Offering $85 million over four years is what it took to pry Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks’ hands. The rationale for finally letting Brogdon go were numerous, and sitting here in early October, his departure doesn’t feel like a death-knell to championship aspirations. At Bucks Media Day coach Mike Budenholzer made it clear that while no single solution for filling Brogdon’s gap exists, a veritable committee of players will do their collective best to pick up the slack.
The question is, can they actually do it in a way that keeps Milwaukee in the mix for a title? We’ll examine in more detail whether Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, George Hill, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown, and Pat Connaughton are a worthy stopgap to gold.
First, let’s do an examination of Brogdon’s output last season (all courtesy Basketball-Reference.com):
The per game numbers are, of course, obtuse and fail to fully describe the areas in which Malcolm made the greatest impact. Namely, his presence lent a significant amount of weight to offensive gameplans regardless of what lineup he was placed in. As a starter with Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetkounmpo, and Brook Lopez his catch-and-shoot three numbers (24.2% of his overall shot profile with a shooting percentage of 47.5) were exceeded in frequency only by Lopez and unmatched in conversion rate.
A system that requires every non-Giannis to punish opponents for collapsing thrives in part thanks to the presence of a Brogdon-type even if he’s not going to the catch-and-shoot every time down. When wide open (nearest defender 6+ feet away) Malcolm was good for an eFG% of 66.3, a whole 11 percentage points better than Lopez at #2. If defenses fell into the paint trying to absorb Giannis’s pressure it felt nigh inevitable that a kick-out and an extra pass would result in a back-breaking three from Malcolm.
As was pointed out when first mooting this experiment, the high proportion of shot attempts that came on wide-open looks also denotes a potential liability; namely, Brogdon’s unwillingness to make an attempt unless it was perfectly set up. The counterclaim, however, is that such caution was a boon rather than a bane. If Milwaukee’s first motions did not result in an open look for someone, would it be advisable to forgo the existence of five playmakers in lieu of a three for the sake of getting a shot up? An argument can be made that whatever bite was lost by Malcolm’s caution was gained back in excess by his ability to then puncture a defense with shot clock time to spare to crack open an even better look elsewhere.
Even more, take a look at his assist rates and sheer numbers both from last year and for his career. Sure, he is probably not a perfect fit as your lead guard initiating an offense, but it’d be tough to argue that Brogdon could sling the ball when called upon. Perhaps that skill isn’t as valuable with the starters, but no rotation is perfect and starters eventually end up paired with subs who need help augmenting their effectiveness. Malcolm could and often did just that ensuring that Milwaukee never lost their bite throughout the course of a game.
Further, understanding Brogdon’s value must include an evaluation of his paint scoring. Players who can take a ton of threes and make a decent percentage are something of a dime a dozen in today’s NBA. Rarer is the guy who can pummel from outside or just as easily lower his head for a venture into the paint. While his style wasn’t always pretty and could at times be sticky, Malcolm was good for .640 within three feet of the basket (a shot type that made up 49.3% of his attempts). Even with defenders directly on him he proved highly willing to get shots up; nearly half his twos came with opponents within four feet of him yet he converted at something like the low 50s percentage-wise.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that for all of Brogdon’s strengths on offense there are questions about his defensive impact. At 6’5” and ~230 pounds Brogdon has size enough to pose a challenge to players across numerous possessions, though his lacking quickness makes speedy guards problematic. When Milwaukee needed someone to put on Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Brogdon got the call. The end-result of the series shouldn’t obfuscate the fact that it was a Brogdon just returning from plantar fasciitis who was given the toughest assignment of all. His on/off defensive metrics were not astounding (-0.5 pts/poss, +0.6 eFG%, -0.2 TOV%, -1.2 ORB%, -1.3 FTr net per Cleaning the Glass), but neither were they in any way catastrophic.
So, who currently part of the Bucks will be called upon to paper over the gap? The two most interesting candidates for this thought experiment are Wesley Matthews and George Hill. Matthews as the likely starting line-up replacement, Hill as the player whose style most closely mimics Brogdon’s own.
Matthews comes to the Bucks with the following: A long history of 36-39% three point shooting on career 5.6 3PA per game, stout wing defense with a clean streak of avoiding unnecessary fouls, and a veteran minimum contract. 57.3% of his shot attempts in 2018-2019 were catch-and-shoot or pull-up threes (42.1% C&S) and about a third of those shots came with him wide-open on the perimeter. Just watch how quick his release is in a variety of situations (not to mention some nifty passing finds):
As the fifth option on a starting unit Matthews will have similar responsibilities to Brogdon as a release valve for his non-center teammates who will spend a good amount of time inside the three-point arc. That speedy shot enables more flexibility in tighter spaces than Malcolm ever felt comfortable with on the perimeter as well (59.9% of shots coming with defenders within 2-6 feet for Matthews v. 48.4% for Brogdon); those numbers become even more lopsided when you isolate it to just threes. Think high-volume shooting wing who can get the ball up in a whole host of situations. For comparison’s sake, here are both Wesley’s and Malcolm’s shot charts from the 2018-2019 regular season:
A few observations:
1) Wes was a bit more ineffectively liberal with his shot selection between the three-point line and paint
2) Malcolm’s threes came almost exclusively from the corners and above the left break
3) When Malcolm went inside he ensured he didn’t often go halfway; the attempt was going to be in the restricted area or it wasn’t going to happen at all.
Overall we see the contrast in playstyle most clearly here. Matthews never saw a shot he didn’t like (or generally couldn’t make), Malcolm had his spots and stuck to them come hell or high water. In Milwaukee’s offense, Matthews is bound to thrive from having his freedom curtailed in favor of a focused approach on the perimeter; the trick will be whether he can improve his outside shooting in spots where he struggled a year ago.
The downside to Matthews? First, he doesn’t willingly go inside all that often (.125 of total attempts came at the basket) and just isn’t as crafty with opponents harassing him, second, he’s not as astute a passer (~5 point drop in AST% and ~2 point increase in TOV% per Cleaning the Glass), third, he’s entering his age 33 season with more than 23,500 minutes on his legs. Worries about lingering effects from a torn Achilles were put to bed long ago, yet seven extra years of play add up eventually; Brogdon was no spring chicken health-wise, but aging in the NBA can happen in a hurry in the wrong circumstances.
Which brings the discussion to the other player likely to be tapped as the Malcolm-replacement: George Hill.
Hill was brought back to Milwaukee on a three-year, $28.7 million deal with the final year only partially guaranteed. Of all the bench players who made an impact in last year’s playoffs run Hill routinely jumped out as a cut above the rest. Timely shot-making and court awareness often got him into prime position to jumpstart Milwaukee through rough patches against both the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.
His shot profile is a reasonable facsimile of Brogdon’s with a track record of taking and making a decent share of baskets in the paint. Three-point shooting is a bit more suspect with wide-open threes going in 10 points below the rate at which Malcolm shot (on even fewer attempts, too). What he lacks in sheer accuracy he makes up for with a sense of when to attack closeouts and for all intents and purposes his pure playmaking ability is reasonably similar. A look at his 2018-2019 shot chart gives us the following:
What Matthews and Malcolm lack in interior scoring Hill makes up for in spades. Those mid-ranger jumpers aren’t ideal, but they’re offset by high conversion rates. Beyond that, Hill would make an ideal stop-gap if Milwaukee absolutely needs another avenue for penetrating defenses in a way similar (if not slightly better) than Brogdon did. Liabilities begin when defenses can shift focus slightly away from him when anchored outside as a viable shooting threat. He’s fine in some places, but those locations are limited and could put Milwaukee’s overall freedom in a slight bind if Hill can’t punish defenses for open looks.
Essentially, Matthews and Hill both provide slight increases in effectiveness over Brogdon in some areas without being able to replicate his wider game. Matthews the preternatural shooter and Hill the savvy slicer can and likely will do their part to win plenty of regular season and playoff games, but they’re wobbly in enough areas to make it a serious concern how well they can staunch the bleeding alongside starters, subs, and everyone in between.
The crux of the argument for Malcolm comes down to a belief that a do-it-all offensive cog is of higher value than a limited replacement. Players like Matthews, Korver, Connaughton, Hill, DiVincenzo, Brown, etc. can all shoot the three, handle the ball a little, and bring unique skills to the court. But can any of them realistically replicate the inside-outside threats as effectively as Brogdon did? Will it even matter?
If Milwaukee is outright crushing inferior competition, no, it won’t. Giannis can still bulldoze nearly any wall thrown at him. Brook can still do a black hole impersonation and stretch defenses to their breaking points. Eric can reliably attack the basket, shoot an okay clip from outside, and defend his ass off. Khris can do a little of everything and presents the moves creative iso option available. Whatever the fifth guy is doing won’t make or break success as long as they competently shoot the ball from outside. To quote Wesley Matthews, “don’t mess it up.”
As the Eastern Conference Finals proved, though, perfect worlds do not exist. What if Eric Bledsoe forgets how to basketball once again? What if Giannis still stumbles when a wall of competent lengthy defenders corrals him? What if Brook disappears on the perimeter and no longer functions as the beneficiary of four teammates drawing his defender into no-man’s land? What if Khris simply fails to get anything going on offense for quarters at a time? If those doomsdays scenarios all occur at once, it again won’t matter who the fifth player is, but if they come in ones and twos, whoever that fifth player is could be the decisive difference between flatlining and having a shot at pulling a possession, a game, a series out.
That was the beauty of Malcolm Brogdon’s place on the team. He wasn’t called upon often to be a calming influence, and even he could fall short at times, but his output floor was high enough to reasonably compensate for another’s subpar performance. Cautious though he was, gluey though the ball could be in his hands, worrying as his injuries could be, Malcolm Brogdon was undoubtedly the difference between a starting/closing lineup five-deep with unique complimentary playmakers and a strong group of four existing with a hole in the hull stopped up by replacement-level talent.
In a diluted Eastern Conference and NBA at-large with no clear-cut alpha dog running with that kind of calculus might just work. With cap margins so thin and years of championship contention at stake the logic of gambling that $20.5 million annually could be forgone without fatally hamstringing current competitive aspirations makes complete sense. If Giannis Antetokounmpo stays in Milwaukee we’ll be singing the praises and lauding the foresight of GM Jon Horst for years to come.
It must be acknowledged that opposite said optimistic outcome lies something darker for the fate of the franchise. Retaining Malcolm Brogdon would not guarantee a championship, but it’s tough to argue it’d have hurt Milwaukee’s chances. If Giannis can reach yet another level it may not matter. If Bledsoe can pull a Kyle Lowry and have the post-season of his life it may not matter. If Jon Horst can work his magic once again and utilize the picks gained from letting Malcolm go it may not matter. Still, an overreach here on the part of management could leave the Bucks with plenty of tax savings and no Larry O’Brien trophy to show for it. And, with a speed unseen in team history in over five decades, the joy of shrewd cap management and roster maneuvering could turn to ashes in all our mouths.