(photo cred ESPN)
So I’m going to say something and I need you all to be good friends and just let me say it without shouting at me before I even finish my sentence…
The Milwaukee Bucks are legitimate contenders to win the Eastern Conference.
Deep breath. I know that in the NBA, we don’t handle change all that well. Twitter explodes when someone gets traded or falls to injury. We hold onto our favorite teams that aren’t our favorite teams and say things like, “I’m a Celtics fan, but Miami could finish as the 3 seed if Hassan Whiteside plays like he did three years ago.”
But sometimes greatness smacks you in the teeth and you have to be able to recognize it. And guess what, the Milwaukee Bucks under coach Bud are GREAT. The season is only five games deep for the Bucks and normally I call for caution in these situations. Now, however, it has come time to call a spade a spade. The Bucks have officially entered the realm of Contender and left the realm of Pretender.
How did they do it?
Allow me to show you two different images. The first one will be from the Bucks 2017-18 season. Pay attention to the 3-point shooting numbers and how pedestrian, if not below average they were.
Not good, right? This second image, however, will show you the Budenholzer effect. I present to you: The 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks
Woah. See how the emphasis is on 3-pointers and not 2s? Also, check out the number of shots taken per game. The Bucks are taking way more field goal attempts this year, and it has paid off.
Clearly, the Bucks have placed an emphasis on pacing and spacing. They are finally playing modern NBA basketball, and taking advantage of the snipers on their team. I hope you liked the Basketball-reference.com images, because you are about to get a lot more of them!
Brook Lopez – 38% from 3 on 7.2 attempts per game
And that is not even the sexiest part. Chec out his 3PAr (3-point attempt rate.) Lopez isn’t just taking a lot of triples, but that is largely the only type of field goal he is taking. The shot selection is key for understanding why this team is 5-0.
John Henson – 45% from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game
Don’t look now, but John Henson has played awesome for the Bucks. To boot, he has changed his game too. This dude may finally be living up to his contract. How? I’ll tell you with another image.
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Bro, what? Henson is taking 55 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the hoop. He is taking another 40 percent of shots from deep. That’s modern big man shot selection for ya! Where did this come from?! Henson has literally never been a 3-point shooter, and all of a sudden is hitting 36 percent of his corner triples? Woah. When Henson appears in a Zach Lowe article, give me some credit.
Eric Bledsoe – career low in 2 point field goal attempt rate
…but a career high in assist percentage.
Clearly, Bledsoe has gotten the message from coach Bud. Take less twos and keep the ball moving. Guess what? It has translated to wins. Although early still, Bledsoe is taking 2-pointers on only 56 percent of his shots. His career average for that category is 72 percent. What’s more, Bledsoe is averaging a career high in assist percentage at 33 percent. Love it. Plus, his defense has seemed to return.
Khris Middleton – 57 percent from 3 on 7.6 attempts per game
Uhhhhhh, can you say All-Star birth?
The Bucks have an insane offensive rating of 128 when Middleton is on the court, as in they score 128 points per every 100 possessions. I need my inhaler.
Middleton is known for being not only a potent 3-point shooter, but a guy who can beat you in the midrange. His touch is incredible and he can take you from the post, high post, or just about anywhere on the court. This year, however, Middleton is taking noticeably less midrange shots and focusing on 3s and shots close to the rim.
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Okay, we have seen some stats. We get it, the Bucks are spacing the floor, bombing triples and creating space for Giannis to complete his “Dunk on everyone” 2018-19 agenda. But what does this offense look like?
The Eye Test
Bud has brought his Spursian offensive scheming to the Milwaukee, and it has been dynamite. Specifically, what is he doing? Bud has often given Giannis the ball in isolated situations when the Greek Freak has a mismatch. For instance, what him work Landry Shamet in the post (sorry, Landry.)
Giannis catches the ball in a post-up, and everyone HAS to pay attention to him. So what do the Bucks do? They keep three capable, if not plus, 3-point shooters on the perimeter. Do not be fooled, however. Giannis knows exactly which guy he is looking for: Brook Lopez. We know this because Tony Snells sets a screen for Lopez to get open on the opposite wing.
Bud will do this often. He likes to load up the weak-side with shooters and create a mismatch for Giannis on the strong-side of the court. Giannis can either take his man off the dribble and do MVP stuff, of use his above average vision to find open shooters. Giannis has as much gravity as anyone in the league, and draws literally 5 defenders to the paint (or right outside of it.) Think i’m joking?
In this next Giannis post possession, he has open shooters on the perimeter. But, Giannis realizes his mismatch and decides to shoot a hook shot. Good decision, considering he is 6’11” and 4 feet from the hoop. Look at the gravity he draws, however. This will be here all season long for the Bucks, and defenses will have to pick their poison.
The Bucks also run a plethora of players in the pick and roll as the ball handler. Khris Middleton is incredibly underrated in this area. Middleton is a good passer, but has a knack for knowing when to drive on a player or shoot over him. Watch these two possessions below with Middleton running the PnR.
The first set is a basic pick and roll with Henson as the screener. There is some weak-side movement but Middleton sees the space and pulls up. In the next set of action, a horns set, Middleton gets an inch of space and makes Ben Simmons pay for it with a jumper. Bud seems to emphasize player freedom, and Middleton certainly has the green light.
I would not forgive myself if I did not talk about Eric Bledsoe. Last season, the point guard was often on the receiving end of criticism. This year, however, Bledsoe has played some of the best basketball of his career. I’m all in on the Bledsoe Revival campaign.
His vision has always gone underappreciated, but Bledsoe has traditionally been a top-notch passer. Let’s give him his due shine. Before I play this next clip of Bledsoe mastering a drive and dish, I want to show you a freeze frame.
What happened here? Bledsoe beat his man off a drive, and sees an open shooter in the corner. But Damyean Dotson sees him too, so he sprints to close out on the corner shooter. Despite a horrible angle, Bledsoe actually sees Dotson running to the corner threat. So, Bledsoe whips a one-handed pass to the perimeter and Middleton calmly drains a three. Last year, Bledsoe may have likely pulled up for a jumper or tried to go to the rim. This year, he is finding wide open men and opponents are paying dearly. See for yourself.
The Bucks take on the Toronto Raptors Monday night, in what will be a clash of the East’s top two teams (as of now.) Please, tune in! See Giannis take on Kawhi. See if Bud can outsmart a rookie head coach. See if the Bucks can go toe to toe with one of the East’s top dogs. See if this article will look even better than it does now!