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The Bucks’ Great Defensive Experiment Is Over

If the Milwaukee Bucks had simply played a standard NBA defense, Jason Kidd would likely still have a job. No one questions teams that switch on off-ball screens or drop to the paint on a pick and roll — that’s just how NBA defense is played today, and Milwaukee has the personnel to do it. But as the Bucks’ coach, Kidd chose instead to pursue the evolutionary next step in NBA defense, even if it ran him out of town.

With the Bucks on a three-game winning streak since Kidd was fired, and with the team playing better defense over the weekend, it may soon be easy to point to that switch as the cure-all. But if nothing else, Kidd’s Bucks committed an act of science. The hypothesis: An athletic roster that forces turnovers and extra passes will lead invariably to a top defense. The finding: Not if achieving those goals means giving opponents a clear run at the rim on practically every possession.

Under Kidd, the Bucks played a blitzing style of defense that aggressively rotated to pressure the ball, trusting their defenders to scramble rotations on the backside quickly enough to discourage open shots. Because the defenders rushing the ball-handler were also long (all of the Bucks are, really), the idea was that the passes to open shooters wouldn’t be accurate enough for offenses to capitalize on any slightly late rotations. This hasn’t exactly been the case.

The Bucks defense has been plain bad for most of the season. It saw a brief uptick after acquiring point guard Eric Bledsoe, but at the time of Kidd’s firing, it ranked 26th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (111.3), just behind the sad-sack Atlanta Hawks. But unlike the Hawks or the Phoenix Suns or most of the other punching bags playing league-worst defense, the Bucks have good defenders. Giannis Antetokounmpo alone should be enough to build a defense around, but the Bucks also have Khris Middleton, Thon Maker and Tony Snell — all defenders with the tools to make a positive impact — and down-roster defenders who, if not as gifted, are willing contributors. There’s little excuse for them to perform so badly.

Predictably enough, the Bucks defense has been reformed under interim coach Joe Prunty, no longer asking players to hurry around the court covering three opponents at once like a young Tony Allen. They switch and stay home more often and trap much less aggressively. Through three games (against crummy teams), they’re 3-0 with a defensive rating of 101.3. It’s possible that making a change really was that simple, but we’ll know more from opponents who aren’t the Suns, Nets and Bulls.

It should be noted that Kidd’s scheme did work as intended, at least some of the time. In Kidd’s time as head coach, the Bucks forced the most passes per 100 possessions of any team, taking opponents late into the shot clock — typically a valuable achievement. They also forced a decent number of turnovers — the team is fifth overall in opponent turnover rate for the season. But while both of these metrics are typically indicators of a good defense, they’re just that — indicators. And while maxing out these stats, the Bucks bottomed out in others that typically disqualify a defense from being any good.

This season, the Bucks have allowed opponents to shoot within 3 feet of the rim on 33 percent of their shots — far more often than any other team. They’ve also given up valuable corner threes on 24 percent of opponent 3-pointers, tied for fourth-worst in the league, which goes a long way toward Milwaukee’s fifth-worst 3-point defense (opponents make 38 percent).

According to data from Second Spectrum, the Bucks defense has been a damned layup factory. Through Sunday, Antetokounmpo had been blown by on 43 percent of drives he defends, ranking 387th out of 390 qualified players. Maker had allowed drivers past him 37 percent of the time (376th); Middleton 36 percent (371st); Snell 28 percent (308th). Whenever Jabari Parker returns, he isn’t likely to help things. In 51 games in 2016-17, Parker ranked 417 out of 423 qualified players in defensive blow-by rate, coming in just ahead of Maker (423) and just behind Middleton (416), then-Buck Michael Beasley (414) and Antetokounmpo (399). Parker has never been much of a defender, but Maker, Middleton and Snell are all excellent, and it’s jarring that a system can flatten their contributions to look not much different from Parker’s or Beasley’s.

It’s still easy to see how someone could become enamored by the possibilities. Giannis’s length and athleticism allow him to stay in a play even when his man gets a step. Here he is getting wrong-footed while closing out the Heat’s James Johnson, doing a spin move to get back into the play and contesting the shot:

And here he is against the Wizards guarding the paint and a shooter in the corner at the same time:

Giannis is on the hook to guard two high-value locations on the floor because John Henson, the center in this Bucks lineup, met Bradley Beal at the 3-point line on a basic pick and roll. Henson and Malcolm Brogdon were long enough to deny a pass to a basically wide-open Marcin Gortat, and when the ball eventually swings to Otto Porter, Giannis and Henson rotate quickly enough to force a bad pass. This is the system working at its best, with Antetokounmpo covering Deion Sanders-sized amounts of turf.

But even Giannis’s excellence isn’t without drawbacks here. Yes, he can get back into plays and shut down possessions once he does, but that doesn’t account for possessions on which he commits a foul. And there are a lot of fouls, many more than a star player typically picks up. Giannis averages 4.1 fouls per 100 possessions. LeBron James has never averaged more than 3 fouls per 100 possessions; Kawhi Leonard averaged just 2.5 fouls per 100 last season; and among the players who have accrued at least five Win Shares this season, Antetokounmpo has the seventh-highest rate of personal fouls, trailing six centers. The rest of the team followed suit: The Bucks have fouled opponents more than any team but the Memphis Grizzlies, who have been foul machines for years.

After all that, a baseline, vanilla defense may be a welcome development for traumatized Milwaukee fans who have watched their team give up easy look after easy look for years now. But in a way, it’s also a shame: The league is at its most interesting when there is a varied ecosystem in place — when different modes of play can find success — and it’s unlikely we’ll see another team take a run at a system like this any time soon. Kidd had just about the ideal roster to make this experiment work. If it didn’t work in Milwaukee, why would it work anywhere else?

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Kyle Wagner is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.