It’s an established fact that the Milwaukee Bucks live and die by the three, but these days, they’ve been mostly dying.
Mike Budenholzer’s defense at the three-point line (or lack thereof, really) has gotten out of hand. The drop coverage experiment is dead. The Milwaukee Bucks losses aren’t anomalies anymore, and fans should stop calling them that.
To be sure, the scheme worked for a time. In the first two years of the Mike Budenholzer era, the Bucks led the league in defensive rating. The general idea is pretty sound on paper: wall off the rim, clamp down on interior attempts at easy shots, and the tradeoff for a few extra threes should be worth it.
In a league that continues to fully embrace the long-ball, however, that’s not winning basketball. Teams will continue to shoot the lights out against the Bucks if nothing changes.
Those days are gone.
Budenholzer changed up his five-out offense the offseason but stopped short of tweaking his defense. He remains committed to giving up jumpers in favor of locking up the paint, which opposing teams are now taking advantage of.
Against a conservative Bucks defense, teams heat up from distance with relative ease. A cursory glance at the numbers should tell you all you need to know.
It might not look too bad on paper. Through thirteen games, the Bucks have only given up the ninth-most three-pointers per game and are ninth in opponent three-point percentage. They allow 35.4 three-point attempts per game, good for just 11th in the league.
But when it rains, it pours. It’s become all too common to see Bucks getting stuck on screens as they try to go under. It makes little sense to this writer that Budenholzer’s “let it fly” system relies on making a lot of threes, only for the Bucks to give them up like handouts on the other end of the floor.
All of the Bucks’ six losses have come on the heels of excellent shooting nights from their opponents. Where they sported the best defense in the NBA for two seasons, the Bucks now rank ninth in defensive rating. They give up 108.2 points per 100 possessions.
Opponent 3PT% in all of the Bucks' losses so far:
vs LAL 51.4%
vs BKN 48.4%
vs UTA 47.2%
vs MIA 38.5%
vs NYK 59.3%
vs BOS 45.0%
— franco, but basketball (@BucksGotNext) January 22, 2021
With Milwaukee’s new personnel, the trade-off isn’t worth it anymore. Last season the Bucks allowed 35.5% on threes but held opponents to 45.7% on two-point attempts. Those numbers have taken a dip across the board.
Not outlier nights anymore
Last season, competitors only made 35.5% of their attempts from deep, despite the Bucks giving up more threes than any other team in the league. This year, opposing teams are now making 37.5% of their threes against the Bucks, over league average. The Bucks also give up 49.9% on two-pointers.
To make matters worse, as the league’s three-point revolution wears on, the NBA as a whole is getting better at shooting from distance. Through 12-13 games, NBA teams are shooting 36.5% from deep as a whole. On wide-open threes, the number shoots up to 39.4%, a far cry from the league average 38.0% two years ago.
Per NBA stats, the Bucks allow the second-most three-point makes classified as “wide open.” Out of 11 matchups thus far, only three teams shot below 32% on wide-open threes against Milwaukee. The rest shot more than 43%.
Opponents don’t suddenly choose to have franchise-record shooting nights against Milwaukee. In today’s NBA, if you give up a wide-open three, opponents will take them.
Against competent shooting teams, those shots will hit their mark more often than not. A team with perimeter defenders like Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo and Torrey Craig has no business giving up this much threes.
It’s all up to Bud now
The pattern in Milwaukee’s losses is clear: drop coverage has to go. It’s a gamble that’s too risky to take in the playoffs.
We’ve seen Mike Budenholzer take baby steps throughout the season. The Bucks have tried their hand at blitzing and switching guard-to-guard screens, often to varying results. But as he continues to lean on his drop scheme to close out games, these in-game adjustments feel hollow, meaningless, and performative.
Early on, Budenholzer has yet to prove he has other aces up his sleeve. It remains to be seen if Budenholzer has it in him to adjust the system as a whole rather than in-game.
History tells us he doesn’t. Recent experience shows he hasn’t.