The NBA season is finally one month old, and one of the biggest surprises of the young season has to be the success of the Milwaukee Bucks, who are sitting at 11-4. It’s a small sample size, yes, but last season the Bucks finished seventh in the East, and now they’re a half game out of first. They didn’t make a lot of personnel changes, but it was the hiring of Coach Mike Budenholzer that has transformed Milwaukee into serious contenders.
Before we get into the X’s and O’s, let’s look at the changes in personnel. Who exactly did the Bucks lose, and who did they gain? First, they let Jabari Parker walk. Parker was a restricted free agent, which means Milwaukee could match any offer than another team gave him. The Bulls offered Jabari a 2 year, $40 million contract with a team option on the second year. Milwaukee let him go. Parker was drafted higher than Giannis, a year before Giannis, and when he arrived in Milwaukee, he was the face of the franchise. Then, while Parker was struggling with injuries, Antetokounmpo became the breakout star he is today. Jabari never really deferred to Giannis, on or off the court. His inefficient, midrange style never really fit with the Greek Freak. In 2017-18, 35% of Parker’s FGA’s came at the rim, 24% from three, and 41% came from the midrange. That 41% figure is way too high.
These numbers may be confusing, so let’s compare them to the new #2 in Milwaukee, Khris Middleton. Under Coach Bud this season, 52% of Middleton’s shots are coming from three. That’s over twice Jabari’s figure, 24%. Middleton is the type of player that makes sense next to Giannis, while Parker is an isolation scorer that just stops the movement of the ball. Jabari also finished 2017-18 with a -1.8 box plus/minus, meaning the Bucks’ average point differential was 1.8 points worse with Parker on the floor.
There are four notable additions to the Bucks’ 2018-19 roster. These players rank 5-8 in minutes this year, classifying them as contributing role players. There’s the rookie, Donte DiVincenzo, and three free agent signings—Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, and Pat Connaughton. These three free agent signings are shooting 38.9% from three, and 58.1% of their shot attempts have come from beyond the arc. Coach Bud has surrounded Giannis with players that are knocking down spot-up threes, which transitions us from personnel into three point shooting.
Quite possibly, THE biggest change to the Bucks’ style is three-point shooting. Milwaukee’s three point attempts are up from 24.7 to 40.3. That’s an insane increase. Last season they ranked 25th in the NBA, and this year they’re up to 2nd. In a league where every team is discovering that the most efficient shots are three-pointers and dunks/layups, Coach Bud is seemingly ahead of the curve. Their three-point percentage is up a little, from 35.5% to 37.3%, but the volume of three-point shots is really the big change.
I mentioned the three role players that have been lights out from deep. Let’s focus on one, who has by far been the most impressive: Brook Lopez. His obsession with Disney, 7-foot stature, and shooting ability have earned him the nickname “Splash Mountain” which I fully endorse. Lopez is shooting an incredible 43% from three this season. I’ll give you a minute to re-read that sentence, and tell all your friends. He’s attempting 7.1 triples per game, and a whopping 75.7% of his field goal attempts have been of the three-point variety. Lopez’s three-point resurgence has been ridiculous when you look at his numbers. In his first eight seasons, Lopez went 3 for 31 from three. In fifteen games this season, he’s 45 for 106. What a turnaround. Not to continue to pick on Jabari Parker, but remember that midrange figure of his? 41% of his shots were from midrange? What do you think Brook Lopez’s number is? It’s 12%. That’s a far better fit next to a player like Giannis. Oh by the way, Brook’s plus/minus is +4.1. He’s a great role player, who’s doing his job and helping the Bucks win.
While we’re talking three-point shooting, Giannis Antetokounmpo is 4 for 32 from downtown in 2018-19. This is a pretty legitimate concern, that’s 12.5%. Giannis has never been known for his jump shooting, of course, but he’s at least been able to keep the defense honest. Last season, he shot 2.9 per game at a 30.9% clip. That’s not great, it’s not even good, but it’s just enough that the defense can’t sag off him like he’s Ben Simmons. Now, to be fair, 32 attempts is a small sample size, so Giannis’s three-point shooting could still regress to the mean, but it’s definitely something to be keeping an eye on.
Lastly, one of the biggest changes in Milwaukee’s offensive is pace. The Bucks have seen an incredible transformation in their pace, up from 96.2 to 103.5. That’s a pretty incredible improvement. As you may know, the overall pace of the NBA has increased this season. However, Milwaukee was ranked 20th in pace last season, and they’re up to 4th this season. So you can’t just attribute this transformation to a league-wide change, Budenholzer has clearly made an effort to increase the Bucks’ tempo.
And why not? The obvious advantage that Milwaukee has is Giannis Antetokounmpo. One interesting trend in Giannis’s stats—last season, 12.2% of his field goal attempts were dunks. This year? 28.1%. The Bucks’ new offense has given Giannis much more opportunity to get to the rim, which is definitely where he’s at his best. A lot of that credit goes to the pace—he’s getting to the rim in transition—but the improved spacing is also a huge reason. Lane-cloggers like John Henson are out of the rotation in exchange for floor-spacers like Lopez and Ilysova. Antetokounmpo is on pace to break the record for dunks in an NBA career. Basketball Reference also cites that 15% of Giannis’s minutes this season have come at the center position, up from 7% last season. Just another way Coach Bud is using the Greek Freak to up the team’s tempo.
This summer, the Milwaukee Bucks had one of the most underrated offseasons in the NBA. They added some three and D role players—Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, and Ersan Ilyasova. But the real change came from the head coach, where Mike Budenholzer has spaced out Milwaukee’s offense and modernized their style of play. The new and improved Bucks are a real force to be reckoned with in the East.