Bad news: the Bucks have lost six of their last eight games, with just one win in five road games thus far.
Good news: their road trip on Sunday takes them to Orlando for a rematch with the Magic, the only team they’ve beaten in their last five.
A soft, home-heavy schedule hasn’t been able to prevent the Bucks’ descent below .500, which makes winnable road games like this one all the more essential to whatever hopes the Bucks might have of mounting a playoff push. There’s no such thing as “must wins” this early in the season, but the Bucks need to start churning out some wins against the likes of Orlando (tonight) and Brooklyn (Thursday and Saturday), especially with home games against the Cavs (Tuesday), Spurs, Blazers and Hawks all upcoming.
Giving the Bucks some hope has been their smallball success of late: lineups featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo surrounded by small forwards and guards have run riot offensively, scoring 124 points per 100 possessions with a net rating of over +14 in 46 minutes over the last month (thanks to NBAWowy.com for the stats). Central to it all has been Giannis, who has been simply unstoppable with 45 points in those 46 minutes on 66% true shooting. Those numbers got a healthy bump in Saturday’s narrow loss to the Raptors, which saw Antetokounmpo go off for 16 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter.
Then again, the success of smallball hasn’t exactly sorted out what the Bucks will do with their big men. Greg Monroe returned to almost-regular bench minutes on Friday while Miles Plumlee returned to the starting lineup, leaving John Henson to go from starting to DNP’ing overnight. While Henson makes some sense on paper with the starters, it’s kind of tough to start a guy who has somehow turned every Bucks lineup into a pool of red ink: Henson’s individual numbers have been bad, but his plus-minus numbers have been incomprehensibly ugly. As our Adam Paris wrote yesterday:
John Henson currently has the Bucks worst net rating at -12.4. For comparison’s sake, even during the franchise’s worst season ever in 2013-14, Henson only had a -11.5 net rating. Maintaining this level of deficiency would be a titanic task of apathy and poor play, something I don’t even think the famously...even-keeled...Henson could accomplish. The scariest part is that he started the last few games, meaning he’s played with competent on-court contributors. Apparently his stank is rubbing off on Giannis and Jabari though too. When Henson, Giannis and Jabari have shared the court, they’re a negative-20 net rating. That’s in 121 minutes too! How is that even possible? He’ll find his way out of the basement eventually.
The Bucks have essentially only used two starting lineups this season, with the only difference being who starts at center. Plumlee lineups are +5.3 in points per 100 terms (103 minutes); the same lineup in 86 minutes with Henson is -23.4. As Adam notes, there’s really no way Henson can single-handedly be that bad, but in sampling Bucks lineup data it’s remarkable the degree of contagion his presence has had, particularly on the starting five.
As Adam wrote, it’s still too early to conclude Henson has suddenly became unplayable, and the fact that the Bucks’ bench wings have been better with him reflects how random a small sample size can be. But the starters have clearly been better with both Plumlee and Monroe, even if Jabari Parker and Matthew Dellavedova have been worryingly underwhelming regardless.
The Magic landed in Milwaukee on Monday carrying a modest two-game win streak; they enter tonight on a three-game skid including their last two at home. First came a dispiriting 92-87 loss to a decidedly mediocre Suns team on Wednesday, followed by another narrow 94-91 loss to the struggling Wizards on Friday.
As you might imagine, the issues the Bucks saw up-close a week ago haven’t changed much: the Magic’s offense is a major slog (28th in ORTG), ranking 30th in overall field goal percentage, 28th from deep, 27th in paint points and 26th in points off turnovers. While their starting lineup has fared better with Jeff Green (+3.8 in 140 minutes) than Aaron Gordon (-7.3 in 156), Frank Vogel has struggled to find combinations that work: the Magic’s 22 most-used player duos all have a negative net rating.
Most bizarre: Rob Hennigan’s decision to effectively double-down on a non-shooting point guard (Payton) and offense-first center (Vucevic) over the summer, all while pushing Victor Oladipo out the door and forcing Gordon into a bad fit on the wing and leaving Mario Hezonja struggling to find his touch (30.5% from the field) or time on the court (14 mpg).
As for Gordon, his poor fit while playing mostly as a small forward is perhaps most symbolic of a roster badly in need of a shakeup. Gordon’s almost certainly the Magic’s most talented all-around player, and yet his claim on the starting PF spot went out the door when Serge Ibaka arrived this summer.