The Milwaukee Bucks' battle against the injury bug continues.
Two days after Ersan Ilyasova returned to the Bucks' lineup against the Hornets, Ilyasova (concussion) and Larry Sanders (illness) are both expected to miss tonight's encounter with the surging Hawks in Atlanta. It wasn't clear when Ilyasova suffered his latest injury, while Sanders battled the flu in early December as well. Zaza Pachulia figures to start against his old team in Atlanta tonight, while John Henson is likely to return to the Bucks' active roster for the first time since spraining his foot a month ago.
Even without the injuries a change to the Bucks' starting five may have been in the cards. Jason Kidd alluded to that possibility after Tuesday's disappointing home loss to the Hornets, a game that saw the Bucks (well, Brandon Knight) score effectively but fail to contain Charlotte's Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. Via Charles Gardner of the Journal-Sentinel:
"We'll look at changing our lineup a little bit," coach Jason Kidd said after the loss to the Hornets. "Over the break, we'll make that decision. We have a little time here before our next game."
Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo figure to be locked in as starters going forward, though the best way to use them remains a bit of an open question. Knight has dramatically increased his scoring efficiency while also seeing a modest uptick in his assist rate this season, though the Bucks have also experimented with playing him a bit more off the ball in order to avoid bogging down the offense. Sometimes he's played with another point guard, though for the most part he's remained as the team's primary ballhandler regardless of the other guys on the court. Antetokounmpo has seen fewer isolation and post looks since returning from a sprained ankle in Portland last week, though he's shot 71.4% from the field and still managed to score 13.3 ppg on much lower usage over the past three games.
Whether O.J. Mayo remains the best option to pair with Knight in the backcourt is perhaps the most pressing question about the starting five. Mayo had been in a slump when he was promoted to the starting five in late November, and he's shown only occasional signs of snapping out of it since then (40% from the field and 30% from deep). And while defenses continue to respect his outside shot, his assist and turnover rates have been going in the wrong directions since joining the starting five -- 3.4 assists vs. 1.4 turnovers off the bench vs. 2.3 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game as a starter. Part of the thesis for starting Mayo was that his playmaking could take some of the pressure off Knight, but so far that hasn't really borne itself out despite the club's overall improvement offensively over the past six weeks. Odds are that Mayo will break out of his slump sooner rather than later -- he's never shot worse than 36.4% from deep over a full season -- but at the moment he's stuck in a deep freeze.
Whether the Bucks have better options is of course debatable, though they have no shortage of potential options. Khris Middleton has the best size of any potential SGs and has rediscovered his shooting stroke off the bench (51.1% from the field and 45.6% from deep in December), but he's not a playmaker and mostly plays pitch and catch with Knight when they're on the floor together. Moreover, shifting him to shooting guard would presumably push one of the other guards out of the regular rotation, which might not be desirable or practical -- especially when the team is hurting for depth at the forward positions.
Among the other guards, Jerryd Bayless can play either backcourt spot and has served as a nice pressure release guy off the bench all season, but it's difficult to view him as a potential long-term answer next to Knight. And Kendall Marshall's passing and spot-up ability from deep might make him the most intriguing option next to Knight, though his lack of footspeed could be a problem defensively. Of the three, only Marshall has managed to post a positive two-man pairing with Knight in raw plus-minus terms, though their impressive +14.2 pts/100 possessions has come in a fairly limited sample of just 49 minutes (via NBA.com).
Looking at ESPN's real plus-minus data offers some further color on Kidd's decision, though nothing to make it black and white. Knight, Bayless and Marshall have all been similar in RPM terms thus far -- positive offensive guys who have been slightly negative defensively. Middleton's been a similarly positive story offensively, but the numbers suggest he's completely turned things around defensively (+1.46 pts/100) after registering a ghastly -3.50 pts/100 a year ago. Whether that would carry over to playing as an oversized shooting guard is an obvious question, though it might be the most important one considering how much the Bucks' defense has struggled of late. Since ranking second overall over the season's first three weeks, the Bucks have ranked in the league's bottom third in defensive efficiency while seeing their offense blossom. Sanders' foul troubles and inconsistency are certainly part of the story, but no one expects the Bucks to be better without him.
Overall, the only obvious answer may be that there is no clear answer...at least right now. As a result, Kidd would probably do well to continue experimenting with different lineups in order to get a better sense of his current personnel and how they could fit together long-term -- if at all.