January 16, 2019
Most NBA teams play defense with the intent of forcing tough shots. Milwaukee has a different plan.

When head coach Jason Kidd was traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks in July 2014, wide speculation ensued as to why. It was a managerial power play; there was an irreconcilable clash with Nets GM Billy King; the Nets roster was aging and hamstrung by the salary cap. Some also suggested that the Bucks roster presented an opportunity for Kidd to implement some of his schematic preferences with a young nucleus. The truth probably lay in some combination of the above.

Regardless of why and how they landed Kidd, his Bucks are now one of the league’s more pleasant surprises, vaulting themselves comfortably into Eastern Conference playoff contention fuelled by the league’s second ranked defense. By implementing versatile, positionally ambiguous lineups, Kidd has morphed his Bucks into an athletically supercharged version of the turnover generating machine he previously crafted in Brooklyn.

An important if obvious first step towards building an elite defense is developing quality defensive transition. The most efficient shots are more readily available early in the shot clock and, as the shot clock dwindles, all else being equal, the percentages generally start to shift in favor of the defense. It is little surprise, then, that transition defense has been a significant factor in the Bucks defensive success, with their versatility representing a powerful tool.

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As with any other team, Milwaukee designate preferred matchups, but are more readily adaptable to desperate cross matches that prevent easy transition opportunities. In transition this season, the Bucks have forced a stack of turnovers and allowed just 1.00 point per possession, according to Synergy Sports. These numbers are particularly impressive when considering Milwaukee’s own high turnover rate. Only Philadelphia (coincidentally also a notable defensive transition team) has turned the ball over more frequently than the Bucks, per NBA.com.

The ability to alternate assignments on the fly and play deep into the shot clock without being woefully exploited is critical. In that sense, it is as much the Bucks’ multi-positional capability as their flexibility that is empowering in forcing teams out of transition and into the half court.

Once you’ve corralled a team into the half court, the chances are you’ll be defending some on-ball screen action. Most of the league is trending towards a more conservative style of ball screen defense. Largely, Milwaukee employs a mishmash, hybrid form of showing and dropping back. As is standard NBA procedure, the Bucks’ on-ball defenders influence their man down towards the baseline and away from the middle of the floor. In fact, if you listen intently to a broadcast, you may hear Bucks big men screaming “ICE!” – general NBA nomenclature for this defensive technique.

However, their differences from the majority of the league arise in the positioning of the big man defender. Generally, the Bucks have them a step or two closer to the screener than would be the case in more conformist drop back styles. Milwaukee’s help defenders pinch in further towards the paint, too, where the goal is to force the offense to move to its next, likely secondary action.

Note here, Khris Middleton drifting over to stunt at Jared Sullinger, with Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo tilting the floor to the strong side:

When you combine that default weak side positioning with great perimeter length, the result is compressed driving and passing lanes that offer only small windows through which to penetrate. Pick-and-roll ball handlers have scored just 0.68 points per possession and turned the ball over more frequently against Milwaukee than any other team, per Synergy Sports. Ball handlers initiating an offense’s first action will see a shifting wall of bodies and long limbs.

As a consequence of the reasonably aggressive stance of the big man defender, opposition roll men have had comparatively more success against Milwaukee. Success is a relative term, though – the Bucks remain in the 65th percentile in points per possession scored by the roll man. Although not elite, it’s indicative of help defenders that are regularly well positioned and ready to bump, stunt and disrupt.

As is commonplace league-wide, Milwaukee is willing to hedge and trap ball screens against off-the-dribble snipers or pick-and-pop rocket launchers. Antenkoumpo, Jared Dudley, Middleton and now Michael Carter-Williams offer the sort of interchangeability that enables them to switch screens on and off the ball.

This play encapsulates much of what has made Milwaukee successful defensively. Fluid off-ball switching is followed by tilting the floor with weak side defenders, and finally double-teaming an unfavorable post matchup to force a turnover:

Toggling assignments in transition, occasionally switching, and employing undersize lineups leaves a team ostensibly vulnerable to mismatches that traditionalists would attack using post ups. Despite the general debate as to the value of the post up, as a means of penetrating the defense with the pass, they undoubtedly retain some usefulness. It’s a simple way of yielding interesting passing opportunities by playing inside out and bending a set defense.

While there may be some utility in baiting post ups against teams that have superior alternative avenues of attack (note the Prince post up above), the Bucks recognize their potential vulnerability. Milwaukee will regularly front the post and offer support to their overmatched primary defenders by swarming the paint:

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Teams shoot a league high 50.3% on post ups against the Bucks, but score only 0.87 points per possession, per Synergy Sports, placing them in the 41st percentile. They are able to overcome the relatively high shooting efficiency because opponents have coughed up the ball on 19.3% of post ups against the Bucks, comfortably the highest mark in the league. Just as they are unafraid to front the post, Milwaukee will offer judicious but swift double teams that seek to force tricky exit passes.

Watch here as LaMarcus Aldridge, a now accomplished post passer, struggles to make an accurate pass through the enormous John Henson-Antetokounmpo double-team:

Where most quality defenses are tied together on a string, the Bucks are on an elastic band, ready to spring into dense passing lanes, feasting on misguided cross-court passes and loose handles. That’s not to suggest however, that all is rosy on the defensive side of the ball. When you play small and liberally commit help defenders, there are sacrifices to be made, even with exceptional length.

There is, however, one problem. Defensive possessions don’t end until there’s a turnover, score, or defensive rebound. The Bucks have struggled to clean their defensive glass, conceding the second highest offensive rebound percentage in the league, per NBA.com. Dudley, Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and other nominal power forwards have been overpowered when trying to wrestle for position with taller, heavier opponents. Gangly big men like Larry Sanders (be well, Larry) and John Henson are not spectacular individual rebounders, and don’t occupy enough painted real estate to overcome the size disparities faced by their teammates.

Some of the issues on the defensive backboard extend beyond mere size concerns. Fronting the post, double-teaming and switching makes it difficult to simultaneously maintain optimal defensive rebound positioning and complete arduous rotations. The outcome of these schematic points is an interesting case study in modern defensive technique.

Just as smart offenses hunt for good shots, defenses aim to concede bad shots. Popular, conservative schemes that offer specifically limited help are designed strictly to concede the most inefficient attempts. On the face of things, the Bucks don’t follow this trend. Only the 76ers have conceded fewer midrange shots than the Bucks, per NBA.com. Moreover, Milwaukee’s opponents have taken the eighth most shots in the restricted area and a league high 7.5 corner three point attempts per game.

These are the prices you pay for the type of defense the Bucks play. Taking a collective step towards the strong side to offer help creates susceptibility to quality offensive possessions that cut through the haze of flailing arms with clean ball and man movement. Even here, against Kyle Korver, Middleton edges way up to tag the roll man, only moments away from being drilled by a mean Pero Antic back-screen:

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Allowing these types of shots seems like a troubling strategy, and perhaps reason enough to expect some regression. Yet while their opponent’s shot profile might suggest otherwise, there’s less than 30 games remaining and the Bucks remain a top-5 defense.

Outside of their knack for creating turnovers, a contributing factor to Milwaukee’s sustained success is their ability to reduce the efficiency of shooters. The Bucks have allowed just 57.5% shooting in the restricted area, good for third best in the league. Having quality rim protectors like Henson and (formerly) Sanders helps, but support from the wing is also useful in a system that asks for extensive rotations. In keeping with their expansive scheme, the Bucks have an abundance of spidery wing types, and seem intent on adding more flexible defensive pieces that can fly around and present some extra paint resistance.

The same is true when you consider their coverage of the three-point line. Given the sheer number of threes they allow perhaps some randomness is at play, but the Bucks have restricted opponents to just 32.9% shooting on threes, the third best mark in the league. Contesting shots, or perhaps rather, preventing open shots from the three point line is an important factor in defensive success. Seemingly, the Bucks are able to leverage their length and athleticism to offer help more aggressively than most and still recover to challenge shooters.

NBA defense is a tricky, nuanced aspect of the game, where the margins for error are tiny. The Bucks are willing to wager that they’ll force more mistakes than they make themselves. At their best, they wreak havoc with deflections and steals, and although some of the defensive numbers are beefed up by virtue of their placement in the Eastern Conference, they’ve performed reasonably well against several quality offenses.

While there are obvious offensive limitations, the Bucks are one of the Internet’s favorite teams, featuring a team of likeable and enigmatic misfits. With the addition of Carter-Williams and the pending return of Parker, they continue to grow their army of long-armed mantises. Part of the intrigue is their positional ambiguity, but it’s more than that; it’s functional.

Some teams are willing to concede certain shots. The Bucks? They’d simply prefer you didn’t shoot at all.

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Andrew Cutler

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