Shades of the 2009 Defense

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The defensive identity of the Milwaukee Bucks was supposed to die when Andrew Bogut left and Monta Ellis arrived. A high-tempo offense led by Ellis and Brandon Jennings was supposed to be the identity of the Bucks for the foreseeable future.

Last season, that idea looked viable. The Bucks were an above average offense that was fairly exciting. This year, that plan has been a complete failure. The Bucks are among the dregs of the NBA in offensive efficiency. They can’t score 100 points per 100 possessions. The average NBA team scores 102 points per 100 possessions.

What has kept the Bucks in playoff contention is defense. It’s the defense is that’s going to save this team.  And with a minor tweak, this team could deliver the promise that the 2009-10 defense showed.

Three-point shooting

There are two key principles to an elite Scott Skiles defense. The most important principle and the number one reason why the Bucks defense is good again is that the Bucks limit three point attempts. In 2009-10, the Bucks allowed only 15.6 three point attempts per game – only the San Antonio Spurs allowed less. In 2010-11, the Bucks only allowed 16 three point attempts per game – good again for top five defenses in least three point attempts allowed. When the wheels fell off last year, the Bucks finished in the bottom 10 for threes allowed with 18.9 a game.  This year, the Bucks are only allowing 17.2 three point attempts per game – good for third best in the league.

Defense at the rim

The next principle is defense at the rim. The Bucks are top five in the league in opponents’ FG%at the rim (61.2%). In 2009-10, they allowed a FG% of 58.1 at the rim. Since 2009-10, the Bucks have always been near the top of the league in opponents’ FG% at the rim.

While the play of Larry Sanders has been a pleasant surprise and clearly helpful, he isn’t why the Bucks are so good near the rim. The Bucks have played good defense near the rim for years. It is part of the broader Skiles philosophy of everyone converging on the paint once the ball is in there nearly to the detriment of leaving shooters open. Where Sanders vast improvement has made the most impact is that the Bucks guards can now confidently pressure teams on the perimeter without getting burned.

Fix pick and roll defense

What’s holding back the Bucks defense from being just good to really good and maybe even great is the pick and roll defense. Here is a really simple fix found in how the 2009-10 big men approached the pick and roll and how Sanders approaches it.

Kurt Thomas and Andrew Bogut didn’t concede the paint. Sanders sags into the paint.


Kurt Thomas meets the PNR ballhandler at the free-throw line.
Andrew Bogut does the same.
When the pick was set, Sanders was at the top of the key, he’s sagged deep into the paint which puts him in bad position to contest the pick man, Tyler Zeller, who eventually hits the shot in this play.

Sanders needs to change his mindset from, “I’m going to get a block” to “I’m just going to completely stop this play before it even it gets started.” If he makes this really simple adjustment, the Bucks defense will be really spectacular.

This look into the Bucks defense only makes their offense so much more frustrating. There is a complete disconnect between the Bucks offensive and defensive strategies. The Bucks look to limit threes and FG% at the rim. The Bucks are near the bottom in the NBA in three-point attempts and put themselves in position to take horrendous shots at the rim. The fact that they can’t figure out what they try to limit on defense should be what they should do on offense is astounding. This isn’t an inefficient offense because for any other reason than stupidity.

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  1. First rule your taught defensively in High School basketball is stop the ball.. Force the ball handler to make a decision.. As a read and react guy Larry is not very good at the read, but his physical abilities allow him to react well as long as he plays tall.. That is one of the reasons I have been clamoring so much for Henson to get more playing time(not at the expense of Larry).. The basketball wise raved about his read and recover abilities, and I would like to see some of those in play

  2. Lots of good information here great article. Maybe it’s just me but it seems like the Bucks guards (Jennings specifically) never will slide under picks in the PnR they always go around and chase and Jennings gets burned early and often doing so. Specifically I am picturing the Hornets games where Vazquez looked like an All NBA PG running the Pick and Roll with Jennings chasing him all over with no success defensively.

    Tonight facing the Nets I believe Deron Williams historically does a lot of PnR with the Nets bigs and even he and Joe Johnson like to do some 1,2 PnR. With as poorly as Williams has shot the ball these last two seasons and as good as Deron is at getting to the rim and drawing fouls I wonder if sliding under screens and forcing him to shoot would be a better option in this instance and maybe adjustments should be made on a game to game basis based on your opponents tendencies. Thoughts on this anyone?

    • Lucky for us they don’t have Ryan Anderson to receive those PnR passes.. and Brandon is one of the worst on ball defenders in the NBA.. he hardly sets his feet, mostly just bouncing around and waiting for an opportunity for his quick hands to factor in.. he really does play defense like it’s street ball

      • agreed, I wonder if him going around the pick and rolls is part of Skiles defensive system or if it’s Brandon trying to get those steals from behind to make up for his inability to stay in front of players

        • Going over pick and rolls has always been a part of Skiles system. I think it’s part of the overall strategy of denying three point attempts. Jennings not being able to effectively get around picks is a lot his own fault and a breakdown in communication on defense. Bogut was quite good at calling those out.

  3. i like how we have really good defense in our starting lineup but we will never consistently win like that unless jennings and ellis do it all, ilyasova or dunleavy need to be put in with starters to spread floor

  4. Pingback: The boring demands of being a good defensive team : Bucksketball – A Better Milwaukee Bucks Blog