As the third quarter nears its end during the Milwaukee Bucks' New Year's Day game against the Toronto Raptors, Matthew Dellavedova slowly dribbles up the left side of the floor and waits for Giannis Antetokounmpo to position himself at the free-throw line, directly opposite Malcolm Brogdon who stands at the top of the key. Thon Maker spots up in the weakside corner while Khris MIddleton stands a few feet higher up on the wing.
There are myriad ways to attack out of this formation: Brogdon can UCLA cut down the middle of the floor, either to catch a lob or force help defenders to pinch in off Middleton and/or Maker so Delly can skip them the ball; Giannis can fake like he’s going to set a screen for Brogdon, then dive through the paint himself; Brogdon can run over and set a pick for Delly, sending him into a stagger screen-and-roll with Antetokounmpo inside the three-point line; and so on.
The variances are pretty simple by themselves, and there are ways to counter how the defense reacts. But, fundamentally, the results hinge on execution. Welp:
Giannis’s sudden spin towards the rim is supposed to catch Pascal Siakam by surprise, but he appears to know what's coming—partly because Antetokounmpo does nothing to sell it—which lets Jakob Poeltl and DeMar DeRozan stay well-positioned to stifle Middleton once Dellavedova whips him the ball. Ideally, Antetokounmpo would drag those guys into the paint and let Middleton fire away, but DeRozan runs him off the line and then Poeltl stonewalls his drive before recovering out to Maker in the strongside corner.
It’s terrific recognition from the NBA’s sixth-best defense, and Milwaukee’s inability/unwillingness to attack in different ways early in the fourth might be—in addition to a questionable substitution pattern and odd double-teams down the stretch—what cost them a winnable game.
The Bucks ran this action repeatedly against Toronto. For a variety of reasons, it failed just about every time. Milwaukee either screwed up the timing, wasn't convincing enough with its movement, or, most devastatingly, didn’t have a Plan B ready to go whenever the Raptors sniffed out Plan A.
If you’re more bullish on the 2019-20 Bucks than today's team, chances are it’s due to avoidable losses like this one; nights where they’re held back schematically despite having the talent, drive, and versatility to beat an elite team on the road. Nights when Tony Snell sits for the final 24 minutes as DeRozan turns into a brick of TNT. Or Jason Terry curiously starts the fourth quarter despite not having played a second in the first three.
In other words, if you’re more bullish on Milwaukee’s future than present it’s because Jason Kidd is currently their coach, and someone not named Jason Kidd may be their coach a couple seasons from now. Kidd is responsible for a publicly humiliating intentional free throw fiasco, tinkers with his rotation seemingly at random, and implemented a high-risk, high-reward defensive strategy that can be picked apart by an unselfish offense. He, like most coaches sooner or later, has become a battered scapegoat.
His roster now boasts a transcendent MVP candidate (who just celebrated his 23rd birthday), a dazzling pinball running point, a perpetually overlooked wing who annually appears on “Best Players Who Will Never Actually Make the All-Star Team” lists even though his numbers more than validate legitimate consideration, and ostensibly enough length, youth, and athleticism to overcome their lack of shooting and win far more games than they lose.
But despite all the microlevel flak Kidd gets for his in-game decision-making, the Bucks actually profile as a well-coached team when you zoom out to 20,000 feet, with a style that accentuates their strengths and hides their weaknesses as best it can. That's impressive, considering five years ago Kidd was an integral role player on the New York Knicks, and, at 44 years old, is still learning on the job with a team that's yet to actualize the entirety of its potential for reasons outside any one individual's control.
The Bucks have an identity, backed by core beliefs that, more or less, suit their personnel. While acknowledging that most conversations about Kidd should begin with his flaws, the overwhelming disapproval of his performance this season has been too harsh.
Milwaukee is 19-16 with a negative point differential. They’ve beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics, lost to the Chicago Bulls (twice), Dallas Mavericks, and Charlotte Hornets. The Bucks own literally the worst net rating in the fourth quarter this season, but, somehow, only five teams have a better winning percentage in clutch situations, with the Celtics and Cavaliers being the only two clubs with more wins.
For all the criticism directed towards Kidd, Milwaukee also has a top-10 offense without Jabari Parker—the dynamic offensive weapon they drafted second overall in 2014—logging a single second. They don’t play in the mud; Kidd understands how valuable it is to unleash Antetokounmpo in the open floor. According to Cleaning the Glass, only six teams spend a lower percentage of their possessions in the half court.
Even though they also place in the bottom third of the league in pace—about which Kidd fairly believes “we’re making a big deal about a stat that does not win championships”—only the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers start a higher percentage of their possessions in transition. No team attacks faster off an opponent’s turnover, per Inpredictable.
They don’t launch threes but that’s partly because their best player can slink through the paint for layups on command (and also isn't good enough to launch threes). Only two players (Snell and Brogdon—who’s quietly on track for a 50-40-90 campaign!) on the roster are above-average shooters from the outside at their respective positions right now.
Milwaukee's defense rests almost entirely on Antetokounmpo. With the franchise player on the floor, the Bucks rank in the top 10—his relentless aggression and length more than make up for mucky lateral movement. But the defense is so bad when he sits that the Bucks rank 25h overall. Eric Bledsoe has helped matters some. His speed on the backside makes Kidd's system shimmer, and the Bucks have been average defensively since acquiring him.
More often than not this team defends ball screens with aggression, keeping bigs up high to encourage ball movement while peripheral defenders are positioned to scurry around and induce controlled chaos. The backside help is always convincing the offense to make a dangerous skip pass, then counting on their own length and speed to recover in time or, better yet, steal the ball.
It’s a polarizing strategy that takes advantage of Milwaukee’s collective wingspan with an understanding that pristine rotations, multiple efforts, and constant communication are required. In a pick-and-roll heavy league, it makes sense, and there are a few indicators that it’s getting more effective as the season goes on.
The Bucks ranked 25th in deflections in October. They jumped up to 11th in November, and only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers averaged more per game in December.
It’s a risky system that shows cracks when all five players aren’t locked in or able to pull their own weight (Thon Maker’s struggle to corral ball-handlers high on the floor has been a problem all season), but Kidd’s goal isn’t to survive defensive possessions so much as dictate them with fury and purpose; an attempt to keep everyone engaged and involved at all times.
The Bucks force a crap ton of turnovers in general, but their thievery rises up a few notches with Bledsoe on the floor, largely because Kidd lets his point guard place bets on his own quickness.
The instability that accompanies these tactics is worth noting. They give up a ton of shots at the rim—a staple since Kidd was hired—but have enough length to make finishing at the basket feel like a herculean task for opponents. Three-point defense has also been an issue, but since the Bledsoe trade they’ve allowed as many attempts per 100 possessions as the Boston Celtics (good for 10th in the league).
The Bucks do a fantastic job keeping their opponent in a half-court setting. They race back off missed shots with more discipline (i.e. they really don't care about offensive rebounds) than just about anybody. But even though the system in place theoretically raises Milwaukee's ceiling and squeezes the most from the players they have, it's also fair to wonder how they'd look if Kidd utilized his team's versatility a little more.
Even though they're both prone to getting beat off the bounce from time to time, Antetokounmpo and Middleton were seemingly born to take advantage of this era's switch-friendly approach. Bledsoe’s low center of gravity transforms him into the Incredible Hulk against larger players, Brogdon provides stout post defense, and Snell is, according to Synergy Sports, currently the most effective isolation defender in the league.
Carrying that out on a regular basis would mean overhauling what's already in place, and it'd also require Kidd to go smaller more often, even though the team is really good with John Henson on the floor.
But extending lineups that unshackle Antetokounmpo as a center is a Catch-22. These units have obvious appeal on offense, but provide no resistance on the other end. As the best/only source of rim protection on the floor when they downsize, Milwaukee’s margin for error is razor thin whenever Antetokounmpo gets pulled out of the paint to defend a pick-and-roll.
Only eight players in the entire league average more fouls per game; asking Giannis to anchor a defense while serving as their primary playmaker on the other end is too much through an 82-game season. But Kidd isn't afraid of these possibilities, and when everyone's healthy he'll almost surely work his way around to playing Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Parker, Brogdon/Snell, and Bledsoe at the same time.
Kidd is secure enough to hold guys accountable, too. He benched Snell and John Henson two minutes into a recent win over the Minnesota Timberwolves after they failed to trap Jimmy Butler on a high pick-and-roll. (Henson dropped, Snell went under the screen, and Butler knocked down the open shot.) A culture that punishes those who commit avoidable mistakes is a double-edged sword. Time will tell if his players buy in or eventually revolt, though that will probably come down to whether the Bucks are winning or losing.
Kidd may be to Milwaukee what Doug Collins was to Chicago or Avery Johnson was in Dallas. The organization may eventually need to find its own Phil Jackson or Rick Carlisle, someone who’ll enter with a fresh voice, approach, and ideology. Or maybe this plays out the other way.
Kidd is not old, and is able to identify more layers in a single basketball game than most can in an entire season. Unlike, say, Brad Stevens—a colleague also in his early 40’s who’s been a coach for most of his adult life—this is Kidd’s fifth season on the job, at any level, in any role. That matters! He’s still learning at the helm of a team that, assuming Giannis re-signs, can afford to be patient.
This doesn’t excuse how random Kidd's rotation tends to be; major fluctuations in playing time don’t make life easy for creatures of habit. Sometimes his impulsiveness forces the Bucks to play with one arm tied behind their back, and sometimes it springs them forward in thrilling ways. Milwaukee’s roster is gifted but, on the whole, remains more intriguing than established, and that means there’s value in experimentation, seeing what works (and doesn’t) in different situations. It's still only January.
In addition to dealing with several critical injuries (the loss of Mirza Teletovic hurts), it’s also worth acknowledging how difficult it is to coach a limitless phenom like Antetokounmpo, this top-five player who still can’t shoot and regularly makes mistakes that get overshadowed by his absurd physical makeup. His feel, on both ends, isn’t where it will be three years from now, and some of what makes him unstoppable through the regular season turns into predictable slush in the playoffs.
Instead of assuming the Bucks will be better off with different leadership to guide them through what’s set up to be a dominant prime, it's important to acknowledge all the positives Kidd provides in a situation that’s far from easy. He may ultimately not be right for these Bucks, but it's still too soon to tell, and it would be foolish to overlook what he may become in the future, when palpable stakes enter the conversation.