It’s not often we gush about role players making the difference on a new team, but this maybe should be the exception.
Kyle Korver and the Milwaukee Bucks are a match made in heaven.
Long coveted for his three-point shooting prowess, Korver signed a deal with the Bucks this summer to help provide spacing to their offense and a veteran presence for the postseason. What drew Korver to Milwaukee when other elite teams and destinations came calling? Certainly his relationship with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.
Even with a small role—the 38-year old is noticeably compromised on defense and will be a low-minute specialist, after all—Korver can make a massive impact on Milwaukee’s offense thanks to his familiarity with the scheme and how such an offense contributed to his best years. He may be past his prime, but there’s still plenty in the tank for Korver to snipe threes deep into the playoffs.
History with coach bud & his transition brilliance
Playing under Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks, Korver actually made an All-Star appearance, which is rare for a career-long specialist—albeit one of the greatest marksmen to ever do it.
In 2014-15, when the Hawks won 60 games and finished with the East’s top record, Korver was actually the focal point of their offense—though prime Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague were all major cogs as well—and shot an insane 49.2 percent from three on six attempts a game. He’s the only player in NBA history to make above 46 percent on that many attempts, let alone 49 percent. We have always overlooked how brilliant Korver was that year.
Atlanta was the first place Korver was a full-time starter—though he had played similarly important roles previously with the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz during his now seven-team career. He also led the league in three-point percentage three of his three-and-a-half seasons under Budenholzer, despite his high volume. Why?
Budenholzer knew how to deploy him in specialty spots.
One such way is in transition and broken plays, where there’s a blending of organization and chaos. Korver is incredible at sprinting the middle-third of the court, breaking away from defenders between three-point line to three-point line. Bigs that would trail the play in the middle third of the floor were instructed to seek out Korver’s man and let Kyle zip off them to the top of the key for a catch-and-shoot.
The concept is one that we teach in our program, even calling it a Korver cut, for how to read chaos in transition:
What a challenge this is to guard.
Transition defenders naturally sink towards the rim; they are taught to protect the basket and flood the ball, pushing it to a side. As their eyes stick onto the bigs going to the rim and the ball handlers that attack, they lose sight of Korver. Instead of standing stationary and waiting for a skip, he relocates and lets the trailing big pick off his defender to ensure he’s open for a catch-and-shoot.
No player scored more points in transition than Giannis Antetokounmpo a season ago, racking up 7.3 per game in the open floor, according to Synergy. Stopping the reigning MVP in those situations will be paramount, sitting atop most opposing scouting reports.
Korver should be able to sneak by teams overly focused on Giannis and maximize his own effectiveness in transition.
Unlocking Coach Bud’s Half-Court Motion
Budenholzer’s main motion has been a 5-out scheme, which he’s able to deploy thanks to a litany of shooting bigs. Credit guys like Brook Lopez, DJ Wilson and Ersan Ilyasova for unlocking the potential of this team. Shooting is vital because of how often they run screens from top-to-wing. A trail man or a point guard that initiates from up the gut will pass to one wing and screen away, and the angle of such a screen is difficult to guard.
Some defenders go underneath said screen, forcing their man to shoot the three. Others will go over to prevent a clear catch-and-shoot, but then cede the possibility of a curl to the hoop.
It’s tough to stop when players like Khris Middleton are so good in both scenarios. Giannis moves around quite a bit within the offense but is most dangerous as a screener at the elbow. He can roll to the hoop, pop back out and get an elbow isolation or touch at the high post to initiate some other action.
The initial screen away is tricky because of the easy reads and options, plus the way the Bucks spread the floor around it:
Budenholzer ran a variation of this offense in Atlanta, doing so with a true post-playing on the interior (Horford). Three-point mania hadn’t hit the league yet, and the Hawks’ personnel wasn’t built for a 5-out system, even though Horford had some stretchiness already. Still, the elements of this Bucks’ attack is evident when you go back and watch their film.
Korver was a huge part of that. Coach Bud leveraged his shooting in the half-court by jolting Korver off these screens, both in semi-transition or from walk-it-up actions.
He was especially excellent when starting on the wing:
To script Korver on the wing is to take away part of the value of his transition game: how hard he sprints.
Typically, players that sprint ahead of the play on the wings stretch defenses to the dead corners. In Milwaukee’s offense last season, the corners were more frequently used for staggered screens (where Korver makes a killing) or as decoys to wait for catch-and-shoot kickouts when the screen-away action at the elbow penetrates to the second level of defense. Bud placed shooters in the corners, and that took away extra help to clog the lane whenever Giannis would drive.
Budenholzer can turn the page back to his old Hawks offense and find a nice action to involve Korver when he’s in the corner. Once the ball gets swung to whoever is open off the elbow screen, the passer would find Korver in the same-side corner and screen. That guard-to-guard screen can be lethal, and there are few more effective shooters on the move along with than the Creighton product:
Imagine if Giannis is holding the ball at the elbow and Korver darts all the way around him for a handoff into a shot. Whoever is guarding him has a lot of running to do, and the amount of attention paid to Giannis could get Korver a ton of shots—or free up Antetokounmpo to attack the rim.
Or a plus-shooter like Middleton setting the guard-to-guard screen is then popping to the wing for a three.
By no means is Korver still the threat of a player that an offense should be built around. What he can do as a specialty sniper is to alleviate some of the pressures on the non-shooters by opening the lane. No new sets or players need to be added to accommodate Korver. His value comes from already knowing how to produce within what the Bucks do.
Young Bucks like Donte DIVincenzo will learn a lot this season, and this roster is again stacked floor stretchers.
Milwaukee’s Defensive Aptitude
As an aging role player that has never been known for his defense—though he used to be regarded as a decent-enough team player on that end—Korver needs to be flanked by plus defenders if he’s going to be impactful.
How about joining the league’s best defensive group from a season ago?
To be honest, I’d think Korver’s most productive minutes will come alongside Giannis, not in relief of him with a bench unit. Flanking Korver with Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Giannis brings a great deal of perimeter firepower to hide him on the weakest option. Plus, Korver would provide solid balance with the shooting inconsistency of Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo.
He’ll be fine on the bench, alongside great help defender DJ Wilson (who could be primed for a very strong year) and feisty veterans like George Hill and Wesley Matthews. That would open up the opportunity to start Ersan Ilyasova and let the Bucks go smaller in their second unit, though staggering in Korver with the first unit down the stretch makes even more sense.
The bottom line is that Budenholzer doesn’t have to worry about Korver sharing the floor with other sieves and losing points. Milwaukee signed Korver because he fills a role they desperately need, and they have the capability to mask his shortcomings of such a niche skillset.
The Bucks lost more than they gained this summer: Malcolm Brogdon is a huge hit, and Nikola Mirotic played an important role as a stretch big. Adding smart, sensible role players like Korver can help mitigate those losses as the Bucks hope his familiarity with the system and perfect fit alongside Antetokounmpo gives the team a positive eighteen minutes a night.
That’s all they’ll ask, and it will be enough time for Korver to make his presence known for yet another year.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of October 5, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.