-- The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the league's most versatile defenders in long-armed, 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, a premier shot blocker in center John Henson and a quality perimeter defender in point guard Eric Bledsoe from a November trade -- and yet they woke up Monday morning ranked 25th in the NBA in defensive rating.
That defensive weakness, among other factors, probably cost Jason Kidd his job as head coach of the Bucks. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday afternoon that Kidd is out, which the team officially announced shortly thereafter.
Now, with Milwaukee mired in eighth place in the East with the conference's 11th-best point differential, the question is, will a change in philosophy align the Bucks' defensive results with their potential?
Kidd's unconventional defensive scheme
Hired as head coach by the Brooklyn Nets immediately after retiring as a player in 2013, Kidd developed an aggressive, trapping scheme when injuries forced the Nets to go small midway through his first (and ultimately last) season on the job.
While Brooklyn was able to rally from a 10-21 start to finish 44-38 and win a playoff series, it was obvious the Nets' aging roster wasn't right for what Kidd envisioned. Also presumably sensing an opportunity to add power in terms of personnel, he forced his way out of Brooklyn to Milwaukee, taking over a Bucks team that had gone 15-67 the previous season but had an appealing building block in Antetokounmpo.
It's easy to forget now how brilliant Kidd's defensive scheme looked after his first year in Milwaukee. The Bucks improved from 29th to second in the league in defensive rating, winning 41 games in 2014-15 and returning to the playoffs far ahead of schedule. Kidd finished third in Coach of the Year voting behind Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr, the coaches of the top-seeded teams in their respective conferences.
There was trouble lurking beneath the surface, however. While Milwaukee's traps helped the team force turnovers at the league's best rate, when opponents beat them, they found easy shots available. The 2014-15 Bucks allowed corner 3-pointers at the highest rate in the NBA and the second-highest rate of attempts in the restricted area around the basket. When the turnovers dried up, those weaknesses became problematic. Milwaukee dropped to seventh in opponent turnover rate in 2015-16 and 22nd in defensive rating, winning eight fewer games and missing the playoffs.
Though the Bucks returned to the playoffs last season, and even took a 2-1 lead over the Toronto Raptors in the opening round before losing the series 4-2, they were only 19th in defensive rating. And things reached a critical mass this year, when even a top-10 offense powered by Antetokounmpo's development into an MVP candidate was unable to paper over the defensive weaknesses.
Adjustments too little, too late
To his credit, Kidd had adjusted to some extent this season. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Milwaukee blitzed (or trapped) on 11.0 percent of opposing picks during the first 11 games of the season, a rate that would rank second in the league behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (11.3 percent) over the full year.
Since the quarter-mark of the season, the Bucks' blitz rate has dropped to 5.2 percent of pick-and-rolls, a rate that's still higher than the NBA average (3.7 percent this season) but is no longer too unusual. Alas, after promising early returns, the change failed to stanch the bleeding. According to NBA.com/Stats, since Dec. 15 Milwaukee ranks 24th in defensive rating -- an improvement of just one spot over the team's overall performance.
Because Kidd and assistant coach Sean Sweeney (who oversaw the defense) have relied so heavily on their unorthodox scheme, it's possible that their version of a more conventional one simply wasn't good enough. Either way, despite the early success, it has become clear that the Bucks' defense wasn't good enough to meet expectations created by Antetokounmpo's rise and the addition of Bledsoe.
Milwaukee's accelerated timetable
When the Bucks acquired Bledsoe, I noted that "the pressure on Kidd to win now surely ratchets up." At the time Bledsoe made his debut, Milwaukee was off to a slow start at 4-6. The Bucks have gone 19-16 with Bledsoe, an improvement, but still just a 44- or 45-win pace over a full season. Realistically, Milwaukee has the talent to challenge for the fourth seed in an Eastern Conference that's wide open outside the top three teams.
In recent weeks, Kidd had highlighted the youth of the roster, clearly seeking to manage expectations. He wasn't wrong. Weighted by minutes played, Milwaukee has the league's seventh-youngest roster, and weighted by players' contribution in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric, just three teams are younger. But the latter figure owes largely to Antetokounmpo ranking second in the league in WARP, itself evidence he's capable of leading a winning team no matter his age.
A couple of clocks hang over the Bucks' next few seasons. The first is Bledsoe's free agency in the summer of 2019, when he can either leave or command a sizable raise on his current contract -- a problem for a team already flirting with the luxury tax.
The second, louder clock is the end of Antetokounmpo's contract in 2021. While that's still three and a half years away, teams often face a decision on whether to trade their superstars up to two years in advance of free agency. By that point, the organization will want to demonstrate to Antetokounmpo that he can win in Milwaukee.
There's no reason for Bucks fans to worry about Antetokounmpo going anywhere just yet. After all, he's still in the first year of his current four-year extension. Still, there's also no time to waste when it comes to building a contending team around Antetokounmpo. As the defense continued to flounder, it became clear Kidd wasn't the right coach for that group. Now it's up to Milwaukee to figure out who is.