The Milwaukee Bucks may have something special brewing with the pairing of Thon Maker and Brook Lopez.
Sometimes true love can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Or, so I’ve heard. While it may be a stretch to say Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer has found true love on the basketball court, it appears he has some butterflies fluttering around in his stomach with the odd pairing of Lopez and Maker.
At first glance, Lopez and Maker fit together like water and oil. They’re two seven-footers who have exclusively played center throughout their entire careers and are in a league that’s going smaller and more athletic. However, Budenholzer has bucked that trend (mandatory pun) and may have found something in this odd couple.
Until this season, many analysts saw Maker as a player who could only line up at the 5. Fortunately, Budenholzer sees him differently. The head coach has been giving Maker more time at power forward than ever before. Last season, the former 10th overall pick only played the 4 for two percent of his minutes compared to 14 percent this year. Even more astonishing is the fact that Lopez is playing alongside Maker during that time on the court.
Even though it’s extremely small sample sizes (six games and 33 minutes), the two-man lineup of Maker and Lopez have a 16.9 positive net rating when they share the court. Most of that accrued time has come in the last three games against the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Golden State Warriors. To an extent, their pairing has come out of necessity with Henson and now Ersan Ilyasova missing time, but Budenholzer could’ve easily staggered their minutes. Instead, he’s chosen to put Maker in the game almost exclusively alongside Splash Mountain.
It’s important to note this lineup can only be used in limited circumstances. So far, they’ve played zero minutes alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, instead, Budenholzer surrounds them with three shooters at all times. Also, at least one of Eric Bledsoe or Pat Connaughton have played in 31 of the 33 minutes Maker and Lopez have shared the court together.
Offensively, it has been a fresh look for the Bucks. The 109.6 offensive rating Milwaukee has with this duo on the floor, would rank 11th in the NBA. The team also averages 128.2 points per 100 possessions with this combo on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.
One of the favorite play calls during Splash Maker’s time on the floor together is the traditional 1-4 high-low with Lopez coming to set a ball screen. With four shooters on the floor, including the two-seven footers, Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin are tasked with defending the three-point line instead of hovering in the paint. This completely opens up the driving lanes for a half muscle-hamster, half speedster like Eric Bledsoe.
This time around, Lopez slips the screen and pops to the arc for three points:
Here again, Bledsoe is able to take advantage of the wide open driving lanes provided to him by Lopez and Maker’s floor-spacing:
As Maker inbounds the ball to Bledsoe, the other three Bucks are spacing the floor like they normally do in their five-out offense. With Lopez in the weakside corner as the ball is being brought up, his gravity pulls Drummond out of the lane and closer to the perimeter than the center is comfortable with. As Bledsoe attacks, Drummond is quickly forced to decide between stopping the layup or helping on the three-point line. Naturally, he does neither.
Similar to Drummond, Griffin is unable to help in this situation as well. As Maker is drifting to the top of the key behind the ball-handler, Griffin can’t abandon his man and must maintain some proximity to him which further opens the lane.
When the big men defending either Maker or Lopez finally decides to help, the duo lives up to their name by splashing in an outside shot:
As great as the pairing has been on offense, they might be even more complimentary on defense. Where Lopez struggles to move his concrete blocks called feet on the perimeter, Maker slides them with the grace of an uncoordinated wing. Where Maker gets shoved around by stronger posts, Lopez relentlessly holds his ground.
Their offset of strengths and weaknesses is demonstrated by their 92.8 defensive rating (would be first in the NBA) as well as the tape. Also, Cleaning the Glass has their defensive points per 100 possessions at 98.7:
As Griffin is trying to post-up Maker, Lopez’ long frame is looming in the background. This forces the Pistons’ star to have to worry about two seven footers as he searches for, and ultimately shoots, his running hook shot. It ends in a highly contested brick off the front iron and a defensive rebound for Milwaukee.
Lopez and Maker also have some potential in defending the pick-and-roll. Although Lopez struggles when he’s forced to hard-hedge ball screens, he can sleep better at night knowing, Maker is behind him to clean it up. The reverse is also true:
The Knicks run a double ball screen here and Maker is able to slide his feet to force a tough pull-up jumper by Emmanuel Mudiay. Just like Budenholzer wants. As Maker is doing a picture perfect job of sliding his feet and using his wingspan to force a tough shot, Lopez is down low doing the dirty work. He’s putting his big body on offensive-rebounding extraordinaire Enes Kanter and ensuring the Bucks control the miss.
As great as this twosome has looked, they are not without flaws. So far, Budenholzer has been extremely selective about who he plays them against. Typically, when the opposing team rolls out a non-shooting center (Kanter, Drummond, etc), the Bucks head coach feels justified in playing his mammoths together.
As it goes with all of the NBA, matchups are key. A ball-handling power forward could exploit our beloved couplet and force Budenholzer to go back to staggering their minutes once again:
Although there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out, Budenholzer may have stumbled onto something here. He’s just successfully completed the first date with this potential power couple and has the second one lined up. However, it’s time to Hallmark Movie this scene and fast forward to a premature marriage. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I’m proud to announce Splash Maker the next great duo in the NBA.