Winston Churchill once said “to improve is to change, and to be perfect is to change often.” In the case of the Bucks, the need for improvement is clear: in the playoffs, their offensive system is stagnant, their defensive scheme is flawed, and the talent on the roster is not currently in a position to overcome these structural deficiencies against postseason competition. With so many different angles to consider, where do you start?
There are a number of issues that the Milwaukee Bucks need to solve between now and the next postseason. The incentive is simple: prove to two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo that he can vie for a championship ring here, in Milwaukee, or he may decide to depart for a franchise where he can. It’s not likely, but it’s possible...and it seems more possible today than it did two months ago.
So far, the Bucks truly haven’t done a bad job. They installed Mike Budenholzer, who led the team to league-leading regular season records in back-to-back seasons. They’ve retained Khris Middleton, a two-time All Star and picture-perfect complement to any NBA star. They’ve made solid trades and savvy signings, bringing in Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, and Wes Matthews, and in February they were poised to roll into the playoffs with confidence, momentum, and something to prove.
But then COVID-19 happened, and the league screeched to a halt for months on end. Each and every team had the same opportunity to regroup and equally experience the oddity of the Orlando bubble, but the Bucks were the ones most reliant on building themselves up for the postseason on the basis of load management for their starters and relying on the wisdom of veterans over the athleticism of youth. It didn’t work; maybe it wouldn’t have worked even under normal conditions, either. No matter the circumstances, we’re here now, and where we go from here will change the course of the Milwaukee Bucks forever.
“A reed before the wind lives on, while mighty oaks do fall.”
In the Budenholzer Era, the Milwaukee Bucks have thrived on defense in the regular season. In Year One, they lead the league with a stingy 104.9 Defensive Rating, nearly a half-point better than the second-place Utah Jazz. Had they simply carried that over, they would have ranked third in 2019-20; instead, they cut it down by another two points, leading the way with a 102.5 Defensive Rating. This was achieved in no small part because of the disciplined effort of Brook Lopez, whose uncanny knowledge of defensive rules allowed him to muck up the lane and allowed Giannis Antetokounmpo to thrive as a help-side hero.
It’s easy to claim that the defense isn’t broke, and therefore not in need of fixing. But every conversation we have from this point on has to focus on postseason performance, since that environment is where the Bucks have struggled the most. Milwaukee did have an outstanding defensive performance in 2018-19 (DRTG: 101.9, first overall) even in comparison to their regular season result, but they struggled this past playoffs (DRTG: 107.3, fourth overall), falling off by nearly five whole points. A large part of those struggles were that scoring prowess and shooting was generally on the rise inside the bubble, but was mainly due to an inflexible scheme that played right into the hands of the sharpshooting Miami Heat, who made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
The Bucks, in order to prevail in the postseason, needed to demonstrate more flexibility with their defensive scheme, especially against a bad matchup like Miami. They instead held firm, and it was their downfall. Rather than bend, they broke.
Then again, the Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Heat for a number of reasons (their backcourt was certainly one of them), but how much blame falls on the lack of defensive flexibility, and how much of that falls on the frontcourt? Because of how important the frontcourt is to Mike Budenholzer’s defensive scheme, we can’t effectively consider one without also considering the other.
It has been noted that Giannis, the center of the Bucks’ basketball solar system, fell short this postseason. He was often times vacillating between indecisiveness and impulsiveness, and that is his burden to bear. Such is the price of high standards. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton did his damndest, and while he was largely responsible for Milwaukee avoiding a sweep, his job as a wing is a strange mix between the frontcourt and backcourt. So what about the rest of the team, and especially the supporting cast at forward and center?
To effectively measure this is a more difficult task than in part one of this exercise, focusing on the guards. Part of this difficulty is that both Giannis and Khris are considered forwards, but since their responsibilities are so unique while their positions overlap with their teammates, we need to be able to separate them from our analysis while still acknowledging how they impact it. This is not to remove them from scrutiny, but rather to recognize that their jobs are different and their responsibilities are simply graded on a different scale. Another challenge was picking exactly which metrics were worth considering, in order to identify which skill areas the Bucks’ should focus on most urgently while still retaining the right type of fit around Giannis and Khris. The areas in which the backcourt failed were somewhat obvious; diagnosing the frontcourt is a different beast entirely.
With all that in mind, here are the numbers I looked at (courtesy of stats.nba.com, which also has a handy glossary). Unless otherwise noted, the numbers I pulled included only players who qualified as forwards and centers, and who had played 12 or more regular season games.
- AST/TO (assist-to-turnover ratio) – We carried this over from the backcourt series; AST/TO is helpful because it can show how careful a player is on offense, and is a useful measuring stick for their decision-making. The overall numbers for this field are generally lower for frontcourt players than backcourt, as would be expected.
- TS% (true shooting percentage) – Instead of using EFG% (which specifically focuses on normal field goal attempts and excludes free throws) like we did with guards, true shooting percentage gives weight to both FTs and threes, making it a more even barometer of overall shooting efficiency. This is valuable for a frontcourt player who should be expected to contribute with lower usage (like on a team already featuring Giannis and Middleton).
- %DREB (defensive rebounding percentage) – Given that the Bucks’ defense is designed to funnel the offense into taking shots that miss more often, corralling those misses is important. A fast break with the ball in Giannis’ hands is the Bucks’ best weapon, but even if he doesn’t get it, a rebound in the Bucks’ hands is better than the alternative.
- %BLK (percentage of player’s team’s blocks while player is on the court) – There’s a lot more to protecting the rim than blocking a shot, but being able to swat shots that do happen is still worth something.
- Paint FG% Allowed (individual shooting percentage allowed from the restricted area and paint (non-restricted area) – This is an area where the Bucks have historically shined, since restricting points in the paint is the most direct path towards a dominant defense.
- Total 3PT FG% Allowed (individual shooting percentage allowed from behind the arc) – This one is more nebulous, since three-point attempts will be allocated to whichever defender is closest, and threes are often enough the result of ball movement outpacing defensive rotations, making this a more questionable inclusion. Still, the ability to affect threes being taken on close-outs is valuable.
- DEF BOX OUT (individual defensive box outs per game) – Getting a body on an offensive player so that your teammates are able to secure the rebound is good fundamental basketball, and it’s an important part of any player hoping to engage in a productive partnership with Giannis.
- % Team Rebound (Box Out) (percentage of team’s rebounds when player boxes out) – Related to the above stat, securing the rebound yourself is not always possible, but securing the rebound for your team is something each defender has control over.
Just like with my previous effort to incorporate all of these different metrics together, I cobbled together a dashboard in Google Sheets that consolidated each player’s range of stats into a single point value. Each category had a maximum of 10 points, and the player’s score equated to which percentile they ranked in each area. A player’s Total Points value refers to his overall rank across all 8 of the considered metrics; think of it as a formula to help answer the question, “if you could build an idealized Bucks big man from scratch, what skills might they have?”
Why are we even asking this question?
There aren’t many complaints about many members of the Bucks’ frontcourt. The starting trio of Brook, Giannis, and Khris was one of the best in the league, and Marvin Williams was a savvy buyout market pickup that shored up Milwaukee’s depth. Ersan Ilyasova also played relatively well (though he was not an option in the postseason), and Robin Lopez had moments in the regular season before being relegated to the bench in the playoffs.
That said, the Bucks’ most realistic path to improving their backcourt would most likely result in upheaval in the frontcourt. A better point guard might cost Brook Lopez, and while that’s likely a price worth paying it is still a significant change that needs to be accounted for. If the defensive scheme is likely to stay the same (and there’s an argument that it shouldn’t), it’s worth identifying what players might come in and shore up weaknesses created by a larger roster move.
Who are some of the league’s best in these areas?
These metrics purposefully favor centers by a wide margin; there is a major bias towards efficient, low-usage offense, defensive rebounding, and rim protection. That sounds like a center to me! As a result, the ceiling was much lower than with the guards exercise; Damian Lillard was the top backcourt player with 60.48 total points, while Rudy Gobert is the leader here with only 51.26 total points. There are also a whopping forty-one players who scored above 44 points, making it a top-heavy field with little space between members of the crowded leaderboard.
Role players are also strongly represented in this exercise; the average minutes per game of the top-30 players is only 20.2, and the median MPG was 19.9. Gobert leads the way, but there are not as many other stars atop these charts. The remaining players in the top-10 are, in order, Bam Adebayo, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Vucevic, Mitchell Robinson, Jakob Poeltl, Jonas Valanciunas, Clint Capela, and Hassan Whiteside. Nobody here is a slouch, but there’s also no MVPs on this list either.
What’s remarkable is that the drop-off from regular season to postseason is less than perhaps was expected, and far less than in the backcourt. The median score went from 36.22 down to 30.37, about a 16% (5.84 points) decrease. The decline was more significant (about 20%) with guards. One major part of this is the increase in overall skill level and production from playoff-level players, but by and large significant minutes are only given to bigs that can actually hold their own in the playoffs. Teams go small whenever they can, so a center or forward needs to truly deserve the court time in order to get it.
Each individual component of a player’s total score also remained relatively static between the regular season and postseason. The only number that changed significantly was the percentage of rebounds recovered when an individual defender boxed out; the playoff rate dropped to 71.8% (down by nearly fourteen percentage points, from 85.7%), suggesting that playoff teams were more adept at extending possessions by seizing offensive rebounds.
Name recognition is also more obvious with the list of qualified postseason players, whereas the regular season was very much about role players. Names on the playoff leaderboards include featured premier big men like Gobert and Adebayo, Serge Ibaka, Myles Turner, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid.
How does Milwaukee’s frontcourt stack up?
All in all, the Bucks’ frontcourt was a position of strength in the regular season, in terms of the specific areas we’re measuring here. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as the intentions for the 2019 offseason was maintaining continuity, doubling down on Milwaukee’s success that fueled their run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brook Lopez deserves credit for playing his part even more expertly than the season before. His combination of rim protection and spatial control (in terms of both opponents’ shot attempts and shot recovery efforts) were a foundational pillar of the Bucks’ league-leading defense, as well as the key to unlocking one of the NBA’s most terrifying weapons: Giannis Antetokounmpo collecting a defensive rebound and pushing the fast break.
Likewise, twin brother Robin Lopez served as a more-than-reasonable bench facsimile of the specific areas of excellence that Brook exhibited. The starting Lopez ranked 15th in the league with 46.47 total points, but the reserve Lopez held his own with 40.10 total points (which was still significantly higher than the league median mark of 36.71), and Robin mirrored Brook in most major ways. The Lopez brothers were nearly equal in boxing out their opponents, limiting accuracy of shots in the paint, and ensuring that the Bucks ended up with the defensive rebound.
Milwaukee’s other depth in the frontcourt was maybe not the most exciting collection of players, but their steady competence was exactly what the Bucks needed whenever they went small. Ersan Ilyasova (37.96 total points) and Marvin Williams (38.06 total points) each scored above the league median mark, though they got there in different ways. Ersan was more effective as an individual rebounder and rim protector, while Marvin performed better in team rebounding metrics and defending shots on the arc. They were each low usage contributors who allowed Mike Budenholzer to maintain consistency throughout the rotation, which was a boon in the regular season...and perhaps somewhat a bane in the playoffs.
We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize Giannis here, because while he’s already one of the league’s elite players and a superstar worth building around, he also happens to be an excellent center by the metrics we’re measuring in this exercise. At 44.10 total points, he was only a few points behind Brook Lopez (about 5% margin), and ranked 40th overall in these specific areas. He was near the top of the league in both individual and team defensive rebound rates when boxing out, and paint field goal percentage allowed, giving further credence to theories involving Giannis-at-center lineups.
Then, as Bucks fans are painfully aware, the playoffs happened. The Orlando Magic series was generally business as usual, but the Bucks’ systems were exposed against the Miami Heat, similarly to how they were exposed last year against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. The frontcourt, though, was not the same kind of weak link that the backcourt was (as we previously explored). Brook Lopez (34.87), Giannis (37.04), and Marvin Williams (31.32) were the primary bigs in the Bucks’ postseason rotation, and each of them performed reasonably well relative to their regular season benchmarks and the league playoff median score of 30.37 total points. Giannis was actually better than Brook, ranking 19th in the playoffs among all qualified players, while Brook fell to 25th overall. Ersan Ilyasova and Robin Lopez both had their minutes drastically reduced as the rotation tightened up out of necessity, and in general the overall performance of the frountcourt remained steady.
There were notable areas, though, that point to the Bucks’ structural issues that the Heat exploited on their way to the NBA Finals. Both Giannis and Brook saw their field goal percentage allowed in the paint balloon upwards, with Brook’s going nearly up to the league median mark. Brook and Marvin each saw their block percentages go down, Brook and Giannis both got burned as their three-point field goal percentage allowed went up, but most importantly, the Bucks’ ability to secure rebounds when boxing out plummeted in the postseason. The Heat’s penchant for making shots and crashing the offensive glass rendered one of the Bucks’ strengths inert, further forcing Milwaukee out of its comfort zone and leaving them scrambling for answers they never came up with. Should they have switched more? Should they have not had the center drop quite so low, and hedge on screens instead? It’s tough to say what should have been, and tougher to say what will be in the future.
Where do the Bucks go from here?
No matter what, the Bucks have a series of major decisions that need to be made before they’ll know what the environment looks like. Marvin Williams has already opted to retire, taking one forward out of the rotation. Ersan Ilyasova will enter the last year of his contract, but his $7.0M salary is fully non-guaranteed if the Bucks waive him by a certain point. That point was originally set in June, two days after the initial date of the NBA Draft, and it yet to be determined exactly when the new guarantee date will be. Likewise, Robin Lopez has a player option worth $5.0M that puts him in control of his destination, whether it’s in Milwaukee for that money or somewhere else for different money. A departure of one, or the other, or both, would create significant need to fill the holes on the roster at both backup center and power forward.
Other players that count as members of the frontcourt (D.J. Wilson and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and occasionally Kyle Korver and Sterling Brown) haven’t been mentioned this entire time, and for good reason. Korver and Brown are wings, not really bigs, who sometimes ended up at power forward, and they were both covered in our backcourt piece. Wilson and Thanasis were equally uninteresting this season and simply didn’t deserve further consideration; for Wilson, this was a disappointment, while for Antetokounmpo, this was the expectation. Both will technically be around next season, as far as we know, but haven’t earned more recognition than simple acknowledgement.
Above all else, the Bucks and the short-term fate of Brook Lopez will, one way or another, impact the long-term fate of Giannis Antetokounmpo. We mentioned it earlier; the Bucks need to improve their backcourt, and the cost of that improvement might involve Brook Lopez. It’s entirely possible that it doesn’t, and that Lopez can continue to swat shots and splash deep threes with the Bucks. This would be a great outcome for fans, who have grown fond of Lopez, but it’s an open question whether that continuity is a benefit or a drawback, since Brook’s skills and Coach Budenholzer’s heavy reliance on zone drop coverage are so closely intertwined, so much so that changing the latter might depend on first removing the former.
The Bucks’ goal is clear: prove to Giannis that you can build a winner in Milwaukee to convince him to stay long-term. Over the last two postseasons, the Bucks have not been winners, and a part of their playoff struggles are how centers are used by Mike Budenholzer. Lopez excels in drop coverage, while Giannis is best as a help-side havoc-wreaker, but better used in anything but drop coverage. If the Bucks are at their best when Giannis is at the pivot, maybe they need to then develop a scheme that is not so heavy on drop coverage. So if Brook Lopez remains a Milwaukee Buck, what are the chances that such a scheme is developed next season?
There’s no way to know how the front office will play things, but at this point it seems at least somewhat likely that Brook can be moved, and from there that a group of replacement players will need to be brought in. Here are some of the candidates that might end up making sense for the Bucks, and how that they would fit into the existing paradigm...or influence a shift.
- John Henson. We’re starting things off with a healthy dose of nostalgia. Captain Hook was drafted by Milwaukee and while his career never really took off, he regularly contributed as a rebounder and rim protector. His offensive game is fairly limited (over 86% of his career field goal attempts come within 10 feet), despite him flashing some three-point prowess before his trade to Cleveland. He wouldn’t be a very effective starter in Milwaukee, and perhaps not an ideal backup, but as a low-cost reserve Jon Horst could do worse.
- Aron Baynes. If Brook Lopez ends up being moved, the Bucks would do well to find a way to attract the New Zealand-born big man. Coming up on 34 years old, Baynes enjoyed a career year with the Phoenix Suns, and previously served as a capable defensive player for previous versions of the Boston Celtics. Over the last two years, he even became a serviceable three-point shooter (0.349 accuracy on 2.5 attempts per game), and has consistently been a solid team defender and rebounder. He’s coming off a $5.4M salary and is an unrestricted free agent, and could be a valuable veteran pickup if he can be persuaded with playing time opportunities to sign a deal the Bucks can afford.
- Meyers Leonard. With the ascendance of Bam Adebayo and the clear small-ball advantages held by the Miami Heat, Leonard fell out of favor and out of the regular rotation in the last year of his contract. The seven-footer is a solid shooter (career averages: 3PAr of 0.420, 3PT% of 0.390), and will give his next team decent spacing from the center position. He doesn’t have a ton of offensive versatility and is an inconsistent defender at best, leaving his market in free agency up in the air. Perhaps he could be a low-cost lottery ticket?
- Noah Vonleh. At 25 years old, Vonleh has already played for six teams and may be at the end of his NBA rope. He’s a strong rebounder and a capable defender, and has hit the occasional three-point shot. At this point, the former lottery pick is a reclamation project that may or may not be worth the roster spot, but such players might be the Bucks’ best chance at extracting surplus value with the salary slots they have available. With a minimum-level deal, Vonleh might be worth the hassle.
- Paul Millsap. The 14-year veteran has four All Star appearances under his belt, and each of them happened in Atlanta under the leadership of Mike Budenholzer. That alone would make the Bucks interested, but Millsap is approaching 36 and his interest in competing for a ring could make the match mutually beneficial. With over $150M in career earnings, Millsap may (emphasis on “may”) be willing to accept a minimum deal in exchange for a shot at a title, and he would be an excellent fit as a backup big for Milwaukee. If that happened, he would easily slide into the role Marvin Williams played, but boasts superior strength and could be used as a P.J. Tucker-type part-time center alongside Giannis.
- Danilo Gallinari. Gallo is more of a wing in terms of practical usage, but with the recent reports that he’s worried less about money and more about championship chances, it’s worth mentioning the 6’10” Italian scoring sensation. He doesn’t rate well in the metrics considered in this exercise, but his role would be completely different than that of a center. Gallinari is a very good shooter and scorer, and with Giannis at center he could present serious matchup problems to defenses with or without the ball. The biggest questions are whether he’d even be willing to accept a contract the Bucks can offer (the Mid-level Exception, either taxpayer or non-taxpayer), and if the Bucks would be both willing and able to risk hard-capping themselves (if using the latter) to acquire him.
- DeMarcus Cousins. Boogie was an All-NBA player in his Sacramento days, but now that he’s on the wrong side of both an Achilles rupture an a full ACL tear, it’s difficult to project how he could be a difference-maker on an NBA court ever again. Even still, at 30 years old and after signing minimum deals with Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers, a player with his level of natural talent, offensive versatility, and passion for the game (even if that comes with a few technical fouls) might be a worthwhile gamble...even if he’s rustier than a barn door hinge.
The Milwaukee frontcourt is an area full of questions and clear of obvious answers. What will become of Ersan and Robin? Are Wilson or Thanasis worth more consideration than we’ve given them? Is Brook Lopez a must-have next season, or a must-move before the season? And how much do the answers to these questions matter when considering Giannis’ long-term outlook with the Bucks? What players would you target to refresh the team’s depth? Let us know what you think, on Twitter and in the comments below!