PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – OCTOBER 20: Jevon Carter #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts reacts during … [+]
Life as an on-ball defender can be a living hell. Especially in the Milwaukee Bucks’ revamped defensive scheme this year.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer asks his point-of-attack defender to navigate the seemingly never-ending barrage of ball screens while simultaneously preventing their man from getting a clean three-point look and a shot around the basket. Oh, and the only help they’ll get is sitting 20 feet away from the action. Sound reasonable?
The Bucks are lucky to roster two elite on-ball defenders to spearhead their number one ranked defensive attack. Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter primarily match up with the opposing team’s best ball-handlers. They constantly work their tails off to force their man into a grind on every dribble, pass, possession and shot. It’s safe to say nothing comes easy against that duo.
Holiday was an elite defender when the Bucks acquired him two years ago, but he’s leveled up his game since. In two seasons as a Buck, he has two All-Defensive selections to show for it and the 2022-23 campaign should mark his third.
Budenholzer understands how to maximize Holiday’s talents. With Carter in the fold, he can appropriately utilize the strength and quickness combination that makes Holiday such a unique defender. Instead of always sticking him on the ball and wearing him out, he’s spending more time defending forwards this season—about 60 percent of his matchups are on forwards compared to just 24 percent last year.
While Holiday is doing more work off the ball, Carter is leading the charge 94 feet away from his basket. He loves to pick his man up full court and make them sweat out every dribble. He has fully embraced the dog mentality that feigned so many across the NBA landscape.
Budenholzer has given the lead defenders a foundation to work with, but hasn’t prescribed the entire script. For example, they have the liberty to choose how to handle each ball screen. They can go over, under, around, or through. The choice is theirs.
This freedom is a vital aspect of their pick and roll coverage. The Bucks defend more pick-and-rolls per game than any team in the NBA. Related, Holiday defends the most pick-and-rolls possessions of any player with Carter tied for third on that list. That means the duo is spending an incredible amount of time tossing and turning around behemoth screens, taking shots to the body and using a ton of energy on defense. Welcome to the Bucks, baby!
The vigorous work pays off, as Milwaukee leads the NBA in defensive rating with 105 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s not only the best mark in the league, but the best by a long shot. They are 3.4 points away from the second-best team (the same difference between the second and 14th-best defenses) and 7.4 points per 100 possessions below the league average.
When Holiday and Carter are on the court together, that rating improves by eight more points. They are the first line of defense for a team that expects to prevent their opponent from scoring on every trip down the court.
Budenholzer puts them on an island and asks them to successfully fight through every single screen that comes their way. Meanwhile, he told the rest of his help defenders to stay home and let the dogs go to work with the only semblance of help sitting just feet away from the basket.
If a player gets an open shot immediately following a pick, it’s the fault of Carter and Holiday for not recovering in a timely fashion. If they prevent a shot or contest one, well, that’s what they should be doing. No kudos. Just keep going. That’s the life of an on-ball defender for the stingiest defense in the NBA.