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Rotation Roulette: Decoding How Milwaukee’s Lineups Operate This Season

Peering into into the murkiness of lineup data, and trying to decipher what makes them tick.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks rounded the first third of the season exceeding most fans’ expectations. Giannis looks like a superstar, Jabari is rounding into the globular, bunch-scorer fans thought he’d be coming out of college and the team is somehow sticking near the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

These have been surprising known quantities thus far, but we haven’t dived too deeply into the breadth of lineup permutations Jason Kidd has tried this year. Lineup data isn’t always the best as it can be pretty noisy until you have really large sample sizes to examine. At this point, really the only one that would be worth discerning rational conclusions from is the starting lineup of Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson, who’ve played 349 minutes together. The second closest was the starting lineup (formerly) known as Plumlee and Pals, currently sitting at 103 minutes and unlikely to increase anytime soon.

However, Jason Kidd isn’t shy about trying out myriad different lineups, so I thought it would be interesting to see how some have fared and what makes them tick. I’ve rounded up a few lineups from the Bucks season and broke down some of the key statistics and story lines that define their construction. Within that, I’ve tried to single out a player or two to highlight how that lineup helps or hurts their skills.

The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯: Dellevadova-Snell-Jabari-Giannis-Henson

On first glance, this starting crew is just average. They’ve only got a 0.7 net rating, their effective field goal percentage is just 50.4%, and their assist numbers and rebounding rate are average. The peculiar part is that their net rating is heavily depressed by early season minutes before this crew cemented itself as the starters. From November 12th when Henson entered the starting lineup until today, their net rating is up to 3.6, and that’s lopping off a mere 20 minutes this lineup played beforehand (that, in itself is a good indicator of the noisiness in lineup info). Now, that still doesn’t get them up to the 5.4 net rating the previous starting lineup had with Miles Plumlee, but that group had nearly 10% more of its points coming off of turnovers, something that may’ve been unsustainable.

It’s felt hard to truly discern the difference between Plumlee and Henson in the starting lineup, and the numbers don’t really match the theoretical rationale nor the eye test. Plumlee-led (strong quotes) lineups defended at an above average rate, despite the presence of defensively suspect Jabari Parker. Henson-led lineups have a nearly seven point worse defensive rating (105) compared to the Plumlee lineups at 98.2. Henson’s accredited defensive prowess seems to contradict those numbers, but his rim protection numbers are far below last year’s strong showing.

Opponents are shooting 51% against Henson this year, compared to 42% last year against less than a shot fewer per game. That 42% would’ve ranked him among the top five players this year who face at least three shots per game. This year he’s 59th, one spot behind Philly turnstile Jahlil Okafor and eight spots behind Greg Monroe (50%). It’s tough to argue he’s deterring shots either, as he’s only averaging four more minutes than last year and players are getting up around one more shot per game. That’s essentially in line with a standard progression compared to what his previous season’s average would dictate. For what it’s worth, Miles Plumlee is only allowing 44.6% at the rim, but that’s on a piddly 2.7 shots per game. It does feel as if the rotations have improved somewhat with Henson on the backend, but that’s very much an anecdotal observation.

What else then is Henson actually bringing to this lineup that by all accounts is worse than the lineup they were trotting out before? The answer might lie, somehow, in his offensive versatility (even stronger quotes). Plumlee is a fine rim-roller who aptly sets screens with his hands firmly crossed against his chest, but Henson at least has a modicum of ability to operate in space. For example, here’s a quick play of Plumlee receiving a pass that goes too far underneath the basket. For your information, it ends with a Delly fadeaway pull-up as the shot clock winds down:

Yes, that’s not an optimum spot for any center to catch the ball, but if he isn’t in exactly the right spot to catch and finish he seems to break down. It’s like buying a beat-up European car that sometimes runs, but the clutch is finnicky and you need specific parts from Bosnia to make it run decently. Merely receiving the ball has also been Plumlee’s enemy this year, as he’s sitting at a disastrous 26.2 turnover percentage. Henson, by contrast, can at least kind of make something happen even if he catches the ball in an inopportune spot on the elbow. Here, he gets a quick dribble and tosses up a hook shot:

It’s not much, but at least it’s not fumbling the ball out of bounds. These are minute differences, but it was obvious Plumlee wasn’t working to start the year. It’s also clear John Henson isn’t the long-term answer, but it seems we’re splitting ingrown hairs at the moment.

The Secret Weapon: Brogdon-Terry-Giannis-Teletovic-Monroe

We’re already dabbling in dangerous territory on our second lineup, with only 52 minutes logged so far, but this lineup has a deadly 47.4 net rating. These guys post one of the Bucks higher assist percentages at 71.7% too, and their 33.3 offensive rebounding rate would rank as tops in the league over a full season. That latter mark is probably an anomaly, given Teletovic nor Giannis are amazing offensive rebounders, and some of it stems from Monroe just snagging his own misses a few times over to pump up that mark.

Their 35.3% three-point attempt rate would rank seventh in the league right now; the Bucks team mark is only 28.5%. Teletovic is the clear stalwart in that category, as he chucks them up at the highest rate on the team at 76%. Brogdon and Terry’s adept perimeter shooting complement Teletovic, but they’re firing at an unsustainable 55%. Teletovic is hitting an equally unsustainable 65% on three-pointers in this lineup. That, more than anything, is why this lineup has such gaudy numbers, especially considering Greg Monroe is shooting just 47% on his shots near the rim. They’re also avoiding mid-range shots like the plague, with 74.4% of their shots either coming from deep or within three feet of the hoop. Props to modern NBA ball.

Their defensive rating of 84.6 is outstanding though, but reliant on a few key factors that could turn given more time on the court. Opponents are shooting only 31% against them from deep, 38% overall and 57% from the free throw line. The three-point and free-throw are unsustainable, but they’ve done a good job forcing their opponent to shoot 40.5% of their shots from the inefficient mid-range, where they’re only hitting 32.4%.

The #Fanvote Starting Lineup: Brogdon-Snell-Giannis-Jabari-Henson

This group has gotten considerably more run of late since Brogdon took over for Delly in the starting lineup. In their 51 minutes they’re a -6.4 net rating, hemorrhaging points at a 115.2 rate. The most glaring factor stems from this group’s fouling problems. Opponents have taken 36 free throw attempts in those mere 51 minutes, and they’ve drawn 26 fouls in that time. They’re also shooting 58 on shots within 0-3 feet, another indication that Henson’s rim protection hasn’t been quite as stout.

Their 43.6% rebounding percentage would be worst in the league by a few points, and speaks to some of the issues Parker has had rebounding the ball in his career. He’s at a mere 5.8% defensive rebounding percentage in this group. That’s well below his still too measly 13.5% rate on the season. Their inability to keep teams off the glass leads directly to second chance points, and teams have out rebounded them 22-11 on the offensive glass. They’re giving up a 43.2 offensive rebounding rate and giving opponents free throws at a 38% rate. For comparison’s sake, the team with the worst opponent offensive rebound rate is the Raptors at 26.3% and the worst opponent free throw attempt rate is the Memphis Grizzlies at 36%. If Delly’s hamstring issue persists or if Kidd takes the plunge and puts Brogdon into the starting lineup, we should get more data on this group soon. The good news is that those issues are relatively fixable.

The Giannis 1st Quarter Respite: Brogdon-Snell-Parker-Beasley-Monroe

I wanted to try and include at least one Parker anchored lineup in here, and oftentimes that comes during the latter half of the first quarter when Giannis is getting his early spell. The other lineup during this stint (Brogdon-Terry-Parker-Beasley-Monroe) had similar positive numbers, but an utterly unsustainable 69% true shooting percentage versus the probably unsustainable 64% true shooting of this lineup. This group’s 16.6 net rating is still stellar, and due in part to the care they take with the ball. Their 4.4 turnover rate is akin to the devotion people have for those fake babies during their high school Home Ec class.

While one would expect Parker to dominate the shots here, it’s almost entirely even. Every player has between 11-15 shots, with Parker at the high end of that spectrum. This crew’s 128.5 offensive rating is a spitfire number, and an interesting one when you look at some of the individual shooting metrics.

Tony Snell has an outstanding 79.2% true shooting percentage, most of that coming from the fact 10 of his 11 shots came from three, plus he hit five of those. Every one of his makes was assisted, as is the norm with him, but his success from deep illustrates the value in his shooting percentage creeping up to even 36% on the season. Beasley gets a little freaky with the ball in his hands here, with most of his attempts coming from the mid-range while shooting a poor 37.5%. Greg Monroe is the fulcrum here though, as he leads the group with eight assists and a 28.6% assist percentage. He slung it outside to assist over a third of their three-point makes and found his teammates for the bevy of dunks and mid-range shots this group fired.

That obscures the fact they’re allowing opponents to shoot 76% at the rim against the Parker-Monroe backline, and that other teams are shooting 77% of their shots either from three or near the rim. Still, the best defense is a great offense sometimes, and this clan has been able to cobble together offense behind Parker’s dunks, Snell’s threes and Monroe’s facilitation.

The Lineup of Dearth: Brogdon-Terry-Beasley-Teletovic-Monroe

I went to type this into the indispensable NBAWowy and it just spit back that laughing face meme. In all actuality, it’s pretty amazing this lineup only has a -8.6 net rating. Their ineffective offense is buoyed primarily by the shotmaking capabilities of Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley.

Malcolm Brogdon is an integral part of this lineup, but it also highlights his ineffectiveness without threats around him. He’s posting a 40% assist percentage and piddly 8.2% turnover percentage. He’s also the primary reason Teletovic or Terry got decent passes for three-pointers as all their threes were assisted, and he dished it to Beasley and Monroe for a few other buckets. However, his .28 points per possession is disastrous mainly due to not making a single shot. For all his early season ability, he still lacks the speed to take people off the dribble effectively or pull-up for his own shot. His leaping ability is limited, so while his wingspan is nearly the same as Khris Middleton, his ascension upwards looks more like stepping on a tiny stool than a graceful rise and fire.

As the season winds on, we’ll get better ideas about how some of these groups actually work in larger samples sizes. In the meantime, feel free to comment below with any lineups you’d like to see get more burn for the Bucks this season.