Numbers game: Analyzing Bucks’ defense, Khris Middleton’s efficiency and moreNehm:
Twenty-nine other teams would love to have a player like Middleton. I’m happy you mentioned his shooting efficiency inside the arc this season because it leads me to something else I wanted to discuss.
Middleton is the only Milwaukee starter shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. How many players on the roster will be treated like above-average 3-point shooters by playoff defenses? And how big of a deal will that be?Seth:
Middleton will be, certainly.
Even the slightly diminished version of Kyle Korver is a four-alarm fire if left open. We talked about this the other day, but Korver had multiple consecutive seasons where he shot above 50 percent on uncontested threes, including an absurd 55.4 percent in 2013-14, the best mark by nearly three full percentage points among players with at least 100 uncontested attempts in a season in the tracking era. Middleton has the second-highest single-season accuracy in that sample, hitting 52.6 percent in 2015-16. Back to Korver, later in his career, he’s settled into a still-elite-but-actually-human mid 40s range of accuracy on unguarded 3-pointers, having hit 46.2 percent this regular season. My guess George Hill will probably get this treatment as well as he hit half of his uncontested 3-pointers this season and 48.6 overall in tracked games.
Which, if one was to pick at an offensive weakness of this team, here it is. The analogy I might use is that the Bucks 3-point shooting volume is the threat of a run on a play-action pass. Milwaukee makes their offensive money at the rim due to Antetokounmpo. If I asked would you prefer to take your chances with Antetokounmpo at the rim or Brook Lopez at the arc, the answer is obvious, and it’s the choice teams are going to try and make in the postseason.
Of course, you have to have the personnel to execute a strategy that keeps Antetokounmpo away from the rim. But as the Bucks progress through the playoffs, they will face teams with the level of talent and defensive discipline to at least force the issue. Then the pressure is on what is a mediocre collection of shooting talent. Weighting by this season’s attempts, the Bucks ranked 25th in career accuracy on uncontested 3-pointers:
Brook Lopez has struggled, hitting under 30 percent of uncontested threes on the season. That’s a problem when taking into account his importance on defense.
It’s not a fatal flaw. From a probabilistic standpoint, there’s as much chance of an average bunch of shooters being above average for a few weeks as there is of a negative run. But as was seen last season against Toronto, it is a vulnerability.Nehm:
Speaking of Toronto, let’s go back to the Bucks’ 3-point defense. (Sorry, Seth.)
VanVleet hit 14 of 17 3-point shots in the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Even the best shooters don’t hit 82.4 percent of their open 3-point attempts, so that performance has to be chalked up, at least partially, to bad luck for the Bucks. VanVleet is only one player, so his shooting doesn’t tell the whole story, but his performance appears to highlight the potential dangers of 3-point shooting variance in a seven-game series.
So, let me ask again, how big of a problem could the Bucks’ 3-point defense potentially be in the postseason?Partnow:
Yes, VanVleet got hot. But in the tracking data era, only nine players have been more accurate over their careers than VanVleet’s 45 percent on uncontested 3-pointers. Further, the focus on specifically VanVleet is a little too narrow, Danny Green couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean that series. The Raptors as a whole shot an elevated, but non-ridiculous 41.6 percent on uncontested 3-pointers in those games. More worryingly for Milwaukee’s defense, 60.3 percent of Toronto’s threes were uncontested representing 27.6 percent of the Raptors’ shots overall. This season, uncontested 3-pointers have been 22.4 percent of all attempts allowed by Toronto themself, the highest mark in the league. Milwaukee is next at 21.8 percent.
Did Toronto run hot on those shots? Yeah, a little. … Maybe it’s just a difference in terms of linguistics, but I just don’t see how ‘if we lose, it will be because X happened. X happened, therefore we were unlucky’ is a tenable position.
The bigger picture, is 3-point defense an issue for the Bucks? Yes. Later in the playoffs, the other team is almost definitionally higher quality than in the regular season and even earlier in the postseason.
Part of facing better teams is facing better shooting talent, not to mention better schemes designed to attack weaknesses. The calculation of protecting the paint at all cost, at times conceding jumpers, works better against lower quality opposition. There is a reason no NBA team has fully adopted the pack-line defensive principles which teams like Virginia and Arizona have used successfully in the college game. The higher comparative skill level in the NBA turns the mathematical underpinnings making that strategy profitable in NCAA play to mush.
Milwaukee’s Net Rating of plus-16.0/100 against teams below 35-win pace by the shutdown was the second-best of the modern era behind only this season’s Lakers (plus-22.1/100). Against 50-plus win pace teams, they were only 10-7, but with a much more pedestrian plus-2.8/100 Net Rating over that span, second in the NBA to Denver’s plus-5.9.
Only four teams in the league had positive Net Ratings against the other top-flight teams, and any record above .500 has been a solid indicator of postseason success in the past. I don’t think those splits are dispositive of anything beyond the fact that the Bucks’ dominance in terms of season-long metrics is somewhat inflated by the crush jobs on bottom-feeding opposition. The Bucks had 26 games (losing only one) against sub 35-win opponents while the Lakers went undefeated in 16 contests.