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Few Teams Have Ever Defended Like These Milwaukee Bucks

Every NBA-watcher is different, but it would likely be a fair assessment to say that most of us are naturally drawn to the league’s flashiest plays. Whether it’s a “Did he really just do that?” 40-footer by Damian Lillard; a nasty stepback by James Harden that leaves his man crumpled on the floor; a rim-rattling slam by Zion Williamson; or a criminally lanky, yet smooth Eurostep from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who can almost teleport his way to different parts of the court.

But there’s a flip side to all this: The most impressive defensive sequences — aside from perhaps a block that’s tossed into the stands here and there — are far less likely to get the same kind of attention.

On some level, the lack of widespread emphasis placed on that side of the ball might explain how the dominant Bucks, currently on pace for 71 wins, have cobbled together the league’s most dominant defense in more than a decade without it being a bigger part of their narrative.

We wrote recently about how great a campaign Milwaukee is having, touting not only the best record, but also an unprecedented average margin of victory, beating foes by 12.4 points per game at the time of that story. Undoubtedly, the Bucks have flown under the radar because of Milwaukee being one of the NBA’s smallest markets. But their otherworldly defense — and its somewhat unusual, sometimes subtle tactics — often gets overlooked, too.

By allowing just 102.0 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference), the Bucks’ defense is not only the best in the NBA right now, but also one of the best ever. That defensive rating is 8.2 points per 100 better than the average NBA defense this season — which gives Milwaukee the NBA’s best defense since the 2008 Boston Celtics, and the eighth-best unit in history.1

Milwaukee’s defense is historically dominant

Lowest single-season defensive efficiency relative to league average in NBA history, 1950-2020

Opp. Pts/100 Possessions
Team Season Team League Avg. Team vs. Lg
1 Boston Celtics 1963-64 83.8 94.6 -10.8
2 Boston Celtics 1964-65 84.2 93.6 -9.5
3 San Antonio Spurs 2003-04 94.1 102.9 -8.8
4 Boston Celtics 2007-08 98.9 107.5 -8.6
5 Boston Celtics 1962-63 87.4 95.9 -8.5
6 Boston Celtics 1961-62 85.1 93.6 -8.5
7 New York Knicks 1992-93 99.7 108.0 -8.3
8 Milwaukee Bucks 2019-20 102.0 110.2 -8.2
9 New York Knicks 1993-94 98.2 106.3 -8.1
10 Boston Celtics 1960-61 84.5 92.1 -7.6
11 Minneapolis Lakers 1951-52 79.3 86.9 -7.6
12 Detroit Pistons 2003-04 95.4 102.9 -7.5
13 San Antonio Spurs 2015-16 99.0 106.4 -7.4
14 Indiana Pacers 2013-14 99.3 106.7 -7.3
15 San Antonio Spurs 2004-05 98.8 106.1 -7.3

Possessions were estimated for teams in seasons prior to 1973-74.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

And perhaps the most interesting dynamic in all of this: The Bucks have become a historically dominant defense despite largely ignoring a couple of rules that were once thought to be vitally important.

For starters, they play at the NBA’s fastest pace, a trait we don’t really think of when we picture a great defensive team grinding out wins in the postseason. Even more surprising: Milwaukee has managed to lock down opposing offenses despite surrendering one of the largest shares of 3-point tries of any club, something once thought to be a no-no from an analytics standpoint.

Yet there’s a bit of nuance involved in how the Bucks go about defending. Yes, they give up more threes than any other team. But much like the San Antonio Spurs did years ago, Milwaukee can be quite selective about which opposing players — often poor-shooting ones — get those looks.

The Bucks’ decision to play so far off the 3-point line — normally done by keeping center Brook Lopez firmly in the paint, even in pick-and-pop scenarios — is rooted in the makeup of their roster: long-limbed players and great rim protectors.

Sometimes the Bucks all but roll out a red carpet to the rim, as they surrender more drives per 100 possessions than any other club, according to Second Spectrum. That, too, is by design: Milwaukee holds shooters to a field goal percentage of just under 60 percent from inside of 3 feet, the league’s best mark. One stat that highlights how insanely good the team has been along the back line? Of the NBA’s league’s four best stoppers at the rim, in terms of defensive field-goal differential, three — Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Lopez’s brother, Robin — just happen to suit up for the Bucks. Opponents shoot 19 percentage points below their average at the rim when Giannis is closest to the play. They’re 17.5 points worse when Brook Lopez is nearby; 14.6 points worse when it’s Robin Lopez.

Opposing players often see daylight ahead of them because of the seemingly advantageous angles the Bucks’ wings give them. (They even dare to give ample driving space to James Harden, albeit in an attempt to bait him into going to his off-hand side.) But the defenders, Eric Bledsoe and Donte DiVincenzo in particular, have become skilled at “rear-view contests,” sometimes erasing shots before they can leave the shooter’s hand. The Bucks’ guards have a league-high 48 rejections on jumpers and floaters.

Even when teams do manage to get shots off against Milwaukee, there’s usually no such thing as a second chance, as the Bucks own an NBA-high defensive rebound rate of 77.1 percent.

Milwaukee’s system and success on that end of the floor almost makes it hard to remember how different things were just a few years ago, when the Bucks played a chaotic, switching style that often ran opponents deep into the shot clock but also gave up far too many optimal looks.

There are sure to be questions about whether the Bucks can get it done playing their style of D in the playoffs, where all it would take is a few hot shooters to take advantage of Milwaukee’s willingness to give up threes and change the complexion of a series.2 Similarly, some will wonder whether Mike Budenholzer, the reigning Coach of the Year, deserves the benefit of the doubt heading into the postseason as the top seed. The two times he’s coached a No. 1 seed, his clubs have been bounced in the conference finals.

But if there’s a reason to believe in Milwaukee more strongly — aside from the fact that almost all the NBA teams historically that have started this hot went on to win the whole thing — it’s that the Bucks are, of course, not just a one-dimensional defensive team, stellar as their D has been.

In addition to their No. 1 defensive ranking this year, Milwaukee also ranks third in offensive efficiency, with a rating 3.4 points per 100 better than average. Although Antetokounmpo and his teammates struggled mightily in more gummed-up half-court scenarios against Toronto last May, particularly when Kawhi Leonard began checking Giannis exclusively, the Greek Freak might be tougher to deal with this time around. Likely a safe bet to repeat as MVP — averaging almost 30 points, 14 boards and 6 dimes per night in just 30 minutes — Antetokounmpo has been more comfortable as a pull-up shooter this year, both from midrange and from three. The lack of hesitation could make a huge difference, potentially forcing teams to play him more honestly on the perimeter and giving one of the league’s most dangerous scorers even more room to drive.

All in all, there’s no legitimate reason to question the Bucks’ firepower. But make no mistake: Even though you probably haven’t heard much about this team’s defense, it’s fantastic — quietly one of the best ever — and could end up being an even more important factor than Milwaukee’s offense in determining whether the team hoists a trophy three-and-a-half months from now.

Neil Paine contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Or at least, since 1950-51, the earliest season for which we can estimate historical defensive ratings.

  2. (Seven of the team’s eight losses this season have come in contests where it allowed 15 or more made threes.)

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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