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Can Small-Ball Unlock A Championship For The Milwaukee Bucks?

Small ball has been around the NBA for a while now, but can it help the Milwaukee Bucks reach the pinnacle?

Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“Small ball” has been a buzzword around the NBA for a minute now. It started when the Golden State Warriors played Draymond Green at center, and sparked the beginning of their championship run, and continues with teams perpetually pushing the boundaries of their lineups.

The Eastern Conference has seen a small shift from some of their top contenders. The Philadelphia 76ers doubled down on size by adding Al Horford to Joel Embiid and company. The Milwaukee Bucks also added another seven-footer in Robin Lopez.

Although the Bucks certainly have the ability to match size with size and move Giannis Antetokounmpo to the three, they also have the luxury to play small ball with anyone.

Versatility is the name of the game. Long gone are the days where point guards only pass, shooting guards only shoot and centers stick to the paint. Now, everyone must master multiple skills in an attempt to gain as many advantages as possible.

This is exactly what has been at the forefront of general manager Jon Horst’s brain, as he’s built this team over the past three seasons. A year ago, Horst traded for Nikola Mirotic at the deadline; not because his team needed a power forward, but because he provided them with lineup elasticity. The same can be said for the recent signing of Marvin Williams and a plethora of other moves.

If the Bucks want to win a championship, they’ll have to adapt to the play-styles of many different teams. Standing in their path may be the humungo 76ers, the wing-heavy Boston Celtics and/or the forward-dominant Los Angeles Lakers.

One variation of their flexibility is downsizing their lineup. And even that option has options for head coach Mike Budenholzer to turn to:

Giannis At Center

Everyone loves them some Giannis at center. And for plenty of good reasons, as these arrangements score oudles of points, protect the rock, get to the free throw line at a crazy-high rate and clamp up their opponents on the opposite end of the court.

After teasing Bucks’ fans with only 213 possessions with Antetokounmpo at center last season, Budenholzer has almost doubled that number already. In the nearly 400 possessions this season with Antetokounmpo at the five, Milwaukee is outscoring their opponents by an insane 24.8 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. Not only would this lineup sport the best offensive rating in the NBA, but their defensive rating would also be the top mark.

Antetokounmpo appears to be the perfect candidate for the job. He can hold his own down low against bigger players, rebound the basketball and punish the opposition on offense thanks to his ball-handling, quickness and strength combination.

Budenholzer also loves to put Khris Middleton at the four, as he surrounds the Greek Freak with elite spacing. Middleton is another option to take advantage of slower individual defenders on the perimeter as well.

In order to supplement the lost size and strength, Wes Matthews and/or Sterling Brown are often called upon to fill the two and/or three. Each guy is the definition of toughness and wouldn’t back down from a bear in the woods. This ferocity ensures the Bucks battle on every possession.

The biggest risk to this lineup is Antetokounmpo getting into foul trouble. By battling bigs down low, instead of his traditional role of roaming the court helping his teammates, he’s more averse to racking up the fouls. Perhaps, this alone has prevented Budenholzer from calling the Giannis at center alignment more often.

Ersan Ilyasova At Center

Ah, the guy everyone loves to hate. For some reason, Ersan Ilyasova has gotten a bad rap with large portions of Bucks’ fandom, as he’s been inaccurately tagged as a below-average player this season. Sure, he’s struggled recently, but he’s been consistently adequate for large portions of the season.

Ilyasova at center lineups aren’t as sexy as most small ball arrangements, but it’s incredibly efficient. They have a +14.9 net rating on 450 possessions this season.

What most undersized centers lack in size, they make up for in athleticism. Not Ilyasova. He possesses the quickness of a sloth. Instead, he’s forces his defender to the perimeter where he shoots 37.3 percent from downtown. That’s a big change from the sub 30-percent shooting both Brook and Robin Lopez provide.

In order to make up for the loss of athleticism, Budenholzer will often pair Antetokounmpo in the front court. This allows Ilyasova to bang with bigs down low while Antetokounmpo returns to his more comfortable position of playing free safety for the defense. Unfortunately, these lineups basically play their opponents even—an unheard of proposition in this era of Bucks’ basketball.

With Marvin Williams in the fold, it’s unclear how often these alignments will be deployed in the future. Regardless, it never hurts to have options, and Ilyasova appears to be a Budenholzer guy through and through.

Marvin Williams At Center

When Milwaukee acquired Williams on the buyout market, I immediately drooled over a lineup that featured him at center. On paper, his athleticism, strength and shooting combination appear to be perfect for small ball.

Playing against the Indiana Pacers in his first appearance for the Bucks, Williams was always attached to another big when he was on the court—mostly Brook Lopez or Ersan Ilyasova. This leaves us wanting heading into the All-Star break.

Williams shouldn’t be much of a downgrade from Ilyasova when it comes to defending other fives. What he lacks in strength, he makes up for in basketball I.Q. and work ethic. His advantages lie on the offensive perimeter. He’s more adept at taking his man off the bounce and his quick release allows him to launch his shot in tighter spaces.

Budenholzer would be wise to surround Williams with good rebounding guards such as Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown or Pat Connaughton. This would help alleviate one of the biggest disadvantages to putting him at center.

It’s unclear if we’ll actually get to experience this lineup moving forward, but it’s hard to imagine a world where Budenholzer doesn’t at least experiment with his new acquisition at center.

Getting A Little Crazy

When Budenholzer is tapping into his inner Mike D’Antoni, he’ll roll out the Middleton at center lineups—something that’s only happed on 53 possessions this season. Hey, adaptability is the name of the game.

Middleton is not built for the center life; despite standing 6’7” he’s no P.J. Tucker. He’d get bullied down low, struggle to rebound consistently and provide no rim protection.

That’s where his teammates can help. By adding Matthews and Brown to the mix, Budenholzer can make up for the lost toughness a traditional big provides. Neither guy has any issue mixing it up and getting physical with the opposition.

The primary reason to throw this lineup out there is to put five shooters and ball-handlers on the court. Budenholzer loves players who can shoot, dribble and pass—all the other options at center lack at least one of those primary skills. Regardless, it’s rare we’ll see this lineup in the future, as the mediocre edge it creates aren’t worth the disadvantages.

Having options is always a positive. It allows the team to play chameleon and adapt to their opponent. Good teams beat their opponent by forcing them to play their style. Great teams win by beating you at your own game.