During the opening stages of this NBA season, two of the more depressing stories deal with the health of the Los Angeles Clippers. From the start of the year, they've faced a cornucopia of injuries that started with sensational international guard Milos Teodosic going down with a left foot injury in mid-October.
Since then, they've lost defensive stalwart Patrick Beverley to a season-ending knee injury while Blake Griffin could be out until February with a sprained MCL. That kind of bad luck have pushed the Clippers to the point where they started two-way players Jamil Wilson and CJ Williams in a late November game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Although Teodosic has since returned from injury and the Clippers are just two games behind the 8th seed Utah Jazz, that organization has been in a state of malaise for years and it could be time they are thinking to hit the reset button.
If that reset were to happen, it looks like we might be on the verge of a potential talent purge. The biggest Clipper that’s rumored to get moved is center DeAndre Jordan, who has been within that organization since Blake Griffin was playing at Oklahoma. Jordan seems like an ideal trade target for teams looking for front-court help, as he's been arguably the best rebounder in the entire NBA over the last few seasons. Meanwhile, he's established a reputation as a solid rim protector and has used his athleticism to catch countless alley-oops during his career.
At first glance, it would make sense to see the Bucks have interest in snagging Jordan. Currently, the Bucks stand at the bottom of the NBA in both offensive and defensive rebounds, as they average 7.4 boards and 31.8 boards, respectively. Alongside their struggles on the glass, the Bucks were also a below-average defensive squad as opponents average 106.9 points per 100 possessions, which placed them 19th among NBA defenses. So with the team's struggles on the glass and on the defensive end, it would seem like Jordan would be a perfect fit, as he's extremely solid at both of those skills. Not so fast.
In regards to their struggles on the offensive and defensive glass, I think a lot of that deals with the style of play that the Bucks. For example, their defense is heavily reliant on perimeter pressure and forcing turnovers. In the Bledsoe era, the Bucks are forcing their opponents to commit 17.9 turnovers per game, which is just .1 percentage point behind the Atlanta Hawks. With opponents committing that amount of turnovers against the Bucks, those teams would have less opportunities to put up shot attempts. Those decreased shot attempts from the opposition obviously hinders the amount of rebounds that the Bucks can collect.
The Bucks have been a below-average defensive team during the scope of this entire season, but that doesn't tell the recent story of the team. Since Eric Bledsoe started his Bucks career on November 10th*, the Bucks' defense has improved tremendously to the point where they've progressed to 14th in the NBA, as they're holding teams to 104.4 points per possession. Yes, Milwaukee still stands as a mediocre defensive squad but that honestly has more to deal Jason Kidd's inconsistent defensive gameplan than the actual play from the starting center.
*Note: all general stats from this point on come from after the Bledsoe trade.
From a defensive perspective, John Henson has stood as a pretty reliable rim protector since he entered the league in 2012 as he’s blocked 1.5 shots per game during his NBA career. Looking past that singular stat, Henson currently maintains a 53.4 DFG% (Defensive Field Goal Percentage) when he’s defending from six or less feet away from the rim, which is 7.5% difference than the typical 60.9 FG% (Field Goal Percentage) that the opposition averages against the Bucks.
Henson’s defensive efficiency is largely due to how the Bucks perimeter defenders do a great job of directing on-ball drivers to move into his direction once they make their way into the paint. After that process occurs, Henson can easily move his body in the correct position necessary to make the play. Even if he isn’t helped by the direction of his backcourt partners, Henson still does a nice job of using his quick feet to relocate himself to get in front of the on-ball driver and block the shot. A prime example of that is seen in the play below as Henson does a nice job of figuring out the direction that Donovan Mitchell was looking to head before he actually even decides. That awareness allows him to direct his feet to the left end in the rim and make a clean block that helps lead the Bucks in transition.
Overall, Henson stands as a huge net benefit for the Milwaukee Bucks. Probably the best example of that comes from how the team's usual starting 5 (Bledsoe, Middleton, Snell, Giannis and Henson) stands as one of the best units in the NBA according to their league-best 17.1 net rating (NetRtg) which is headlined by their 118.0 OffRtg (Offensive Rating) and 100.9 DefRtg.
To put that in perspective, the second place 5-man lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers core of Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Redick and Saric, are far behind with a 11.5 NetRtg. Of course, a lot of that success has to do with the MVP level play of Giannis and how the duo of Middleton and Bledsoe have been a fantastic defensive tandem, but Henson is definitely no slouch.
Another example of Henson's impact on the Bucks is evident from how opponents are seven points per 100 possessions better when he is on the sidelines (107.0 points per 100) compared to when he's on the court (100.9 points per 100). That seven point difference from opposing teams actually exceeds from what we see fellow Bucks starters Tony Snell (-.5 point per 100 possession) and Khris Middleton (-.5 point per 100).
Henson's impact becomes even more apparent when we focus solely on 4th quarters where he maintains a team-best 10.9 NetRtg. That kind of production is interesting when you know that Thon Maker has played a total of 24 more minutes in the 4th quarter during this season than Henson.
As apparent from those statistical examples, Henson does make a positive impact on the team when he's on the court. However, that effect is somewhat limited due to him only being on the court for 23.4 minutes per game where he's able to average 9 points, 7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks with a 56% True Shooting Percentage. He'll never go to an All-Star Game or make an All-NBA team during his career but Henson is a damn solid big that fits this Bucks unit like a snug glove.
However, while his solid production may warrant an increase in playing time if he were on any other team, his minutes per game average has remained pretty consistent since Kidd took over as head coach.
The main culprit for Henson's limited playing time would be his front-court partner Thon Maker. As a 2nd year player, Maker has seen his playing time increase tremendously as he's currently averaging 19.1 MPG (minutes per game) compared to 9.1 MPG as a rookie. Despite that expanded role, Maker's performance has unfortunately stood as a lackluster player as he's putting up 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds with an extremely lackluster 43% True Shooting Percentage, which is actually the worst average among NBA centers that have averaged more than 15 minutes per game.
Although that inefficiency is definitely troubling, the weirdest example of Maker's struggles as a player is how opponents are seven points better per 100 possessions when he's on the court (108.5 points per 100) than when he's on the court (101.5 points per 100). What makes that ridiculous is how his On/Off numbers is a complete 180 degree difference than what we see from John Henson.
Maker's struggles could be blamed for his youth and inexperience as the 20-year-old was playing against random Canadian high schoolers just 18 months ago. However, most second year players are able to at least make some improvements, which is something that we haven't really seen yet from Maker. Of course that could change over the next few weeks if Maker shows growth to become a solid rotation big.
However, this team may not have the patience to wait as they'll spend the rest of the season fighting with a crowded Eastern Conference for an opportunity to get a solid seed in the playoffs. If that patience isn't there then the Bucks would have to look across the NBA for a reliable big that they can place at the center position when Henson needs to take a break on the sidelines.
At this point in the piece, I could look to fix that possible depth issue by saying that the team could try to trade for a veteran starting big. Some examples of potential fits could be DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez or maybe even Marc Gasol. Of course, each member of that trio stand as talented bigs that could be a great addition to any team that they could be traded to. However, I’m going to take a dissenting opinion on this.
My disagreement is due to two separate reasons: the solid play of John Henson and the key talent that the Bucks would have to give up in that trade. Of course, I’ve already covered that topic in great detail as I noted how Henson stands as a solid defensive player that is a fantastic fit within the Bucks starting lineup. Although someone like Gasol or Jordan might have more talent, it’s doubtful that they’d be able to immediately step in and fit within the team’s starting rotation in the same way of Henson.
That doubt grows larger when you have to imagine that the team would probably have to trade one of their key rotation players like Malcolm Brogdon or Khris Middleton in a deal to get one of those bigs. Middleton and to a lesser extent Brogdon are just extremely important two-way players that have played a massive role for the current iteration of the Bucks.
Alongside that, the Bucks are currently dealing with having a thin rotation due to injuries sustained by Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry and Jabari Parker (even though he suffered an injury back in the 2016-17 season). Although Dellavedova and possibly Snell are likely to return to the Bucks rotation soon, the team is not in a position to make a trade for a starting center where they’d likely have to deal multiple rotation pieces, especially with Mirza’s recent potential long-term health scare.
So rather than going all out for an All-Star caliber center, I think it would be a better idea to try to grab someone that can solidify their rotation In regards to looking for that ideal rotation big, you'd have to base your selection if that player fits one of these three criteria: reasonable contract, effective rim protector and floor runner.
Of course, that first measure is vital due to the simple fact that you want to acquire a player that can be within your organization for an extended period of time without hurting the possibility of extending your young players’ contracts. That's especially important for the Bucks as they'll need to decide if they want to extend the contracts of Jabari Parker in the upcoming offseason and then Malcolm Brogdon after the 2018/19 season.
Moving onto the on-court situation, this front-court player would essentially need to do his best to replicate the kind of impact that Henson has as a starter but within the Bucks second unit. As we've already explained with Henson, those big areas of need for a player are to be a solid rim protector and someone that can run the floor in transition and as a roll man in pick-and-rolls.
In my eyes, the one player that perfectly fits each of those three criterion is current Knicks big Kyle O'Quinn. From a financial perspective, he's currently making a little more than $4 million as he's in the 3rd year of a 4 year/$16 million deal that he signed in the 2015 offseason. To put that in perspecive of the Bucks, O'Quinn's deal would be the least expensive when you exclude players under rookie deals, Jason Terry and non-guaranteed players like DeAndre Liggins.
That contract is an absolute steal when you consider the positive impact that he has on both ends of the court. Some of his impact is evident by him averaging 6.1 points, 5.9 rebounds (1.6 offensive), 2 assists and 1 block per game on 57% from the field in only 16.2 minutes per game. From an offensive perspective, O'Quinn is a pretty versatile threat that can work on the offensive glass, shoot the mid-range jumper and even work as a facilitator in the high post.
Among those traits, his passing might be the most appealing trait to Bucks as he's capable of throwing precise passes to cutting player. That's due to the wide array of quick players that the Bucks possess from Giannis, Middleton, Bledsoe, Brogdon and even Gary Payton Jr. A great example of O'Quinn's great work as a facilitator is evident in the clip below where he throws a great one-handed pass to a driving Doug McDermott.
When he’s not throwing precise passes in the high post, O’Quinn is showing off his range as a mid-range shooter. While he’ll never get compared to DeMar DeRozan, O’Quinn is a really stable presence as he’s currently shooting 50% on shots between 10-19 feet on 34 total attempts. Although that’s a pretty sample size, it’s rather consistent compared to prior seasons.
Coinciding with his great work as a passer and mid-range shooter, O'Quinn is also a beast on the offensive glass as he's pulled down 4.8 offensive boards per 100 possessions, which would be good enough to place him as the best offensive rebounder on the Bucks. O’Quinn is able to collect those amount of boards through straight up hustle and just using his big 250 pound frame to out-muscle the opposition.
Last but certainly not least, O’Quinn is a decent threat on the defensive end. Although his 1.0 blocks per game average isn’t at the level that we see from someone like Henson, his impact is still there when we look at other numbers. For example, he currently possesses an excellent 50% DFG% when it comes to guarding players from less than 6 feet from the rim, which is an 11% difference than 62% that the opposing team averages against the Knicks when he’s not guarding the rim.
As a Bucks fan, I’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions in regards to starting centers since Andrew Bogut went down with a horrifying injury back in April 2010. That feeling had previously made me wish that the team would go get an extremely reliable big like DeAndre Jordan or Robin Lopez on the trade market.
However, that mindset has changed as I came to realize how Henson is a reliable center that fits perfectly with this team due to the chemistry that he’s been able to build over the years with the likes of Middleton and Antetokounmpo. Henson is definitely not a perfect player but as a fan I wouldn’t be comfortable with the team trading valuable assets to boost a position that already has a really reliable starting threat.
Yes, the Bucks front-court is arguably the team’s biggest weak spot but there’s different and better ways to go about improving it. In my eyes, the best way is to just grab a big like Kyle O’Quinn that can just solidify your rotation with the skills that they possess on both ends of the floor. Although it might not be the sexiest method in the world, I think its the best way to improve the most depleted area on the the team while still keeping the vital players that have pushed the Bucks to currently maintain a 15-11 record.