The unpredictable collection of limbs that is the Milwaukee Bucks
Now let’s figure out what to do with all of that length.
Take the Milwaukee Bucks active roster. Line them up in an open field, arms outstretched like the iconic Jordan poster. Measure their collective wing-span. Divide by two. Congratulations, you’ve just determined the circumference of the Earth.
For the past few years, the Milwaukee Bucks have been living a feverish, grotesque, Upside Down nightmare version of the Golden State position-less revolution. Where Golden State shifted up, rotating smaller, faster players into positions previously occupied by lumbering giants, Milwaukee shifted across. The doubled down on length and size. If it wasn’t entirely by design initially, it was last year. I don’t think Milwaukee quite knew what they were getting in Giannis Antetokounmpo, I don’t think they quite know now either, but Jason Kidd will be damned if he doesn’t try and figure it out.
After drafting Giannis and miring for another the Bucks went on a stellar run to a 41–41 record and a playoff appearance with an unorthodox team composition that got even weirder when they swapped Brandon Knight for Michael-Carter Williams, effectively taking shot efficiency out back and not as much shooting it as hitting it over the back with a shovel repeatedly until it stopped breathing. They managed to overcome Jabari Parker’s ACL tear 25 games into the season. The hopes were high and everyone was optimistic.
The next year they picked up Greg Monroe and a healthy Parker (in the timeless words of Arsene Wenger — “like a new signing all together), but failed to replicate their success. Despite a career year for Khris Middleton and Giannis moving into a nightly tripple-double threat that he is, the rest of the team was janky around them. Monroe needed a lot more touches in the post and Parker failed to replicate Dudley’s outside threat capabilities shooting only .257% from behind the ark, something a team running MCW at point desperately needs.
The biggest problem however was defense. Despite a variety of intangibles, the Bucks slumped last year, allowing close to 6.5 more points per 100 possessions than during their playoff run. For comparison they were 4th a year prior, now they were 23rd (as per Basketball Reference).
That is however the price of growing up in the NBA and figuring out where the pieces fit. It seems that Michael Carter Williams’ time in Milwaukee is done, as his name has been actively circulating in trade rumors while the Bucks try to fill the shooting hole left by Middleton’s injury (absent until March). This isn’t something they can gloss over and hope the team is okay until he comes back. Middleton was their leading scorer and best three-point shooter last year, which meant creating more space for Parker, Giannis and Monroe to occupy inside. If they wish to be competitive, point Giannis or not, Milwaukee will need to find a way to plug that gap with some sort of shooter.
Before we get to offence however, let’s address defense. Jason Kidd has them playing the scramble, high-pressure system which forces a lot of errand passes. It should work well for this team considering the following numbers: 7'3", 7'2", 6'11", 7'5", 6'10", 6'10", 6'7", 7'0", 6'11", 6'7", 6'10", 7'3", 6'7", 6'4". That’s each individual player’s wingspan, I’ll let you match it to the appropriate player on that roster (or just direct you to the reddit thread). This team has the potential to not as much smother the passing lanes as engulf them in a cloak of permanent darkness (+3 to stealth, rare item). As long as the they can iron out rotation jinks for guys like Jabari (not the quickest on his feet) and Monroe (ditto) they should be able to cover a lot of ground without actually moving much on the court. When worst comes to worst it also helps to have someone like John Henson (he’s the 7'5") in the post. The catalyst may actually end up being Dellavedova who doesn’t really play defense but rather chases the basketball and the player possessing it across the floor like it owes him dice game money. If he is able to frustrating ball handlers at the top of the key into erratic throws the Bucks don’t really have to move as much to get to the ball on an errant pass.
Offensively, it all gets a little bit harder to dissect. The Bucks overpayed Dellavedova to, I presume, be their back up point, but given the way things are going, will they think about starting him over MCW, especially with Middleton out? As hard as it is to say, Middleton’s absence makes Delly the most efficient shooter on the Bucks who can be useful across other areas of the floor. The team did bring in Steve Novak and Jason Terry, but both of them are detractors in any other aspect of the game. Delly has steadily improved in Cleveland, shooting .410% from behind the arc from the three. It is arguably easy to get shots off when LeBron commands the attention in the post, but this is where the Bucks new plan comes in.
Jason Kidd hasn’t exactly been silent in his desire to play Giannis Antetokounmpo as a point forward, and the Greek Freak showed promise as a ball handler and distributor last year, nearly doubling his assist rate to 4.3 per game while keeping a modest 1.7 assist to turnover ratio. Not great but not disastrous. Running ‘Po at the 1 has the potential to throw everything off for opposing teams, depending on who would be paired with him. Before the Middleton injury I would expect the line up to be: Middleton, Parker, Teletovic and Monroe. It would overload any team from the perspective of size while keeping Teletovic and Middleton as outside threats. Now, I’m not too sure.
While everyone is expecting some sort of grand revolution where Giannis as actual PG, it’s going to be a lot more simple. He will have a nominal role in bringing the ball up, much like LeBron did with Cleveland. This will allow the team to slide either Delly or Malcolm Brogdon next to him. Brogdon is an intriguing choice. He shot .365% from three in college, steadily improving year to year. That isn’t terrible and enough to keep defenses honest when he knocks down one or two of those shots. He is a better ball handler than Delly and has proven to be very effective in the pick and roll this preseason, which were his strengths in college as well.
Limited sample size against inferior opposition, but if he’s able to carry over at least half of that to the big leagues, he may be the key to weathering the Middleton absence.
The hope here is that Dellavedova, Terry, Teletovic, Brogdon and Vaughn will be enough to fill in the shooting, but that is a risky bet considering that it will come at the expense of the Bucks frantic defense.
Another intriguing aspect is Thon Maker. While we spent about half a summer trying to figure out what exactly he is and how old he is the Bucks focused on where he would fit into their system. Thon was up and down in the Summer League, somewhere between “flashes of brilliance” all the way to “sever work in progress.” As someone who hasn’t exactly tested himself against NBA opposition, Thon will have to prove that a lot of his success is not a byproduct of bullying much smaller men. If Maker is able to hang with NBA competition, it will give Kidd the most versatile deck of cards across the board. With Giannis, Parker and Maker all able to slide across four positions on the court or even go into a limb-tastic version of the Golden State line up of Death with Parker or Maker in the middle.
The most intriguing, and most out of place piece here is Greg Monroe who hasn’t exactly transitioned to his new contract. His stats didn’t take much of a dip (he’s on par with his final season in Detroit) his overall fit into this Milwaukee puzzle is questionable. Unlike someone like Horford, Monroe isn’t exactly comfortable stepping outside of the post, with at least 80% of his shots coming from 2–9 feet out (as per Basketball-Reference) which in many ways contributes to the spacing issues the Bucks are having. His inefficiency on defense also means that they can sacrifice him for Teletovic’s range and keep Henson as a rim protector for a more favorable look on the offensive end, clearing out the post. Unless he is able to add some ranger to his game, taking him out to at least the elbow, Monroe may just be biding his time.
The truth is, the Bucks haven’t really made any rocking moves this off-season. They spent fairly modestly, even the Dellavedova signing looks like a drop in the bucket under the new TV Deal money frenzy that’s been happening. I think that Middleton’s injury really impacts their vision for where the team can be and this could be the perfect year to ride it out into another lottery, trade Monroe for assets and give Giannis a full 82 game season as a de facto point to set up this team for 2017. There are too many question marks that they will need to answer quickly to be competitive, and with 2017 Draft projected to be fairly deep it’s a safer bet to move Monroe, MCW and literally everyone else not named Giannis, Khris and Jabari and try again next year. Sometimes injuries suck. Sometimes they illuminate the way forward.