On the surface, it appears as though the Milwaukee Bucks have a pretty good defense. They rank 17th in defensive efficiency heading into Wednesday night’s play, per NBA.com, but that figure has pushed into the back half of the top-10 in games played since they traded for Eric Bledsoe in mid-November. Nearly every player on their roster has plus length, and they are absolutely stocked with high-level athletes that can switch out onto multiple positions and guard in space.
A deeper examination of Milwaukee’s defense, however, reveals that it is not quite as good as the numbers suggest, and that it is rather easily exploitable by smart teams.
The most distinctive thing about Milwaukee’s defense is its aggressiveness. The Bucks trap high out on the floor against pick-and-roll ball-handlers. They help deeper into the paint on roll men and closer to the ball on post-ups than any team in the league. And they attempt to run every single shooter off the 3-point line, no matter who it is. They bet that if they keep making you swing the ball all over the floor to find a crack against their crazy length and athleticism, you will eventually make a mistake and either turn it over or shoot a contested shot.
As such, it should come as no surprise that their opponents have turned the ball over on 16.9 percent of offensive possessions this season, the fourth-highest rate in the league, per NBA.com. When their scramble is working, it really works. The other team appears flustered and winds up flinging the ball wildly around the court before settling for a sub-optimal shot. Sometimes it forces players into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, like when their rotations push Pau Gasol into passing up a 3-pointer on the wing and having to barf up a heavily contested pull-up jumper late in the shot clock:
The issue is what happens when their scramble doesn’t force the other team to panic. The Bucks rank in the bottom third of the league in each of the other three factors: opponent’s effective field goal percentage (22nd), opponent’s offensive rebounding rate (21st) and opponent’s free-throw rate (29th). In other words, if they don’t force a turnover, it is overwhelmingly likely that something good is happening for the opposing offense.
It’s easy to see why. Teams that react to the scramble by playing under control, slipping players into open space and merely finding the next open man can open gigantic cracks in the Milwaukee defense. Contrast the possession above with this one:
Rather than force an early pass into help, C.J. McCollum strings out his pick-and-roll, pulls back and surveys his surroundings. He gets Bledsoe off the ground with a hesitation dribble (Bledsoe ends trying to contest a pass to nobody) and catches John Henson leaning too far to his left, so he splits the defense with a pass inside to Jusuf Nurkic for an easy dunk before the help rotation can make it over in time.
An even more common sight against the Bucks’ scramble heavy defense is this: a crosscourt pass, followed by a simple pump-fake, which throws the entire operation into absolute chaos.
Once Tony Snell goes flying by Terry Rozier in the corner, the defense is compromised and playing catchup. Another crosscourt pass followed by a pump-fake later, and Marcus Morris is open for a corner 3.
Because they’re so aggressive closing out to the perimeter, they’re also wildly susceptible to pump-and-slide 3-pointers. Running a shooter off the line and forcing him into a mid-ranger, like Gasol above, is great; but it’s different when Jayson Tatum pump-fakes and just sidesteps into a 3 (like above) or when Kyrie Irving pump-fakes, drives, draws multiple defenders and creates an even easier 3 for Al Horford.
And that’s all before we get into the issues caused by their incessant trapping of pick-and-rolls, regardless of the opponent’s personnel. It works fine if you’re doing it against the Blazers and forcing Nurkic to make plays when surrounded by several non-shooters. It can do things like get the Blazers to settled for a contested 3 from Evan Turner. But when you show a trap against an Irving-Horford pick-and-roll with Tatum all alone on the weak side of the floor, you’re just asking to get burned.
Things like this are why the Bucks have allowed opponents to use spot-up jumpers on 22.7 percent of their possessions, per Synergy data on NBA.com, the fifth-highest share in the league. And it’s why opponents have a 56.8 effective field goal percentage on those shots, the fourth-best mark in the NBA.
You can often see the moment an opposing team “figures out” the Bucks defense during a game, and after that point passes, they become almost impossible to stop. It happened with the Raptors in the playoffs last year, and then the series was essentially over. They went from scoring 95.4 points per 100 possessions in falling into a 2-1 hole to ripping off 107.6 points per 100 in closing out the series with three straight wins. The team often tries to change up its strategy mid-game once the opponent cracks the defense, but that is incredibly difficult to do on such short notice, and it usually leads to even worse results. (They’ve also gone with a slightly less aggressive version of the traps the last couple games, to similarly middling results.)
It should not be the case that one of the longest and most athletic teams in the NBA is so much worse defensively in the fourth quarter than at any other time during the game, and yet the Bucks rank 26th in fourth quarter defensive efficiency, and that ranking has improved only to 22nd since the acquisition of Bledsoe.
Maybe the most infuriating thing about Milwaukee’s defensive system is they don’t even need to play this way to be good at defense. Their players are so long that they can be under control and still adequately contest jumpers and get into passing lanes to force turnovers. They’re so mobile that they can merely switch or slide at the level of a screen rather than blitzing, and still disrupt nearly every pick-and-roll. They can leverage their length and athleticism in such smarter ways, without leaving themselves compromised and vulnerable to simple counters like crosscourt passes, pump fakes and slipped screens.
Milwaukee will probably reach the playoffs on talent alone, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is good enough that he may even win them a series. But at some point they’re going to run up against a team that is smart enough offensively to figure out exactly how to attack them, and then their time will end. If they played a less high-risk system, they’d stand a better chance of pulling off a longer postseason run.