After years of languishing on this end of the floor, the Milwaukee Bucks have crafted a defensive resurgence under new head coach Mike Budenholzer that has shored up many, if not all, of their previous deficiencies.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ invigorating 10-3 start has invited all deep dives into how they’ve exactly done it to start the 2018-19 season.
Whether it’s been the ongoing unlocking of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the new pace and space offense that’s been put in place by new head coach Mike Budenholzer or the key offseason additions that have solidified their 10-man rotation, there’s no shortage of factors that have collectively made up the Bucks’ strong play so far this season.
It’s been on the defensive end where comparisons have been drawn to the previous coaching regime stylistically in some ways, but the results have been far more encouraging than they have been in quite some time.
Talk of the Bucks’ defending and more specifically, their ill-fated defensive scheme, dominated Bucks fan circles over the team’s last few seasons and ultimately stood as one of the major factors behind the downfall of Jason Kidd and later, Joe Prunty and the rest of the staff after last season.
Thankfully, the arrival of Budenholzer and his staff has provided the much needed course correction the Bucks have longed for overall and have given us a clearer picture for how they want to operate as a defensive unit.
Along with that, they have allowed the second-most mid-range attempts per game (18.5) from their opponents and have provided some much needed steel in terms of protecting the basket by being tied for first in surrendering the fewest looks per game in the restricted area (23.2) as well as holding the lowest opponent field goal percentage at that level of the floor (56.3 percent).
Yes, some elements of the Bucks’ defense have remained intact in spite of the coaching change, as evidenced by the fact that they’re allowing the third-highest frequency of three-point attempts from their opponents so far.
But for the most part, there are many more positive indicators that outweigh the concerning ones in regards to the Bucks’ sturdy defensive play. All of that leads us to arguably the biggest underlying change in the Bucks’ defensive turnaround, which has been their ability to defend without fouling.
Amid all of the Bucks’ defensive woes last season, their constant aggressiveness/being out of position regularly left them susceptible to yielding many trips to the free throw line for their opponents on a nightly basis as they stood as the third-worst team in terms of opponent free throw attempt rate (28.1 percent).
13 games into this year’s campaign and the Bucks rank in the top spot in that same category (21.7 percent). Additionally, the Bucks’ 21.6 personal fouls per game currently comes in at 11th in the league, despite the fact they got called for fewer fouls last season and ranked as the fifth-worst team in that department (21.4).
Defending without fouling was a big point of emphasis throughout the Bucks’ first training camp under Budenholzer as reserve wing Pat Connaughton spoke about to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during the team’s preseason in early October:
“It’s been a big emphasis during training camp – show your hands and don’t foul when you’re playing defense,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “To be able to keep our hands active and make sure that we’re able to use our hands to deflect balls and do different stuff, too; not just not to foul, but to be active on defense. I think Coach has really tried to hammer that into our brains.”
While Budenholzer’s drilling of fundamental defending has been essential to this aspect of the Bucks’ play, the sound and unheralded defenders they’ve added to their rotation such as Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Connaughton have equally contributed to the Bucks’ collective defensive success.
Given the personnel they sport all across their roster and how much of a priority it’s been to the players and key officials within the organization, sustaining this level of play defensively will be critical to any success the Bucks aspire to achieve throughout the regular season and hopefully beyond.