Here’s Why The Milwaukee Bucks’ Defense Misses Brook Lopez

Over their last seven games, the Milwaukee Bucks are 3-4 with the league’s 28th-ranked defense. They’ve stayed afloat thanks to a sixth-ranked offense, but a wilting defense isn’t a new issue, nor one that is just now proving concerning for their hopes of repeating as champions.

These problems have surfaced at various points this season without Brook Lopez, who has missed all but one game due to a back injury and subsequent surgery. On the year, they rank 11th in defense after finishing 10th last regular season, although, their 2020-21 playoff showing suggests they warrant the benefit of the doubt.

After two years of juggernaut performances from October-April (err, August), only to fall short come springtime, they deprioritized regular season games and experimented schematically. Whether it was toggling across ball-screen coverages or generating touches for Giannis Antetokounmpo in diverse ways, that newfound versatility was integral to their title run, when their defensive rating was roughly three points lower than in the regular season (112.1 vs. 108.8).

In 2021-22, the offense remains encouragingly multifaceted and excellent (fourth overall), but entirely trusting the defense to flip a switch again and ignoring all these games feels overly rosy. Lopez’s defensive chops are pivotal to any schemes they employ. Fortunately, he returned to practice last week, though is still not close to readying for game action.

So, why has Milwaukee missed Lopez’s services? What about their approach, his game and the surrounding personnel render him crucial to their ability to field a stifling defense that spearheads a championship-caliber dynamic?

Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks’ defensive ethos has centered around packing the paint, walling off the rim, conceding threes above the break and staying risk-averse. During his four years at the helm, they’ve ranked 30th in opposing non-corner three frequency, no worse than sixth in opposing rim frequency (top two in his first three seasons), and no better than 23rd in turnover rate, all via Cleaning The Glass.

The means by which they elicit those numbers are malleable, but those are their resolute pillars. This year, they’ve elected to trap and show on many ball-screens. Bobby Portis has been tremendous for them, but he struggles defending in drop coverage and he’s the one supplanting Lopez as a starter, so they’ve catered to him. However, they’ll still run drop with Giannis or periodically switch with any of their big men.

The drawback, however, is this team simply isn’t very good at trapping. Without Lopez, Giannis is essentially asked to play anchor and roamer. He’s enjoying a masterful defensive season, but he is one man and cannot simultaneously occupy two important, immersive roles.

With any defensive gambit, the intention is to divert an offense away from its primary goal. That’s especially true on trapping, where the defense is designed to force turnovers or delay a ball-handler’s decision-making in advantageous situations. The Bucks don’t consistently achieve either idea. They’re 23rd in opposing turnover rate, not wired to generate takeaways because of the system in place. Too often, the trapping looks like window dressing without the motive to actually fluster the opposition.

Offenses, especially good ones, routinely generate quality looks against them in pick-and-rolls. The coverage doesn’t overwhelm anyone. Watch the Miami Heat trap and watch Milwaukee trap. The gap in effectiveness and execution is stark.

Furthering the issue is the Bucks’ other center options — DeMarcus Cousins, then Serge Ibaka — are very much offensive-minded big men. Cousins’ movement skills are limited, while Ibaka’s physical decline makes him a highly inactive defender, both on switches and in drop.

Miscommunications among weak-side defenders and inattentive off-ball helpers exacerbate these faults, helping to explain why Milwaukee’s defense ranks 23rd against top-10 offenses this season (15th last year), according to Cleaning The Glass (15 games). Making that stat particularly relevant is that, of the nine other play-in or better teams out East, four are top-10 offenses. Another three — Brooklyn, Toronto and Charlotte — are 11th, 12th and 13th. Lopez’s potential return could loom large for this club’s playoff pursuits.

The montage above reveals a wart that transcends scheme. Without Lopez, this team is super small. Giannis is (arguably) the foremost weak-side rim protector in the league, but nobody else on the roster offers reliable rim protection. While they still limit opponents’ shots at the rim (sixth in opposing rim frequency), their capacity to influence those attempts has depreciated.

Before this year, they ranked fourth, first and first in opposing field goal percentage at the basket since 2018-19. This season, they rank 15th. When teams get to the hoop, success is much easier to come by. Rather than Giannis being the primary defender and Lopez playing sweeper or vice versa, it’s typically Portis inhabiting one of those duties and he’s just not equipped to approximate his All-Defensive-caliber courtmates.

Things grow especially hazy when Giannis leaves the floor. Without him, nobody can credibly defend the rim. Teams shoot more than six points better around the hoop when he rests, according to Cleaning The Glass. Even when he’s on the floor but tasked with another defensive duty, the lack of another rim protector like, say, Lopez is evident.

Lopez’s absence has magnified a couple other flaws for the Bucks. Outside of Jrue Holiday, their point-of-attack choices are quite poor. Preventing paint touches and maintaining defensive structure when other dudes are targeted is arduous.

Teams are more willing to attack the paint and set the defense into motion, aware of the fact Lopez and Giannis aren’t both around to eliminate all the pockets of space on lobs, finishes, laydown passes or kickouts. Lopez was a safety blanket that’s been stripped from the roster for nearly 4.5 months, underscoring how he helps patch up his teammates’ breakdowns.

Beyond Giannis’ persistent greatness, the healthy off-ball defenders on this roster fall short. They’ll screw up an X-Out, collapse the paint but fail to track their man, lose a shooter around a screen or be poorly positioned in help.

The pick-and-roll defense shown earlier primarily highlighted issues on the ball. But it also hinted at issues with late-arriving low men as well, which is emblematic of more widespread off-ball problems. A trapping-heavy scheme that directly invites advantage situations for the offense requires shrewd off-ball defenders. That hasn’t transpired.

As it pertains to forward-thinking about the playoffs, the Bucks and their defense deserve considerable leeway. They’ve dealt with an array of injuries and a carousel of rotation players amid a new scheme and defensive environment sans Lopez. Various G League call-ups and players on 10-days have earned notable minutes. Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have also missed a combined 36 games. Despite all these setbacks, they’re on pace for just three fewer wins than a season ago (on an 82-game schedule).

They displayed last year that ratcheting it up in the postseason is possible and perhaps likely. A lot of their off-ball gaffes feel like low-hanging fruit for improvement. The offense might be better than last year, too.

Yet while acknowledging all this, it’s easy to discern the difference in margin for error that Lopez affords them. A title is absolutely a reasonable expectation without him (or without him at all full strength). But the vision for tying all of this together in a cohesive manner becomes a lot clearer when he’s in the lineup.

The East is the Bucks’ until someone says otherwise and it’s much tougher to say otherwise if Lopez reemerges as the stalwart he’s long been in Milwaukee.