A third of the way through the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks once again have the best net rating in the NBA. They're scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, which is more than three points better than last year's Dallas Mavericks, the most efficient team in league history. After beating the Nuggets without Jrue Holiday on Monday, they are allowing 109.2 per 100 possessions, which ranks seventh. This is a drop-off from previous seasons, but it's trending in the right direction -- after discouraging losses in New Orleans and Charlotte in late January, their defense ranked 18th. If there is a concern, though, it is that they're still 21st in halfcourt defense in non-garbage time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass.
You don't really care that much about these numbers, though, do you? After steamrolling regular-season opponents for two straight years, the Bucks need to prove they can stand up to the particular pressures of the playoffs. Everything they've done since the Miami Heat knocked them out in the second round -- the Holiday trade, the reserves they signed in free agency, the shift to 4-out spacing, the experiments with pick-and-roll coverages -- will be judged based on what happens months from now.
A skeptic can credibly argue that their relative struggles on defense suggest that the roster is no closer to championship-caliber. A believer can credibly argue that a bit of early-season adversity will be good for the group in the long run. It didn't make sense to write Milwaukee off when it was 11-8 a week and a half ago, and it doesn't make sense to overreact to the five straight wins that have followed. This does not, however, mean that we can't learn anything about the Bucks from their first 24 games. Here are six stats (accurate through games played on Feb. 8) that stand out:
1) Milwaukee has made 42 percent of its catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com. The Bucks have never shot like this. Mike Budenholzer showed up in 2018, had five blue squares taped around the 3-point line on the practice court and gave Giannis Antetokounmpo space, but before this season they weren't actually all that accurate from long range. In 2018-19 they made 35.6 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s, which ranked 23rd. Last season they ranked 23rd again, shooting 36.5 percent. Now they're second, behind only the lights-out Los Angeles Clippers. On Dec. 29, Milwaukee set a new NBA record for 3s made in a single game, going 29 for 51 (56.9 percent) in a 144-97 win over the Miami Heat.
Khris Middleton's 50 percent mark on catch-and-shoot 3s is a career high, as is his 59-percent mark on wide-open 3s (i.e. the closest defender is more than 6 feet away). Same goes for Donte DiVincenzo's 42.5-percent mark on catch-and-shoot 3s and his 49.2 percent mark on wide-open 3s. Holiday has made 38.7 percent of his 3s on a virtually even split between catch-and-shoot (21-for-55) and pull-up (22-for-56) attempts, per NBA.com.
The biggest change, though, is that the Bucks' bench has been scorching. Which brings us to …
2) Milwaukee's bench leads the league in aggregate net rating (plus-3.1) and 3-point accuracy (42.6 percent). For an offense predicated on Antetokounmpo getting into the paint and drawing help, it is hard to overstate these shooting numbers. Milwaukee's reserves are collectively making a league-best 44.3 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s, a dramatic increase from 36.6 percent last season and 35.8 the season before. Teams that have left Bryn Forbes, Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin and Pat Connaughton open have been punished (all data in chart per NBA.com).
| ||Catch and shoot||Above the break||Wide open|
Every Buck gets his share of clean looks in transition and spotting up. Forbes has been particularly dangerous in the pick-and pop:
Portis is a pick-and-pop threat, too, but he's been more than a stretch big in Milwaukee. Portis is making a career-high 56.4 percent of his 2s, a result of him posting up against mismatches and crashing the glass for easy putbacks. The Bucks were 28th in offensive rebounding percentage last season and 26th the season before that. This season they're 10th, and with Portis on the floor they're grabbing offensive rebounds (31 percent) more frequently than the league-leading Nuggets (30.8 percent).
Augustin's pick-and-roll playmaking is a luxury, and he's perfectly comfortable deferring to Antetokounmpo and Middleton. He doesn't give Milwaukee the quality of defense that George Hill did, though, and it's reasonable to wonder how all of these guys will survive the inevitable mismatch-hunting that is coming in the postseason.
One of the Bucks' defensive problems, though, has nothing to do with the reserves …
3) Milwaukee's starting lineup has allowed 97.9 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, per CTG. This is about equivalent to the 23rd-best halfcourt defense in the league, which belongs to the Dallas Mavericks. It's unfair to compare this to the incredible 81.8 points per 100 possessions their starters surrendered in the halfcourt in 2019-20, especially because Budenholzer's coaching staff is experimenting with different pick-and-roll coverages now. It's worth noting, too, that the transition defense has remained dominant. But it's a bit surprising that the lineup has been merely good rather than great, more similar in terms of net rating and to the Kings and Pelicans' starting lineups than fellow contenders' (all data in chart per CTG):
|Team (starting lineup)||Net rating||Defensive rating||Halfcourt defensive rating|
MIL 19-20 (Bledsoe-Matthews-Middleton-Antetokounmpo-Lopez)
Defensively, the Bucks' priority is still rim protection, and in that respect this group is elite, if not quite as stingy as last year's starting five. The problem is defending the 3-point line. Last year's starters gave up a ton of 3-point attempts, but opponents made just 34.4 percent of them, a below-average mark. Opponents are shooting 40.6 percent against this year's starting lineup.
This trend holds true for the team more broadly: Milwaukee's opponents have made 39.5 percent of their 3s in non-garbage-time minutes, per CTG, up from 36.5 percent in 2019-20. Ten days after the the Bucks' historically hot night in Miami, the Utah Jazz visited Milwaukee and made a franchise-record 25 3s on 53 attempts in a 131-118 rout. It was the first time in NBA history that five players on the same team made at least four 3s in the same game.
If you're a Bucks believer, you might chalk this up to randomness. Their opponents are shooting slightly fewer wide-open 3s than they did last season, but making 43.2 percent of them, the second-highest mark in the league, compared to 37.5 percent in 2019-20. Between now and the start of the playoffs, this number could fall. Milwaukee's entire defensive strategy is based on the idea that, over time, the numbers are on its side.
To a Bucks skeptic, though, not all wide-open 3s are created equal. There is a world of difference between a mediocre shooter taking a 3 off a kickout because Milwaukee has left him open and a great shooter confidently stepping into a pull-up off a high pick-and-roll. The book on the Bucks' base defense has been out for some time, and, as drop coverage has spread throughout the league, players and coaches have become more intentional about exploiting it. The Athletic's Seth Partnow, who just happens to be Milwaukee's former director of basketball research, identified two statistical trends that should worry any team hell-bent on protecting the rim: Offenses have meaningfully more spacing than they did even two years ago, and the league as a whole is shooting 1.5 percentage points better on uncontested 3s than it did last season.
At its best, the Bucks' approach makes decent shooters hesitate because they're not used to taking more than a few 3s a game. At its worst, it has the opposite effect. On Jan. 29, in Eric Bledsoe's first game against Milwaukee since it traded him, he shot a career-high 14 3s and made seven of them. Equally aware that he'd be open and ready to fire away, Lonzo Ball made seven of his own on a career-high-tying 13 attempts. The Pelicans went 21 for 48 from deep as a team in their 131-126 win, the second of three straight games in which the Bucks' opponents made 21 or more.
Milwaukee has waded into the world of switching, with mixed results. It is encouraging that the Bucks are trying to take advantage of their defensive versatility, particularly with Holiday on the roster. Seeing Brook Lopez and Portis try to contain perimeter players, though, brings back memories of the brief, doomed attempt to switch ball screens against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 conference finals.
Which brings us to a bigger-picture issue …
4) Milwaukee is allowing 120.1 points per 100 possessions against teams with a top-10 net rating, per CTG. This ranks 28th in the league, and its halfcourt mark of 110.5 points allowed per 100 possessions against that same group ranks dead-last. The good news is that there have only been six such games, a tiny sample, and the Bucks are coming off arguably their best win of the season, a shorthanded victory in Denver. The bad news is that the Nuggets started the game with a 42-point explosion in the first quarter, fueled by open 3s, and posted an offensive rating almost identical to its average despite a banged-up Jamal Murray missing a bunch of clean looks.
It is notable that the New York Knicks obliterated Milwaukee's defense six weeks ago. More important, though, is how the Bucks fare against elite teams. The Utah game was a nightmare defensively. Their two-point loss in Brooklyn wasn't much better. Their 113-106 loss to the Lakers wasn't particularly encouraging on either end.
There's nothing wrong with Milwaukee being seventh in defense if it's because the coaching staff is focused on what will work in the playoffs. Championship-caliber teams are supposed to use the regular season to figure stuff out. But the Bucks have not yet answered any of the longstanding questions they're facing. After all the discussion about what their best small, switchable lineup might be, they've played an enormous Lopez-Portis frontcourt three times as much as they've played Antetokounmpo at center.
But hey, it's not all bad …
5) Middleton has raised his assist rate (25.6 percent) to the point that it's basically the same as Antetokounmpo's (25.7 percent). Middleton dished a career-high 12 assists on Monday, the ninth time this season he had recorded seven or more. He had nine such games in all of 2019-20.
This is partially the result of his teammates simply shooting better. Middleton has assisted on more baskets at the rim than 3-pointers, though, and his improvement as a playmaker is undeniable. For the Bucks, the best part is that he has simultaneously become an even more efficient scorer. Never before has Middleton's game been this balanced. He is not only a three-level scorer, but the kind of weapon who can create an advantage with a pick-and-roll, an isolation or a post-up and is equally comfortable shooting or passing in any of these situations.
Middleton has 521-.448-.938 shooting splits, and his per-36 numbers with Antetokounmpo on the bench are outrageous: 30.0 points, 7.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds, with 67.3 percent true shooting and a 27.1 percent usage rate. This is superstar stuff. Two weeks ago, the Raptors threw a box-and-one defense at him.
Only 215 of Middleton's 778 minutes (27.6 percent) have come with Antetokounmpo on the bench, though, down from 41.2 percent last season. Both are averaging 2.5 more minutes than they did in 2019-20, and staggering them is less important with Holiday and Augustin around. In this new, healthier offensive environment, Middleton has found a way to show he can do more while, in a literal sense, doing less. His usage rate is lower than it has been since 2016-17, and he's shooting less frequently than he did in his first two All-Star seasons.
Now, about the back-to-back MVP …
6) Giannis ranks 35th in touches and 66th in frontcourt touches, a season after ranking 13th and 10th in those respective categories, per NBA.com. The Bucks aren't as Giannis-dependent this season, so their offense isn't quite as Giannis-centric. His usage is down, too, from a league-leading 36.3 percent to 32.3 percent, which ranks fourth.
To be clear, Antetokounmpo is still at the center of everything Milwaukee does. His on-the-ball responsibilities, though, are more in line with what they were in 2018-19, before the Bucks let Malcolm Brogdon walk. As ESPN's Zach Lowe has discussed, Antetokounmpo is setting more ball screens than ever before, a shift that could be meaningful in a few months. Antetokounmpo's individual numbers are down a bit, but the team's offensive rating with him on the court is at an all-time high.
The catch is that Antetokounmpo hasn't made the progress everybody wanted to see: He has made a career-low 61.6 percent of his free throws, his 3-point shooting (28.7 percent) is worse than last season and his in-between game still doesn't scare anybody. Just like he will swish the occasional 3, he'll make some of his turnarounds, hooks and midrange pull-ups …
… but there's still a lot of this:
Antetokounmpo is shooting 30 percent on short midrange shots and 37 percent on long 2s, per CTG. It's possible that he just needs to keep taking them and get more reps in the post, and eventually his problems creating offense in the halfcourt will disappear. With Holiday out for an indeterminate amount of time, now would be a reasonable time for Milwaukee's franchise player to stretch his wings a bit more. Just like the experimentation on defense, though, it's unclear whether or not this is going anywhere.
Maybe the Bucks' best path to a title is not to fix their defensive issues, but to overcome them with an unstoppable offense. Maybe the degree to which their offense holds up in the playoffs is more about how they mask Antetokounmpo's weaknesses than how much he works on them. If this is the case, they desperately need the rest of the team to keep shooting like this.