Just days away from the NBA trade deadline, strap in and prepare yourself for these five observations about the Milwaukee Bucks:
Khris Middleton’s Efficiency
Part of the reason the Bucks have taken another step forward this season is due to the play of Khris Middleton. A year after barely sliding into his first All-Star game, he made a stronger-than-you-think case to be an All-Star starter.
After his 51-point tantrum against the Washington Wizards, Middleton is averaging a career-high 20.4 points per game this season. That’s a career-high in points despite playing the fewest minutes per game since his rookie season. That’s a career-high in points despite taking his fewest shot attempts per game since his 2016-17 campaign.
Middleton and toddlers share one thing in common: selectivity. Much like a picky three-year-old protests eating certain foods; Middleton refuses to take shots outside of his comfort zone. Instead, he feasts on a steady diet of threes and passive-aggressive bully-ball from the short-to-mid-range.
Among all players to use over 20 percent of their team’s possessions, Middleton ranks sixth in true shooting percentage, just ahead of the unconscious Damian Lillard. His 127.5 points per 100 shot attempts also ranks in the 97th percentile among forwards according to Cleaning the Glass.
It’s rare to see a player take such a significant step forward in his age 28 season, but that’s exactly what Middleton has done. He’s been prone to hot and cold streaks throughout his career, but the longer this carries on the more likely it becomes his new norm.
Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks almost exclusively run their signature drop pick-and-roll coverage. If they’re really getting destroyed, they’ll begin switching on screens. However, Budenholzer showed off a new defense on Sunday; a box-and-one.
A box-and-one meshes man and zone principles, and is most commonly used against a team with one primary offensive threat. One defender (Wesley Matthews, in this case) plays man to man defense on the opposing team’s best offensive player (Devin Booker). The other four defensive guys (the box) play zone principles with two players on top and two players on bottom. Here’s how it looked against the Suns:
For three straight possessions in the middle of the second quarter, Milwaukee implemented this strategy against Phoenix. After confusing the Suns and getting a stop on the first play, Budenholzer abandoned this strategy after back-to-back buckets at point-blank range.
It will be interesting to see if the Bucks deploy this strategy in the future. Budenholzer hasn’t shown this defense in the past (that I’m aware of) and it wasn’t overly successful this time around. Still, it shows he’s willing to try new things which is always a positive.
Biggest Positions Of Need
With no glaring holes and the trade deadline just days away, it might be difficult for general manager Jon Horst to swing a deal. However, if he wants to prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo just how committed they are to winning, it never hurts to pursue possible trades.
With an eye on the postseason and an NBA Finals run, here are the Bucks’ biggest positional needs as I see it:
Despite disappearing on offense for games at a time, Wesley Matthews has still had a successful season with the Bucks. He mostly guards the opposing team’s best wing scorer, allowing Middleton to thrive on offense.
Even with Matthews in the fold, the Bucks could use another bigger wing defender who can also stretch the floor on offense. Beyond Matthews and Middleton, they lack a player who fits that mold. Scoring threats like Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum, Tobias Harris, Jaylen Brown, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George stand in Milwaukee’s way of a championship, and it won’t hurt them to have more options.
Outside of Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee doesn’t have another player who can get to the hoop on their own. Despite Middleton’s brilliance, only 16 percent of his shots come at the rim—the fewest percentage in his career. Having another player who can apply pressure on the basket if/when their three-point shooting goes cold will only help in the long run.
This is in the same vein as a shot-creator, but Milwaukee could use another primary ball-handler. We all know about Bledsoe’s anemic playoff performances, but is George Hill truly ready to shoulder a heavy load for two and a half months? His age and injury history give at least a little pause for concern. Without another reliable option on the roster (no, Donte DiVincenzo is not yet ready to handle primary ball-handling responsibilities), the Bucks could look to add a third option to their team.
Pat Connaughton Showcase?
If the playoffs began today, Pat Connaughton would be on the outside of the rotation looking in. He’s struggled with his shot for the second consecutive year and doesn’t do anything else well enough to earn consistent playing time when he’s a liability from the outside. He’s also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
On his own, Connaughton wouldn’t bring back enough in a trade to make it worth Horst’s while. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a sweetener to any potential deal.
After falling out of Budenholzer’s rotation over the last couple of weeks, he pounced back onto the scene, playing at least 20 minutes in each of the past three games. He hasn’t been spectacular, but did knock down five of his nine three-point attempts.
To be clear, part of the reason for his return is probably because Hill missed two of those games and DiVincenzo was absent for one as well. However, this would also be a good time to give Connaughton a little run and show teams what a useful player he can be. If the Bucks decide to consolidate assets, Connaughton would be a likely candidate for a trade.
Brook Lopez Utilizing His Size
Brook Lopez’ three-point slump is well-documented by now; his 28.7 percent success rate is down almost eight percentage points since last year. Although it hasn’t greatly affected how other teams defend him, it has affected his outlook on his outside shot. Here’s a look he never would’ve turned down last year, but is now having second-thoughts about it:
As you can see, Splash Mountain is a lot less Splash and a lot more brute these days. With teams employing the common strategy of matching up their center on Antetokounmpo; Lopez often sees a much small player attempting to guard him. Last year, it resulted in continued three-point spacing. This year, it’s much more common for him to go down low and take advantage of his size.
That’s exactly what happened against the Suns. The Bucks’ center often found himself matched up with the 6-foot-6 Mikal Bridges, or others, down low.
After multiple switches by the Suns’ defense, Devin Booker was suddenly guarding Lopez. Noticing it immediately, the big man lumbered to the middle of the paint and warded off Booker’s feeble attempt at post defense. One nice touch pass from Antetokounmpo later, the ball was gently going through the hoop.
As the season wears on and Lopez’ shot continues to wear off, don’t be surprised to see him show off the old school aspects of his game more and more. Don’t forget, he’s a former 20-points-a-game scorer who relied heavily on his post-ups.