Back At The Starting Line In Milwaukee

The Bucks tried 23 different starting lineups last season. Just one of them won more than four games, and that one had a losing record.

I asked Scott Skiles on Media Day whether he hoped, for the sake of consistency, to settle on a starting lineup this season.

Skiles: "Be nice. Be really nice."

As a natural follow-up, I asked Skiles if he had a starting lineup in mind for this season.

Skiles: "No. Not yet."

Through 16 games this season, the Bucks have already tried seven different starting lineups. With the team now at full strength, I asked Skiles after the loss to Atlanta if he feels any closer to finding an ideal starting five.

Skiles: "You know, I am not sure. That is a tough question to answer. You typically would like to base that on the players sort of showing that to you based on consistency and how they perform. And that has been difficult for us so far.

It is not so much about just who starts or just who finishes, but it is so, so much about who plays together. So who is really playing together and playing together, and who is playing together, and not playing together?

Three Good

Jennings/Livingston/Delfino/Leuer/Bogut

This starting lineup is 2-0, making it the only undefeated starting lineup. It worked against the Knicks and it worked against the Heat, two of the shiniest wins of the season. Yet, curiously enough, this quartet has only played 10 minutes together all season. In that time, they have outscored opponents 25-20. They started pretty nicely against New York, up 13-8 before Leuer was subbed out for Drew Gooden, and they were tied 10-10 with Miami when Luc Mbah a Moute came in for Leuer.

Skiles has long been a proponent of playing point guards together, and Jennings and Livingston not only mesh well offensively (and they do, with a +8 differential in 231 minutes), they have been two of the best offensive players on the team under any and all circumstances. And the two-man combination of Livingston and Leuer has performed exactly how you and you and you think it has performed: a team-best +49 in 122 minutes together.

I have devoted enough sentences to differential (which is subject to a lot of variables, most obviously opponent, and is a notoriously noisy stat) but this lineup passes the eye test just as well as the statistical ones. Here is to hoping that we don't have to wait 16 more games to watch these five play another 10 minutes together.

Jennings/Livingston/Delfino/Mbah a Moute/Bogut

The only difference here from the previous lineup is Mbah a Moute instead of Leuer. This group has played almost 20 minutes together, making it the sixth most common lineup so far. Livingston's career splits as a starter are pretty much even with his career numbers as a reserve, and with Udrih on the bench to back up Jennings (who also averages 36 minutes) anyway, I don't see any reason to hesitate starting Livingston. While we might prefer that he not be quite as low-usage as he is, Livingston undeniably complements Jennings, allowing both players to function as the hybrid guards that they are and allowing the Bucks to play at an accelerated pace.

While The Prince, after all of these years, is still not really a power forward, he boasts a history of success starting at at the four, most notably going 14-3 as part of the Jennings/Salmons/Delfino/Mbah a Moute/Bogut lineup in 2009-10 (this reference point is admittedly sadly running drier by the day). This group won't necessarily work in every situation, and it doesn't have to -- but it can and should work with some real frequency.

Delfino is always the wild card, but pairing the team's two most effective guards heretofore with two of the best defensive players in the NBA is an attractive option, particularly as these two (point) guards should theoretically be among the most adept players at helping get the offensively-challenged Mbah a Moute and Bogut into the game offensively.

Jennings/Jackson/Dunleavy/Ilyasova/Bogut

This is how it all started. And while it (referring to the Bobcats game) didn't end very well, it started okay. Skiles started these five for the first three games of the season, and while those three games foreshadowed the dizzy year to date, the team did win two of three.

Jackson tends to start when he is not suspended, and if he is going to start, this might be the best lineup in which to start him. Jennings and Bogut are the anchors, the givens, as you may have followed by now. This lineup has been linked pretty regularly -- for 43 minutes over 4 different games -- and they have shown well together, with a +10 differential. This is a lineup that Skiles goes to third most, and for good reason -- it has a dominant defensive rating of 85.39, making it easily the best defensive grouping to play substantial minutes.

Again, these numbers are based on sample sizes that are still very small. But even on paper, this one holds some intrigue. I am not sure that there is a single player who does not consistently hustle on this team, and I am not sure that there are more than a handful of players in the NBA who don't consistently give their all, every night, no matter what college hoops fans tell you. All that said, this is a physically long lineup, and a lineup short on physically casual play.

Two Bad

Jennings/Jackson/Delfino/Ilyasova/Gooden

This group has actually played the second most minutes -- 67 -- of any group this season. And while it is too early to conclusively judge any of these lineups, we are inconclusively judging lineups, and this one is not the best.

As the team has moved forward without a real backup center, Gooden has been spending virtually all of his time at the five -- a year after essentially splitting time between the four and five. He rebounds and he stretches the court some, but he has quite simply been far better at power forward than center since arriving in Milwaukee. Last season he had a PER differential of +2.9 at power forward and a PER differential of -7.2 at center -- in almost the exact same number of minutes! Try to find another time I used an exclamation mark.

So, this seems to be more on needing a center who is a center than on Gooden. In any event, offensively, this group is short on consistently sound decision-makers, and defensively, this group has so far been simply destroyed, with a 120.61 defensive rating.

Jennings/Jackson/Delfino/Leuer/Gooden

This has not worked out so well either. Obviously these Gooden lineups aren't under consideration for the starting lineup anyway, but they speak to how much better the team is with Bogut on the court and, more to the point, how ill-fitting Gooden continues to be at the five. This group has an even worse defensive rating (133.3 in 17 minutes) than the previous one.

One Shot?

Jennings/Jackson/Mbah a Moute/Gooden/Bogut

If Gooden is best-suited at power forward, which his advanced stats back up, and which is where he had started in 421 of 447 (94.2 %) career starts coming into this season, shouldn't he ideally play there? And while Mbah a Moute's numbers historically suggest he is too much of an offensive liability at the three, might the 6'8" defensive ace find his way while playing alongside a power forward with at least some ability to spread the floor and with a high usage and offensively-inclined backcourt? Is this arguably not the most talented, balanced lineup possible?

Jennings/Jackson/Mbah a Moute/Gooden/Bogut have not lined up for a minute together this season.

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