3 Bucks stats that show what went wrong in the Mike Budenholzer era

Apr 7, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 7, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /
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There’s a lot of noise about just what exactly went wrong in the Mike Budenholzer era for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Some say it was the head coach’s inability to make in-game adjustments, while others point to his ineffective rotations and lack of tangible player development. There are also those who blame his poor defensive schemes or lack of creativity on offense.

After winning the NBA championship in 2021, the Bucks were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs in 2022 — marking the second time in three years that the Bucks had been eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the Bucks needed a change at head coach to reach their full potential.

But the truth has been staring us in the face for quite some time now, and the statistics prove it. From the Raptors’ backdoor sweep to the Bucks in 2019 to Milwaukee’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat a year later, it’s been a lot of the same reasons behind the Bucks faltering even with the best player in the world.

Here’s what the stats have said about the last year of the Budenholzer era.

The Milwaukee Bucks “played random,” and they were not a good offensive team because of it.

It’s tough to say that about a unit starred by Giannis Antetokounmpo, considering his immeasurable impact on the offensive end.

Playtype stats on NBA.com/stats paint a picture of an offensive unit that didn’t know what it wanted to be. Even the roster construction gives this away somewhat since they had no true three-level scorers outside of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. There’s a lot to be said about the struggles those two faced in the playoffs, but perhaps the problems were more systemic.

It’s not that they were incompetent on that end — that’s simply not something you can be when you have the architect of the Beautiful Game Spurs at the helm. It’s that they struggled to find a stable and consistent identity outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that made them impotent when faced with defenses that could evolve with them.

Think about the great offensive teams of the past decade. Every team they faced knew what they were going for on offense, and they still scored with ease anyway. The Golden State Warriors are known for their high-powered offense that is predicated on ball movement, three-point shooting, and rim pressure. The Houston Rockets, for a time, were known for their “Moreyball” style of offense, which emphasizes three-point shooting and layups. The “Beautiful Game” San Antonio Spurs were known for their balanced, European-centric offense that features a mix of inside-outside scoring and ball movement.

It’s hard to say just what system the Bucks were running. Here’s where the stats placed Milwaukee in 2022-23:

  • 7th in points per possession as PnR roll man (that’s 79th percentile)
  • 8th in PPP in spot-up — 75th percentile among NBA teams
  • 10th in PPP in posting up
  • 18th in PPP in cutting plays (1.30 points per possession) and 26th in frequency (5.7 percent)
  • 23rd in PPP in handoffs despite being closer to 15th in frequency
  • 29th in the league in isolation scoring
  • 31st percentile in pace
  • 58th percentile in scoring as PnR ball handlers

It’s quite telling that the Bucks’ highest marks were in spot-up shooting and rolling off picks. Their offensive game plan has always revolved around Giannis Antetokounmpo’s inward gravity to generate good looks for his teammates. But that their supposed main strengths were not even top five in the league should tell you all you need to know about their potential as a contender under Budenholzer.

One reading of these statistics is that they were never really truly excellent in any one area of scoring, not even their strengths. That made them predictable and easy to defend, especially when their outside shots weren’t falling.

The Bucks’ lack of an offensive identity outside of Antetokounmpo driving and kicking is precisely what hurt them in the Mike Budenholzer era. The Bucks’ offensive system is not necessarily designed to create open looks for shooters. Instead, is predicated on Giannis Antetokounmpo driving to the basket and creating for others only as a byproduct of doing so. But how often do Bucks fans see handoffs, inverted pick and rolls, and off-ball movement run with the sole purpose of getting guys like Grayson Allen open? They’re there, but not as much as plays focused on Antetokounmpo.

Budenholzer has been criticized for struggling to make proper in-game adjustments on the fly. This was particularly evident in the Bucks’ 2023 playoff loss to the Boston Celtics. In Games 4 and 5, the Bucks blew double-digit leads in each game. Budenholzer appeared frozen on the sidelines, unable to do anything to stop the Celtics’ comebacks.

But one reason behind that was the Bucks never had a system that was adaptable to begin with. Year after year, they stuck with their guns and hung their hats on defense. For one brilliant championship run, that was enough. But Budenholzer’s offense was often predictable and stagnant. He relied too heavily on Giannis Antetokounmpo to create offense, and the Bucks struggled to score when Antetokounmpo was off the court.

When a team has a clear offensive identity, it can execute its game plan more effectively and efficiently. This is because the players know what they are supposed to do, and they are more likely to make the right decisions with the ball.

Having limited offensive options also meant that Budenholzer’s rotations were often ineffective since they relied heavily on their three stars. Bud often failed to find the right lineups to match up against the league’s best defenders when one of their starters was locked up.

This is what shone through in those five years. The Bucks won their chip almost solely because of their defense. They won despite Bud’s “play random” offense, not because of it. Even after winning the chip, their offensive rating was 11th out of the 16 playoff teams that year.