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Deer Pressure: The Bucks’ Defense Is Clicking, but for How Much Longer?

Milwaukee’s nightmarish defense has done a 180 since Eric Bledsoe’s arrival, but to become an elite team, the Bucks might need to cool off on their aggressive schemes and acquire a proper anchor

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This piece was updated after publication with more information.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is coming for LeBron’s title as King of the Chasedown Block, if he isn’t holding it already. Antetokounmpo’s endless length is enough to inject fear into opponents’ hearts. Just ask Blazers stars C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, who each felt Antetokounmpo’s wrath within a 30-second span on Thursday.

Those two blocks—on plays seemingly out of reach—are symbolic of Milwaukee’s late-blooming defensive renaissance in recent weeks. The Bucks own the NBA’s fifth-best defense (101.2) in their past 11 games since adding Eric Bledsoe. This follows a stretch of 10 games to open the season in which they ranked 29th, in line with their past two dismal defensive campaigns. Jason Kidd’s hyper-aggressive blitzing scheme is working again. Suddenly, Giannis looks the part of a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Bledsoe has returned to an elite form last witnessed during his youth.

Giannis is the finisher. Bledsoe sets the tone. The Bucks’ new starting point guard is an agitator. With a thick frame and swift feet, Bledsoe’s terrific at pummeling through screens and switching onto larger wings. His near-6-foot-8 wingspan allows him to contest shots and invade passing lanes that he shouldn’t have access to standing only 6-foot-1. Bolstered by Bledsoe’s contributions, Milwaukee’s defense has improved significantly in various defensive statistics.

Milwaukee Bucks Defensive Statistics, 2017–18

Stat Type Rank Before Bledsoe Rank After Bledsoe
Stat Type Rank Before Bledsoe Rank After Bledsoe
Deflections 29th 3rd
Loose Balls Recovered 27th 2nd
Opponent TOV% 20th 1st
DRTG 29th 5th

Kidd has preached deflections and steals to his defense in his time as head coach, and the Bucks have built a roster full of long limbs in hopes of maximizing their opportunities. But they weren't getting many of them earlier this season as offenses learned how to time their passes through the trees. Now, the Bucks are wreaking havoc.

Bledsoe’s communication has bolstered the team’s effort on defense while Khris Middleton has done a better job of talking and rotating from the weak side. Milwaukee’s big man defenders, John Henson and Thon Maker, are executing better on pick-and-rolls with Bledsoe busting through and Henson containing on the blitz. The more players talk, the more connected they’ll be, and the more connected they are, the better they’ll produce.

Precise rotations are integral to any defense’s success, but it’s especially critical for one that blitzes like the Bucks.

Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo trap Lillard, which forces the entire defense to rotate. There’s a lot that can go wrong. Henson is virtually out of the play once Al-Farouq Aminu drives, but the entire Milwaukee defense rotates in lockstep to cover. McCollum made the shot at the end of the possession, but that’s an acceptable result considering how heavily contested it was late in the shot clock.

Kidd hasn’t altered his hyper-aggressive scheme during the Bucks’ recent defensive hot streak. They are just executing better as a whole when gambling with traps, blitzes, and presses. The Bucks still have issues, though. They have a 95.3 defensive rating with Bledsoe on the floor, compared to 111.6 when he’s watching from the bench. If Bledsoe is basketball Botox, the Bucks are receiving enough treatments for their defense to hold form. But face lifts aren’t permanent.

Milwaukee’s schedule has been fairly soft. They’ve won eight of the 11 games played with Bledsoe in the lineup, but have only three notable wins against the Spurs, Pistons, and Blazers. Recent wins over the Kings and Blazers have helped to bolster their defensive numbers largely because those two teams played into the strengths of the Bucks’ defensive schemes. The Kings shoot more midrange jumpers and have a lower combined number of 3s and at-rim attempts than any other NBA team, while ball movement from one side of the court to the other can be a rarity in Portland. Teams that pass the ball and move off the ball are toughest on Milwaukee. The Jazz pounded the Bucks last week using ball and body movement to disorient their defense, and the two teams will match up again on Saturday. That contest—as well as games this week against Boston and Detroit—will be strong indicators regarding the Bucks’ progress. Even in their decisive wins, they suffered major slippages.

Henson doesn’t blitz overly aggressively here, but the rest of the defense fails to rotate. Look at Tony Snell on the weak side: He’s in a defensive stance, but he’s on an island. Jusuf Nurkic missed an easy kickout pass to McCollum for an open 3. More experienced playmaking centers (like Al Horford, who gets another crack at the Bucks on Monday) won’t miss that pass often.

A few minutes later, McCollum ended up with a wide-open 3:

This is a Spain pick-and-roll by Portland, which involves McCollum setting a pick on the screen defender (Henson). The team fails to communicate, as Henson recovers to Nurkic rather than switching. In this case, McCollum misses, but teams will make them pay down the road.

Kidd said it’s “impossible” for a young team to switch effectively and “know everyone on the floor.” Kidd isn’t wrong, but he’s also laid out the exact reason no other team in the NBA runs the extreme style of defense the Bucks employ. Teams generally aim to take away attempts at the rim and from behind the 3-point line to invite midrange jumpers. The Bucks do the opposite. Opponents attempt the fourth-fewest midrange jumpers against the Bucks and have the most at-rim opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass. There won’t be as many complaints about Milwaukee’s scheme as long as the team continues winning, but it’s still an issue that merits discussion. They struggle to communicate routinely, and the system as a whole leaves so much room for error that one slipup can lead to an open layup or 3. The fact their defense falls off a cliff when Bledsoe is off the floor is worrisome enough. One recent defensive hot streak doesn’t change three seasons of defensive struggles, and even with Giannis becoming a superstar and Bledsoe shining, it doesn’t appear sustainable.

There’s pressure to win now in Milwaukee, as there should be; Giannis is ready to lead a team to the NBA Finals. They need to add another star, but need the cap space to do it. The Bucks are seeking a big man, according to multiple NBA executives, and are also trying to open up cap space by aborting some of their larger contracts, such as Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson (both signed through 2019–20), or Mirza Teletovic (signed through 2018–19).

Marc Gasol would make sense for Milwaukee. Too bad he’s not available. Three NBA executives I spoke with don’t expect the Grizzlies to deal him, though the case can be made that they should. One said that even if Gasol requested a trade, nothing would likely happen until the offseason. Lower-cost options like Nerlens Noel will be available, but he doesn’t move the needle in a way that the Bucks would need out of an in-season deal.

The name that keeps popping up is DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers are a disaster, losers of 12 of their past 15 games. Their season is lost. League executives expect them to listen to offers for their star center. But Jordan has a player option worth $24.1 million for the 2018–19 season, and as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out on Twitter, teams won’t be able to gauge his interest in committing long-term since the center doesn’t have an agent.

Jordan hasn’t made his decision on an agency yet, but multiple executives and agents I spoke with believe there’s momentum toward an agreement with Rich Paul, founder of Klutch Sports Group. The two teams typically associated with Jordan in the rumor mill coincidently have Klutch clients: the Bucks (Bledsoe) and the Cavs (LeBron James, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson). It’s unclear when Jordan will make his choice, but the timing matters. Any agent that represents Jordan could leverage him toward a team that would sign him to a max contract. That mere threat could dissuade some teams from even pursuing him, increasing the odds he lands on a team willing to pony up. (Update: Jordan has signed with Excel Sports Management's Jeff Schwartz, who also represents Jason Kidd.)

Milwaukee has a tough decision to make if acquiring Jordan is indeed a possibility. A Giannis-Jordan pick-and-roll gives me goosebumps; Kidd could take the basics of what the Clippers did with DJ and Blake Griffin and build on it. That said, the spacing issues that plagued the Clippers would apply to the Bucks—they’d need more shooting. Still, it’s undeniable that Jordan would help their defense. The Bucks haven't had a traditional rim protector on their roster since Larry Sanders played 27 games in 2014–15. The aggressive scheme they run today could simply be a choice based on their personnel. Having a big like Jordan could force them to alter the scheme, turning the blitz into a situational weapon instead of the basis for their attack.

Imagine Jordan in this spot instead of Henson, retreating then corralling the ball handler, while the rest of the defense swarms, cutting off driving angles and passing lanes. Tweaking their style wouldn’t change their identity entirely. Even if they “drop” the screen defender by having him sag into the paint, the Bucks still have more than enough length to disrupt offenses from every angle.

The downsides of handing Jordan a max contract this summer—at his age, with his game so reliant on athleticism—must be nightmare-inducing for Bucks general manager Jon Horst. But Giannis and Bledsoe have accelerated the timeline in Milwaukee. Taking another step forward this season will take some calculated gambles. The Bucks have spent the past few seasons taking risks defensively. A potential swing for DeAndre Jordan would be the biggest yet, one that could make or break their defense and determine just how special these Bucks can be.