Triangulating The Milwaukee Bucks' Needs In 2012 NBA Free Agency (Vol. 1)

February 17, 2012; Orlando FL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks power forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) during the first half against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2012 NBA Free Agency period with $50.5 million committed to 10 players, the rights to a pair of NBA Draft picks -- No. 14 pick John Henson and No. 42 pick Doron Lamb -- and a trio of unrestricted free agents. Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and Kwame Brown are all on the open market, but they aren't expected to seduce GMs and owners into truly crazy spending sprees like we are seeing with Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, and Roy Hibbert. That being said, the Bucks have reportedly offered Ilyasova a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $40 million. So....yeah.

Before we address team needs, let's first lay out the prospects for each of Milwaukee's free agents. Ilyasova is essentially a secondary free agent option for teams that strike out on the big names, and he and will clearly command something in excess of the mid-level exception. He's only 25 years old and is coming off a great season, but I've written at length about why the Bucks would be wise to let Ilyasova go if even a mild bidding war erupts. The team's current offer already feels like too many years and too much money annually, to be honest.

As for the leftovers, Kwame Brown hasn't really done anything to warrant a multi-year contract in the NBA (his career PER of 12.6 is 0.3 higher than Darko Milicic), but he's is a seven-footer and will find more work for that reason alone. Delfino is the most realistic option to return to the Bucks in 2012-13. He shouldn't cost much, is very familiar with the organization and would upgrade the team's three-point shooting. Now let's talk needs.

A large chunk of the 2012 NBA free agents are effectively off-limits to the Bucks. The big ticket players aren't interested, and the pricey pseudo-stars like Hibbert and Batum wouldn't make sense even if Milwaukee had the money. This is a search for another Mike Dunleavy deal: an under-the-radar acquisition that fits a specific team need. Recall that Dunleavy signed a two-year, $7.5 million deal last offseason, which I promised everyone would like for basketball reasons. In Vol. 1 I identify the specific areas of need. Vol. 2 will address the available options.

Identifying Team Needs

Mitchell already broke down the initial positional depth chart and minute allocation for the Bucks, so I will approach the issue for a different angle. I firmly believe the true positions still matter in the NBA, both as a way to conceptualize general offensive and defensive responsibilities and basic on-court assignments, but the current Bucks roster arguably loaded with hybrid players. If you want to refer to Monta Ellis and Doron Lamb as combo guards, label Luc Mbah a Moute a swingman and split the difference with a PF/C label for Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh, feel free to do so. But those titles only bring as much analytical value as the assumptions attached to them, so be sure to think hard about what they mean to you (and others).

Here is a look at the current roster (assuming the forthcoming formal addition of the 2012 rookies) that should satisfy traditionalists and adherents to the so-called positional revolution (flow from left-to-right signifies starter - rotation player - bench player / developmental prospect):

Nba_positional_diagram_large

In an effort to avoid the messy network of assumptions that underlie the breakdown above, I decided to rethink player roles in terms of optimum offensive spacing in the hopes of (literally) triangulating team needs. The diagram below is based on the spacing principles of the triangle offense, but I think the concept also works well for visualizing the needs of the team on offense and defense. Unlike the true triangle offense (which in its pure form allows all positions to be completely interchangeable), I am treating the actual way-points on the floor as if they require players to possess diverse sets of basketball skills. Players can (of course) technically fill any of the five spots in this diagram, but I am restricting the role of each Bucks player to the spots they can effectively fill to provide maximum spacing on offense and prevent maximum spacing on defense.

Offense1_large

How I Treat Spots (1)-(5): General Thoughts On How Spacing Develops

Feel free to disagree with my listed skills for each spot on the court, but there are the basic skills I think are necessary to create good offensive spacing and prevent opponents from doing the same.

On offense, (1) should have the ball skills and shooting range to bring the ball up the court, run pick-and-roll, force interior defensive rotations and hit spot-up jumpers on the perimeter. Ability to finish well at the rim is a plus.

On defense, (1) should be able to pressure the ball handler and prevent easy passing lanes and direct driving angles from developing in the initial action of pick-and-roll.

On offense, (2) should be able to create opportunities for himself and teammates in isolation or through pick-and-roll. Ability to hit threes off screens and in spot-ups is a plus. Ability to draw fouls while attacking the basket is also a plus.

On defense, (2) must be able to stay in front of his man on the perimeter and have the size/strength to defend high-post and mid-post isolation plays. Size to switch onto (3) or speed to switch onto (1) is a plus.

On offense, (3) must be able to hit the corner three, effectively slash to the rim on two dribbles to beat defensive rotations, finish at the rim and get open via off-ball cuts. Ability to play in the mid-post or low-post is plus. Three-point shooting range is necessary to draw defenders out of the paint and create driving lanes for (1) and (2).

On defense, (3) athleticism to make long defensive rotations to avoid being beaten off-the-dribble by counterpart (3) players is necessary. Any rebounding prowess or shot-blocking ability is a plus, as is the quickness to switch onto a (2) or the size to switch onto a (4).

On offense, (4) must be able to hit a weak side 18-foot jumpshot and/or slash to the paint before the defensive rotation occurs on either PnR or as secondary action in a play. Rebounding prowess is preferred, while low-post skills or face-up quickness for isolation plays are a serious plus.

On defense, (4) must be able to show and recover in PnR and keep his counterpart off the offensive boards. Interior defensive skills are strongly preferred, but quickness to defend the perimeter and switch onto a (3) can also be a plus.

On offense, (5) must be able to operate in the low-post and either score in isolation or draw in help defenders for open threes on the perimeter. Must also be able to roll effectively on PnR and should aggressively attack the boards. Ability to hit a 15-18 foot jumper is a plus. Ability to hit free throws is a plus as well.

On defense, (5) must be able to protect the paint and change shots when opponents drive from the perimeter. Ability to hold ground on low-post and prevent counterpart from crashing the boards is essential. Shot blocking ability is a plus, as is the ability to switch onto a (4) player.

How The Bucks' Roster Stacks Up

In my estimation, each Bucks player can effectively fill the following roles, respectively (plus/minus marks are also included where necessary):

Basic Milwaukee Bucks Breakdown
Brandon Jennings (1)+
Beno Udrih (1), (2)-
Monta Ellis (1)-, (2)+
Doron Lamb (1)-, (2)
Mike Dunleavy (2)-, (3)+
Tobias Harris (3)-, (4)-, (5)-
Luc Mbah a Moute (4)
Drew Gooden (4), (5)-
John Henson (4)
Larry Sanders (4)-, (5)-
Ekpe Udoh (4), (5)
Samuel Dalembert (5), (4)

Comments:

  • Brandon Jennings hasn't been the most efficient shooter or scorer during his three-year run in the NBA, but he keeps defenses honest with his ball skills and willingness to take open shots (he attempted the fifth-most threes per game of any player last season). His consistently low turnover rate is why he earns the (1)+ designation. He's still too small to fill the (2) on defense, even though he is often used as a weak side spot-up shooter on offense (17.6 percent of his plays were spot-ups in 2011-12, and it was 20.8 percent in 2010-11).
  • Beno Udrih has the size and the record of strong finishing at the rim to warrant splitting time at the (2), but his shooting range makes it less-than-ideal. Alternatively, Monta Ellis turns the ball over too often and takes too many bad shots to truly run efficient PnR as a (1) -- he scored less than 0.8 ppp in pick-and-roll last season, ranking him somewhere around 90th in the league according to MySynergySports.com.
  • Doron Lamb and John Henson fall under the "I have no idea yet" category, so those are just place-holder assignments for now.
  • Mike Dunleavy lacks isolation skills and perimeter quickness on defense to be a great (2), but he makes an excellent (3) thanks to his refined spot-up skills and ability to hit deep shots moving off multiple screens.
  • Tobias Harris attempted 23 three-pointers in 2011-12, and he only hit 5/15 from the corners according to NBA.com/Stats, but he flashed an ability to operate in the low-post that might make him the second-best option at the (5) position for the Bucks on offense. He's an odd case at the moment, and his offseason work will determine whether he can fit as a (3) on offense or if he will be relegated to (4) or (5). Keep in mind that 70.4 percent of his total shot attempts last season came in the paint.
  • LRMAM can't shoot straight (he has trouble keeping defenders honest as the (4), but brings plus defensive ability). Gooden can't do much of anything in the low-post, and kind of works as a last resort pick-and-pop option but he can't effectively defend as a (4) or (5).
  • Larry Sanders has stone hands and is generally an awful offensive player -- his 46.3 TS% from last season is the lowest of anyone on the roster; only Beno Udrih has a higher turnover rate -- but his defensive ability and versatility makes him somewhat valuable. For anyone thinking he can be a stretch PF option, just know that he is a career 31.1 percent shooter from 16-23 feet (42/135) and a 29.5 percent career shooter from 3-15 feet (33/112). It's ugly. Real ugly.
  • Ekpe Udoh turns the ball over far less than Sanders and is slightly more effective from nearly every spot on the floor outside five feet, so he gets the friendly nod here. He is a career 37 percent shooter from 16-23 feet (37/100) and a career 37.2 percent shooter from 3-15 feet (87/234). His best asset is definitely his ability defend the post and play the (4) or (5) on defense. It's an ugly stretch (4) option, but it's an option.
  • Samuel Dalembert is a great roll man in PnR (his 1.21 ppp as roll man ranked 13th in the NBA last season, according to MySynergySports.com), a versatile defender and garbage man cutter on offense, but don't think he is going to solve the offensive problems in the low-post or as a weak side spot-up option. Dalembert's marks in the post (0.62 ppp) and as a spot-up option (0.59 ppp) rank 144th and 331st in the league, respectively. Even worse, he likes to do those things. Post-ups accounted for one quarter of his offensive plays last season and a little over one-tenth of his opportunities came as a spot-up option. Like Udoh, he will be an option on the weak side as a necessity, but defenders won't always stay honest.

Conclusions (Vol. 2 Primer)

The Bucks badly need a wing player to space the floor on offense and hit corner threes, because it's a real stretch to think Tobias Harris can step in and keep the defense honest. If Harris was forced into the starting lineup, he could struggle to produce if slotted as a (3) on offense instead of a (4) or (5). Another wing shooter would allow Harris to slide into a hybrid offensive role in specialized second-unit combinations.

The Bucks also need a weakside shooter and a pick-and-pop option at the (4) on offense. Ekpe Udoh, LRMAM and Samuel Dalembert may have to fill that roll, but it's not a recipe for good spacing or efficient offense. Unless the Bucks add someone else to hit corner threes (like Delfino) or a true pick-and-pop option (like...gulp...Ersan Ilyasova at five-years and $40 million), things could become very difficult for Jennings and Ellis as driving lanes are cut off by sagging defenders in non-Dunleavy lineups.

Low-post scoring could be a serious problem, because Samuel Dalembert is not as good in the role as people may assume. Paging Tobias Harris....

On defense, John Hammond's secret mission to hoard lengthy big men like Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh, John Henson and Samuel Dalembert should cover up the mistakes that will be made by Ellis and Jennings on the perimeter. LRMAM can still provide value as a matchup defender on the best perimeter player at the (2), (3) or (4) on defense while the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men can protect the rim and disrupt shots in the paint.

In Vol. 2 I will evaluate how Delfino and Ilyasova stack up against the rest of the free agent field, given the Bucks' identified needs.

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