OK, let's do a show of hands. Back in October, how many people expected the Bucks to settle on a starting lineup that featured Marquis Daniels and Luc Mbah a Moute at the forward spots?
That's what I thought.
Now let's be clear why no one thought this is where the Bucks would end up. It's not because we didn't foresee some magical evolution in their respective games. With the exception of a slightly improved, more aggressive offensive game from Mbah a Moute, these guys basically are who we knew them to be. Nothing wrong with that either!
And it's also not because the Bucks have been ravaged by injuries and have no other options. The only injuries the Bucks have had to deal with for more than a few games have been Beno Udrih's sprained ankle and Mbah a Moute's knee rehab at the start of the season. Right now--knock on wood--they're a completely healthy team.
In simplest terms: no one thought we'd see these guys starting together because it doesn't make much sense.
So how did the Bucks come to start two defensive-oriented small forwards at the same time while not playing two of their most promising young players (John Henson and Tobias Harris) and a veteran who was presumed to be their starting center (Sammy Dalembert)? Basically it comes down to this: Scott Skiles toyed with his lineup for a couple weeks due to injuries and ineffectiveness, then he stopped messing around, and the Bucks haven't been bad enough since then to make him feel like changing anything. I'm simplifying, but I'm also not really simplifying at all.
More specifically: Daniels just kind of stumbled into the small forward job because Tobias Harris was completely lost defensively and the world would end if Mike Dunleavy wasn't brought off the bench. Marquis is a competent, professional guy and he started the season shooting well, so there you go. As for Mbah a Moute, he found his way into the starting lineup because Udoh missed one game with a minor wrist injury. Mbah a Moute had played well in early December after returning from his knee injury, but mostly at small forward. Yet he ended up replacing Udoh as the Bucks' starting power forward on December 12 against the Kings, played well that night and he's been in there ever since. Stop me if you've heard this before. Udoh is of course healthy again, but he's now the backup center.
And in case you can't tell from the flippancy of my narrative so far, I don't really find any of this to be terribly compelling logic for the Milwaukee Bucks' starting lineup. The current starters have been modestly outscored in 125 minutes, but honestly that's not the main reason I'd like to see a change. Smallish sample sizes can be noisy, and a single great or bad game can easily swing the numbers for an individual lineup a fair bit. But the issues with the current lineup are more fundamental, more philosophical--you really don't even need stats to tell you that this is not how the Bucks can get the most out of the current roster.
So let's talk about what Skiles can do to bring some common sense back to the starting five. My money's on shifting Mbah a Moute back to small forward and bringing Ersan Ilyasova back into the starting five, but more than anything I just don't see the current pairing taking the Bucks anywhere.
1) The Bucks' offense has struggled because it can't shoot, and the current frontcourt definitely can't do that.
On paper the idea of throwing three of your best defenders on the court with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis has some appeal. Ellis and Jennings are going to take all the shots anyway, so why not throw some guys in there who can muck up the other end for them? The problem is that all those muckers also create a mess from a spacing standpoint, as it leaves Jennings and Ellis without a single reliable three point shooter to help space the court. Daniels shot well early, but he's regressed hard of late (1/10 threes in his last six games)--which should be expected of a guy who's hit only 23% of his threes in nine seasons.
Mbah a Moute's jumper has been rather passable so far (44% long twos, 3/9 threes), and at power forward his lack of consistent range isn't as much of a problem anyway. But it's not good enough to compensate for the fact that Daniels is well below average from the perimeter and Larry Sanders--though clearly the Bucks' best option in the middle--continues to be a non-threat outside the paint. Somebody's gotta be able to hit a three every once in a while, but none of these guys can.
Solution: Start Mike Dunleavy at small forward or Ersan Ilyasova at power forward.
The Bucks didn't help themselves over the summer by adding precisely zero proven NBA three point shooters (the Steve von Horn Hypothesis coming to bear), so you're basically left using the two guys who got it done from deep last year. I'd be fascinated to see Dunleavy start because he's clearly the Bucks' best small forward, but we all know that's essentially off-limits in the mind of Skiles. OK, what else?
Well, the only other obvious option is starting Ilyasova at the four, which was in fact the plan coming into the season. Unfortunately our favorite Turk was awful in November, but since going to the bench he's rediscovered his touch. Ilyasova shot a robust .457/.533/.872 for the month of December and appears to have rediscovered his confidence from the perimeter, which makes him the obvious solution to the starters' lack of spacing. It worked last year, right?
Back in the summer it was assumed the newly re-signed Ilyasova would be the starting power forward, which left the big debate at small forward. I eventually settled on Mbah a Moute as my favorite for a number of reasons, but mainly due to the Dunleavy-off-the-bench factor and because starting your best defender is the best way to make sure he plays against the other team's best scorer.
Ilyasova's perimeter shot also helps mask Mbah a Moute's limitations, and historically the two have played well together. Last season the Bucks were terrific in the 267 minutes the two shared on the court: 110.2 pts/100 scored and just 97.9 pts/100 allowed (via NBA.com/stats). This season that pair has also been a winner (+6.8 pts/100 in 107 minutes) and the same held true back in 10/11 (+3.1 pts/100 in 523 minutes) and 09/10 (+2.4 pts/100 in 557 minutes). So the evidence seems pretty clear: Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova play well together.
2) By starting small, the Bucks tend to stay small. And that has led to more frequent struggles on the boards and in the paint.
While I hesitate to ever suggest that there's something stable about Skiles' rotations, his most typical pattern of late has been using Ilyasova/Udoh as his backcup 4/5 behind Mbah a Moute/Sanders. And while that doesn't leave the Bucks playing tiny, it does mean that the Bucks rarely have two rebounders or shot-blockers playing at the same time.
And shockingly, they've been increasingly battered on the boards as a result, dropping from a top-five defensive rebounding team in the opening weeks of the season to one of the league's worst today. Ilyasova's rebounding numbers are way down from a year ago, Udoh has always been an enigma in that department (his individual numbers are awful, though his lineups always do reasonably well), and Mbah a Moute is simply too small to battle effectively against regular-sized NBA power forwards on the boards. There's some hope that Ilyasova will recapture some of the energy he flashed as one of the league's better-rebounding PFs last year, but so far we haven't seen it for whatever reason.
Solution: Phase Mbah a Moute out of the PF rotation by starting Ilyasova, Udoh or one of the forgotten big men (Dalembert/Henson).
No rocket science here: if your team is playing too small, then play bigger guys. Dalembert and Henson are both above-average rebounders and shot-blockers for their respective positions, so essentially benching them and giving their minutes to a small forward (Mbah a Moute) will not surprisingly hurt you on the boards and in the interior defense department. Moving Ersan to the starting four spot would allow Skiles a bit more flexibility to go big or small with his second unit, where he could pair Udoh with Dalembert or Henson for a big look, or go smaller with Mbah a Moute or even Tobias Harris. And playing Mbah a Moute at small forward also helps, since he's an excellent rebounder relative to other small forwards.
3) Luc Mbah a Moute's defensive talents are often wasted at power forward, and playing both Daniels and Luc together just seems like overkill.
Earlier this season I joked that there are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and Mbah a Moute eventually claiming the starting power forward spot. Every year the Bucks enter the season intent on not starting Mbah a Moute at the four, but inevitably he gets an extended look there, defying common sense in the process. Here's Skiles' take, courtesy of Andrew Gruman's recent story on Mbah a Moute's expanding offensive skillset.
"He's always had his most success playing there," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said of Mbah a Moute at the four. "The way he's playing right now, when we've had him in the game at the three, he's been able to post up other three's. I don't think it really matters anymore, either spot."
Now let's be clear: there's no denying that the Bucks were good with Luc at that position in 09/10, but I'm not sure we ever found a terribly rational reason for that other than the halo of playing next to an all-star caliber Andrew Bogut. Hell, John Salmons was amazing that season, Brandon Jennings had a 55-point game and the Bucks won 46 games, so on some level we should probably not put too much stock into anything we saw that year.
Defensively, Mbah a Moute can hang with PFs but excels against wing players, which is why he often reverts to the small forward position late in games. And it's not always a bad thing to have Luc at the four--with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony seeing increased burn at the four this season, there are certainly opponents where it makes a ton of sense. But if Mbah a Moute has a "true" position it's at small forward, though I don't say that without some reservations. Most notably, Luc's ball-handling, passing and shooting skills are much more problematic at small forward, where they're more likely to be exposed by opposing defenses. But we've seen this year that his one redeeming skill is probably his post-up game, which is easiest to exploit against the smaller guys he's likely to face at the three.
Start Luc at small forward.
Instead of starting two perimeter stoppers, just start one. And make him your best perimeter stopper, which means starting Luc instead of Marquis. If you need a second guy you can always bring in Daniels as the situation demands, but realistically the Bucks should be looking for ways to rely less on Daniels.
4) We don't know who will be the Bucks' long term starters at the forward spots, but it's not Luc at power forward or Daniels at small forward.
We know that Skiles isn't going to play young guys just for the purpose of development--he's playing the guys he thinks will win him games. No one's going to blame Skiles for that, even if many will occasionally question his rotations or starting choices (who, me?). But all things being equal you'd expect Skiles to play the guys he expects can help him win consistently, not just for a few games here and there. Daniels' strong start has predictably sputtered out, and so should the idea of him being the solution at small forward. The Bucks also spoke all summer about getting Mbah a Moute minutes at his more natural position, so let's get back to that plan.
And what about youngsters Tobias Harris and John Henson? There still might not be much time for Harris if Mbah a Moute and Dunleavy are playing all their minutes at SF, but at least it's more feasible for Harris to get some run there or by giving him some of Mbah a Moute's minutes at the four. The same goes for Henson, who has shown real potential in spurts but like Harris remains green in terms of understanding the finer points of NBA defense. I'm not sure either will find regular minutes this season without an injury cropping up, but the longer we see the current starting lineup, the less likely we are to see the youngsters finding minutes either.
As for Ilyasova, no one's arguing he's been great this year. But he's getting better, and we saw last spring what he was capable of doing at his best. For all the hand-wringing about the inefficiency of Ellis and Jennings dragging the Bucks' offense down, let's remember that the Bucks scored very efficiently after Ellis arrived in March. But it wasn't because Ellis was playing lights out basketball. No, it was because Ilyasova and Dunleavy were terrific after the all-star break, giving the Bucks reliable complements to their high-usage backcourt combination. Ilyasova may never be that good again, but if the Bucks are going to get their act together offensively you can bet Ersan and Dunleavy will need to play a big part in it.