The Milwaukee Bucks acquisition of Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline may not have been as splashy as the Philadelphia 76ers trading for Tobias Harris, or the Toronto Raptors nabbing Marc Gasol. However, it’s the best mixture of talent and fit of any of the three deals.
Milwaukee didn’t possess the type of trade assets the other top teams in the Eastern Conference had. This forced general manager Jon Horst to get creative at the trade deadline and transfer crummy (at best) draft picks in order to acquire the sharpshooting big man. The Bucks ended up sending Thon Maker to the Detroit Pistons and four second round picks (only one was originally Milwaukee’s) to the New Orleans Pelicans in order to acquire the free agent to be.
On paper, Mirotic and the Bucks fit together like peanut butter and jelly. The same can be said for on the court. The East’s best team runs a five-out offense that allows leading MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo to tear apart defenses with vicious drives to the hoop and increasingly sweet passes. Mirotic’s ability to shoot from behind the arc will only give Antetokounmpo more room to work with:
In transition, Antetokounmpo is hell-bent on inflicting as much punishment on the Celtics as possible. Boston counters by packing the lane with four defenders and forcing the ball out of the Greek Freak’s hands. He responds by using his ball-handling skills to get deep into the lane, and expertly whips a slick pass to the corner to a surprised Mirotic. The newcomer quickly collects himself and knocks down the corner trey.
Horst has assembled a team that forces the opposition to pick its poison between Antetokounmpo and the outside shooters. So far, the clear answer has been to allow Milwaukee to bomb away from the outside rather than giving up dunk after dunk to Giannis.
The game plan hasn’t worked very often, but the Bucks’ supporting cast is more likely to go dry from downtown than Antetokounmpo is from around the rim. Milwaukee attempts the second-most three-point shots per game at 37.6, but only ranks 16th in the NBA in percentage at 35.1. Mirotic should immediately increase their deadliness thanks to shooting 37.0 percent from downtown this season.
Mirotic is still learning the offense and has spent way too much time over the first two games setting ball screens instead of maintaining the spacing. However, he’s picked up on the staples of the offense and it’s crystal clear how well he fits with the Bucks:
As Tony Snell catches the ball on the elbow, George Hill and Sterling Brown set a stagger screen for Mirotic in the corner. Marcus Morris is slow to recognize the action and belatedly calls out to Jaylen Brown to switch onto the top of the key. That’s far too late, however, as Mirotic uses his quick trigger to splash home the three from downtown.
Mirotic also plays with a high basketball IQ; that’s one of the most underrated aspects of his game. The Bucks run a very similar set on the play below, except the ball is at the top of the key instead of the elbow. This extra room gives Mirotic the additional spacing he requires to get all the way to the hoop:
Once again, Mirotic begins in the corner as part of the Bucks’ basic offense. As Ersan Ilyasova and Snell set the stagger screen for him, he quickly recognizes two factors that tell him to curl: 1. His man got caught on the first screen and is trailing the play and 2. The help defender has wandered too far outside the lane to stop Mirotic on a drive to the basket. This results in a great read and a lefty-finish for two points.
He will be especially dangerous from the corners, an area where Milwaukee shoots the eighth most shots from. According to Cleaning the Glass, Mirotic ranks in the 72nd percentile among bigs by taking nine percent of his attempts from those two spots. He especially prefers the left corner where he makes 45.8 percent of his looks.
Mirotic’s shot profile already aligns perfectly with what Budenholzer wants out of his players. He takes over half his shots from behind the arc with another quarter of them coming at the rim. That only leaves 21 percent of his looks coming from the dreaded mid-range, a number that will probably drop even more in Milwaukee.
Mirotic’s ability to get shots off in tight spaces will also help enhance the Bucks’ offense. He maintains his season average of 37 percent when a defender is “tightly” guarding him (within 2-4 feet). Furthermore, he connects on 38.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities. This combination will create even more headaches for defenses trying to stop one of the most lethal offenses in the league.
Aside from his prolific outside shooting, Mirotic is also a scrapper. He fits in the same mold as Ersan Ilyasova as a player who can annoy the crap out of opposing teams. Although he won’t take charges like Ilyasova, he has a motor that is always running on offense.
This constant annoyance sometimes gets under people’s skin as we saw a year and a half ago when Bobby Portis punched him in practice. He’s the type of player you love to hate.
Don’t get lost in the offensive abilities, as he’s an underrated defender. He may lack the physical traits to be a lockdown defender at the NBA level, but he gives good enough effort to make things difficult on his man. Just ask Andrew Wiggins, Tyus Jones or Derrick Rose:
Mirotic has an oddly successful combination of semi-decent lateral movement and sneaky length that allows him to get his hands on a surprising number of balls. He does a great job of keeping his extremities active as well, always ready to pounce and jet out at the last second.
Even though the Bucks might only have the pending unrestricted free agent’s services for 20-some games plus the playoffs, Mirotic’s impact will certainly be felt on both ends of the floor.
The lineup options are limitless, as we’ve already seen Budenholzer play Mirotic at center alongside Antetokounmpo, and at small forward next to Ilyasova and Brook Lopez (albeit very briefly). This extreme flexibility will make it difficult for teams to game plan for come playoff time. It also gives Budenholzer multiple solutions to any one problem they may run into.
At the end of the day, Milwaukee made a low-risk, low-cost move that instantly upgraded their roster. Even if Mirotic doesn’t have the same credentials as other players who were moved at the deadline, his skillset was an unfair addition to an already deep Bucks’ roster that somehow got even deeper.