Milwaukee Bucks: Maintaining defensive identity and principles for 2019-20 season

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 28: (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 28: (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

As the Milwaukee Bucks head into a crucial 2019-20 season, their second under reigning NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer, maintaining their defensive excellence will continue to be a core piece to their success and title hopes.

Of all of the transformative elements that defined the Milwaukee Bucks’ glowing success throughout the 2018-19 season, their defensive turnaround was one that was a long time coming.

From the moment he arrived in Milwaukee after being hired by the Bucks in May 2018, Mike Budenholzer identified the opportunity to “unlock the Bucks’ talent defensively” as he said during his introductory press conference alongside general manager Jon Horst some 16 months ago.

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Needless to say, Budenholzer and his coaching staff held true to that promise as the Bucks rose all the way to top of the league in terms of defensive efficiency last season after finishing 18th in that category under both Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty the previous year, per

Determining what kind of shots to limit, such as looks right at the basket, and which ones to freely give up to opponents, like from mid-range, did a lot in helping the Bucks to achieve that feat.

But so did the little things like prioritizing getting back on defense to limit easy looks in transition as well as capitalizing on the Bucks’ own mistakes, which they finished first and second last year in those respective categories. And the Bucks’ strong handling of the defensive boards also cut down on the second chance points they gave up to opposing teams around the league as they tied for fifth in that department.

Rounding it all out was the discipline the Bucks collectively showed in defending their basket as they posted the lowest opposing free throw attempt rate after finishing 28th in that area of the game the previous campaign.

The combination of Budenholzer and Co.’s rewiring of the team’s defensive identity and the collective buy-in that Bucks players made going into training camp last year made such a thing possible. And while both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe were recognized for their work on the defensive end by being named to last season’s All-Defensive First Team, virtually every player on the Bucks roster held their own on that end of the floor for the majority of the season.

Overall, the Bucks’ defensive renaissance was something Budenholzer quickly referred to as one of the team’s biggest accomplishments last year when reflecting on the team’s 2018-19 campaign at last week’s Town Hall Q&A:

"“All summer, it’s trying to balance. You know, there’s always a frustration when you’re not that last team, when you’re not the team standing at the end of the year. You feel like you could have been that team, so there’s that, I’ll just use the word frustration. But there’s also a ton of pride in all of the team accomplishments. Being the number one team in defensive efficiency and really talking about that from the first day of camp, the first drill we do being defensive related. All of the great things that happened on that side of the ball. From an offensive perspective, the way the team was able to learn and grow and understand what we were doing offensively. There’s all that day-to-day work, day-to-day improvement, both collectively and individually. Everybody sees 60 wins and it’s kind of the, I think, fruits of that labor. If you don’t put in all the time at work each day, you don’t get to 60. A special season for our players, for our organization, for our fans and our city. Incredibly prideful, but still feel like there’s a lot more to be done.”"

Now having taken to Budenholzer’ defensive principles and passing year one with flying colors, the Bucks will be tasked with having to defend their top spot going into the 2019-20 season.

Even with the personnel changes they made this offseason, most of which have been made with defense in mind, the challenge of being able to maintain such sterling marks defensively won’t be an easy one as the Bucks go into a critical campaign with title aspirations on the line.

Milwaukee did well in limiting the margin for error by taking to the basic defensive fundamentals that Budenholzer has long prized and any sign of slippage in not being able to exercise the same level of discipline they showcased last season won’t sit well with the reigning Coach of the Year. And it certainly won’t reflect well in wanting to finish with the best defense for the second straight year as well.

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Being an imposing unit will always be a core part of the Bucks’ identity under Budenholzer and expectations won’t change going into year two. Now they must conjure up a similar formula for success, even as some tweaks and wrinkles may be ultimately be made over the course of the year.