Milwaukee Bucks: Maintaining dominance in the transition game

Standing as one of the tenets behind their extraordinary success last season, the Milwaukee Bucks will need to continue to both run wild in transition and prevent opponents from getting easy points next year.

No area in the Milwaukee Bucks’ identity makeover was left untouched as they climbed to the top of the NBA with the best record during the regular season last year.

Between the overhauled spacing and three-point revolution that brought them into the modern age offensively at long last, as well as the refined defensive scheme that catapulted them to the top of the league by year’s end, the Bucks’ total renovation was among the hottest and most dissected topics around the league throughout the majority of last season.

Equally deserving of praise is the increased pace the Bucks played with all throughout last year, which was most apparent in transition. In Budenholzer’s first year at the helm, no team generated more transition opportunities than the Bucks last year, per NBA.com/stats.

When you have speedy, athletic specimens such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, emphasizing the open floor and the transition game is a very smart approach, considering both ranked in the top 20 of players scoring fast break points per game (Antetokounmpo stood fourth while Bledsoe came in at 18th).

But as a team, the Bucks were far from the most efficient team in this regard, despite generating such a high volume of transition opportunities and tallying 17.7 fast break points per game, good for sixth in the NBA last year. Instead, Milwaukee ranked 10th, scoring 1.12 points per transition possession.

Of course, it doesn’t stand as much of a secret to teams around the NBA that the Bucks would like to get out and run as much as possible with players like Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe feasting upon such opportunities to the degree both have done throughout their respective careers. And certain gameplans worked better than others in that regard, but it didn’t ultimately prevent the Bucks from finding any cracks in opposing defenses to leak out in transition on a nightly basis.

It was on the defensive end where the Bucks relished in their ability to fend off opponents in the open floor, though, all of which stood as a core element behind their defensive renaissance last season.

The Bucks not only led the league in limiting their opponents to the fewest fast break points per game (11), but they also stood above the pack in holding their opponents to the least efficient transition opportunities at 0.97 points per possession. Additionally, only the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic posted a smaller frequency of opponent transition opportunities than the Bucks did last year.

Emphasizing transition defense has long been a staple of Budenholzer’s coaching philosophy and it didn’t take long for the Bucks to dig into that aspect of their game at the start of last year’s training camp as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Ben Steele relayed last September:

“Budenholzer opened his first practice by working on slowing opponents’ fast breaks.

“That’s where your defense starts,” Budenholzer said. “If you are not good in transition, you probably aren’t going to be good. Or you’ll be taking it out of the net and playing a lot of offense.

You have to understand your roles and responsibilities.”

All of that drilling and practicing obviously led to great execution on the part of all Bucks players last season, all making a small part in a Bucks’ defensive makeover that was much needed after underperformance on that end the previous few campaigns. As we saw in the moments where the Bucks didn’t exert the effort and/or focus in getting back on defense, a timeout from a chaffed Budenholzer would soon follow and a regrouping would be in order to get back on the right track.

Needless to say, don’t expect for the Bucks to de-emphasize the transition game in Budenholzer’s second season in charge next year.

Even as the Bucks made predominantly more experienced, skill-based additions to their roster this offseason, they certainly possess the workhorses to continue thriving in the open floor, with Antetokounmpo being the leading contributor through which everything is framed stylistically.

The bigger question is whether they can maintain the same level of success, especially defensively, as they did last year. If not, it could lead to the kind of minor slippage that they can’t afford if they want to be as dangerous as they were for the majority of their 2018-19 season.