In at least a few corners of the basketball universe, the value of coaching in the NBA has come into question. When you have ten of the most-skilled basketball players in the world out on the floor, I think it is fair to question how much value can be added by coaching tactics. In a sense, the idea is simply that NBA players are so good and so smart that they’ll figure it out one way or the other, with the better/more talented team winning each game.
Truthfully, I think this holds up 90% of the time in the regular season. It’s very uncommon that a coach has enough sway during the regular season that a supremely talented team ends up missing the playoffs, or a complete dud of a team ends up making it. It can impact seeding a little bit, but in the grand scheme of things that feels mostly random.
What the 2020 NBA Playoffs have exposed, maybe more than ever, is just how important coaching is. It’s not as simple as just “good” or “bad”. Almost every coach who ends up in the playoffs is objectively “good”.
What has become obvious is how important it is to have a coach willing to be flexible, and willing to experiment and try new things during the regular season.
Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, this is a direct look at Mike Budenholzer compared to his contemporaries at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Let’s set this straight first, Mike Budenholzer is a good coach. He routinely gets his rosters to outplay the sum of its parts, with this years Bucks team being a great example. They’re a damn good team, but when you look at the roster, does that scream 70-win (pace) regular season team to you? It sure doesn’t to me. That’s a credit to Bud.
Where Budenholzer has constantly failed, though, is in making adjustments in a playoff series. It has been mind-boggling to watch as the Bucks have been all but left for dead, down 3-1 to the fifth-seeded Miami Heat.
What’s happened is Erik Spoelstra and Miami have taken advantage of the fact that Milwaukee plays drop coverage on every pick-and-roll, regardless of who’s defending it. Playing exclusively “drop” has yielded great results for Milwaukee, even producing the #1 DRTG in the NBA this year by a wide margin. In their base alignments, and against traditional/non-shooting bigs, it works great for them. Their personnel fits that style of play really well.
The problem is that Miami knows they’re going to drop everytime, and are using capable shooters as screeners, or are using a guard as the screener to make Milwaukee uncomfortable.
So how has Milwaukee countered this? Well, they haven’t. It’s been maddening. There’s no reason that, in a PnR defended by Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks should be doing anything other than switching. That’s an easy switch that the game is literally begging you to take, but the Bucks just won’t do it.
To a degree, it looks like they just can’t switch because of how rigidly they’ve stuck to their system all year long. It makes sense, Milwaukee pounded teams all year playing that way. The problem is that other coaches like Nick Nurse and Spoelstra have been experimenting all year long. When presented with a counter to his system, Budenholzer is left without an option he trust to counter-act any team’s adjustments. For more on Bud’s psyche, here’s a great article by Matt Moore of The Action Network.
How does this pertain to the Wolves? Well, it’s two-fold. First off, the Wolves need to get to a point where this even matters. I’m less excited about Ryan Saunders than most, but I do think he deserves a shot with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns healthy. With that said, Minnesota is still a ways off from being a playoff team. Their biggest focus right now should be on perfecting the drop-scheme that David Vanter Pool has been known for. That’s step one, become reliable in your base defense.
Once they reach that point, and I’d like to think that’s an achievable goal for this year, it’s time to start trying a few other things depending on personnel. I’m not saying the Wolves should spend entire games playing something other than drop, but they should try to infuse some switching or playing at the level with Towns here and there so that when they need to make an adjustment mid-playoff series, they’ve practiced it and are confident enough to execute.
The larger point here is this — whatever your base is, get really, really good at that. I realize how simple that sounds, but it’s super important. Without reliability in your base defense, not much else matters. I’d also like to add here that if you’re incapable of becoming reliable in your base, maybe that shouldn’t be your base defense.
Anyways, once Minnesota becomes reliable playing drop, it’s time to start trying a few other looks. Being able to throw a few different defense at a team is super, super important over a 7-game series. If you just give playoff teams the same look over and over again, they’re going to figure out how to beat that. You have to have counters and you absolutely must be willing to react to how the game is going. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but Giannis and Middleton being unable and/or unwilling to switch a Jimmy Butler-Duncan Robinson PnR/handoff is just inexcusable.
At the end of the day, Minnesota has a ways to go before they really have to worry about this. They still need to nail down their base defense. I still think it’s fun to watch the playoffs this year and try to apply what we’re seeing to the Wolves moving forward. In that sense, Ryan Saunders, David Vanter Pool, and the rest of the Minnesota coaching staff needs to be flexible. Sometimes, the game tells you what to do.