Photos via USAToday Sports.
- The Milwaukee Bucks have a Vegas win total of 48.5 at Westgate, up from the opening number of 46.5.
- Although that may seem high, changes with the coaching staff, offensive philosophy and defensive schemes make me bullish about them hitting the over.
MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks are done dreaming.
Promises and expectations are the talk of the preseason, and everyone has high hopes. It usually takes until sometime in December for teams to realize who they are and how they won’t be going as far as they had imagined. Some of this is simple confidence: The best athletes in the world tend to believe they can accomplish anything; it’s how they got here.
The Bucks aren’t here to talk Eastern Conference Finals, 50 wins or anything of the sort. There’s an acknowledgment that talking about it isn’t going to do anything. Even setting goals can be more of a headache than it’s worth.
“I think goals a lot of the time can be distracting,” Malcolm Brogdon said this week. “You want to reach a certain level, you want to win a certain amount of games, reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Really it’s one day at a time. There are stretches of games; some are going to be easier, some are going to be harder.”
There is a lingering sense with the Bucks that this season is less about a transformation into something new as it is a realization of what they should have been all along.
That starts with new coach Mike Budenholzer. It’s built around their MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it carries through a team well-built to make a push in a much more wide-open East in the wake of LeBron’s Hollywood Adventure. …They’re just not going to talk about it.
Some vignettes from a few days spent with Milwaukee.
The Bucks installed a new regimen in training camp, including individually scheduled sessions before and after team practice (or both). These sessions focused on individual player development to supplement the team-oriented work and were specifically scheduled along with various training sessions.
They’re likened to “taking your vitamins.”
“It’s very efficient stuff,” Brook Lopez said. “Our individual vitamins. Just for guys to come in, improve every day. Whether you’re by yourself or with one other guy, you’re getting 20 to 30 minutes of court time just working on whatever you need to work on. Offensively, defensively.”
“That’s part of his detail,” Brogdon said. “I don’t think Bud does anything without a purpose.”
I’ve detailed what Budenholzer’s system will do for Antetokounmpo and his MVP chances here, but the whole team is going to see changes.
Spacing is the single most important buzzword in the NBA right now. It’s vital for everything. The Rockets take it so seriously that they try to space you out to 28 feet. It gets a little tiresome because the NBA still winds up largely being about great players making tough shots. However, it’s still striking to look at where the Bucks have been at the past few seasons and where their spacing and execution look to be headed.
The Bulls are a terrible defensive team and this is preseason, so take it with a giant grain of salt, but take a look at this play:
The defense has to gear up against Antetokounmpo in transition. That puts them out of position for the pick-and-roll with Khris Middleton and Lopez.
Middleton makes a great pocket pass, and Lopez makes what I’ve come to think of as the single most important pass in basketball — the short-roll kick to the corner. The second that pass comes off cleanly and arrives on target, the defense is losing the battle and playing catch-up. Extra pass, extra pass from Giannis (whom teammates have raved about in regards to selflessness in practice) to Middleton, a career 39% 3-point shooter.
Coaches certainly have plans coming into camp, but it’s clear from talking to folks in Milwaukee that Lopez’s passing has been surprising the team. “He’s shown us he can pass; his passing has stood out in camp,” Budenholzer said last week.
Along with Ersan Ilyasova, the Bucks have two bigs who can spread the floor and pass while stationary and while on the move. Their lineups are much better suited to take advantage of and optimize the talent Milwaukee has, which has become pretty underrated.
All of this stuff matters, from being better prepared to making situations easier on guys, which gives them more energy on the defensive end. It adds up.
I was trying to think of a way to not tell Middleton he sucked last season.
He didn’t suck. He really didn’t. He shot 46.6% from the field and 36% from 3-point range. He was fine. Seriously, he was.
He just wasn’t as good as he has been so consistently in his NBA career.
- Last year was the first time since his rookie season he failed to shoot better than 39.5% (or rounded 40) from deep.
- He was 20th percentile coming off screens in 2017-18, when he had not spent a season below the 63rd percentile in his career.
- He was 44th percentile in transition, the lowest mark he’s had in four seasons.
- He shot only 40% on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts, uncharacteristically low for him.
So I was trying to ask him about how confident he was last season and whether it was an outlier… not that it was bad… but not as good… for him…
Yeah, Middleton didn’t feel the need to mince words.
“The shooting percentage for me sucked midway through the year,” he said. “I went through a huge shooting slump where I could not get any type of 3 — wide open, contested pick-and-roll — early in the season. It finally got going for me toward the end of the season.”
Middleton said he felt like he’ll get even more good looks this season, and he’s got no lack of confidence in shooting. He also wound up shooting 60% in the playoffs, averaging 24.7 points per game vs. Boston.
The big key for Middleton this season is how many more shots in the rhythm of the offense he’ll make. Middleton is always compared to DeMar DeRozan, but DeRozan recalibrates the offensive pace once the ball touches his hands. Middleton’s isolation numbers have swung wildly, going from numbers in the 150 per-season range all the way down to below 70 depending on the season. He’s capable in those situations, but he works best as a shooter coming off screens, spotting up or sparking out of the pick-and-roll. He’ll have more of that in Budenholzer’s system.
All of this indicates that Middleton may have a big swing back in terms of positive regression this season.
One final little note. Last season, Middleton went face-up into the “triple-threat” (pass-shoot-drive) position five times — total — for a possession, according to Synergy Sports. Middleton had two such possessions vs. the Bulls in their preseason game last week, drawing a foul and scoring a bucket over smaller defenders. An interesting wrinkle to watch.
IN WHICH I COMPARE MALCOLM BROGDON TO LONZO BALL
I’m high on Brogdon — have been since his first few months as a rookie. He’s an exceptionally high-IQ player who’s also efficient and good defensively. He’s pretty much everything I like in basketball players — so much so that I continue to get grief for saying I’d have to think about it if, during the Kyrie Irving trade saga, the Cavs called wanting a package that included Brogdon. Many took this as my saying I think Brogdon’s better than Irving, which is of course ridiculous.
Still, I am admittedly very bullish on the impact he gives teams. But it should be noted I am not saying that Brogdon’s ceiling is as high as Lakers star Lonzo Ball’s. That, too, would be ridiculous.
But when thinking about what Brogdon’s going to bring to this team and the role he plays, I do keep going back to what Lonzo experts tend to say about Ball. The common description of Ball is that he works best as an off-ball playmaker.
This is in some ways an oxymoron, but I get what they’re trying to indicate. He’s a great passer in space and someone who can operate as the trigger man for a set to make the right pass to take advantage of the defense. If he gets to where he can hit water if he fell out of an open 3-pointer boat, all the better.
With Brogdon, I wonder if this season he’ll fill something of the same role for Milwaukee. His ability to space the floor, having shot 39% or better from deep the past two seasons, gives him gravity, and his awareness in the open floor could open up more cuts like such as one:
Brogdon’s versatility is really useful for Milwaukee. It gives the Bucks a third playmaker on the floor with Eric Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo, and one who doesn’t sacrifice their floor spacing. There’s a lot he’s capable of now that he’s healthy.
THE GOLDILOCKS AGGRESSION
With Jason Kidd, the Bucks were super aggressive. Crazy aggressive. Wacky aggressive. They blitzed pick-and-rolls, gambled in passing lanes and basically tried to turn their super length and athleticism into a whirlwind. The problem was that after about the first six months of running up against that system, teams started to scheme it out.
Milwaukee gave Toronto fits in the 2017 playoffs, but eventually the Raptors solved how to get the pass out of the blitz and how to find open shooters thereafter.
Defense was a disaster last season for the Bucks and it cost them a much higher standing in the East. Budenholzer’s teams were perennially in the top 10 defensively in Atlanta (when they weren’t tanking), so there’s a lot of upside here.
There’s no magic trick or scheme that the Bucks are going to run. From what I gathered, there’s likely to be a higher diversity in the types of pick-and-roll coverages they use. They won’t just blitz or just drop the big; it’ll be more tailored to the opponent. This is a risk because confusion leads to breakdowns, but the Bucks are confident they have the basketball IQ on the floor to manage it.
“One of the great things, when you have a high-IQ team, is that the film work can be really beneficial,” Budenholzer said last week. “Maybe you don’t have to do as much on the court; you can see it on the film, they can see it, they can talk about it, have an honest conversation. The smarter the group, the sooner they start taking things from the film room to the court. ”
It’s early, but the little preseason indications we have show how Milwaukee will still be aggressive, hedging with two players in pick-and-rolls, while not blitzing the ball-handler outright. It makes uses of the length and athleticism of the team without leveraging its position too much.
Here Antetokounmpo corrals the ball-handler while Middleton goes over (raising his arm to disrupt the pass to the roll man), and Antetokounmpo’s length allows him to lean in and beat the ball-handler to the spot, forcing a travel:
Honestly, though, for as smart as the Bucks’ roster is, their first area to improve is transition defense. The Bucks were 28th last season in points per possession in transition. That’s just awareness and effort. The good news is those are also incredibly easier things to improve than other half-court issues. If Milwaukee makes strides there, it’s going to mean a world of difference.
WALKING THE WALK
Seeing Milwaukee up close and personal for a few days, I start thinking about the Wizards. Washington came out for media day and preseason this year and just… Wizardz’d it up. They Wizardzed about as hard as one can Wizard.
Markieff Morris said the Celtics, who have finished ahead of Washington in the standings and gone further in the playoffs than the Wizards the past two seasons, have “never been better” than the Wizards. John Wall was set up by questions designed for these answers but still said the goal was a championship and bristled at his player ranking in the top 100 lists. The Wizards racked up techs and ejections in their first preseason game.
Same ol’ Wizards, despite some caution from Wall about how “it doesn’t mean anything until you go out there and prove it on the court.”
The Bucks, on the other hand, are in the details. They’re in the process. They are, to dive into the frothy waters of cliche, taking it one game at a time. Preseason’s easy for sound bites and hype trains, but the things you wanted to hear out of Milwaukee? That’s what you heard.
The Bucks’ over/under win total is still high, at 48.5 up from 46.5 at open at Westgate. Still, the Bucks have what is probably the best player in the Eastern Conference (depending on Kawhi Leonard’s status), a coach who has a proven track record of success and a roster that talent-wise did not match up with their performance last season, which means their ceiling is higher.
They are +1500 to win the East, and while that’s a longshot, when you throw in what they’re capable of, it’s not a crazy direction if you hedge with the favorite Celtics. Most interestingly, they are almost even money at 10-11 to win the Central Division with the Pacers a slightly greater favorite.
There are ways this thing can go sideways, and much of this depends on what you think Antetokounmpo is capable of. But there’s reason to think that the deer might really be worthy of fear (and some investment) this season.