The Milwaukee Bucks are a terrifying collection of talent who have everything you need to register as an elite defense in the NBA. Especially their starting lineup.
In just 37 games together—due to injuries to Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe as well as sporadic rests of Giannis Antetokounmpo—the Bucks’ starting lineup consisting of Bledsoe, Middleton, Wesley Matthews, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez have held opponents to just 89.8 points per 100 possessions. That ranks first in the league out of 91 total lineups who have played at least 100 minutes. Oh, and the Bucks’ starters have spent 408 minutes on the court together; the eight-highest of those qualifying teams.
Despite popular belief, Brook Lopez is the anchor in this elite defense. Head coach Mike Budenholzer employs a “drop” pick-and-roll scheme that places an enormous amount of pressure on the big man to both guard the ball-handler and roller until the guard can recover from a ball screen.
Obviously, Lopez’ size makes him great at taking up space and altering shots around the hoop. When he’s on the court, teams shoot just 53.6 percent around the rim (97th percentile) according to Cleaning the Glass. He also gets his hands on a ton of shots, blocking eight percent of opponent’s attempts when he’s on the court—second in the NBA.
Don’t take his nimbleness for granted, however, as he’s unusually spry for a guy listed at 7’0” and 282 pounds. He uses this quickness, if you will, to buy time until his teammate can get back between his man and the hoop. This is equally as important as his shot-swatting skillz.
Lopez would be getting more Defensive Player of the Year hype if it wasn’t for Antetokounmpo. Where Lopez must stay disciplined in his role, Antetokounmpo has all the freedom in the world to roam the court and wreak havoc.
His block percentage is unimpressive for a DPOY candidate—just 2.9 percent—but his presence on the court prevents teams from even attempting shots around the hoop. I mean, what’s better than a team so afraid of a player they don’t even get a shot up?
He’s also capable of locking up his man—any man, really—in one-on-one situations. He ranks in the 99th percentile in isolation defense by only allowing 0.361 points per possession according to Synergy.
The Bucks’ backcourt might not get as much attention as their bigs, but they’re equally stout in their own right.
Middleton used to play the role of a three-and-D specialist, until his offensive game continued to blossom to an All-NBA level. Now, he spends more energy on offense than ever before—thanks to Matthews. Still, he has the size and length to defend any wing on the court and can more than hold his own.
Speaking of Matthews, he’s the new wing-stopper in Milwaukee. A year ago, the Bucks had a difficult time stopping Kawhi Leonard and keeping pace in the scoring column at the same time. It proved to be too big of a load for Middleton to shoulder. Should they run into him again, Matthews will get the first crack while his counterpart focuses on the other end of the court.
Even at 33-years-old, Matthews has enough left in the tank to stick with the elite scorers. He has good enough size and is strong enough he won’t get bullied. His I.Q. is probably his biggest strength, as he fights for every competitive advantage and understands his man’s strengths and weaknesses.
Last but not least is Bledsoe. He earned All-Defensive First Team honors last season, but has taken a bit of a step back this year. That’s not to say he isn’t a hound dog in every sense of the word.
Despite standing just 6’1”, he has a wingspan that never seems to end. He’s also one of the strongest and quickest point guards in the NBA. When you add that up you find someone who can make life a living hell for opposing point guards. He can get in his man’s chest and make him work for every dribble.
As great as this collection of individuals is, they work even better as a team. They move on a string, understanding each other’s roles and assignments as well as their own. Their greatest collective strength may be their I.Q.
Teams have found it extremely difficult to score from anywhere against the Bucks’ starters—they’re shooting just 46.1 percent at the rim (99th percentile), 35.3 percent from the mid-range (76th percentile) and 33.6 percent from downtown (67th percentile) according to Cleaning the Glass. It all adds up to an incredible 44.1 percent (96th percentile) effective field goal percentage.
If/when the NBA resumes this year, defense will be more important than ever. Given the long layoff, players will be rustier than normal and still getting their legs under them. This will make shot-making a bit more challenging.
After getting clamped by the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee experienced first-hand just how important lockdown defense is deep in the playoffs. And their leader, Antetokounmpo, isn’t one who forgets.
Nothing will come easy on offense, especially against of the best defenses the league has seen in a number of years. The old adage defense wins championships will have to reign supreme for the Bucks.