The NBA starts on Wednesday (AEDT) and after running the rule over the favourites, contenders and also-rans of the Western Confernece on Monday, we turn our focus to the Eastern Conference.
The Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated in the second round of the NBA play-offs in five games by the Miami Heat.
Lots of questions are surrounding the Bucks as they prepare for the off-season. Will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign the supermax extension? Will Milwaukee make a major trade to shake up the roster?
With the failures to reach the NBA finals in two successive seasons as the No. 1 seed in the East, there haven’t been many questions about the coaching staff publicly. But those questions are probably the most important ones to ask when looking at the future of this team.
Mike Budenholzer joined Milwaukee in the summer of 2018. The Bucks were coming off a 44-win season in 2017-18 and were bounced out in the first round against the Boston Celtics in seven games.
Budenholzer had inherited a young team with a rising superstar in Antetokounmpo surrounded by key players Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Milwaukee’s front office had also brought in veterans such as Brook Lopez, Kyle Korver, George Hill, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams over two seasons to bolster the young squad.
Budenholzer instilled some principles to change the way that the Bucks were playing under the Jason Kidd regime. Bud was always known for his ‘pace and space’ play style. Having a talent like Antetokounmpo seemed to complement well, with the extra space allowing him to dominate the paint while finding open shooters on the outside.
In their training camps ‘let it fly’ was their motto. The Bucks bought in immediately, averaging the second-most three-point attempts in the 2018-19 season compared to the 25th most in the 2017-18 season. Milwaukee’s philosophy involved placing five boxes beyond the three-point line representing spots on the court for players to occupy on offence. Those spots involved both corners, one at the top of the key and two above the break on the diagonal.
With the current era of NBA embracing the three-point shot and layups, the hope was that Budenholzer could unlock their offence. He was successful, as the Bucks scored the most points per game in the league once he took over.
He had interesting philosophies on defence also. Utilising Brook Lopez as an anchor, the main principle defensively was for Lopez to drop low on pick and roll coverages to protect the rim from layups and easy baskets. This would force the opposition to settle for mid-range jump shots or to pick and pop for a three-point shot at the top of the key. Coach Bud believed that those two particular shots were the least efficient.
Brook Lopez had career-best seasons in terms of blocks, averaging 2.2 and 2.4 blocks per game under Budenholzer. Bledsoe and Middleton have also been main staples in the defence, with a mix of physicality and savviness helping them become above-average to elite defenders. Brogdon in 2018-19 and now Matthews in 2019-20 have been more than capable on the defensive side also.
The X factor for the Bucks has always been MVP and now defensive player of the year Antetokounmpo. His freakish length and physical abilities allowed him to roam the court and cover ground no other player can cover. Used primarily as a help and weakside defender, his ability to cover up for his teammates’ shortcomings was immaculate.
Ironically, the Bucks kryptonite to their defence has been three-point shooting. In both seasons that Budenholzer has coached the Bucks they have given up the most three-point baskets in the NBA, and it has certainly cost them in crucial moments. Being so focused on protecting the paint had left them vulnerable to three-point shots all over.
It can’t be argued against that Budenholzer has helped Milwaukee turn out two of their best seasons in recent times. The most frustrating aspect for Bucks fans, however, would have to be the coaching staff’s inability to adapt, especially in the play-offs.
The team is insistent on playing the same way every game. There are no dynamic layers to the offence, and when teams can figure out how to plan for Antetokounmpo, his teammates seem incapable of stepping up when required. Additionally, when the opposition gets rolling from deep, there are no major changes to the way they guard the opposition. All of this is the result of poor coaching.
The NBA play-offs have always been a different ball game compared to the regular season. Rotations usually get tightened to allow the starters and key contributors to play more minutes. It is certainly common for star players to play up to 40 minutes a game if they are required to.
The Bucks were always proud of having a deep rotation. If someone was injured, they had the mentality of ‘next man up’. This allowed Giannis, who led the team in minutes, to average only just under 31 minutes a game during the regular season. In the 2020 play-offs Middleton led the team, playing 35.5 minutes per game, while Giannis was averaging 33.25 minutes per game, excluding Game 4, in which he sprained his ankle.
Those numbers are shocking, as they are leaving five to eight minutes per game on the table. Those minutes not having the starters on the floor can certainly be a huge difference-maker between winning a game and even a series.
After Game 3 against Miami, Budenholzer said Giannis-Middleton playing 35 to 36 minutes was “pushing the ceiling”.
There is no doubt the coaching staff has elevated the Bucks to another level to become one of the top teams in the league. Likewise, with Atlanta, Coach Bud had a 60-win regular season with the Hawks before being swept in the Eastern Conference finals not long ago.
Overall, it wouldn’t be insane to think that the potential is maxed out with Budenholzer and it’s probably time to find the coach that can take the Bucks to a championship level.