The Milwaukee Bucks have controlled the Eastern Conference all season thanks in large part to a revamped offense installed by new coach Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud, a favorite for NBA coach of the year, has maximized the spacing on the NBA floor by stretching the defense with shooters surrounding Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Giannis, known by hoop heads as the Greek Freak, has used this spacing to turn in an MVP worthy campaign full of dunks and scoring outbursts. While the Freak’s offensive contributions have generated the most buzz, his work on the defensive end may have him taking home the league’s MVP award and defensive player of the year.
Budenholzer has installed a conservative defensive scheme focused around preventing opponents from scoring in the paint. This is somewhat counter-culture in the era of rising three point attempts, but the Bucks system allows the fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA at 104.9, despite allowing the most threes (36.3 3PA !!) per game.
The Bucks invite penetration by using a “drop” coverage in the pick and roll, meaning they place the defender guarding the screener, usually Giannis or 7 footer Brook Lopez, in the paint where ball handlers have a very hard time scoring over length at the rim.
Milwaukee instructs their on-ball defenders to fight over the screen, hoping to close the air space and invite mid-range shots, typically a less efficient shot in the analytics era.
Here is a typical Bucks ball screen coverage featuring the on-ball defender fighting over the top of the screen and the big protecting the paint.
The drop ball screen coverage is nothing new, but what makes the Bucks so unique is the extent to which they help in the paint. Ball handlers often see multiple long defenders in the painted area, some accounting for the roll man, others reading the offense and playing the passing lanes. The Bucks invite the kick out pass, ready to scramble and closeout to shooters, keeping in mind where the opponent’s weaker three point shooters are located.
Again, talk to any basketball coach and this is not revolutionary, but Giannis has taken this to a whole new extreme. Budenholzer has allowed Antetokounmpo to roam free, which has unleashed the Greek Freak as the league’s most dangerous off ball defender.
Giannis has very little regard for non-shooters, leaving them, clogging driving and passing lanes, and generally disrupting anything the opposing offense attempts. His one-of-a-kind stature allows him to cover large territories of hardwood instantly, and opposing three point shooters often get gun shy with Giannis in range.
The Giannis personal defensive scheme occasionally gets him in trouble ball watching, over-helping or not deterring crashing offensive rebounders. However, with the #1 defense in the NBA, Budenholzer can live with a few lapses, because Giannis has enabled the Bucks to thrive on both ends.
With point of attack on-ball defenders like pest Eric Bledsoe and glue guy Khris Middleton fighting through screens, the Bucks defense has them with the best record in the NBA going into the playoffs.
It should also be noted that the Greek Freak averages 12.5 rebounds per game, an essential part of ending defensive possessions. While the raw numbers (1.3 SPG, 1.5 BPG) indicate that Giannis is the most feared defender on the stingiest defense around the Association, the eye test confirms. Watching ball handlers pass up shots for forced passes or shooters straying away from their comfort zones because the Freak is near, his defensive impact can’t be summed up by the box score.
Antetokounmpo frees up the other Bucks to pressure defensively, and his length, agility, and rebounding prowess all indicate that if he isn’t the 2019 DPOY, that award could be in his future.
The defensive ability of Giannis, plus his insane efficiency offensively, point to him needing a bigger trophy case going forward.
Find a full film breakdown of Giannis and the Bucks defense here: