Giannis is at the Center of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Evolving Defense

Much ink has been spilled over the last few years about Coach Mike Budenholzer’s use of drop D coverage with the Milwaukee Bucks. (Early tangent: we need a new metaphor. Many fingers have cramped?). Last season, Milwaukee experimented significantly more with different styles of defense. According to FiveThirtyEight, they switched on screens 1,010 times as opposed to 299 times in 2019-20. Furthermore, they increased the amount of times they ran a zone by 528%.

It’s much more difficult to analyze this season in the same way. Two years ago, Budenholzer could swap Brook Lopez for his brother and run the same drop scheme. Last year, Brook was the only true center to crack their top 15 players by total minutes played which reduces the feasibility of drop coverage. Because of Brook’s injuries this season, the Bucks have played a true center only 54 minutes (as of December 5th).

Remarkably, the Bucks’ relative defensive rating has improved since last season, and Giannis is at the center of it.

Giannis and Switching

For years, Bucks fans have been calling for more Giannis at the 5, but the idea was that he would make Milwaukee’s offense unstoppable. Earlier in the season, Bud looked to eschew the need for a true center by switching everything. Usually, a team will switch a pick-and-roll to stymie strong shooters and drivers by sacrificing some rim protection for a strong outer wall. Instead, the Bucks just seemed to indiscriminately switch everything.

Delon Wright – notable harmless offensive player – is shooting 33% from 3, and the defensive duo of Giannis and Pat Connaughton give up the switch.

During the same game, the Bucks give up two Giannis pick-and-rolls during the same possession.

Giannis switching on the perimeter is a solid defensive proposition. While he’s not a lockdown defender, he’s still incredibly long, strong, and spatially aware where a team wouldn’t want a steady diet of isolating against him.

Like everything in the NBA, switching with a nominal center means that the center (usually the best rim protector on the court) is not by the rim. Giannis himself can hold his own on the perimeter, but with no other strong rim protector on the team, the Bucks exposed the one area of the court that they have successfully barricaded the last few years: the paint. In response the Bud made a clear defensive adjustment: play Giannis like an actual center.

Using Giannis as a Drop Big

Over the last couple of weeks, Budenholzer has almost completely scrapped Giannis as a switching big man. Any time he is on the court, Giannis has been dropping in the pick-and-roll as aggressively as Brook and Robin before him.

The Thunder run a Chicago action for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander here which is relevant because Milwaukee uses the same principles against dribble handoffs as pick-and-rolls. SGA has cooled off from three this season (shooting just 29.6% on pullup threes after nailing an unconscious 40.9% last year), but it’s notable that Giannis has no intent of stepping up to the level of the screen. Same goes for Giannis defending the roller in a standard pick-and-roll.

As I discussed in my Patreon podcast, Milwaukee’s shift in defensive scheme explains Giannis’ career high in field goals defended within 6 feet. His previous career high was back in 2018 when he defended 5.1 shots at the rim per game, and that number dipped to 3.8, 3.5, and 2.5 respectively in the subsequent seasons. This year, he’s defending 5.9 shots within 6 feet per game, and he’s forcing opponents to shoot 13.8 percentage points worse when he does so (the 6th best number in the league looking at players who have played at least 14 games and defend at least 2 shots within 6 feet per game).

DFGA Less than 6 FtDiff%
2021-225.9-13.8
2020-212.5-11.8
2019-203.5-19.8
2018-193.8-10
2017-185.1-7.6
2016-174.7-10.7

Like apex rim protectors before him, the raw shot attempts at the rim that he defends is skewed because of his ability to simply deter drivers from shooting. Furthermore, his unprecedented length and flexibility allows him to swallow any decisions an offensive player makes.

DeMarcus Cousins and the Bucks Going Foward

In light of Giannis’ tremendous defensive numbers, one might wonder why Milwaukee decided to sign DeMarcus Cousins who hasn’t played over 50 games since 2017 and who has struggled to crack any rotation the last couple of years.

The answer is preservation. There’s a reason that Anthony Davis prefers to not play the 5: having players drive full-force into you multiple times a game while defending and boxing out the other team’s strongest player is physically punishing. Giannis may be one of the strongest players in the league, but Cousins’ sheer size allows him to consume the largest share of that physicality. Cousins at the 5 might actually make the Bucks worse compared to just playing Giannis at center, but it will help keep their superstar fresh for another run at a championship.

Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articlesvideos, and podcastshere.

Here is his Patreon where he has a growing database of historical NBA clips (and other Patreon only posts).

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