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The Curious Case of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Lineups and Rotations

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The Milwaukee Bucks’ lineups have been called into question in the first round of the playoffs, but are those questions warranted?

Milwaukee Bucks v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If you’ve checked in on social media at any point during a first-round playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks’ and the Orlando Magic, you’re likely to come across someone loudly complaining about Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer. Okay, a lot of someones. And one of the most common causes of discontent appears to be the rotations and lineups he’s employed.

Being the terrific armchair coaches we (fans) tend to be, it’s only natural we offer our unprompted opinions about the litany of issues facing Milwaukee’s most successful team in the last 50-ish years.

At the heart of the passionate frustration is the (alleged) lack of adjustments Budenholzer makes both during games and on a game-to-game basis. Desperate pleas can be heard far and wide for the Bucks to modify the best defense the NBA has seen in the last four years (defensive rating-wise) by stop protecting the rim at all costs and just guard that gosh darn three-point line. Although the conversation about a (supposed) lack of adjustments is a deeper one for a different time, I digress.

The lineups Milwaukee has utilized, in playoff games nonetheless, irks a good many good people. At the heart of the discontent is the infamous all-bench lineups. After ranking fifth in the regular season by playing a lineup featuring zero starters 11.5 percent of their possessions with a -0.7 net rating (13th), they’ve continued to feature these bench-exclusive groups in the postseason. Among the 16 playoff teams, the Bucks play their bench squad the third-most (10.2%) with a -14.5 net rating (11th). To be fair, this lineup data can be noisy because it includes all possessions, including late-game blowouts.

Cleaning the Glass, which eliminates garbage time possessions, might give us a more accurate picture of how these alignments have fared. And it’s not much prettier. Although their defense was solid in their 30 possessions (a 106.3 rating), the Bucks’ offense scored a horrid 100 points per 100 possessions4.4 fewer points than the Golden State Warriors’ 30th ranked offense. After just four games, this data comes with the biggest of tiny sample size warnings, but that’s the risk coaches take when each game is magnified to the fullest extent.

Another criticism of Budenholzer has been his inability to settle on one lineup. Other than their starters (which have been on the court for 48 minutes together in this series), no other five-man grouping has played more than 12 minutes. The Toronto Raptors are the only other playoff team whose second-most used lineup featured fewer minutes together. This constant shuffling has made it difficult, at times, for his guys to find a groove with one another.

His ability to roll out so many lineups is enabled by his 11-man rotation. Where other coaches have zigged by increasing their star’s minutes and tightening their rotations, Budenholzer has zagged by continuing to keep everyone’s minutes low and refusing to shun someone to the bench; playing so many guys at this juncture is often frowned upon. This has raised many questions about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s, and others, conditioning heading into a potential second-round matchup against the vaunted Miami Heat where they might be needed to play north of 35 minutes—something no Bucks’ player has done in this year’s postseason.

Yet here we are, with the Bucks holding a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Magic. They have kinks to iron out, to be sure, but rumors of Budenholzer’s decline are greatly exaggerated.

Of course, by resting his starters together, he’s also increasing the time they share on the floor. Of the 179 two-man groupings who played at least 1,000 regular season minutes, the Bucks owned the nine best net ratings—all of them some combination of starters. Of the 211 three-man arrangements who played at least 600 minutes, they held eight of the top nine in net ratings, again all starters. Of the 80 four-man factions to appear in at least 450 minutes, they sported the five best net ratings—you know who they were made up of. You get the point.

If they can just survive the few minutes their bench lineup is on the court, it increases their ceiling the rest of the game. Whether they can get away with continuing to rest all their starters at once against better competition than the 33-40 and undermanned Magic remains to be seen.

One of the Bucks’ greatest strengths is their depth and versatility. Want to go small? They can put Antetokounmpo at the five. Want to go big? They can slide Antetokounmpo to the three and put Marvin Williams and Brook Lopez out there with him. Shooters? Let me introduce you to Kyle Korver, George Hill and Khris Middleton. Defense? Milwaukee has three players in the conversation for an All-Defensive team this year, not to mention the astute Wesley Matthews. They have a solution for everything.

When you have so many weapons it’s difficult to ignore them and leave them on the bench unused. There isn’t another team with rotational-caliber players in roster spots 10, 11 and 12 as the Bucks have. It also helps that, for the most part, their role players have been doing their job—and then some—against the Magic.

Sure, you may think Budenholzer isn’t in the same tier as elite coaches like Nick Nurse, Brad Stevens, Erik Spoelstra or Rick Carlisle. And, sure, he’s made questionable decisions along the way and has taken some rightful flak about his coaching in the postseason. But that doesn’t mean he’s a slouch. He’s crafted great schemes on two completely opposite teams and has taken said squads to three 60-win seasons (or what would’ve been a third if this year was played out) as well as two (and counting) Eastern Conference Finals. Regardless of ranking, he’s a top coach in the NBA.

His decision making has been curious in the postseason so far, but there is a method to his madness. His choices are well thought out, intentional and made with a macro-view. His goal isn’t just to win this first round, but to win the whole damn thing.

He’s willing to take some bumps and bruises in the postseason’s early going if it means more success for his team in the long-term. Whether we agree or not, he might continue to employ the strategies that have gotten the Bucks this far to begin with. And that might not be as bad as we think.