The Milwaukee Bucks, despite their fresh look following the additions of Damian Lillard, Cam Payne, and Malik Beasley in the offseason, have encountered a bumpy start to the season despite a 4-2 record and a recent win against Brooklyn. Their losses include disappointments against the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors. The decision to trade Jrue Holiday for Lillard was a significant move, hinged on the belief that an offensive superstar holds better championship potential than a two-way All-Star.
The decision to part ways with Holiday and acquire Lillard hasn’t panned out how most fans and analysts thought initially. When the trade broke, people were quick to jump on the Bucks bandwagon and thought the offensive firepower the Bucks held would be unstoppable. But so far, the offense hasn’t lived up to the hype (prior to Brooklyn), and the defense has been abysmal.
What is Wrong With the Milwaukee Bucks?
The Defensive Scheme Doesn’t Match
It’s well-known that Lillard has had defensive shortcomings throughout his career. In Portland, he enjoyed the benefits of small-market loyalty and a multitude of excuses, which shielded him from accountability for his defensive struggles and their impact on the team’s contention hopes. However, the situation differs in Milwaukee, where early results have surprisingly disappointed. Despite having two Defensive Player of the Year-caliber defenders in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, the Bucks have struggled defensively and rank among the league’s worst teams in points allowed per possession.
While Lillard isn’t solely responsible for the Bucks’ defensive struggles, he has played a significant role in their subpar defensive performance. Head coach Adrian Griffin has implemented a defensive system that doesn’t quite align with the team’s personnel. This system defaults to creating turnovers, which has been effective, as evidenced by an increase in turnovers per game from last year, currently ranking eighth in the league.
The team’s overall lack of speed and athleticism, except for Giannis, makes it challenging to play this style effectively. Players like Lopez, Pat Connaughton, Bobby Portis, Malik Beasley, and particularly Lillard are ill-suited for doubling an opponent and rushing back to cover shooters, which is essential when frequently switching into mismatch situations. If Coach Griffin assumes he is still coaching a long and rangy team like the Raptors, the Bucks could encounter even more difficulties.
However, there may be more profound issues with Griffin’s defensive system and its compatibility with the Bucks’ personnel. No defensive system can succeed if the team’s best players lack commitment. And right now, it’s an understatement to suggest that Lillard is uncommitted to playing defense. He is displaying some of the laziest defense of his career.
Lillard’s Struggles Defensively
Lillard’s defensive performance has been marred by a series of mistakes, including being targeted by opposing offenses, struggling to defend ball screens, losing track of off-ball shooters, avoiding opportunities to draw charging fouls, pretending to hustle in the backcourt only to create fast-break opportunities for the opponents inadvertently, and failing to disrupt as a trailing pick-and-roll defender. However, the most troubling aspect is the lack of effort. Even if Lillard faces physical limitations as a defender and the defensive system has its flaws, he must exert more effort if he genuinely aims to compete for a championship rather than merely discussing the desire for such an opportunity.
It’s evident that Lillard is never going to earn All-Defensive honors. But the Bucks don’t necessarily expect him to become a defensive stalwart for the first time in his career. However, they do need him to put in the effort.
These habits might have carried over from his playstyle with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he often had to shoulder a significant defensive burden, especially during seasons when the team wasn’t competitive. However, it’s noteworthy that Lillard’s former team is currently ranked ninth in defense this season, indicating that his absence hasn’t hindered their defensive performance but rather has actually improved it.
The situation isn’t too dissimilar from the defense Lillard played during his time in Portland. What sets it apart is the high-stakes environment he sought in Milwaukee, which naturally invites greater scrutiny. There won’t be any excuses when the Bucks potentially exit the playoffs due to Lillard’s defensive shortcomings.
Need to Figure Out How to Play Together
As concerning as Lillard’s defense has been, his offensive performance hasn’t fared much better, shooting below 30% from beyond the arc and 40% overall. Notably, he only managed six points in a loss to the Hawks and attempted just nine shots in a recent loss to the Raptors. While there is optimism that his offensive game will eventually improve, the defense remains a critical issue that cannot be ignored. After all, he did start the season with a bang, dropping 39 points in the season opener, but Lillard has done little since then.
The Bucks’ superstar duo of Antetokounmpo and Lillard has thus far expressed all the right intentions about their partnership. However, they require more time to develop chemistry and work through the team’s challenges.
Both Giannis and Lillard are still adapting to the dynamics of sharing the floor with another high-usage player. Giannis’s performance this season has been inconsistent, emphasizing the need to strike a balance between getting him involved in the offense and allowing him and Lillard to share playmaking responsibilities.
Lillard’s offensive prowess is likely to resurface. However, the Bucks still face significant challenges. Their defense requires substantial improvement, and Giannis and Lillard must have a balanced approach, as this is a very different environment from Lillard’s time in Portland. Lillard doesn’t need to carry the entire offensive load; he has capable teammates to pass to.
The Bucks offense came to life Monday night. If they can find that equilibrium and make the most of their collective talent, there’s a good chance they can reinsert themselves into the conversation as serious contenders for an NBA championship. Nevertheless, as of now, the Bucks have given little reason to be optimistic about their prospects for a deep playoff run this season.