Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer has his team dominating the Eastern Conference. And it is more than just the special star quality of Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Bucks have completely turned around their offense and defense during a 9-1 start.
Their scheme is different on both ends. On offense, Budenholzer emphasized getting more three-point shots the moment he arrived. Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez, signed in free agency, and Donte DiVincenzo, a first-round pick, join Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon as perimeter shooters, allowing the Bucks to put up 41.0 three-point attempts per game, behind only the Houston Rockets. That is a massive jump from the 24.7 attempts Milwaukee averaged last year. And it isn’t just volume fueling the surge: The Bucks rank fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage (38 percent).
Add the barrage from beyond the arc to their ability to create points in the paint (53.6 per night), and it is clear the Bucks have embraced the modern NBA.
In 2017, the Bucks ran a four-out one-in offense that consistently clogged driving lanes for Antetokounmpo and forced him to face multiple lines of defense if he wanted to attack the paint. Opposing defenses found it easy to help off the other Bucks either because of Milwaukee’s lack of shooting or the Bucks' positioning on the floor.
Under Budenholzer, the offensive scheme has changed to a five-out system, which means all five players are positioned around the three-point line and no one is in the paint. This alignment gives Antetokounmpo the space he needs to attack the rim.
Here’s how it worked against the Sacramento Kings. After a series of screens and handoffs, Antetokounmpo has an isolation situation with the floor spaced. All he has to do is beat his man, which, with his length, is not hard for him to do.
Antetokounmpo is not the only one benefiting from Budenholzer’s new offensive system. Bledsoe has improved his assists per game from 5.0 in 2017 to a near-career-high 6.2 in 2018, helping the Bucks rank second in the NBA at 26.4 assists per game, up from 23.2 last season.
Defensively, the Bucks are more engaged under Budenholzer, doing a better job rotating over to help their teammates. For example, when the Minnesota Timberwolves run their zipper high pick-and-roll action, Lopez goes into drop coverage to keep Jimmy Butler out of the paint, perfectly willing to give up a midrange shot. Butler gets the ball to Jeff Teague with the shot clock winding down, and he gets by Bledsoe only to have Lopez rotate over and send his shot out of bounds as the clock expires.
The Bucks are also doing a great job defending the rim, giving up 40.4 points in the paint, the second-fewest in the league. That translates to a plus-13 point differential in the paint. The Bucks are also using their length to block 6.7 shots per game, the fourth-most, and grab more than half of the available rebounds (53 percent), a rise from 28th to third in just one year.
The consensus going into the season was that the East was a two-horse race between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, with possibly the Philadelphia 76ers breaking through. It’s time to add the Bucks to that list. Their start is not a fluke, and they have the talent to compete for a coach who can play the chess game as well as anyone in the NBA.
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