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The Milwaukee Bucks defense is moving forward by dropping back

They’ve returned to a previous coverage — but with an added twist

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

Drop pick-and-roll coverage gets a bad rep in some circles.

In this modern era of pace-and-space and the rise of the three-point shot, drop seems like an archaic concept. Traditional centers’ roles on defense are being forced to become more than just someone who sits back and waits for someone to try their mettle in the paint.

Now, the modern center needs to have the mobility to be higher up toward the level of ball screens to discourage pull-up attempts. If the ball handler is a dangerous primary creator who can score in a multitude of ways, centers need to be more aggressive than just being up to touch — hard hedges or blitzes may be necessary to outright force the ball out of scorers’ hands.

Even more rare than the mobile center who can execute multiple coverages: the switchable big. Those are considered defensive unicorns; you can count on one hand the centers in the NBA who can switch and defend down the positional spectrum at an above-average level.

Such is the plight of what today’s centers have to deal with. That was the conundrum the Milwaukee Bucks faced when they relied heavily on drop coverage during their rise to NBA contender status.

Like other defensive coverages, drop has its pros and cons. The main advantage of playing a drop is the prospect of keeping your entire defense stationary; they won’t have to be put in rotation trying to plug holes being created.

Help from other parts of the floor won’t be necessary since the meat of the possession is purely a two-on-two endeavor: the ball-handler and his screening partner vs. the on-ball defender and the screener’s defender. This allows the other three defenders to stay home on their assignments — all they have to do is keep their eyes on both ball and man.

The ideal defensive shot profile for a team that primarily employs drop coverage is something like this: few shots at the rim allowed, plenty of shots funneled toward the mid-range, and limiting opportunities from three-point range.

Keep those in mind as you look at the Bucks’ defensive shot profile during the 2018-19 regular season:

2018-2019 regular season shot frequency rankings
Cleaning The Glass

By virtue of primarily employing drop, the Bucks were able to check off two of the three components that constitute the ideal drop defense shot profile: 1) they were the best at limiting rim attempts, and 2) they were able to funnel opponents toward the mid-range.

However, a look at their opponent three-point frequency shows that they let teams shoot a significant number of threes. This wasn’t by chance either — they allowed opponents to let loose from beyond the arc by design.

Even if they employed drop coverage, they also weren’t shy with sending help from other parts of the floor to completely wall off the paint. Their emphasis on preventing looks at the rim as much as possible often came at the expense of leaving someone on the perimeter open.

For the next three seasons after 2018-19, the Bucks didn’t stray from their identity as a rim-protecting unit that wasn’t afraid to close off the paint — even if it meant leaving themselves vulnerable to unfavorable outside shooting variance. In terms of opponent three-point rate, they ranked:

  • 28th in 2019-20 (30th in above-the-break threes, 22nd in corner threes)
  • 26th in 2020-21 (30th in ATB threes, 12th in corner threes)
  • 29th in 2021-22 (30th in ATB threes, 19th in corner threes)

It’s interesting to note that they still ranked second-to-the-last in 2021-22, despite employing a more diversified scheme that included switching. No matter what coverage they employed in years past — drop, up to touch, or switching — their philosophy remained the same: prevent rim shots at all costs.

For example, take this possession from Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals:

Giannis Antetokounmpo is guarding Chris Paul. Deandre Ayton comes over to set a ball screen, bringing Brook Lopez with him into the action.

As expected, Lopez drops — but pay particular attention to the other three defenders on the floor:

Instead of staying close to their assignments, the other three not involved in the ball screen action are pinched in, ready to help and rotate should Paul manage to touch the paint — which is what exactly happens in this possession. Jrue Holiday commits to the help by stunting toward Paul at the “nail.”

However, that leaves Jae Crowder open one pass away — an easy read for a supreme floor general in Paul.

Contrast that with this possession against the Philadelphia 76ers this season:

When James Harden and Joel Embiid run ball screen action, Lopez drops, even if it’s Harden involved. When Holiday is the on-ball defender — one of the best at navigating around screens and staying in front of his assignment — Lopez is more empowered to stay back and patrol the paint.

However, focus not on the two-on-two action, but on what the other three defenders are doing:

The other three are staying close to their assignments. Jevon Carter isn’t straying far away from his man on the weak-side corner, while Antetokounmpo isn’t about to help off his man in the strong-side corner. The action is mostly in the hands of Lopez and Holiday — trust that is well placed, considering that Holiday is tenacious at the point of attack and Lopez is arguably the best drop-back center in the league.

To be effective as a drop center, one must be capable of navigating that middle ground between the ball handler and the roller. Decision making isn’t only a skill relegated to passers; it’s also a requirement for centers such as Lopez.

The processing must be near-instant: if the ball handler threads a pass to the roller, the hips and the feet must move quick enough in order to deter a shot — something Lopez been quite effective at so far this season.

But what also helps Lopez is the depth at which he drops back. By sinking deep, he gives himself enough leeway to monitor the situation in front of him. If the ball finds its way to the roller, he’s most likely already in good position to contest the shot:

Likewise, being in deep overwatch position allows him to prepare for ball-handler excursions toward the paint. If they opt to pull up for a mid-range jumper, it’s already a win for Lopez and the Bucks — mid-rangers are exactly the kind of shots they’re willing to live with (but not without contesting the shot, of course).

If ball handlers opt to go downhill to challenge Lopez, they often find out that it’s an unwise decision:

Nothing has changed in terms of the Bucks’ ability to protect the rim and wall off the paint. They’re fifth in opponent rim frequency this season and fifth in opponent rim field-goal percentage, per Cleaning The Glass.

Lopez has been a huge part of their rim deterrence, per usual. He’s fourth in blocks per 75 possessions (2.9). His 3.9% block rate is 94th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning The Glass. Opponents shoot 54.5% at the rim against him — ninth among 35 centers who contest at least five shots at the rim per game.

During his 418 minutes (non-low leverage) on the floor this season, the Bucks have limited opponents to 102.5 points per 100 possessions, surpassing their own league-leading mark. Take him off the floor, however, and the Bucks defense allows 114.8 points per 100 possessions, bringing them all the way down to the equivalent of the 27th-ranked defense.

With this slight but significant tweak of a coverage they’ve previously relied upon, the Bucks’ defensive shot profile remains largely the same when it comes to rim attempts allowed and mid-range shots allowed — with one glaring difference:

2022-23 opponent shot frequency rankings
Cleaning The Glass

Look all the way to the right and you’ll see that the Bucks have the second-lowest rate of threes allowed. Additionally — and perhaps more telling — they have been the best at limiting opponents’ corner-three opportunities.

It remains to be seen if this coverage can hold throughout the rest of the regular season, let alone the playoffs. More dangerous threats in the pick-and-roll who can create shots in the mid-range may also give them trouble, although if that turns out be the case, the Bucks will be content with living or dying by the mid-range rather than letting opponents get efficient looks at the rim and from beyond the arc.

So far, they have been the stingiest defense in the league. Their previous years of experimentation with different coverages have dented their defensive efficiency — a change that resulted in a championship, but an approach that may have also run its course, as evidenced by last season.

In their quest to return to the top of the mountain, the Bucks have decided that the best course of action moving forward is to look back at what previously worked — with an added twist to make sure it stands the test of time.