Historical Milwaukee Bucks Season Ends With a Whimper. What Went Wrong?

The Hulk Wouldn’t Come Out

At the beginning of Infinity War, Thanos defeated the Hulk in hand-to-hand combat rather easily. After that, Hulk didn’t make a single appearance in a fight for the rest of the Infinity War/Endgame saga (if you’re about to point out Banner’s controlled transformation or the scene where they travel back to New York, just stop). In battle, Banner only became useful after Stark outfitted him with a Hulk suit. Well, the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense is the Hulk, and the NBA shutdown is Thanos, and there was no Tony Stark coming to rescue the historical Milwaukee Bucks season.

Historical Milwaukee Bucks Season

Before heaping endless criticism on the Bucks, make sure to step back and appreciate all that they accomplished this season. Their pitiful playoff defeat notwithstanding, the Bucks and their fans have quite a bit to celebrate.

Individually, Giannis won both Defensive Player of the Year and (probably) MVP which only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have accomplished before (LeBron was 2nd in DPOY when he was one vote away from a unanimous MVP in 2013). Brook Lopez was 10th in DPoY voting. George Hill was 5th in Sixth Man of the Year. Coach Mike Budenholzer was 2nd in Coach of the Year. Khris Middelton was an all-star. Eric Bledsoe was on first team All-Defense.

As a team, the Bucks dominated the regular season especially on defense. Since 1990, their Net Rating of 9.5 ranks 15th out of 876 teams since that season. In comparison, the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics tied for the second best Net Rating of the season with 6.3 would’ve ranked 95th in that same time frame.

All-Time Defense

At the beginning of the season, I made the erroneous prediction that the Philadelphia 76ers would have the best defense in NBA history. It ended up being 8th in just this season. However, the Bucks built a fortress in the paint en route to a defense that was 7.7 points per 100 possessions better than league average. Not only was this best in the league, but it ranks as the 5th best relative defense since 1990. The following table shows the best relative defenses since 1990.

Team (Season)Relative Defensive RatingDefensive Rating
San Antonio Spurs (2004)-8.894.1
Boston Celtics (2008)-8.698.9
New York Knicks (1993)-8.399.7
New York Knicks (1994)-8.198.2
Milwaukee Bucks (2020)-7.7102.9

Since I’ve discussed it more thoroughly in the past, I won’t deeply analyze the Bucks’ defensive system. In short, they ran an exaggerated version of the drop pick-and-roll coverage in order to prevent shots at the rim at all costs. Since everything in basketball is give-and-take, this means that they gave up more threes than other teams. Essentially, they purposefully left average to subpar three-point shooters open to entice them into shooting more than they were comfortable with.

Milwaukee’s Defensive Philosophy

It’s tough to look back at the season and say that the Bucks’ strategy didn’t work! They had an all-time defense, forced teams to shoot their lowest percentage of shots at the rim, and allowed the lowest conversion percentage at the rim while allowing the third highest percentage of shots from three (behind Toronto and Miami).

TeamPercentage of Shots Allowed at the RimTeamConversion Percentage at the RimTeamPercentage of Shots Allowed from 3

Clearly the main goal of preventing good looks at the rim is effective because literally only one team (the Warriors) out of the top 15 teams in the league who allowed the lowest percentage of shots at the rim missed the playoffs.

Milwaukee’s Offense

I’m going to completely defer this section to Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops because his YouTube channel has maybe the best NBA Xs and Os. Here’s his section on Milwaukee’s offensive sets.

To summarize, the Bucks ran a drive-and-kick system meaning that the initial action of a player driving into the paint is meant to collapse the defense to allow for a kickout pass to an open three-point shooter. If the defense doesn’t recover quickly enough, the player takes an open three. If the defense closes out too quickly, the Bucks player drives again to look for a layup or another kickout. This cascading flow is meant to overwork and tire out the defense.

Ultimately, the Bucks’ ranking 8th in the league in Offensive Rating shows the efficacy of the their attack.

Enough With the Praise!

In the words of Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl, “Don’t Bore Us! Get to the Chorus!” (he swears, so don’t get mad at me if you blast this at work).

Well, I’m going to stay true to Premium Hoops’ motto by not heaping on Giannis and the Bucks like a talking head. Instead, I’ll speculate, throw in some numbers, throw in some quotes, and discuss team building philosophy to figure out what went wrong with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Hulk Smash to Hulk Tap

Like I was saying with my Avengers metaphor above, the NBA shutdown destroyed the all-time defense from the historical Milwaukee Bucks season up until that point. Here is how the Bucks’ defense changed from before the shutdown (65 games) compared to the bubble (8 games):

Before/After ShutdownOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating

Remember when I said that the Bucks had the 5th best relative defense in 30 years? Prior to the shutdown, they actually had the 3rd best. In the bubble, their defense would’ve ranked 16th…this season! Since 1990, that would’ve dropped them from 3rd to 397th.

One reason for this precipitous drop actually started on the offensive end. Milwaukee’s turnovers increased in the bubble, and in the final 8 games of the regular season, the Bucks allowed the 2nd most opponent points per game off turnovers at 22.1. Prior to the bubble, they only allowed 16.3 per game.

If you think about the most efficient shot in basketball, it’s actually not a three or layup in the half court, nor is it even a free throw. The most efficient shot in basketball is a transition dunk or layup, and the best way for players to create these opportunities is forcing turnovers. In those last 8 games, the Bucks essentially gave their opponents 6 more of the most efficient points per game.

This is by no means the only explanation for their defensive collapse, but it explains a significant chunk.

Coach Bud’s Refusal to Change

First of all, Mike Budenholzer’s tenure in the NBA has been outstanding. In seven years as a head coach, he has coached three teams to a winning record of at least 70%, and only two of his teams have had a losing record. Had it not been for the shutdown, Coach Bud’s two years in Milwaukee would’ve produced 60-win seasons including this historical Milwaukee Bucks Season. Sure, this season ended in a disappointment, but last season, Fred VanVleet singlehandedly turned the tide in the Eastern Conference Finals.

His strict adherence to both the aforementioned drop pick-and-roll defense and drive-and-kick offense has been his downfall in both playoffs. Check out this play where the ATO where Bledsoe posts up, and Giannis screens for him just to post up in the exact same position…against Bam Adebayo who guards Giannis well. There is no counter the rest of the play. Giannis doesn’t have a deep bag of post moves, so he resorts to kicking it out with four seconds on the shot clock.

Defensively, Bud’s refusal to adapt has been more conspicuous. Jimmy Butler, a player who shot 24.4% on threes during the season and and even worse 20% on pull up threes, gains downhill momentum because Matthews won’t simply step back five feet.

Sure, whatever, Butler is shooting 50% from three during the first 7 games of the playoffs, but he’s only taking 2.3 a game: a number that shows me he would rather not fire away from deep. Regardless, this is a simple change Bud could make, but he lets Butler continuously prod in the paint.

Again, Erik Spoelstra takes advantage of Bud’s rigidity to secure two open threes for Goran Dragic. Teams would. have a much more difficult time prepping for the Bucks if Bud would make in-game changes.

Fire Coach Budenholzer?

I get it, it was a mistake for the Bucks to not re-sign Brogdon who cited Milwaukee’s modern segregation as a reason for leaving. He’s not the only player in Milwaukee’s history to be dissatisfied with its culture. However, a coach’s job is to implement changes and sets that fit the players’ strengths.

Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Conaughton, George Hill, Marvin Williams, and Kyle Korver performed their roles incredibly well in the regular season, but in the playoffs, none of them will require a full defensive shift from their opponents. As I discussed previously, the Bucks could use one more potent scorer who could handle defensive attention. To counter having them on the court too long, the logical shift is to play your stars more minutes which coach’s like D’Antoni have been practicing for the last decade.

During the first 7 games of the 2020 playoffs, Giannis only averaged 30.4 minutes per game. 70 players averaged more minutes per game than Giannis during that time. Giannis also averaged exactly that during the regular season. After game 3 of the Heat series, Giannis said, “I feel great…I could play more.” While I’m not going to psychoanalyze their relationship, if your superstar says that he can play more in a game that you’re losing, you should probably play him more.

Should the Bucks fired Budenholzer? After spiraling in misery cheering for the Bucks for the last 15 years, it’s hard to argue against a coach that can sleepwalk to 60 wins. However, it’s not often that your team has potentially the best player in the NBA, so maybe it’s time to move on to somebody who sacrifices a few regular season wins for playoff creativity.

But if it were my choice, I’d hang on to Bud for the time being.

Let’s Finally Talk About Giannis’ All-Time Season

Let’s get one thing straight: Defensive Player of the Year and MVP are regular season awards, and Giannis absolutely deserved both this season (here are some of his defensive numbers). DPoY is not the ability to step out and shut-down players one-on-one, and MVP is not defined by a player’s ability to “get you a bucket.” He was the anchor of this historical Milwaukee Bucks season.

Nevertheless, Giannis’ game still contains some very clear holes on offense. Much ado has been made about his lack of a jumper, but in a broader sense, the issue is his lack of counters. When he rolls to the rim, gets out in transition, or burns his man on the perimeter, he’s nearly impossible to stop, but when he faces a strong defense that can stop him, he still just relies on his athleticism and strength.

For example, Manu Ginobili was a player who predicated his game on defeating endless obstacles. Shane Battier once said of Ginobili that “he has no imbalance whatsoever in his game – there is no one way to play him that is better than another.” At the moment, this is the opposite of Giannis whose offense attack can be predicted and stopped.

Through the first 3 games of the Heat series, the Bucks have their worst Net Rating when Giannis is on the court, and he’s the ONLY player on the Bucks that gives them a positive Net Rating when he is on the bench (+7.6). Obviously, I’m not going to hold Giannis’ injury against him, but it is unfortunate that he didn’t get a shot at redemption.

Frankly, that is unacceptable from a two-time MVP, and it tells me that the Heat consciously schemed for Giannis. This doesn’t mean that he’s a “Pippen,” soft, weak-minded, or whatever. It means that he needs to develop some counters in his offensive game.

Moving On

It has been so fun following the Bucks this season! They should’ve been walking away with either a championship banner or at least a visit to the championship, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that the Bucks have a player who is in the conversation for best player in the league for the first time since the early 1970s. The Bucks have a roster and coach that will push themselves to 60+ wins every season. They have a roster of players who seem to get along.

I ask the fans and the media at large to not destroy this. Giannis isn’t toiling away in Milwaukee like KG all those years in Minnesota. Change your frame of reference and accept him and this team like Portland has with Lillard. Maybe then they can keep a superstar and repeat the success of this historical Milwaukee Bucks season.

Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops. He is also a senior writer at Overtime Heroics where he also runs their YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articles, videos, and podcasts) here.


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