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An Embarrassment of Riches - Milwaukee’s Second Guards in Focus

Three players, three playstyles, and only one spot on the court

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports
(Stats are as of January 29th, 2020)

There’s a reason why Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez have started 93 out of the last 129 regular season games together: They work.

No need to hash out the logic behind how it works, that’s pretty well understood here at Brew Hoop and has resulted in a hell of a lot of winning in that stretch.

That hasn’t stopped questions about who fits best where in the rotation, and more importantly it brings to the fore questions about how best to fill that fifth starting position. Last season the answer was more often than not Malcolm Brogdon. With his departure that role had more questions than concrete answers at the beginning of the season.

Yet any concerns about a hole in production from the fifth spot hamstringing team lineups have been settled thanks to the efforts of three players in particular: Donte DiVincenzo, Wes Matthews, and George Hill.

All three present different solutions to a minute allocation conundrum. Donte is the do-it-all plug who can play up or down position in a pinch and gives lineups a boost in counting stat output on both ends. Wes has been the low-usage, three-point shooting, defensive stalwart that gives his starting teammates as much runway as they need to go after their spots on offense, and George Hill has been a maestro off the bench propping up lineups used when some starters are taking a breather.

Today’s article is an ode to all three players. I hope to dive a bit deeper into what is underpinning their success, how they’re making their presence felt in Milwaukee’s playstyle, and in the end get a better grasp on what trends of the recent past may entail for the rest of the 2020 season — Finals or otherwise.

Wes Matthews — The Role-Specific Starter

Behind the soulless phrase “Let if fly!” sits one of the fulcrums around which the Bucks operate. Namely, they take threes. Early in the shot clock, late in the shot clock, after a couple of passes, in pull-up situations, out of timeouts, at the ends of quarters, whenever and wherever we damn well please.

Of the options left to Mike Budenholzer to plug the fifth spot and staying true to that maxim there has been no better option than Wes Matthews.

Begin with the shot profile.

Three-point heavy shot selection? Matthews’s .680 3PAr qualifies as the second-highest mark on the team behind Kyle Korver’s comical .801. Is that high proportion of threes going in at an acceptable clip? .370 from three isn’t elite, but it’s just a half-step below that tier and is just a percentage point below his career-average. Finally, are they shots that make sense within the scheme?

Sounds like a resounding “heck yeah” to me! His cool shooting from the left corner is a little strange, but in general he’s taking shots from spots and in situations that is demanded of the fifth fiddle:

Wes Matthews Three-Point Shot Type

Shot Type Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
Shot Type Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
Catch & Shoot 54.00% 1.2 3.3 37.30%
Pull-Ups 13.30% 0.3 0.8 37.10%

Wes Matthews Three-Point Dribbles

Number of Dribbles Before Shot Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
Number of Dribbles Before Shot Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
0 Dribbles 54.80% 1.3 3.4 37.50%
1 Dribble 8.00% 0.2 0.5 47.60%
2 Dribbles 2.30% 0.1 0.1 33.30%
3-6 Dribbles 3.00% 0 0.2 12.50%

Wes Matthews Three-Point v. Opponent Coverage

Coverage Type Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
Coverage Type Frequency Threes Made Threes Attempted 3P%
Tight Coverage (2-4ft) 4.90% 0.1 0.3 30.80%
Open Coverage (4-6ft) 16.70% 0.4 1 36.40%
Wide Open Coverage (6+feet) 46.00% 1.1 2.8 38.80%

So he’s overwhelmingly taking wide-open shots with zero to one dribble in catch and shoot situations. I mean, what else could you really ask for?

On top of the types of shots, he’s being selective about taking them in terms of the team’s overall number of possessions while he’s on the court. In fact, his 12.4% usage rate is lowest of his career and is tied for last on the team with Pat Connaughton and Dragan Bender. Compare that to Malcolm Brogdon’s 20.4% usage number of a year ago and the contrast is pretty stark.

For one more direct comparison, here is Malcolm’s shot-chart from 2018-2019’s regular season in roughly the “same” role:

So, on offense, there’s no doubt that Wes has slotted in as the perfect complement to what Budenholzer wants his players to do and how his high-powered teammates thrive.

Defense is a bit more difficult to nail down in terms of impact. The sheer numbers and output aren’t necessarily there if you take a look at on/off defensive ratings overall, but the NBA’s tracking values would seem to indicate that Wes has been a plus individual defender all season long. With the height of a guard/wing and the weight of a smaller forward, Matthews is able to body up the league’s top offensive wings in a way that simultaneously makes shot attempts that much more difficult to get off uncontested, but also drains opponents of energy bit by bit while giving his teammates an easier assignment elsewhere.

3&D is often far too simplistic a designation of what any typical player can do; if called upon Wes could likely increase his output in numerous categories offensively and showed he could still do it (sort of) last year with Dallas and Indiana. To his credit, though, he’s typified that pigeonhole role while still adding a bit of zest to Milwaukee’s starting sets.

Donte DiVincenzo — The Utility Starter

By almost any metric Donte DiVincenzo has been excellent, especially for a sophomore coming off a tough rookie year.

Breathing and having a pulse? Excellent.

Avoiding the injury bug? Excellent.

Hitting the three? Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-Up-And-Down-cellent.

Rebounding? He nearly excellently does every possession.

Defending? Excellent.

Shot selection? Exactly where it needs to be.

Let’s start with the defense because it’s been the real surprise of his game this season. If you were to sort all NBA players who have played greater than 33 games this season (~70% of available opportunities), Donte ranks second in the league in individual defensive rating at 97.6. While Milwaukee’s steal numbers remain league-average at 7.6 per game, Donte has been responsible for a shocking 35.9% of Milwaukee’s steals when he’s on the court this season; that’s good enough to place him with the likes of Dejounte Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Matisse Thybulle, and above players like Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons. Simply rely on the eye-test for a few minutes and you’ll see Donte hunt opponent passing lanes before recovering against a moving assignment, quickly dash around picks to keep the pressure on a ball-handler, sky among the big men for rebounds, and generally be a pest.

On the other end things are still a bit of a work in progress, though much further along than could’ve reasonably been hoped for after that 26.5% 3P% rookie year.

Pumping that low value up to 34.4% on 3.6 3PA a game is a godsend. Full-stop. You’d love to see that value pumped up a few more points for comfort’s sake, and in fact he has shot 39.1% over his last 10 games.

That shooting has been needed as his 2P% has dropped from .683 a year ago to .563 this season (.652 within three feet of the basket). There have been slight bumps up in his mid-range makes, but they only make up less than a fifth of his overall attemps.

What’s more deadly than the actuality of Donte is the idea of Donte: That of an energetic fast-break starter who is more than happy to give the ball up in transition to a human hammer like Giannis Antetokounmpo in space. He pushes and pulls through constant movement in half-court sets in ways that keep defenses from ever really setting into stone. He cuts and finds cutters with beautiful passes from time to time that makes a hard-set scheme look suddenly full of holes. He takes advantage of the boxing-out of his big men and regularly puts his life in danger to contest rebounds on both ends.

A true workhorse at pretty much everything, yet seemingly a master of only an aspect or two of the game. Still, exceedingly few players can lay claim to being masterful at more than one trait, so competence/something better in numerous categories is an excellent base to build off of.

He won’t win Most Improved Player, he’s not the best player from his class, but after a lost year Donte has come firing back expanding on the good things he did show in 2018-2019.

Donte’s Inferno indeed.

George Hill — The Bench Starter

The only player who hasn’t started a game this season to make the list is George Hill. Why is he here? you might ask. Well, he’s mastered the role of Milwaukee’s sixth man and is putting up per 36 stats that rival his peak years as a starter years ago.

Begin with the numbers which are simply dumb: 54.1% from the floor (career-high), 51.1% from three (!!!!!! a career-high), 3PAr of 46.3%, assist rate of 19.0% (above his career average of 18.2), converting on 75% of the shots he takes within three feet of the basket (31.1% of his profile), 3.0 assists per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, and he’s moving along at a palty 21.1 MPG so far this year.

The real beauty, the real value of what George has done this year lies deeper than those mere stats. In fact, you could almost say those stats don’t stack up compared to your typical 6MOY winner a la Lou Williams; the scoring totals aren’t too gaudy, he’s rarely slotted in as the de facto fifth starter in closing lineups, and his game isn’t inherently flashy.

Instead, Hill should be in the running because he has been able to essentially lock Milwaukee’s offense and defense in their horrifically deadly places when he comes on and the cream of the roster takes a breather. So far this season Milwaukee’s offensive rating stands at 113.9, the defensive rating at 101.7. When Hill is on the floor (i.e. sharing time with sub rotations) those values shift to 112.5 and 101.6 respectively. There is virtually no sheer drop off on either end when Hill is in the game which is remarkable not only because that means the Bucks maintain an output that opponents struggle to overcome, but also because some of Hill’s most consistent lineups have been slapped-together Frankensteins.

Those numbers make sense if you think of Hill’s spot within the grander scheme of things. He no longer has 48 minutes of top-shelf athletic pace in him, but for 21 minutes he can keep up on replacement-level guard assignments, occasionally cut inside offensively and score at the rim, has taken advantage of the high percentage of open to wide open threes afforded him by Milwaukee’s ball-moving substitutes, and is a deft enough passer to ensure his floormates get a steady helping of optimal looks.

He’s the quintissential veteran point guard who has plenty to give and is only asked to give it in relatively limited instances. Through Hill Milwaukee’s excellence continues unabated for 48 minutes.

Decisions, decisions

Looking at all the data through 47 games there is no real reason to expect any wild variation in how these three players are used by Mike Budenholzer. Wes is the full-stop starter on any given night, Donte is there to spell him or Eric Bledsoe if rest or recovery is needed, and Hill looks to be the catch-all solution that keeps the Load Management mantra alive and well.

The larger question then comes down to a matter of guessing who, what, how, and why Milwaukee may ever need to shake up the status quo. Obviously the playoffs loom large regardless of whether the Bucks win something in the range of 65-70 games. We witnessed The Plan at peak efficiency against the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics before the Raptors series. When his back was against the wall, Budenholzer called on Hill to step into bigger shoes as Eric Bledsoe puttered off to the bench.

Which brings us to the blessing and the curse moment of this exercise. It is indeed a boon to have three bonafide players who have demonstrated an ability to embed themselves into and positively augment lineups. That theoretically gives you plenty of tools to grab out of a hat if you’re feeling experimental or need a break-glass option. On the flipside having so many routes available can make pushing the right button and pulling the right lever in a tense situation that much harder — especially if you’re a coach who doesn’t tinker a whole lot to begin with.

Will the team lean on veteran presence in Matthews and Hill? Is the shot of vitality embodied by DiVincenzo the dynamism Milwaukee may need most? Can Hill repeat his performance of a year ago and elevate his game in a massive way on short notice?

A lot of questions with answers we can’t know just yet. For now, the Bucks have one of the most formidable guard corps in the entire league and are churning towards 70+ wins.

Not bad.