The reason Giannis and these Bucks can keep dominating

An unfamiliar chant broke out in the Milwaukee Bucks’ glimmering new arena Monday night: Bood-en-hol-zer. Bood-en-hol-zer.

The loudest members of Milwaukee’s fanbase were voicing approval for the team’s new tactician, Mike Budenholzer. And why wouldn’t they? The latest win over the Toronto Raptors made the Bucks the only undefeated team left in the NBA. They look terrific, like a different animal — atop the Eastern Conference standings while leading the NBA in net rating.

Yes, it’s foolish to overreact to small samples, but holy moly these Bucks seem good. And some of Budenholzer’s fundamental changes to their system sure are beginning to appear sustainable.

Budenholzer’s offensive architecture

Milwaukee’s uptick from 11th in offensive efficiency last season to sixth now has everything to do with smarter sets begetting smarter shots. The Bucks are taking a whopping 45.5 percent of their shots from 3-point range, way up from 30 percent a season ago, and much higher than the NBA average (up to 35 percent this season).

Count the new-look Bucks among the fast-paced five-out teams that decorate the edges of the offensive end with shooters. Aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo, virtually every player on the team can and will shoot 3s, and nearly every offensive set is designed to create clean catch-and-shoot looks for those edgy dudes.

It’s working. The Bucks are leading the NBA in 3-point production as players including Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are all reaping the benefits of playing in Budenholzer’s catch-and-shoot wonderland.

Milwaukee’s new offense is creating the most wide-open 3s in the league, averaging 22.6 wide-open attempts per game this season — much better than the paltry 14.3 the team averaged last season.

So, what are the Bucks doing differently? The ball is flying around the perimeter, and just as important, when it lands in a shooter’s hands he is expected to fire away. The sets in Milwaukee are explicitly designed to create clean looks. The new directive: shoot ’em if you get ’em.

Oh, and they have Giannis, who is quickly evolving into one of league’s most ferocious 3-point creators. With all due respect to Daryl Morey, 3-point generation is not rocket science. Many of the league’s cleanest looks start with a superstar like LeBron James or James Harden attacking the paint and sucking in help defense. Antetokounmpo has that same gift.

Remember the good old days when you could leave Lopez open on the perimeter? Yeah, you can’t do that anymore:

– Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 25, 2018

Lopez is one of the few stretch-5s who can shoot well enough to lure opposing bigs away from the paint, making Antetokounmpo’s paths to the rim easier. Just ask Joel Embiid and the Sixers, who learned the hard way as Lopez drained five triples against Philly last week. Antetokounmpo assisted on four of them, and Embiid was cheating toward Giannis on each dish. Bucks execs are thrilled by Antetokounmpo’s improvements as a passer. As he develops this key skill and more chemistry with Lopez, the offense will only become harder and harder to stop.

A quick glance at Antetokounmpo’s shot chart from a season ago reveals that he was already a monster in the paint before Lopez arrived. Last season, only two players made at least 500 field goals in the restricted area: Giannis and LeBron James. One of those guys is only 23, and his runway to the rim is more clear than ever.

Between Giannis’ interior domination and Budenholzer’s perimeter architecture, the foundation is set for the Milwaukee offense. But as good as that offense looks, the defense could be even better.

A frustratingly unconventional defense

If 3-point shooting is the defining offensive trend of the new NBA, then switching defensive assignments is the standard on the other end of the floor. Budenholzer’s defense is bucking that trend. They don’t switch squat, and folks, it’s working out very well so far.

When you get a Ph.D. from Gregg Popovich University — Budenholzer was an understudy for more than a decade — you learn about the importance of a great defense. You also learn a thing or two about how to build one. It takes talent, tactics and teamwork. For the past few seasons, Milwaukee had only the talent box checked.

We always knew there was a terrifying defense hidden in all the freakish length and athleticism on the Bucks’ roster, but previous coaching staffs simply couldn’t find it. Last year, the Bucks ranked a mediocre 18th in defensive efficiency. Now they rank second, and if present trends continue, they will be winning a lot of games thanks to their ability to get stops.

Just as the Bucks’ offensive shot diet has hopped on the modern NBA treadmill, their opponents’ looks have gone on a bender. Consider this couplet of eye-popping stats:

  • Last season, the Bucks gave up more baskets in the restricted area (19.5 per game) than any other team in the NBA. So far this season, they’ve given up the least (14.1 per game).

  • Bucks opponents averaged only 14.3 midrange shots per game last season, the fourth fewest in the league. That number is up to 19.3 now, good enough for second most in the NBA.

Milwaukee is frustrating offenses that are now accustomed to reaping the benefits of mismatches created every time a defense switches a ball screen. But the Bucks’ guards are effectively fighting around picks and chasing the ball handler, while the bigs are dropping, patrolling the paint and defending the rim. They’re not combating the screens at the point of attack.

Watch Lopez drop here against the Orlando Magic:

– Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 28, 2018

Or check out all this space he gives a Minnesota Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll:

Jimmy Butler uses a screen from his bestie Karl-Anthony Towns at the top of the arc to attack the middle of the defense. While many teams would switch this action and have Towns’ man attempt to defend Butler’s attack, the Bucks do no such thing. Instead, Middleton (guarding Butler) fights his way over the screen, while the gigantic Lopez never even leaves the paint. Butler dribbles around the screen and toward the hoop, flirting with a rim attack, but he sees Lopez lurking and instead settles for an unassisted midrange jumper. Yikes. The Bucks grab the rebound.

Oh, speaking of rebounding: This season’s team ranks eighth in defensive rebound percentage after finishing last in 2017-18. Milwaukee is also second in blocked shots. That’s thanks in part to these schemes keeping bigs near the hoop and opponents away from the rim.

This defense looks completely different, but there are still 75 games left and It’s fair to ask whether the success is sustainable. The underlying system appears to be sturdy and well-aligned with the personnel. Budenholzer’s schemes lean into the strengths of his players on both sides. Lopez is a perfect example — the team’s principles leverage his stretchiness on offense while also minimizing the dangers of his immobility on defense. Meanwhile, the athletic guards and wings can fight over screens on defense while sharing the ball and spotting up on offense.

Few people picked the Bucks to come out of the East, but then again, few predicted they would be the last undefeated team in the NBA and lead the league in many key metrics. Are the Bucks legitimate contenders to be playing in June? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure — they’ve been the best in the league in October.

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