The driving force behind the best team in the NBA is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a landslide favorite to win his second straight MVP award who’s dominating at an unprecedented velocity that defies comprehension.
The Milwaukee Bucks have spent at least the past 18 months accumulating pieces specifically designed to support him, within a system that was conceived to channel Antetokounmpo’s relentless aggression in some of the most effective ways basketball has ever seen.
But the ongoing subplot that distinguishes Milwaukee from every other contender takes place when Giannis and fellow All-Star Khris Middleton are not in the game. There’s an ironic duality at play: the Bucks are perceived as top heavy, but they also have the best bench in the league, with a net rating that’s more than double what it was last season.
Mike Budenholzer strategically deploys lineups that don’t feature Antetokounmpo or Middleton early and often; they’re outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions — a margin on par with the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets. Somehow, their effective field goal percentage goes up, with an offensive and defensive rating that hovers near the top 10. It’s almost like if Quentin Tarentino cut 45 minutes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s screen time from Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and still got 10 Oscar nominations.
What’s happening is far from common, especially during a season defined by excellent dynamic duos that most coaches are forced to stagger. The Los Angeles Lakers are the only other contender holding their head above water when their two best players aren’t on the court, but the difference between the two teams is that LA doesn’t go out of its way to sit Anthony Davis and LeBron James at the same time, and has spent half as many non-garbage time possessions without both on the floor. Their success is a small-sample size byproduct of minutes that include games when one of Davis or LeBron did not play at all, with some three-point luck sprinkled on top.
— The Houston Rockets are bad when Russell Westbrook and James Harden sit.
— The Denver Nuggets can’t score or defend without Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
The surprising component here is, being that every role player was installed to revolve around Giannis, one might expect them to float out of orbit when he and Middleton rest. Those two demand double teams and the type of attention garnered by a select few around the league. Instead, the Bucks finesse their way through possessions with the same “protect the basket and don’t foul” defensive identity that then kickstarts an unselfish offensive ecosystem. Opposing teams that are relieved to see Giannis and Middleton on the bench are dead before they knew what hit them.
“Our lineup is so crazy,” Bucks wing Sterling Brown told SB Nation. “I feel like we’ve got the deepest roster in the league.”
Most of the characters are recognizable. Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, George Hill, and Ersan Ilyasova are well established veterans who know what they’re doing and couldn’t care less about individual accolades. But there’s an additional spunky boost provided by Donte DiVincenzo, Brown, and Pat Connaughton that adds a necessary energy to both sides of the ball. At the very end of the bench sit D.J. Wilson and Dragan Bender, two young, skilled, and versatile bigs who slide into Milwaukee’s scheme when injuries call upon them to do so.
It’s funny: These players were targeted by Milwaukee’s braintrust because they complement Giannis (and, to a lesser degree, Middleton). They all do, but have arguably been even more prolific without him. It’s almost a happy accident. When Giannis is on the bench, Brown, DiVincenzo, Korver, Robin Lopez, and Ilyasova all see their True Shooting percentage spike. Hill’s falls from 69.9 with Giannis to a still-impossibly-awesome 66.5 without him.
(Sidebar: Hill is averaging more points per shot attempt than every other guard who’s played at least 300 minutes this season, and a literal coin flip can determine whether his one pull-up three per game will go in. He’s a fireball who deserves Sixth Man of the Year consideration and may even be Milwaukee’s third-best player in this year’s playoffs. Incredible season so far by him.)
It’s a San Antonio Spurs-ian philosophy that’s built on trust. Budenholzer believes in everyone on his roster, and puts his money where his mouth is by letting them all play together as a standard part of his rotation. According to PBPStats.com, the Bucks are fifth in the percentage of their possessions with zero starters on the floor, despite the fact that they obliterate the other team when all five or even four starters are in the game.
“I thought when we were in Atlanta that was one of Bud’s big strengths,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who spent three years on Budenholzer’s staff, said. “He had no qualms, whether a guy was resting or guys were out, that those other guys, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, A) they were ready to play, B) he trusted them and gave them opportunities. You see what he does with Giannis and those first guys. If they’re up 15, most coaches will say ‘Man I gotta keep my best players in.’ I think Bud says ‘No, I trust those guys. I trust the whole roster.’”
There are many benefits that spring from not having to keep at least one All-Star on the court at all times. Avoiding overexertion is a big one. Giannis is averaging a team-high 30.6 minutes per game while Middleton is at 28.4.
“Obviously it lets their main guys take care of their bodies more, and thinking about the long term and what’s down the line, so I’m obviously in agreement with that philosophy,” Atkinson said. “It’s not always possible depending on the roster you have, but it’s really an intelligent way to approach utilizing your roster and he does it better than anyone.”
Another perk is how it lets the Bucks bumrush opposing bench units with more talent than they’re meant to handle. Lately, a good example of that occurs near the start of the second quarter, when each team typically mixes an equal balance of starters and reserves. (Eg. Sometimes a star will be on the court with four bench players.)
But Milwaukee has instead rolled out its starting five — with Korver instead of Wes Matthews — and let them feast on second units. It’s unfair, and partially explains why the Bucks are the best second-quarter team in the league.
Not all of the lineups that don’t have Middleton or Giannis are void the other three starters, but most are. And in them, everyone can shoot. All are capable defenders. They work together with constant body and ball movement that coalesces with a splash of clever interplay that never stops leveraging the gravity that was originally acquired to make Giannis’ life easier.
It’s a lean, polychromatic attack that hits from all sides. Plug a hole and water starts gushing even harder from somewhere else on the wall.
“I think within the motion and the different things we do offensively, they’re kind of developing a bit of a deeper understanding, awareness of each other, and little nuances that they either do on their own or, hopefully, we’re helping them a little bit,” Budenholzer said. “They’ve been good.”
Korver, in particular, must be accounted for at all times; as he flutters across the floor, his movement is tracked on every single possession, to the benefit of all four teammates. Watch how Jordan Clarkson takes himself out of this play defending a simple pick-and-roll between Hill and Lopez because he’s mirroring Korver. Then, once Lopez goes into his spin move, Kevin Porter suddenly remembers about Connaughton in the corner. Offense is spacing and spacing is offense.
They love running Korver off stagger screens, where he’ll start in the corner then race to the top of the arc for a catch-and-shoot dagger.
Even when it’s not the tightest offensive execution, Korver’s gravity causes defenses to freak out. And help defenders know their own man is a spot-up threat just standing still on the perimeter, so nobody knows when it’s OK to rotate off.
The first objective in most possessions is to work the ball side to side and force the defense to flatten itself out.
The most frustrating part about defending this is how the Bucks audible in a split-second to a different variation. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse the defense rarely wins:
As a whole, they constantly move with a precise volatility that can’t really be game-planned to stop. Here, right before Ilyasova split cuts for a layup, Kemba Walker thinks he needs to switch onto Connaughton, while Rob Williams is (perhaps a bit too) worried about Lopez on the opposite wing.
Look how confused everyone on the Chicago Bulls is before Connaughton puts back Korver’s miss. It’s as if nobody else was in the gym:
They. Never. Stop. Moving.
On defense, Milwaukee’s bench executes the same principles followed by the starters. They protect the paint by dramatically sagging off non-shooters who insist on standing behind the three-point line. How they guard the pick-and-roll is technically matchup dependent, but against a vast majority of tandems they’ll drop the big and fight over the screen. That thought process also applies to dribble hand-offs.
Here’s Zach LaVine curling into one, mistakenly thinking Dragan Bender will be occupied by Cristiano Felicio’s roll. He drives into a crowd instead of kicking it out to Kris Dunn, who’s shooting 27.8 percent from the right wing this season, and is purposefully left all alone.
The Bucks are still way better when Giannis and/or Middleton are on the floor, but it’s frankly bizarre how often these all-bench units cut deficits and extend leads as consistently as they have. Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen, and their unexpected success is a humongous boon for a team that ostensibly doesn’t even need it.
Everybody wants to be the Spurs. Once upon a time, Budenholzer’s Hawks were the closest thing, even getting dubbed “Spurs East” back when they rolled through their conference in the middle of the decade. But the way these Bucks look and play and sacrifice and support their best player is the most kindred reproduction seen since Tim Duncan retired. It’s a tried and true formula Budenholzer witnessed first hand.
As undeniably critical as Giannis and Middleton are to the Bucks winning their first championship in 50 years, getting across-the-board buy in from everybody on the roster is what’s turned them into a prohibitive favorite. The best team might not only have the NBA’s best player, but also its best bench. That’s petrifying.