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Manning the Five - Making Sense of Milwaukee’s Cs

A three Buck race means Mike Budenholzer has decisions to make

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks have a problem with their center position.

Their issue is pretty obvious: they've got a crush on any and all seven-footers they can get their hands on, but deciding who to make their main squeeze has taken far longer than any Bucks fan should feel comfortable with.

There's Thon Maker - the young one with a fiery streak about him.

Then John Henson - the laid back guy who just wants to go fishing and make hook shots.

Who could forget Tyler Zeller - the reliable one who, while nothing special, is a solid bet.

Ah, and of course, Christian Wood - there's always a bit of the unknown about him.

Oh, Brook Lopez - the typical high school boy who was nothing special then, but now that he’s grown and matured? He's almost a completely different man.

On and on and on the list goes without there ever really having been someone the Bucks could finally coalesce around for at least a season or two.

No longer (or so we hope).

There is still a lot at play, and the roster as currently constructed could go through some changes - maybe Christian Wood earns an end-of-the-bench spot, maybe Zeller holds on until his guarantee date - but it looks like coach Mike Budenholzer has three guys with whom to craft a center rotation: Henson, Lopez, and Maker.

The old conventions of yesteryear need not apply to this trio; not in Bud's modern NBA schemes. Each guy brings a unique set of abilities, and who will get minutes shall depend largely on what the organization envisions this upcoming season to really be about. Lucky for the Bucks, I'm taking on the task of setting their rotation for them. What follows below is an appeal for a particular vision of Milwaukee's 2018-2019 frontcourt.

Brook Lopez - The Veteran One

It is still a bit jarring to see a Lopez brother as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. For about as long as I can remember, fans far and wide were clamoring for Robin Lopez as a guy to patch up a lot of the holes at the five spot made by Greg Monroe, John Henson, Thon Maker, etc. Well, if you can’t get a Robin, a Brook is seemingly adequate compensation.

On the surface, the pedigree is nearly without blemish: in a reduced role with the Los Angeles Lakers last year, Brook posted per-36 averages of 19.9 pts, 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. That was done all while shooting 34.5% from three on a 41.0% attempt rate from deep. The rebounding numbers haven’t been impressive for most of his career (just 9.6 and 9.0 TRB% the past two seasons), but you can argue that much of that is marked up to the amount of time he spends on the perimeter.

What’s most impressive about Lopez is his willingness to gradually adapt his game as he aged and as the demands of the center position shifted. With the Nets, Lopez was a reliable force inside year in and year out. In 2016-2017, he suddenly moved his shot selection further and further away from the hoop (from 98.8% of attempts being twos to only 67.0%) in a bid to translate into the spacing-heavy era we reside in. Even with all of those changes, he’s held a remarkably consistent TS% while shaving his usage rate.

In short, Brook Lopez has everything you could hope for in a center you can nab for $3.4 million.

I can’t help but voice some concerns which could pop up over the course of a Brook Lopez season:

  1. Even a reduced role with the Lakers, Brook racked up a 23.5% usage rate. (He’s never dipped below 20.3% in his career) Will there be enough touches with the starters?
  2. If, as trends show, he takes ever more threes, what will that mean for his paltry rebound rate (9.0% overall, 13.4% defensively) and the woes on the glass Milwaukee has had?
  3. At age 30, Lopez is no longer a fleet-of-foot defender. How will Budenholzer hide Brook if opponents decide to pick-and-roll or switch the hell out of Lopez?

As a basketblogger, I’m exempt from having to craft answers to those questions, but it seems valuable to keep those downsides in mind when figuring out how Lopez fits in.

Thon Maker - The Frustratingly Promising One

What are we supposed to make of Thon Maker heading into his third NBA season? His rookie year was a mix of annoying lapses, getting shoved around, and also tantalizing offensive spurts that had you dreaming of him playing alongside Giannis full-time:

There were countless three-minute long compilation videos to choose from! That many highlights from a rookie was a sure sign of good things to come.

In theory, his first full offseason should have heralded a massive step forward for Thon, but his sophomore campaign fizzled from the start. Across the board his per game and per-36 averages experienced marginal increases, even though his minute load jumped from 9.9 to 16.7. Accordingly, all his advanced metrics took a hit: the only increases he saw were his steal percentage (0.9 to 1.7), free throw rate (up to .294) and... turnover rate (7.7 to 11.0).

And yet.

Those tools which made him an intriguing prospect in 2016 still remain: He appears to have the size, length, and supposed agility to function well within a switching defense. The ability to shoot from three is a blessing that offsets his lack of finesse in the paint. Most importantly, he’s still quite young (we imagine) and has had a number of moments that make you believe he can pull it all together unlike, say, DJ Wilson.

Not only that, but it may be argued that Thon is still the best equipped defensive big of the three main centers. His foot speed isn’t crazy, but it exists and helps him leverage his length to alter shots. He can reliably switch when called upon, and even though he uh, doesn’t grab rebounds, at least he has long arms? I’ll admit, the reality of Maker is tough to square with the dream. If you need a center willing to run gangly in transition to offer a ball-handler a rim-ward attacking option, though, Thon probably outclasses Lopez and Henson.

Something tells me we’ll know quite early on whether Bud sees Thon ever fulfilling his potential. Budenholzer was brought in to win, and he arrives without any strings attached to Maker’s success. Perhaps Jon Horst and the front office will demand minutes to further Thon’s development, but the arrival of Brook Lopez as a more fully-realized version of Thon will certainly make playing time a limited commodity.

In many ways, this is Thon Maker’s make-or-break season. Can he take the fire of his playoff spurts and actualize it into 70+ appearances? Will there be that proverbial leap we’re all looking for? Need he start to be effective, or would a role as the second-unit’s Brook Lopez give enough of an opportunity to make a difference?

It’s time for Maker to turn his frustrating promise into tangible gains.

John Henson - The Chill One

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the longest tenured Buck on the roster: John Henson.

Yes, that's right, somehow the 6’11” man out of North Carolina has officially become a fixture in Milwaukee. Constantly vacillating between riding the pine and securing regular starting minutes, he's largely a finished product, but that doesn't mean he can't provide value this season.

First and foremost, one has to immediately acknowledge that of the three center options, Henson is the most accomplished rebounder. You could argue that Brook Lopez theoretically could snag boards with the best of ‘em, but amazingly the only time Lopez has had a total rebound percentage top out above 15% was his rookie season. That 15% mark, while nothing special, has been reached by Henson four times in six seasons. While forwards like Ersan Ilyasova and Giannis can help out on the glass, Henson is by far the best option available if Bud’s system demands at least average capability in grabbing defensive rebounds.

Secondly, and you're going to have to stick with me on this one, he has shown an ability to at least be functional offensively around the basket. Taking 87.5% of your shots within 10 feet of the basket isn't exactly cutting-edge for a center, but certain lineups lacking players with a nose for the paint could benefit by John's sheer presence as a release valve.

Take, for example, his 1.21 PPP as a cut man, 1.13 PPP rolling in PnR sets, or 1.02 PPP in post-up possessions. None of those are excellent per se, but they’re functional and better or similar to such values for Lopez and Maker. The difference between John and the other two in this regard is that, lacking a perimeter shot, Henson is bound to those kinds of plays. Normally that inflexibility is a detriment, but it also means he can focus more narrowly on servicing lineups with a need for routine interior help on offense.

Also, I should note, without any further context, that John Henson posted the best net rating of these three centers last season at +5.0 (Thon: -4.3, Brook: -2.8).

Of course, not everything is sunshine and roses with Henson. We need to acknowledge that he can be an inconsistent player from night to night whose fortunes wax and wane depending on whether he's granted the right number of minutes. I mean, this debate started when he was a rookie and has never stopped since. Given John’s personality it’s tough imagining him as a rabble rouser if he has a reduced role, but one wonders if a return to the bench will equal another drop-off in relative production.

Plus, the guy just doesn’t feel like he makes a tangible impact. Just look at what happened to me while doing some light research for this article:

The other main drawback is that Henson is a finished product. There are no real further steps for him to take on either end of the floor (woof, that jump shot) and, at age 27 with two more guaranteed years on his current deal, there isn’t a “contract year” incentive to push John beyond his averages. I mean, even in 2015-2016 during the last year of his rookie deal he posted pedestrian numbers. Can you imagine what $10 million in the bank and irregular play time will do this season?

Striking a Balance

With such an array of talent, Mike Budenholzer holds the unenviable position for figuring out how to allot minutes between those three. I’m here to make a proposal to coach Bud: Don’t overthink it.

Brook Lopez is by far the best option available and should be getting the bulk of meaningful minutes at the five. The only question is timing his slot in the rotation. Part of me believes that, while the starting slot makes most sense for Brook, there is a possibility that his regular season value will be maximized as a tertiary scoring option when the likes of Khris Middleton or Giannis Antetokounmpo sit out. A duo of Giannis/Khris and Eric Bledsoe was too restrictive to do anything beyond isos and relatively basic offensive sets. By giving Brook minutes with the bench unit, he saves up the energy of the team’s leading offensive lights while having a chance to ramp up his own production. I am worried about how Brook would survive defensively, but I have to imagine there would be a way for Lopez’s slower gait to be accommodated in Bud’s defensive schemes.

With Lopez starting, the question of who plays back-up remains. In my mind, Thon Maker is the move for a host of reasons. First, this is the likely last chance for him to show genuine improvement before the team decides on keeping him or casting Maker off. Milwaukee would be best served using Thon in a variety of circumstances to really get a final read as to how much further Thon can realistically go, and regular rotation minutes would help in that regard. Second, continuity in play structure when Lopez hits the bench holds a value all its own. Brook and Thon aren’t identical, but their ideal roles on offense are similar and allow for continuity in play-style between the starting unit and the backups. This serves both sides: if starting with Brook is working, but Brook picks up an injury, you have his shadow protégé ready to provide spot play without altering the approach. Alternatively, bench guys who understand how to play with a perimeter-bound center may find it easier merging with the flow of the game whether they’re in next to Maker or Lopez.

Regarding Henson, it is his inherent lack of concern about demanding playing time that makes relegating him to third simple. Given potential matchups and any injury trouble the team comes across, I can’t imagine John will choose this of all seasons to rebel against irregular usage. He literally said upon Brook Lopez’s arrival, “He’s one of the tougher guys I’ve had to guard because of his sheer size. As a team, I think that’s a spot that we needed to shore up. Color me okay with cheerleader Henson to start the season.

Doing the above math in the abstract is easy; balancing the needs and fit of countless lineups in reality is much harder. All of my speculation doesn’t even account for the possibility that Tyler Zeller sticks around, that Thon or Henson somehow get traded, or whether some other dark horse emerges to garner minutes (cough Christian Wood? cough).

I do know that the three primary options at hand offer an array of skills ideal for any number of scenarios the Bucks may come across this season. Luckily for the team, each guy has avoided serious health issues, each guy can at least make a case that he can stand up against NBA competition, and each guy seems like they wouldn’t cause a massive fuss if they aren’t regularly featured from the get-go.

The center position in today’s NBA has never been in more flux than it is now. It is up to Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks to unlock some potential in the era of positional uncertainty.