One of the most intriguing elements to the 2018-19 season is taking place in Milwaukee, where Mike Budenholzer has taken over as head coach of a club in desperate need of quality at that spot. After years of Jason Kidd and a short stint under Joe Prunty, the upgrade to Budenholzer is as big as any offseason acquisition not named LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks, led by Budenholzer on the bench and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, are poised for greatness and even have some thinking they’ll be in contention with the very top of the Eastern Conference in their first year together.
Milwaukee will improve on both ends of the floor, but the offensive end is where things will be drastically improved under Budenholzer’s leadership. Spacing will improve around Antetokounmpo’s post-ups and drives to the basket, a much-needed change after he struggled through double- and triple-teams through much of his career to this point. Defenses are still going to be drawn into the paint to stop him, but now those players will be coming from further away or will have further to go to recover to their assignments on the perimeter. Another area in which Milwaukee will improve on Budenholzer’s watch is with their set plays, which were never particularly creative under Kidd and will help unlock more of the Bucks’ weapons surrounding Antetokounmpo.
We’re just one game into Budenholzer’s career with Milwaukee, but it’s already clear that he’s brought a level of detail and ingenuity to their offensive sets that didn’t exist prior to his arrival. There are some questions defensively (I didn’t love how they decided to defend Kemba Walker in pick-and-roll), but the offense mostly hummed like we all hoped it would before the season.
Once such play the Bucks went to no fewer than six times in Wednesday’s opener is a set I’m calling “Cross Double STS”. A twist on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Hawk set that terrorized defenses last season and was adopted nearly league-wide, Cross Double STS takes the important aspects of OKC Hawk and applies them to Milwaukee’s particular personnel and skills – namely their ability to post up with multiple players and still space the floor with their big men no matter who is posting up. Most teams don’t have this luxury, but Milwaukee can throw the ball down low to any of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, or Brook Lopez and feel reasonably comfortable.
The play starts with the ball on the left side of the floor, two players along the baseline, and two players near the elbow on the right side. Once everybody is in position, one of the players along the baseline sets a cross screen for the other to come toward the ball for a quick post-up. If the pass is available, then Milwaukee isn’t hesitant about throwing it in. If not, the original screener is flying up toward the top of the key behind two down screens from the players around the right elbow. From there, those two players scatter away from one another, with one usually rolling to the rim and the other popping to the corner. All told, the only player who isn’t an immediate threat is the man with the ball at the beginning, but even he’ll get involved if things break down and the Bucks want to run a quick side pick-and-roll with the floor spaced on the weak side.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this play is the multitude of alignments from which Milwaukee can run the same action. This fact will be the secret to the Bucks’ offense this season – defenses preparing for the Bucks will have to anticipate so many different eventualities within the same set play. For the most part, when teams run a particular play, there are specific players in specific roles within it. A rim-runner here, a post-up threat there, a shooter running around over here. In practice, defenses can prepare for these plays by knowing what matchups they’ll likely be in and running through the various options the play presents. Against Milwaukee, everybody has to be prepared for everything, since they cycle through so many different iterations of the same set with personnel in all sorts of different positions.
Milwaukee’s versatility will be a major part of their offensive attack. That level of unpredictability gives Budenholzer a ton of different ways to attack defenses and allows him to get as creative as possible with his players. In the early days of Budenholzer’s reign in Atlanta, this was a hallmark of the Hawks; they often played with two big men in Al Horford and Paul Millsap who were both jack-of-all-trades big men offensively. His best coaching days were with those two leading the line and while this Milwaukee team is obviously quite different (Atlanta never had a player with the talent Antetokounmpo has), Budenholzer’s creativity will shine through with the versatile talent the Bucks deploy on a nightly basis.