As of Tuesday afternoon, one year to the day after the firing of head coach Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks owned the NBA’s best winning percentage, led the league in net rating and point differential and employed the most efficient defense among the 30 teams.
The turnaround wasn’t as simple as the Bucks bringing in coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff this summer. There were additions to make the roster fit better together. Budenholzer then took those pieces and found ways to fit each member of the roster to his five-out offensive system while training them in his simplified defensive system aimed at coaxing inefficient, contested shots from opposing teams while largely eschewing the switching tactics employed by most teams.
While Budenholzer’s impact has been clear and strongly felt – he’s well on the way to earning Coach of the Year honors if the Bucks can keep up their 60-win pace – it’s another addition that has helped make Milwaukee’s resurgence possible.
Throughout the season, opposing coaches have said various versions of the same thing, that Brook Lopez has been the key to unlocking the Bucks at both ends this year. The 7-foot center’s high-volume three-point shooting has opened up the lane for MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo and others while his defense has locked down the paint, helping to hold opponents to 43.1 percent overall and 47.5 percent on two-point shots – both league lows.
“Brook is huge, far beyond his shooting threes miss or make,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “Defensively he’s our anchor. I think he’s been the difference for us defensively this year as far as defending the paint, as far as rebounding the ball.”
It’s Lopez’s offensive production – he’s averaging 12.1 points while shooting 38.2 percent on three-pointers on 6.6 attempts per game – that gets the most attention, but it’s his defense that has impressed Budenholzer most.
Following Monday’s 116-106 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, a game in which Lopez recorded five blocks, Budenholzer reminded the assembled media that he’s been taking every opportunity to point out Lopez’s defense this season, even when asked about his offense. He welcomes the offensive production, but to him it pales in comparison to what Lopez does defensively.
“We talk about making reads on offense and having IQ, lots of time people equate that with offense,” Budenholzer said. “His reads and his decision-making defensively are really, really good. I think he’s just getting better and better as the season goes on. He’s getting a little more aggressive and I think his teammates are covering behind him. I think we’ve got a good thing going defensively with Brook.”
Lopez’s defense has been a lot easier to notice recently. While the Bucks have dropped him and the rest of their centers against pick-and-rolls all season in favor of cutting off the rim and tempting opponents into contested midrange shots, Lopez has converted his contests into more blocks recently.
On Saturday, he recorded a season-high six blocks against the Orlando Magic, which he followed up with those five blocks against the Mavericks, including three in the opening 79 seconds. He is averaging a career-best 2.1 per game and is on pace for his best season.
“A lot of pride,” Lopez said when asked about what he takes from his defensive impact. “I think that’s an apt representation of the team as well. We have a lot of firepower offensively, it comes from a lot of different places, different guys every night, but we definitely make our money, get our bread on the defensive end. That’s where we do our job.”
While he’s played a central role in Milwaukee improving from a below average defense to an elite one – Lopez is holding opponents to under 46 percent overall as the main defender – he doesn’t want to take too much credit. He sees how the guards constantly are chasing and fighting through screens, bearing down to force opponents into tough, quick decisions.
“It’s unbelievable, especially for me as much as I send my man down there to him,” point guard Eric Bledsoe said of Lopez’s defense. “He helps us out. So when he does take that three from half court, I don’t have no problem with it.”
With all the improvements they’ve made, the Bucks sit just 10 wins behind their total from last year with 36 games remaining. They’ve developed a system that maximizes their talents, utilizes their depth and has brought them to the top of the regular-season standings.
The final frontier will be converting all of this into playoff success, something the Bucks haven’t done since 2001, the last time Milwaukee advanced beyond the first round. For now, though, the Bucks know who they are and are happy with the results.
Antetokounmpo is among the favorites for MVP, Budenholzer has made a strong case for coach of the year, Lopez and his $3.4 million contract look like the steal of the summer, Khris Middleton, Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are putting up some of the best numbers of their careers and the bench is brimming with quality options.
What a difference a year makes.