When the Golden State Warriors leapt into the future on their way to a dynasty, they ushered in a growing basketball revolution. They built an offense around dizzying ball movement that created and leveraged the grave threat of 28-foot shots. Then, their defense neutralized effective ball movement with switches across all five positions, effectively building a mobile defensive wall of like-sized players.
Their overwhelming success made it seem like switching was the only antidote to the game’s on-court Westward Expansion. As shooters successfully colonized and fired from remote outposts further away from the three-point line, Golden State’s defensive strategy — later co-opted by the Houston Rockets — became the way for defenses to address two increasingly divergent danger zones at the same time. The Warriors were able to limit threats from far beyond the three-point line, yet also possessed the heft to stop opponents from three feet away. To defend in this new modern era, a good defense supposedly needed to do both well.
Or do they? The 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks are emphatically proving otherwise.
Defense, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, explains Milwaukee’s status as the NBA’s best team. Through Christmas, the Bucks are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions than any NBA team since the 2015-16 Spurs. But the Bucks’ strategy isn’t due to an adaptive approach that prioritizes the entire court equally. It’s actually due to a decision to focus all their attention on one area of the court: the rim. Instead of trying to defend everywhere, the Bucks really defend the most important area and let the chips fall where they may otherwise.
Just look at this feeble Clippers attempt to get remotely near the basket. Under no circumstances will the Bucks let it happen easily.
The Bucks’ rim defense is unprecedented in the modern era. For the second straight season, the Bucks allow the lowest percentage of opponent shots at the rim and the lowest conversion rate on said attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. They don’t let teams get there often, and in the rare instances they do, they don’t let them score easily.
But this year’s Bucks have cranked their rim defense up to yet another level. Just 29 percent of opponent shots are at the hoop, the lowest league mark since the 2010-11 Orlando Magic. Meanwhile, opponents shoot less than 54 percent on said shots, the lowest percentage since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. No other team has finished first in both categories since the 2006-07 Rockets.
Great rim defense requires a big tall guy to raise their arms high into the sky without fouling. The Magic, Pacers, and Rockets were all built around that type of player: Dwight Howard for Orlando, Roy Hibbert for Indiana, and Yao Ming for Houston.
The Bucks have that too, but in the form of two players: Brook and Robin Lopez. They are a dyad in the force, a rim-protecting duo unseen for generations. Together, they provide the foundation for Mike Budenholzer to build a 48-minute no-fly zone around the rim.
Their uncommonly strong rim force bond is critical to the Bucks’ overall approach. Robin has always displayed the power of staying vertical without fouling or fearing embarrassment. He’s altered countless shots over the years by getting himself in position and staying big. Now, he’s doing the same in Milwaukee, albeit in more limited minutes.
Brook, on the other hand, experienced an awakening after joining the Bucks two seasons ago. Long destined to be a forgotten figure trapped in a remote NBA outpost as the rest of the galaxy warred, Brook is only now tapping into his gifts as a defensive anchor for an elite team. He extends his arms out almost as well as he extends them to the sky, closing the space opponents could use to exploit his lack of foot speed. Little maneuvers like this, where he keeps his arms extended without leaving his feet, slow down the offense’s momentum and allow the Bucks’ primary defenders to recover.
The Lopii don’t always stop dribble penetration in its tracks, but their presence weakens the strength of the eventual shot around the basket. If the Lopii were one person, they’d allow 44.7-percent shooting on an average of 9.5 shots a game defended at the basket, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. It takes a lot of forward momentum to knock them out of position, and the Bucks don’t let drivers get that easily.
That 44.7 percent number is staggering. The average team field goal percentage at the rim is around 62.7 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass. Imagine having to replace nearly 10 of those shots every game with 16-foot jumpers, or perhaps long-range bombs from great perimeter shooters, but without the extra point. That’s what it’s like to try to shoot a layup or try to dunk against one of the Lopez brothers.
The Lopii aren’t the only Bucks players turning the restricted area into a forbidden zone. It also helps to have a 7-foot Greek Freak on the backside, closing whatever space the Lopii yield and cleaning up whatever leftover mess they may have spilled.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s mobility blends perfectly with the Lopii’s vertical mastery. He covers so much space laterally that the Bucks are able to account for threats that might otherwise result from drivers bypassing the Lopii. Antetokounmpo is both a looming shadow and a first responder. His mere presence stops passes from being made and shots from going up.
Yet his speed and instincts can also erase them if they do slip through.
With the combination of Antetokounmpo and a Lopez brother around the basket, it’s a wonder anyone even sees the rim. Watch Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, a powerful finisher that bullies almost anyone else in the league, look tiny next to them.
The final key rests with the other players on the floor. Though the Bucks have plenty of size around the basket, their perimeter players also shut off the rim in two different ways.
One is through ball denial, featuring aggressive nipping at ball-handlers’ heels after they are seemingly beaten. The Bucks are experts at a defensive strategy known as “top locking,” which involves overplaying shooters off screens so they can’t get open. When done right, this form of defense prevents the downhill momentum that often result from a player coming off a pindown screen. It can be devastating when performed in concert with a big man patrolling the paint and cutting off any backdoor cuts.
The Bucks also chase ball-handlers through, around, and behind screens more traditionally. Eric Bledsoe is a master at this approach, but he’s not the only one. Donte DiVincenzo is also great at slithering around screens and nipping at ball-handlers’ heels.
But the Bucks also are willing to go under ball screens to further protect the paint, even if it results in an open above-the-break three. The goal is to protect the basket at all costs, no matter what.
That leads us to the quirky thing about Milwaukee’s strategy that separates it from those switchy approaches that seemed like the way of the future. Turns out, the Bucks yield a lot of three-point attempts.
Allowing three-pointers doesn’t seem smart, but the Bucks do and still have the best defense in the league. Last year, 36.3 percent of opponent shots were threes, the highest mark in the league. This year, 38.7 percent of them are threes, which is third behind Toronto and Miami. In exchange for turning the rim into a fortress, the Bucks leave the three-point line comparatively unattended. They have transferred all power into the rear deflector shields, so to speak.
Why does this strategy work so well? One reason is that the Bucks allow “good” threes, to the degree that any team can control them. They rank closer to the middle of the pack in corner threes yielded, which are more dangerous, and instead allow the most above-the-break attempts in the league. They specialize in surrendering the semi-open 26-footer from an average stretch big man rather than the in-rhythm corner pop from whiplash ball movement that began with dribble penetration. In other words, shots like these.
It’s tough to quantify the shot quality of those one-pass three-pointers. Technically, Marc Gasol hits a respectable 35 percent of his threes, and Kelly Olynyk is up at 41 percent as a key cog of Miami’s second unit.
But many of those makes come after teams get the ball to the basket and then kick out. In those cases, the above-the-break threes are an effect of a sequence the offense orchestrated. They got the ball to the defense’s danger zone and controlled the possession from there. Are they really the same shots if they’re instead given to you by the defense before you can infiltrate the danger zone? The Bucks’ strategy rests on the idea that they’re not, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
(By the way, the Raptors and Heat are also top-10 defensive units despite allowing a ton of three-point attempts. Maybe the old adage about living and die by the three has some truth to it. Maybe protecting the rim is actually more important than ever in the three-point era.)
There’s always a worry the Bucks run into an opponent that gets hot over a short stretch. Perhaps the rigidity of their defensive success is uniquely tied to the monotony of the regular season and is vulnerable in a playoff series, when schematic adjustments are constant. Maybe you really need to be adaptable to win in May and June. We won’t know until we get there.
But for now, the Bucks’ defense should teach this copycat league a valuable lesson. Sometimes, it really is more effective to be great at one thing than to try to be good at everything. Good defense is less about chasing perfection and more about playing to one’s strengths over the long haul.
Do that enough, and games will be played on your terms. In shutting off the rim, the Bucks reduce basketball into a jump-shooting contest while possessing the best driver in the world. They won’t win that kind of contest every time, but the odds are tilted firmly in their favor.