Nylon Calculus: Favoring the Milwaukee Bucks as repeat champions

Milwaukee Bucks, Nylon Calculus

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For much of the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks have avoided the national spotlight. They begin their campaign for a second-consecutive championship on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls, and the numbers say they’re just as good as last year.

Less than nine months ago the Milwaukee Bucks secured the franchise’s second championship and first in exactly 50 seasons.

Coming into the 2021 Playoffs, they were seen as an after-thought — the second-best outfit in the conference and a candidate to lose in the first round to the lower-seeded but formidable Miami Heat (whom the Bucks had been upset by in the previous postseason). Brooklyn, with its offense-laden roster, featuring three of the five best players on that side of the ball, was the consensus favorite to secure the conference crown.

Then, Milwaukee won a thrilling overtime Game 7 on the road in Brooklyn and defeated the Phoenix Suns in six games after falling behind 0-2 in the Finals. In short, the Bucks’ championship destiny appeared anything but certain for much of the two-and-a-half months of their postseason play.

Entering the 2022 postseason, the Bucks’ low profile is strikingly similar to that of last year. They are seeded third in the conference with a modest +3.6 point differential (eighth-best) and a league-average defensive rating of 112 points per 100 possessions. The roster is largely the same, with P.J. Tucker’s departure being filled with the veteran presence of Serge Ibaka. The championship core and nominal starting five are unchanged.

Defensively, Milwaukee adheres to the same principles they’ve embodied since the arrival of head coach Mike Budenholzer in 2018-19 — they allow opponents to take contested or deep uncontested outside shots in favor of limiting opportunities at the rim and free-throw line.

Last year’s regular-season defensive shot profile is a mirror image of this year’s. Opponents shot a league-average 54 percent effective field-goal percentage against Milwaukee in both seasons; largely a result of the Bucks limiting opponents to taking 28 percent of their attempts at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. Nearly a third of shots allowed came in the midrange last year, with that figure dropping to under 30 percent this season. Last year, 39 percent of shots came from beyond the arc, and this year that number has climbed to 42 percent.

The shift in midrange opportunities coming from outside could be due to the notoriety the Bucks’ defensive scheme has received, both before and after they succeeded as champions. But, opponents have shot league average on 3-pointers against the Bucks this season after shooting the second-best mark leaguewide against them in 2021.

Whether it’s luck or the Bucks forcing opponents into “more difficult” 3-point attempts, the data would suggest their scheme is still effective. Forty percent of Milwaukee opponents’ 3-point attempts were defined as “open” or “very open” this season — situations where the closest defender is four or more feet from the shooter, per NBA Stats.

These principles become even more central to the Bucks’ success in the postseason. During the 2020 and 2021 Playoffs, Milwaukee opponents were allowed a mere 22 and 24 percent of their shots to come at the rim, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass. The uncontested outside shots Milwaukee afforded opponents in the regular season also decreased to 37 and 34 percent, respectively, each season.

The Milwaukee Bucks offense and defense are completely interconnected

More so than most teams, the Bucks rely on their defense to fuel their offense. During the Budenholzer era, the Bucks have been an above-average offensive team in the halfcourt during the regular season, averaging between 99 and 102 points per 100 possessions each of the last three seasons. But, that figure drops in the postseason when defenses tighten, ranging from 94 to 98 points per 100 possessions.

Milwaukee supplements its dip in halfcourt production with a focus on optimizing transition opportunities. In their postseason run to the 2021 championship, the Bucks had the third-most efficient transition offense on the fourth-largest diet of transition attempts.

Regardless of play context, the Bucks increase their efficiency by limiting turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, which was especially effective in the 2021 postseason when they rebounded 30 percent of their own missed shots. The possession game, limiting turnovers and adding offensive possessions off of rebounds, is a gambit the Budenholzer Bucks have mastered.

Unlike prior seasons, Milwaukee shot above league average from beyond the arc in 2022. Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, and Khris Middleton each took a step up in their individual accuracies, and Grayson Allen shot a career-best 40 percent from beyond the arc. While Allen won’t be called upon to contribute significant minutes; Holiday, Portis, and Middleton were all significant contributors in the conference final and championship rounds in 2021.

Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the Bucks’ best option for offensive creation, both in the halfcourt and in transition. With Giannis on the court, Milwaukee’s transition opportunities increase by 3.8 percent, and its attempts at the rim increase by 6.3 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

In addition to valuable attempts at the rim, Antetokounmpo gifts his teammates the most-efficient opportunities from beyond the arc — the Bucks shot two percent more corner 3-point attempts when he’s on the court.

In the last year’s playoffs, the biggest compliment to the Bucks’ offensive arsenal was their ability to score in isolation one-on-one. In prior postseasons, the Bucks shied away from these opportunities, taking only 13.5 percent of their shots after six or more seconds of touch time by a single player, per NBA Stats. That number increased dramatically to 21 percent in the 2021 postseason and hovered at17 percent in the 2022 regular season, both of which ranked in the top-five leaguewide.

The main fulcrums of this new offensive wrinkle are the Bucks’ two All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but Holiday’s addition last season afforded Milwaukee a third scorer capable of producing off the bounce.

This season, 40 percent of Holiday’s possessions involved six or more seconds of touch time, at or above the frequency of score-first guards like Damian Lillard and Ja Morant. To boot, Holiday’s effective field-goal percentage on such plays was 57 percent, better than the Phoenix Suns’ top-ranked offense this season.

Holiday has appropriately developed a reputation as one of the better on-ball defensive guards in the NBA, which compliments the Bucks’ identity seamlessly. Last year, he was the team’s X-factor. If he’s able to contribute as the third scorer and maintain the same level of defensive pressure we saw in the 2021 postseason, the Bucks are the strongest contender in their conference.

The East is now the big brother of the two conferences, and Milwaukee’s path to contention is much more difficult than Phoenix or Golden State’s, the two highest-favored teams in the Western Conference.

The Bucks were fortunate not to draw the Brooklyn Nets as the second-overall seed, of which the honor falls to the best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, the Boston Celtics. The Bucks, if they are to best the Chicago Bulls in the first round, will benefit from playing the winner of a likely lengthy and contentious series.

In the other half of the conference bracket, Philadelphia and Miami are the two most lethal possible matchups for a conference final series. Philadelphia’s play with James Harden thus far has been underwhelming, but they have enough offensive firepower to contend with the Bucks even at their best.

Miami is a bigger question mark — they’ve been the conference’s top-seeded team for most of the season and have a veteran core solidified around Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry. Tyler Herro’s return to form and Bam Adebayo’s two-way play make them as deep as any team in the league. The Heat also has the easiest path to the Finals in the conference, which should benefit their veteran-laden roster.

A rematch with Phoenix in the NBA Finals would make for great television. The Suns are better than they were last year, and they were more than capable of winning it all in 2021. The league benefits whenever teams match up in consecutive postseasons when the in-game strategy and healthy animosity escalate.

Regardless, Milwaukee shouldn’t fear anyone when they’re playing their best. They’ve proven, last postseason and during the regular season, that they can beat any opponent when their defense is swarming and creating easy opportunities in transition. If the Bucks are also able to create halfcourt opportunities in their first-round series, it could be a harbinger of their repeat champion potential.

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