30 games into the season and Eastern Conference fans are in major panic mode with the opposing conference holding a sizeable advantage on any seed in the East. A large part of that is the Milwaukee Bucks: the first seeds in the conference for the last two years. Only when it seemed that continuity was achieved, COVID-19 defiantly says, "no sir!" and brings upon us a new season riddled with challenges and surprises.
But what's wrong?
Well, for one, through 30 games, they are already at a substantial 13 losses; only 4 losses away from matching their historic 2020 season. They are as of now 18-13 (Win-Loss), whereas last season they were 56-17. Some of this could be attributed to the lack of home games for a team who relies heavily upon attendance within the Arena, and some more to a lack of depth (we will discuss this later), but nonetheless the downgrades are sizeable.
Their defense has been pourous throughout the season so far (in comparison to the last). They are 10th in defensive rating, 16th in points allowed per game, 27th in threes allowed, and are 10th in defensive rebounding. Middle of the pack is not where this Bucks team was expected to be.
To say the least, this is a huge, and by huge I mean HUGE drop-off from their historic 2020 season where they had arguably the best regular season defense of all-time.
Yet there are many factors that can be pointed to that classify this as not a collective explosion within the organization, but more so a product of the moving pieces. For one, Milwaukee utilized what we call "drop-coverage," A type of zone where the primary rim protector (Brook Lopez) drops back on pick-and-roll actions in order to secure the paint and prevent the most efficient shot in basketball. This worked out ridiculously well with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As can be seen, three defenders are focused all on the paint, leaving maybe 2-3 defenders on the three point line. This was an effective method as they were preventing the best shot in basketball... until they weren't.
See, it's not a matter of them not defending the best shot quite as well anymore (they aren't, but that shouldn't nullify the benefits as it has done so this season), but there is another shot that is quite dangerous for the Bucks. Remember when I said the Buck's are 4th in 3 pointers allowed? That is coming back to bite them quite hard throughout this season. The 3-pointer has improved to 1.12 points per possession in basketball due to many factors, including the COVID setting, but nonetheless the Bucks could not adjust last season, leading to a breakdown against a blazing Miami Heat team, and their woes continue to this day. The Bucks are great at preventing the shot that creates 1.26 points per possession, but they are one of the league's worst at preventing the 3-pointer, which is increasing in value.
Is there a way to fix this?
Most definitely. Brook Lopez has regressed into his mid-30s, but the perimeter talent on the team with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Torey Craig, Khris Middleton, and Donte Divincenzo is a good core to base your perimeter defense around. It is the people's scapegoat, Mike Budenholzer (the coach), who is charged with integrating a new system that can defend the three-pointer, and it has taken quite a while, but nonetheless it it necessary.
Coach Bud, as many of the fans and players call him, has adjusted somewhat to the modern style of play, but 2 years of continuity being disrupted can be a tough adjustment, as we see this season with the implementation of unorganized switching and over-helping. However, the addition of Jrue Holiday can be a saving grace for the Bucks team.
Regarded as the best perimeter and 1-on-1 guard defender in the league by many of his peers, Jrue Holiday has proven and will continue to prove invaluable to this Bucks team... On both ends of the floor!
Here is Jrue Holiday (#11) guarding the leagues top scorer for the last 3 years, James Harden (#13)
In this first image, we can see that Jrue Holiday is stuck on a screen, and there is a pretty sizable gap between him and the ball handler. James Harden can capitalize on even the tiniest inch of space with his patented step-back, so it is crucial to close the gap as quickly as possible.
Here, James Harden decides to drive (which is a good choice) and Jrue is seen touching the floor after previously getting tripped up by #15 (Clint Capela) on a double screen. It seems as if Harden can let his offense do the talking as soon as he gets the tiniest bit of space.
Now we pause here to just assess the surroundings of James Harden. Did I forget to mention he is currently the top passer in the league even though his scoring numbers have gone down? He is averaging nearly 12 assists per game in the 2021 season, and it is a skill he has had for many years.
What was the point of that lengthy reference? It's just to establish that he is one of the league's most accurate passers as well as decision makers. As immaculately depicted by the arrows, Harden is provided with 4 choices (and a 5th one exclusive to only him):
1. A lob pass to Clint Capela if Derrick Favors commits to helping on the drive
2. A kick out to the left for a 3-point shooter in Eric Gordon (the Rockets were the best 3-point shooting team back then).
3. A kick out on the other side to the right to PJ Tucker, the best corner three point shooter in the league.
4. A floater/lay-up which is money in the bank for him basically.
5. Drawing 2 freethrows. As someone who is a master at selling contact, he could easily have flailed as Holiday reaches for the ball in the picture, and do it so masterfully as to convince the refs to call a foul on Holiday.
When facing an offensive mastermind such as James "Fear the Beard" Harden, it's near a death sentence to provide him with a plethora of opportunities such as on this play, and trust me, 36 ppg and 12 apg are no jokes. Per PBPstats (https://www.pbpstats.com/season-stats/nba?EntityType=Player&EntityId=201935), in his short 18 game stint in Brooklyn so far this season, James Harden averaged an insane 4.94 assists on three pointers, which generates almost 15 points for teammates! No one in the league even touches him in that category.
Though it may be redundant, I cannot stress to you the absolute peril you defense is in if James Harden is open to those many opportunities, and anyway you slice it, your defense cannot allow this to happen.
What's this? The ball is on the floor and ripe for the Pelicans' picking. How could this be? That, ladies and gentlemen, is Jrue Holiday. With an ability to stick with any player through any screens, dribble moves, post-ups, and a plethora of other moves, he is widely regarded as the best guard defender in the NBA. Even when he does get beat, his impeccable and lightning quick hands come into play; such was the case for the poor Houston Rockets, who wasted a possession for no other reason than their opponent having Jrue Holiday.
While he has missed a large chunk of the season where the Bucks have struggled so far in that stretch, when he does return from Covid and the Bucks learn to integrate this mastermind into their team, they could prove to be just as formidable as any. Offensively, he increases their Points per 100 Possessions by 4 and their Assists per 100 Possessions by 6, an impressive increase to say the least, and a crucial one. As opposed to his back-ups in Bryn Forbes and DJ Augustine who are some of the worst defenders in the league, his return predicts a sizeable impact that could turn the solemn fates of the Bucks around.