It took a while, but the Milwaukee Bucks finally feel like they’re rolling again.
To be sure, it isn’t the same kind of regular-season dominance fans have gotten used to over the past two years. The Bucks aren’t blowing the opposition out by 20, but it’s hard to find fault with the results so far. They share the second seed with Philadelphia atop a competitive Eastern Conference and have won eight of their last ten. They’ve yet to lose twice in a row.
While thirteen games is hardly a conclusive sample size this early, teams have at least gotten a feel for their new rosters. Foundations are set, chemistry has developed, and habits are starting to be built. The time for shaking offseason rust has long passed, and most teams around the league now either have their sights on clinching a playoff spot or tanking for the future.
Here’s a quick rundown of what the early numbers are telling us about what the future might hold for Milwaukee Bucks basketball.
The Death of Five-Out
Perhaps the most noticeable difference in this year’s campaign is the loss of the simplistic spread offense that buoyed the Bucks to the league’s top team two years running.
It was simple, but perhaps too simple. Use Giannis all-world strength and athleticism to penetrate defenses already spread apart by shooters surrounding the Greek Freak. It sounds like a winning formula, and it certainly found success for a while.
However, competent defensive coaches picked it apart with relative ease by throwing multiple defenders at Giannis and daring his teammates to make their shots on the perimeter.
More often than not, they didn’t.
For this writer, the team main problem against the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat was the lack of shooters within the five-out system. Everyone remembers what happened in those series: Giannis was clamped, and the shooting well dried up.
Bucks fans can rejoice that this tired strategy is for the most part scrapped.
This time around we’re treated to much more varied actions out of the post, and more pick-and-rolls with Khris Middleton handling the ball allowing his playmaking to shine.
In games where the Giannis-Middleton pick-and-roll was run extensively, the Bucks truly looked like a force to be reckoned with.
They Got Real Shooters, and It Shows
Possibly for the first time in the Budenholzer era (Kyle Korver notwithstanding), the Milwaukee Bucks went out and got real shooters.
While guards like Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton, and Sterling Brown were capable of knocking down shots from deep, they were frankly serviceable at best. They each shot at below-average percentages of 33.6%, 33.1%, and 32.4%, respectively.
Shooting clips like these are simply not sustainable for building an entire offense around especially for a simplistic Bucks offense that preached a “let it fly” mentality.
In what may be among the biggest splashes in the league the past offseason, the Bucks turned starting point guard in Eric Bledsoe (a career 33.7% shooter from distance) into Jrue Holiday.
To be frank, Holiday, a lockdown defender with a more diverse offensive package, has not disappointed, shooting 38% from three so far.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 16, 2021
They also turned their singular perimeter threat in Kyle Korver into a younger and more offensively dynamic Bryn Forbes. Sterling Brown turned into Sam Merrill, a career 42% shooter from distance over four years at Utah State. An aging Ersan Ilyasova was replaced by Jordan Nwora, another athletic sharpshooter who shot 40% in his last season in Louisville.
Milwaukee’s retooled offense comes largely as a result of John Horst essentially trading defense for offense in the offseason. The Bucks exchanged defenders like George Hill, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez for bucket-getters like DJ Augustine, Forbes, and perhaps this season’s biggest surprise so far in Bobby Portis.
Trading defense for offense
We can’t argue with the results as the offseason transactions have definitely translated in the stat sheets. Where they were 8th in offense a season ago, the Milwaukee Bucks now hold the top-ranked offense (118.4) in the league.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 14, 2021
Through twelve games played, the Milwaukee Bucks lead the league in points per game, field goal makes per game, three-point makes per game, and field goal percentage.
They’re also second in three-point percentage and sixth in assists per game while winning by an average of 10.77 points (second only to the defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers). As of this post, the Bucks have ten players on the roster shooting over 37% from deep.
The on-court returns are encouraging so far. Portis has been the revelation of the season and is quickly becoming the bench spark plug the Bucks have needed. Augustine is a more than capable replacement for Hill’s scoring punch.
Giannis and Bryn Forbes have developed chemistry very quickly, often running a dribble handoff action similar what Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson ran in Miami. Though not nearly as fluid as their Eastern Conference rivals, their two-man game has led to success the past few games, thanks to the dynamic scoring of Forbes who can take it in for the floater or stop and pop for a mid-range.
With the new acquisitions, expect the new-look Bucks to finally hit their marks once they let the basketball fly this coming season and bring their shooting numbers up as a team.
When it comes to half-court sets and ball movement, we’ve seen the Bucks offense dominate in the regular season only for it to putter down in the playoffs as the Bucks fall back into old habits of hero ball. This early, we’ve already seen them pull out unimaginative isolations in the dying minutes of close games.
Only time will tell if the Bucks can shake off their bad habits when the vaunted Giannis wall is inevitably built.
Drop coverage is here to stay
On the other end of the floor, the Bucks have also mixed in quite a bit of blitzing and switching, as seen in their games against the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks.
But for better or for worse, it looks as though the drop coverage scheme that catapulted the team to the league’s best defense is still here to stay as Mike Budenholzer’s go-to defense.
This means that the defensive woes from the past two seasons are still here.
It’s no secret that the Bucks defense concedes a lot of threes, but just how much they give up cannot be understated. They’re allowing 37% three-point shooting from opponents, while 39.9% of field goals attempted against the Bucks are threes, good for the fifteenth spot in the league in both categories. They’ve also allowed the fourth-most threes attempted in the league (476), just four attempts behind the New York Knicks.
Their personnel choices have certainly made an impact, as seen in the team’s 7th-place defensive rating—a far cry from last year’s league-leading defense.
But it looks like Budenholzer is more open to experimenting with his schemes this time around. His defensive adjustments have come earlier in games and show no indication of being performative. It seems as though he has finally learned his lesson from the past few defeats, possibly for the first time in years.
AG ignores the screen this time, finds Vooch for another three.
Vucevic was left open all playoffs by these Bucks; Milwaukee doesn't seem interested in changing their drop coverage, usually opting to leave average or worse 3pt shooters open as a part of their strategy. pic.twitter.com/LSE1gwgv1S
— Beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) January 12, 2021
Khris Middleton Is a Three-Level Scorer
It’s hard not to pontificate over one of the most underrated players in the league. But here is a little-known fact of which there should be no doubt: Khris Middleton has become a near-superstar this season.
The numbers don’t lie, and his performance so far would be nothing if not spirited. He’s having a career year across the board, averaging 21.8 points per contest on 62% effective field goal percentage.
Khris just keeps getting better. pic.twitter.com/eSsPgQVDl5
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 16, 2021
The advanced statistics look favorably at his calm, cool, and collected offense, too. As of this post, Khris Middleton is fourth in the league in offensive win shares (1.6), and third in total win shares (2.1). He also sports an offensive box plus-minus of 5.1, tied with a certain Stephen Curry.
After a disappointing exit at the hands of the Miami Heat, it seems James Khristian Middleton has come out of the gates hungry and an entirely new player. He’s stronger, faster, and surprisingly much more composed than he already was. His drives are much more determined, his post-ups much more purposeful. He’s added new wrinkles to his game, and no movements are wasted.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) December 26, 2020
The Meteoric Rise of Donte DiVincenzo
Donte DiVincenzo has also been no slouch. The Big Ragu has continued to improve on every facet of his game every year since the Bucks drafted him in 2018. He’s continued to flourish within his role as something of a 3&D spark-plug for the offense. His shot is looking great and is falling with more consistency these days.
Not only does the Michael Jordan of Delaware more than compensate for the loss of Wesley Matthews, but he also provides another deadly sniper in the wake of Kyle Korver’s departure. He’s upped his three-point shooting from 33.6% on 3.7 attempts per game to 44.4% on 4.8 attempts per game so far.
Cherrypicked stat of the day: When Donte DiVincenzo is on the court, the Milwaukee Bucks outscore opponents by +16.7 per 100 possessions versus just +9.1 when he is off the court.
— franco, but basketball (@BucksGotNext) January 7, 2021
Make no mistake: if DiVincenzo keeps this up, he may actually be the fourth star the Bucks are looking for, possibly even eclipsing what former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon achieved during his tenure with the Bucks.
"They want me to take the shot if I'm open." pic.twitter.com/atYuzflzlN
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 23, 2020
With Donte and Khris starting on the wings, the Bucks have a litany of capable (debatably) guards and forwards to slot on the wings this season. Unfortunately, it looks like Budenholzer is still undecided on who gets a roster spot for the remainder of the season.
Bud’s Indecision on Backup Wings
As we’ve seen with most Popovich disciples, Bud has always leaned heavily on his bench unit to produce while the stars sit, and the past two years in Milwaukee are no different.
This doesn’t bode well for the logjam at the two and three spots. Thus far into the season, Budenholzer has been content with giving established vets like Pat Connaughton and Thanasis Antetokounmpo the backup wing roles.
As a result, promising rookies Jordan Nwora and Sam Merrill have so far not had much run outside of garbage time despite both being career 40% three-point shooters in college.
Cherrypicked stat: Bucks go down -7.0 in offensive rating when Thanasis is on the court, per Basketball Reference.
— franco, but basketball (@BucksGotNext) January 10, 2021
The Bucks also have another defensive stalwart waiting in the wings in Torrey Craig, a stout, athletic defender who was routinely made to defend the opposing team’s best wing in Denver.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, Craig’s early-season injury meant that the Thanasis experiment was officially a go.
Somehow, with Craig’s recovery, the elderly Antetokounmpo is still getting significant minutes.
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 2, 2019
Giannis Still Can’t Shoot, Kind Of
For all their improvements from yesteryear, the Bucks only go as far as their two-time MVP will take them. Everything else is strictly peripheral.
Unfortunately, much of this is still hindered by his shooting, and he is only getting worse in that department.
Asked Giannis about his free-throw routine and if he has specifically been working with someone in particular to make some adjustments.
He said around a month and a half ago he made some slight changes. Says coach Oppenheimer and staff preach confidence with his shooting.
— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) December 13, 2020
In the team’s first three preseason games, Giannis tried out a shooting routine that for a time looked to yield much better results than his typical routine.
Fans at the time took this to mean a sign for good things to come, expecting his percentage to go up as he got more reps in.
That new routine is gone, with Giannis doing away with it just a few games into the regular season.
His mechanics have only regressed since, punctuated by an abysmal 1-of-10 performance from the line against Dallas. (You read that right, that’s 10% on FTs, and hack-a-Giannis might be imminent if this trend continues.)
Giannis Antetokounmpo misses the last second free throw and the Celtics win 122-121 pic.twitter.com/o828UTO62u
— Barstool Sports Commenter (@BSScommenter_) December 24, 2020
To put it bluntly, this is terrible for a player leading the league in free-throw attempts with 10 per game. He’s shooting 57.5% from the line, good for the 102nd spot in the league in that category, just a few decimals ahead of Andre Drummond.
His mechanics don’t attract optimism, either. Not surprisingly, he has thrown up a few airballs (well-documented by mainstream media, obviously) on open shots. Most times, his elbow still sits too low and seems to siphon a lot of power from his shot.
They’re miserable misses, but on the bright side, we’ve seen him experiment with good footwork and post moves in the past few games. He’s also back to hitting fadeaways from the baseline like he did last regular season.
Last year countless analysts knocked Giannis after the Toronto series, saying if he could hit shots in the midrange and from deep, the Bucks might’ve won.
That no longer looks to be a problem pic.twitter.com/SuYw4DNoQP
— IKE Bucks Podcast (@IKE_Bucks) February 21, 2020
The numbers still show marked improvement on the part of Antetokounmpo. Through 12 games, Giannis is shooting 39.5% on shots 3-10 feet away from the rim, up from 34.3% from that distance last year. He’s also shooting threes at a 30.5% clip so far, a minuscule improvement from his 3FG percentage of 30.4% last year.
This early on, it’s clear Giannis has a lot to figure out when it comes to shooting the basketball. The good news is he has over 60 games to do so, and this time around, he’ll have the benefit of a star trio and a herd of competent shooters backing him up.
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