BI Exclusive: Should the Bucks burn their boats?
by Louis Zatzman
Editor’s note: This is a Basketball Intelligence exclusive written by Louis Zatzman (of Raptors Republic, FiveThirtyEight, and more). Basketball Intelligence will be ramping up its original content going forward as an additional benefit for paid subscribers, but for now, we’re allowing everyone access. Free subscribers, enjoy your complimentary article, and paid subscribers, get excited for more like this to come!
China’s Ming Dynasty controlled the largest navy in the world in the mid-1400s. Commanded by Zheng He and called the Treasure Fleet, some of the boats were significantly larger than the European vessels that would later stumble upon North America -- crewed by more than 1000 sailors. But for a variety of possible reasons, the Yongle Emperor ordered the fleet burned. Oceangoing voyages were banned, and by the mid-1500s the Treasure Fleet had rotted or been destroyed.
It was a watershed moment in world history whose ripple effects remain enormous in the world even today.
The Milwaukee Bucks are facing a comparable situation this offseason. The championship hopeful lost in five games to the Miami Heat -- a play-in team -- in the first round of the playoffs. In the wake of that disaster, and fresh off of the dismissal of long-time and championship-winning Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have a variety of free agents this summer. Khris Middleton and Jevon Carter have player options, while Brook Lopez, Jae Crowder, Joe Ingles, and Wes Matthews are all unrestricted free agents. All were, at times, in the team’s playoff rotation. Milwaukee seems to be facing a watershed moment of its own, seemingly capable of either burning down its own Championship Fleet or recommitting to it, albeit with a variety of changes.
But it’s important to ask to what extent the Bucks should react to their postseason debacle. The growth and dominance of the analytics movement ensures that teams maximize their winning chances by prioritizing efficiency on both ends of the court. Over the last few decades, 3-pointers have replaced 2-point jumpers. The pace of change has never been more pronounced than in 2022-23, which saw not only the most efficient league-wide offense in history, but also according to Basketball Reference the largest jump in offensive rating from the previous season since 2004-05, the year Steve Nash joined the Phoenix Suns and revolutionized how teams scored the basketball.
The Bucks exist in a rapidly changing league. The increasing dominance of the 3-pointer has meant variance plays a larger role in determining individual games than it ever has. Over a long season, the teams that play the best will win the most games. Over an individual game that is usually true -- but not always.
Milwaukee arguably played well enough to beat Miami, but variance played as significant a role in dismissing the Bucks from the playoffs as did Jimmy Butler. In terms of raw shot quality, the Bucks created more efficient looks than the Heat during the series and had more shooting possessions. The Bucks made mistakes, sure, but higher shot quality and more shots is almost always a recipe for success. Before the playoffs, the Bucks lost only four games all year in which their shot quality was higher than their opponents and they attempted more shots, according to Second Spectrum. Those games came on Nov. 11 against the San Antonio Spurs, Nov. 23 against the Chicago Bulls, Dec. 28 again against the Bulls, and Jan. 1 against the Washington Wizards.
That combination happened twice against the Heat in the playoffs -- in Games 1 and 4.
There are similarities between those six games. Perhaps the two most significant are that Giannis Antetokounmpo missed half of them. He missed two of the regular-season games and played only 10 minutes in Game 1 due to injury. And, likely in some way as a result, the Bucks’ bench shooters also misfired from deep in all six games. In the four regular season games, Milwaukee’s bench combined to shoot 17-of-75 from deep, good for 22.7 percent. In the two playoff games, Milwaukee’s bench combined to shoot 8-of-33, or 24.2 percent.
Those are very unlikely results, to be sure. Antetokounmpo has never played fewer than 60 games in a season in his career. And Milwaukee’s bench was populated by sharpshooters, including Carter, Ingles, Bobby Portis, and Jae Crowder, all of whom shot 37.0 percent or better from deep on the year. No team attempted more triples off the bench than Milwaukee in the regular season, and only one made more, but that strength turned into a weakness.
In the two games in which Antetokounmpo did play normal minutes for Milwaukee, the Bucks had double-digit leads in both fourth quarters. Losing those games -- particularly for the winningest clutch team in the regular season -- is, again, extremely unlikely.
That is what the playoffs are, of course: high-variance contests. Games don’t play out in spreadsheets; they play out on the court. Milwaukee largely didn’t adjust to Miami’s hot shooting all series, playing a plurality of drop coverage in every game of the series. Yet… it’s fair to wonder if the Bucks should have?
Miami shot 42.9 percent on 10.0 pull-up triples per game in the series, which is by far the most efficient team shooting of the playoffs. In fact, the only player to have ever reached that efficiency on at least 4.0 attempts per game in the regular season is Steph Curry. Gabe Vincent, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Duncan Robinson all hit triples off the bounce like Curry for five straight games. Miami bet double zero on the roulette wheel five games in a row, and it saw its payout in four of those five games.
As a result of that unlikely upset, there are a couple of crucial questions that Milwaukee faces: To what extent should it react to the Miami series? And to what extent can it react?
There are two components to any prescription for Milwaukee’s path forward. On one hand, the team made plenty of mistakes in the series. Despite Butler annihilating any Buck in single coverage -- whether with Jrue Holiday or Antetokounmpo defending him -- the Bucks doubled-teamed him precisely zero times according to tracking data. The team prioritized its defensive shell, which failed over and over, rather than asking its defenders to overload in areas and recover with prompt rotations. Other tactical choices -- such as only introducing on-ball switching as a high-usage approach at the end of the series, and never introducing off-ball switching -- were similarly suspect. (Although, Milwaukee’s drop defense was actually more effective than its switching; the Bucks did not get beaten as soundly by pick and rolls as they did by isolations.)
Offensively, Milwaukee has long played a static system with little ball or man movement. The team can create plenty of open triples for its orbiting role players, but if those don’t fall there are few means to efficient and consistent half-court offense.
So a coaching change makes some sense given those errors.
At the same time, all a frontrunning team can do in the playoffs is give itself the best statistical chance in a series. And sure, Milwaukee made mistakes. But it did have a strong statistical chance in the series. It’s not really Milwaukee’s fault that Butler turned into Michael Jordan with a pull-up 3-pointer. (Two of his four career highest-scoring playoff games came against Milwaukee.) It’s not anyone’s fault that Antetokounmpo missed so much time, or that the bench missed its triples in crucial losses. And Milwaukee still had superior shot quality to Miami and more shooting possessions.
If you combine those two analyses, you realize this: Variance hurt Milwaukee, but so too did the Bucks open themselves up to being hurt by variance.
As to the latter question, to what extent Milwaukee can react, it’s arguable that Milwaukee can’t make sweeping changes to insulate itself from variance; after all, variance is the league within which it exists, and you can’t fight structure. It’s not reasonable to expect Milwaukee to find better bench shooters; it already had the best and most bench shooters in the league. They just all happened to misfire over the same five-game stretch. (Many of the makes happened at once, with Milwaukee connecting on 25 triples in Game 2 -- the most ever made in a playoff game.)
The Bucks don’t have much in the way of assets to improve the team anyway. They are the oldest team in the league and boast the only average age north of 30. They don’t have an unencumbered (either traded away or with a possible pick swap) first-round pick until 2027. Their young players like MarJon Beauchamp and A.J. Green are promising, but they likely hold little value on the trade market. And much of the rotation is on the free-agency market. With few possible paths to cap space, Milwaukee can only hope to retain its talent, rather than adding new players in free agency. If Milwaukee wants to revolutionize its roster, it’s likely that Jrue Holiday or Middleton would have to be the players traded away for other stars. But upgrading on those stars would be hard -- almost impossible without young, promising players or draft capital to attach. So there’s little chance the Bucks could see a better roster on the floor next year.
But the team doesn’t need a better roster to maximize its chances in a series. It could probably run it back with virtually the same top-end of the rotation and reasonably expect to be a championship favourite next season. The bench won’t have as many shooters, but talented bench players like Matthews and Carter already weren’t in the rotation through the entire Heat series. Milwaukee might have a weaker rotation in the eighth, ninth, and 10th spots next season, but that will certainly matter less under a new coach -- one who will likely give less playing time to the deep bench.
Some of the reasons China might have burned its Treasure Fleet are telling for the Bucks. The fleet could have been too expensive to maintain -- the Bucks, similarly, are facing a luxury tax bill that could not only be prohibitive financially, but also could limit the team’s ability to improve when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement kicks in. (If the Bucks pass the second cap apron, which they very well could do, they would no longer have a mid-level exception through which they could add midrange talent from the free-agency pool; Ingles was Milwaukee’s most recent addition through that resource, and he had the team’s third-best offensive on/offs in the playoffs.)
It’s also possible China burned its fleet because of domestic politics, as admiral Zheng He was a powerful political force because of his leadership over the Treasure Fleet. The Bucks have already decided their leadership question, opting to move on from Budenholzer.
But burning its proverbial Treasure Fleet might not be Milwaukee’s best course forward. (It also might not be possible, anyway.) An overreaction to this loss, treating it as a watershed moment, could be a self-defeating course that closes the team’s championship window earlier than would otherwise be the case. If Milwaukee’s new coach is more amenable to diverse defensive schemes within a series and implements a more dynamic offensive approach that can supplement scoring when shooting goes cold, that would do wonders. (As long as the defensive system remains elite.) The team would still have one of the best rosters in the league, maximal analytical chances to create better chances than their opponents, and a better shot at insulating itself from the whims of variance.
In other words, Milwaukee doesn’t have to burn down the boats. Finding a new captain might be good enough.
About the author: Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is the managing editor of Raptors Republic, and his work has appeared at FiveThirtyEight, nba.com, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter @LouisZatzman.