milwaukee, who will likely pay a hefty sum to retain Middleton this summer. He can be entrusted with primary scorers and is versatile enough to slide from one position to the next at a moment’s notice. With this sort of personnel at his disposal, Budenholzer has dialed back defensive pressure in favor of discipline, scrapping Kidd’s frantic scheme for a more orderly approach. In their restraint, the Bucks have morphed into one of the most efficient defenses in the league.
Despite forcing fewer turnovers, Milwaukee’s length and versatility can make even conservative schemes feel suffocating. Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon envelop perimeter scoring threats while Eric Bledsoe pesters any poor guard that might have the misfortune of playing against him. Antetokounmpo flies around with controlled fervor. Lopez isn’t an especially mobile big man, but can be effective in pick-and-roll defense due to sheer size, provided he isn’t asked to venture far from the paint. By planting himself in the lane, he helps corral drives and fortifies Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding. No NBA team allows fewer shots in the restricted area or defends those looks as staunchly as the Bucks; only Brooklyn and Miami force more mid-range attempts. That, however, leaves Milwaukee vulnerable on the outside, where foes get nearly 40 percent of their shots. While bigs sink into the paint to deter drives, opponents regularly generate 3s out of the pick-and-pop, a weakness playoff teams will seek to exploit:
Strategic adjustments may leave Lopez or Ilyasova vulnerable to mismatch-hunting and isolations, which neither is well-suited to defend. It might serve the Bucks to try Thon Maker or Antetokounmpo at center to keep up with the fast, switch-heavy frenzy of the playoffs. But the mere fact Milwaukee can have these concerns in November is evidence of a justified change in expectation. The Bucks’ past glitches were more an issue of coaching than personnel, and they’ve found a combination of the two that could finally propel them into championship contention.