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Crossroads 2017: (Player) Options at the Center Position

The biggest position is kind of a big deal for the Bucks.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Summer of 2017 is a big deal for the Milwaukee Bucks. We already discussed (at length) the team’s coaching situation with Jason Kidd at the helm, and we now move on to discuss a different topic: the center position.

Despite our endorsement of a new direction, Jason Kidd appears to be firmly planted on the bench, even as the team’s surprise search for a new general manager moves ahead. Knowing that, his strategies and schemes will likely stay put as well, which means it is important to understand what the team needs from certain positions. Considering Milwaukee’s roster situation, no position is more nebulous than the center position.

The reason for this dilemma? Each of Milwaukee’s four centers brings different skills, and each also comes with a major question that needs answering in 2017. Will Greg Monroe opt out and test the waters of free agency? Will Spencer Hawes take the guaranteed money, or seek a longer-term contract elsewhere? How much of Thon Maker’s developmental momentum will carry over to next season? And (as always...) what is John Henson doing?

Over the course of this installment of our Crossroads 2017 series, we’re going to look at each of the four centers on the Milwaukee roster and break down what they bring to the table, go through some scenarios depending on the choices made by Moose and Hawes, and determine what we think they should do this summer.

Thon Maker

As Milwaukee’s most recent first round draftee, Maker is the obvious pick for a featured role at the center position. Spending the first half of the season at the very end of the bench, Thon was elevated to a starting role just before the All Star break, and his promotion also helped elevate the play of the team overall.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Thon’s allure is obvious: with elite length (7’1” with a 7’3 1/2” wingspan) and unbelievable measurables (no-step vert of 32”, max vert of 36”), he is an imposing defender near the rim who can also move well in space and on the perimeter. He also showed off an impressively-smooth jump shot and improved his ability to finish near the basket. Simply put: he’s big, he’s fast, and he’s starting to learn how to use his tools.

The questions surrounding Thon are entirely centered around his continued development. How many more skills can he develop to professional levels? Is his three-point shot a legitimate weapon in starter minutes? Can he maintain his activity levels while also decreasing his foul rates? With positive answers, Thon could become an unexpected star next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. If his development stalls (or regresses), his ceiling lowers towards “useful role player” levels which, to be fair, is not a bad thing.

In any case, the starting role is Thon’s to lose, and all signs indicate that his tenure in Milwaukee is just beginning. Thanks for the parting home-run-swing, John Hammond!

(For some additional Thon perspective, check out Frank and Eric’s conversation with Cole Zwicker on Thursday’s episode of Locked On Bucks!)

Spencer Hawes

Joining the Bucks at the trade deadline, Hawes’ expectations were never particularly high in Milwaukee. His job was to play the minutes that Greg shouldn’t and that Thon wasn’t allowed to, and to follow the golden rule of medical professionals everywhere: “primum non nocere.”

While on the court, Hawes didn’t do any significant harm to the team. He scored, rebounded, and shot the ball relatively well, and was a perfectly neutral player by most advanced statistics (BMP of 0.0, VORP of 0.1, and he even sported an 18.4 PER!) The question for Hawes is whether or not a 1-year/$6m contract is worth sticking around for, or if another team is willing to fork over more money for his average amounts of production.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In all honesty, it isn’t the worst outcome for Hawes to stand pat and play out the rest of his contract with the team. He’s an established (read: older) player who doesn’t need playing time to develop, he knows his limits and seems to be accepting of a lower spot in the pecking order, and he actually exhibits some useful on-court traits, particularly floor spacing. The question for the Bucks becomes this: assuming Hawes does not opt out, does his production merit a roster spot, or would a trade be worth their while?

The chart above shows the three main things that Hawes can (theoretically) bring to the team in limited minutes: shooting/floor spacing, overall rebounding, and post passing. As he’s aged, Hawes evolved alongside the rest of the league and started shooting more threes, and was a plus-shooter in three out of the last five seasons. As with Thon, Hawes’ shot makes him a decent fit when sharing the floor with Giannis. Anytime a center can stray from the basket on offense without remaining unguarded is a bonus for the Bucks.

Hawes also provides a decent amount of playmaking at the pivot, ranking 8th among all NBA centers last season (AST% of 16.5%; Greg Monroe was just ahead of him, ranking 6th with 17.3%) However, Hawes is also a weak rebounder, ranking 55th at his position in TRB%. For reference, Greg Monroe ranked 32nd (17.0%) and John Henson ranked 45th (15.3%).

All in all, $6 million isn’t a terrible price to pay for a third center, and there’s no reason the Bucks should make moving Hawes a priority. Likewise, if Hawes decides to try his luck in free agency instead, the Bucks probably won’t make replacing him a priority.

John Henson

$6 million might not be a bad price for a third-string big man, but $12.5 million is a whole different story. In the first season of a 4-year/$44 million extension, Henson declined in the following statistical categories: eFG%, BLK%, ORB%, PER, BPM, and VORP. Considering Henson’s strengths are supposed to be efficient offense and rim protection, Bucks fans are surely feeling some buyer’s remorse when it comes to last summer’s extension.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The maddening thing with Henson is that, after five years in the league, he simply “is what he is.” He hasn’t markedly improved in any major areas (though to his credit, his free throw accuracy is much better). For two weeks, his play will demonstrate this out-of-nowhere inspiration as he hustles for rebounds, fights for position, and goes up strong near the basket...and then for the next five weeks, his play is largely forgettable (if he manages to get on the floor at all).

John Henson is a known quantity: he is a second-string center who will block some shots and deter a few more, and he can give you unexpected points when his lefty hook is dialed in. The Bucks have to question whether or not that’s worth over $30 million over the next three years. Then again, will any other team say “Yes, it is!” and take on that contract? But if they do, and the Bucks also see Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes depart, are the Bucks prepared to completely rebuild the center position around Thon Maker this summer?

Greg Monroe

Saving the best for last, Greg Monroe’s pending player option is also the Bucks’ next biggest point of interest. Even today, there is no clear indication as to whether or not Moose is leaning towards or away from exercising his option. According to a league source quoted in the above article:

...there isn’t going to be a huge demand for him [Greg Monroe]. But there are some teams that could use him and I think it’ll all come down to how much (money) he wants.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If he stays, Monroe is owed $17.9 million, which is a pretty penny for a player who recorded the lowest MPG of his career and started zero games for the first time as an NBA player. If he leaves, Monroe will unrestricted free agency as a 27-year old center coming off of his most efficient professional season (and improved massively within Jason Kidd’s defensive scheme), but could be looking at exchanging a lower annual salary for a longer contract. Further complicating matters is the deadline for Monroe’s decision:

Yet again, the timing of Milwaukee’s surprise search for a replacement general manager makes the situation appear much more complicated than it could have been. Does the front office know which way the wind is blowing on Moose’s decision? Are they actively scouting for a replacement big man? If either of those don’t line up, is the team risking both watching Moose walk and coming away from the draft without a potential replacement? And if that happens, do the Bucks feel obligated to keep John Henson as a result? It’s all very confusing.

These are the largest questions surrounding Milwaukee’s largest players. In the next installment of this part of the Crossroads 2017 series, we’re going to entertain hypotheticals based on the variables we can see coming: Monroe’s decision, the NBA draft, and Hawes’ decision, all before the start of free agency. Be sure to let us know what you think is more (or less) likely in the comments!