The 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks won 73 percent of their games while outscoring opponents by a league-leading 8.6 points per 100 possessions. You know what happened next. The Bucks lost four straight to the Raptors after winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, then refused to go deep into the luxury tax to retain Malcolm Brogdon, a key player in their starting lineup. If you’re a Bucks fan, you’ve probably read more critiques of that decision than you can count.
Yet sans Brogdon, the 2019-20 Bucks are 21-3, an 88 percent win rate. They’ve outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions, putting them even further ahead of the rest of the league. They won back-to-back games by more than 40 points, then demolished the Los Angeles Clippers, a preseason title favorite, by 28. I’m no genius, but those numbers seem better than last year.
This should lead to a series of obvious questions:
- Was Brogdon’s importance to the Bucks overstated?
- Was he actually a “luxury,” as managing partner Marc Lasry suggested before the season?
- Forget finances: did the Bucks actually make the right basketball decision to let him go?
- Was all the haranguing about the timing of his departure — right before a certain important international sensation could decide to leave a quaint little American town of nearly 600,000 people — a waste of time?
The honest answer to all of those question is that we don’t know yet. Before the season, I suggested the Bucks wouldn’t really miss Brogdon until the postseason. We, of course, have not reached the postseason and won’t for some time. Brogdon is also having an all-star caliber season for the Pacers, having transferred the direct, attacking style that served him well off the ball in Milwaukee into an on-ball role in Indiana. Watching him and screening savant Domantas Sabonis change speeds in the pick-and-roll is a basketball nerd’s dream.
And yet, the Bucks have been significantly better than they were at any point last season even without Brogdon. If he was so important to their success last year, why have they improved? And if they’ve improved this much, doesn’t that mean he really was a luxury?
Broadly, the Bucks have improved for two related reasons: their defense is somehow better, and their star is somehow better. Without Brogdon, their strengths have become super-duper-duper strengths.
Last year’s Bucks allowed the fewest points per 100 possessions in the league. They did so using a simple formula: shut off the rim, don’t foul, and don’t get caught in rotation. Oddly, they allowed a higher percentage of three-point shots than any other team in the league, which is usually a sign of a bad unit. But in Milwaukee’s case, it was by design. They made the rim a no-fly zone, so most of those threes were relatively harmless above-the-break ones like this.
Brook Lopez (and Antetokounmpo to a lesser extent) correctly received most of the credit. It looks easy to raise your arms as high as possible near the basket, but there’s a reason you don’t see zillions of Brook Lopezes around the league. It’s hard to be that big and have that much upper-body strength with athletic marvels jumping into your chest.
Still, the Bucks’ defensive strategy isn’t exactly the most complicated to diagnose. So how are they allowing four fewer points per 100 possessions this year? Why are teams shooting just 53.6 percent at the rim against them this year, nearly four percentage points lower than last year’s league-leading mark?
There are many factors. Lopez has somehow improved as a rim protector, falling less often for ball-handlers fakes.
The addition of Lopez’s brother Robin has also given Milwaukee a second towering statue around the basket.
But there’s another factor at play: better perimeter defenders playing in Brogdon’s place. Brodgon is far from a slouch, but he’s not as big as Wesley Matthews or as quick as the bench duo of Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton.
Matthews, a veteran’s minimum signing this summer, has fit in seamlessly with the Bucks’ ethos. Milwaukee allows just 96.3 points per 100 possessions with him in the game — to make an admittedly crude comparison, they allowed 102.7 per 100 with Brogdon on the floor last year. He’s bigger, more physical, and savvier than anyone the Bucks had last year, giving them another option against the Leonards of the world.
Last year, the task of stopping these players fell to Khris Middleton or Brogdon, which sapped their offensive energy (especially in Middleton’s case). Now, it’s Matthews’ job, and Leonard in particular saw the difference.
DiVincenzo and Connaughton are excellent alternatives against the quicker guards that Brogdon used to check. Their ball pressure is a delight to watch, and DiVincenzo in particular looks like a shutdown corner when playing passing lanes.
Together, those three players make the Lopii look even better. Last year, the Bucks were good at funneling drivers to the rim with enough pressure to limit their leaping ability. But Matthews, DiVincenzo, and Connaughton are even more superior clamp defenders that stay even more attached to their man’s hips on pick-and-rolls.
In different ways, against different kinds of offensive players, they ensure Milwaukee’s elite rim protectors aren’t forced to leave the hoop and get exposed in space. Brook Lopez gets credit for stoning Ivica Zubac at the rim, but Matthews made it easier by nipping at Leonard’s heels so he couldn’t finish the drive.
Brogdon did that stuff well, but not as well as Matthews, DiVincenzo, and Connaughton. And while he’s much more versatile on the other end, Milwaukee’s offense is doing just fine anyway. That’s largely because Antetokounmpo has somehow taken on more responsibility.
For years, we’ve wondered what might happen if Antetokounmpo finally developed a jump shot to go along with his incredible power game. Y’all, it’s happening. He’s up to 32 percent on threes this year while taking five a game, nearly double his career high in attempts. As I noted a couple weeks ago, his shooting form is smoother. Watch the difference on these two shots.
Defenses would still rather have Antetokounmpo shoot from the perimeter than drive, but he’s now good enough from out there to at least be honored. He even sometimes fools some dummies into biting on his pump fake!
His shooting improvement holds up from mid-range and on turnarounds on the block. Teams are honoring those shots, which allows Antetokounmpo to go through his man for layups and dunks from a standstill position rather than always having to attack on the move.
These two left-box post ups against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jonathan Isaac illustrate Antetokounmpo’s skill development. On the first one, Isaac absorbed Antetokounmpo’s body blow and backed up to bait Antetokounmpo into shooting over him. Totally understandable, yet Antetokounmpo obliged with this nifty jump hook, a new-ish tool in his arsenal.
Two minutes later, Antetokounmpo caught the ball in the exact same spot. This time, Isaac, took a step toward Antetokounmpo, trying to body him off the spot from which he just got beat. Big mistake, because Antetokounmpo just plowed through him for a dunk.
Does Isaac do that if he hasn’t experienced Antetokounmpo besting him with a jump hook? I doubt it. That’s how possessing a deeper set of offensive tools makes a star’s strength even stronger.
Antetokounmpo’s offensive improvement has little to do with Brogdon’s departure, unless you believe Brodgon somehow held the MVP back. But if replacing Brogdon with Matthews and DiVincenzo while retaining Connaughton and George Hill improves the defense without any offensive drop-off, maybe it was a good basketball decision after all?
Well, maybe. Getting stronger at your strengths doesn’t alleviate the fear that your team is too predictable in a tight playoff series. It always helps to have offspeed pitches no matter how many extra miles one adds to their fastball. Do the Bucks have enough variety without Brogdon around?
To me, DiVincenzo’s development is the key to further threading the needle. He’s no Brogdon on offense, but he’s shown flashes of providing some of the playmaking, shooting, and direct driving that Brogdon did last year. The Bucks would be wise to coax more of this out.
The Bucks also have the two draft picks they received for moving Brogdon to Indiana to flip for an upgrade if they decide they need it. (If only they could trade those things for Malcolm Brogdon!).
But they could also do nothing and be in as good a position as they were with Brogdon. Remember, they dominated two playoff series with him injured last year and were a bounce away from going up 3-0 in last year’s East Finals. Further improvement from Antetokounmpo plus a more stifling defense might be the formula necessary to break through. If so, perhaps Brogdon really was a luxury player.
We won’t know for sure until June. Until then, it’s worth at least considering the possibility they were right to let him go.
CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK
Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.
Four Lakers stopped potential open transition threes here. You love to see it.
REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK
Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!
The real MVP of this clip is Hornets play-by-play man Eric Collins, who has a knack for conveying the exact level of joy or (more commonly) frustration that Hornets fans feel in the moment. GOOD GOLLY is a call for the ages. Perfect for a moment trivial, yet frustrating during an attempted comeback.