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 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 a month 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.
“When you have a hammer, your problems each start to look like a nail.”
In the playoffs, defensive competence increases, intensity ramps up, and scoring becomes tough to come by. That’s just postseason basketball, and it was in this area where the Bucks were woefully under-equipped to find success, to manufacture points when faced with the dreaded wall. Khris Middleton’s efforts, as valiant as they were, could only take you so far when your best player is denied entry into the paint and therefore transformed into a fish out of water. Backcourt play is often cited as a key ingredient to success in the NCAA Tournament; it appears the same may be true of the NBA Playoffs.
Milwaukee’s offense was previously praised and recently criticized for its simplicity: give Giannis the ball, everybody else find a blue square on the arc. Give him space, push the pace, let it fly. There is less off-ball movement or screening action than most of their NBA peers, and on some level that didn’t matter...until it did. The team was built around Giannis, and rightfully so...but when your primary offensive attack is akin to slamming a sledgehammer repeatedly, it’s not easy to shift gears when blow after blow fails to leave a dent in your demolition efforts if you don’t have other primary tools available. Again, not to discount Middleton’s attempts to resuscitate the season, but in a game that has grown more and more perimeter-oriented, you can only go so far if you can’t rely on your guards. And in the current system, it has been shown that Milwaukee can not rely on their guards.
How can we measure this? It is a widely-accepted fact that Milwaukee’s backcourt is stout on defense but flimsy on offense, but is that reputation accurate? To answer these questions, I took a look at some of the offensive numbers available to measure the areas in which the game’s top players at the position rank highly, and the Bucks’ guards are often considered subpar. I then compared them to the overall performance of guards in the NBA across 2019-20, in both the regular season and playoffs, so that we can get a better idea of what an “average” guard can expect in these specific areas.
To reiterate, this exercise focuses exclusively on the offensive side of the ball. As defenders, Bledsoe, Hill, Matthews, and Donte DiVincenzo each range between “above-average” and “excellent” on defense, and Pat Connaughton has his moments as well. Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, and Frank Mason III also appear on the list since they’re classified as guards, but Korver is a specialist and Brown and Mason barely play. In any case, the reason we’re having this conversation in the first place is because the Bucks’ offense could not keep up with the Miami Heat. The performance of the guards is one of the cornerstone issues that needs improvement, and needs it fast.
Without further ado, 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 listed as guards who had played 12 or more regular season games.
- EFG% (effective field goal percentage) – EFG% specifically focuses on normal shot attempts (excluding free throws), and appropriately values three-point accuracy, which the Bucks need to improve upon.
- AST/TO (assist-to-turnover ratio) – AST/TO is useful because it can show how careful a player is with the ball in his hands, and is a useful measuring stick for their decision-making. Better decisions tend to result in creating shots for others; worse decisions generate turnovers for the opposition.
- USG% (usage percentage) – USG% gives us an idea of how impactful a player is while they’re on the court, and whether they’re capable of contributing while maintaining possession of the ball on offense.
- AST% (assist percentage) – AST% is more of a barometer for pure playmakers, of which the Bucks have precious few. Measuring the change in this area helps understand how the Bucks’ backcourt continues to pile responsibility onto the shoulders of Giannis and (to a lesser extent) Khris, and changing this aspect for the better will help balance out Milwaukee’s offense.
P&R BH FREQ (pick & roll ball handler frequency) – Similar to USG%, any guards that Milwaukee looks to add ought to have a high level of experience running basketball’s most basic play. Only two of the Bucks’ current guards seem capable of running a P&R in playoff situations, and even then the team’s insistence on allowing Giannis to keep ramming into the wall is partly because of Milwaukee’s overall lack of P&R usage.
(note: Each of the P&R Ball Handler stats include all positions, and impose a minimum of 10 min/game and 10 possessions of play type to qualify. For playoffs, we also added a minimum threshold of > 1.0 games played and > 0.5 possessions/game.)
- P&R BH PPP (pick & roll ball handler points per possession) – Beyond frequency, a guard who operates in the P&R should be able to generate points on those possessions. PPP is a useful watermark to see how well a guard scores whenever they are piloting the offense in this way.
- P&R BH EFG% (pick & roll ball handler effective field goal percentage) – There are many paths towards achieving a high EFG%, but we are again placing a premium on efficient offense when involved in the pick and roll.
ATB 3PT% (above-the-break three point field goal percentage) – Corner threes are closer and almost universally easier to shoot, so focusing our analysis on more difficult three-point shots will hopefully help to identify guards able to contribute from these spots.
(note: All of the ATB 3PT% stats included a minimum threshold of 1.0 ATB 3PA/game.)
In order to try and 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. For example, James Harden owned the league’s highest Usage rate (35.6%) among guards, so he would get 10 points since he’s in the 100th percentile for that stat. Likewise, he did not run nearly as many pick & rolls as his counterparts, with a P&R BH frequency of only 17.9%. The highest mark in this area for the regular season belonged to Detroit’s Derrick Rose (55.2%), so Harden’s percentile rank ends up giving him only 3.24 points. A player’s Total Points value refers to his 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 guard from scratch, what offensive skills might they have?”
(Admittedly, this method of aggregating statistical outcomes and assigning points of equal weight based on where players ranked in that specific area is far from ideal; however, this method highlights the types of skills that succeed in the postseason, and what the Bucks’ guards lack. This is a major area of opportunity, and while there may be superior paths to reach this conclusion, we all need to start somewhere.)
Who are some of the league’s best guards in these areas?
In the regular season, many of the names you’d expect to see atop the positional rankings across the league were present. The top five, in order, were Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul. Considering we’re focusing on offensive metrics, it’s no surprise that some of the league’s brightest stars shine here.
With a maximum possible score of 80, those five names logged 57 points or more, with Lillard leading the way at 60.48. However, there were 29 guards that came in with at least 50 points, and some of the names were unexpected. Derrick Rose (56.50) was just outside the top five, indicative of his strong play off the Piston’s bench. Memphis had two guards in the top ten; Ja Morant (53.86) was actually a shade behind teammate Tyus Jones (54.14), who had an efficient season running the Grizzlies’ offense despite a low usage rate. Notorious Bucks killers D.J. Augustin (52.50) and Goran Dragic (51.34) each showed up, giving some relief knowing that they were effective against all competition, not just Milwaukee.
Once you get below the median mark (40 points on our scale), you end up in the land of guards who are more specialists (spot-up shooters or defenders) and younger, still-developing (or will never develop further) players; the average age of everyone above the median in total points is 26.6, while the age of everyone below that point is 25.8. The difference is minor, but it stands out just enough to raise eyebrows.
Once the playoffs started, players’ aggregated performance in these areas dropped considerably. The sample size is smaller and the game slows down a ton in the postseason, which combines with the boost in defensive aptitude and intensity to put backcourt players at less of an advantage. The average score in our metric was 39.95 points in the regular season, and in the postseason it dropped all the way to 32.21 points. That’s down 7.75 overall, or a roughly 21% decline in these specific areas. The median score dropped even more, going from 40.41 points to 34.02, illustrating just how tough the game gets for guards in the playoffs. What’s even more remarkable is how so few players improved on their regular season numbers, and how consistent the drop-off was. Out of 90 qualifiers, only 16 guards had a positive differential when subtracting their playoff points total from their regular season total, and only three of them can be considered significant featured players: Mike Conley (+1.59), Donovan Mitchell (+3.29), and Jamal Murray (+3.01).
How do Milwaukee’s guards stack up?
This may shock you, but the Bucks got a decent amount out of their guards compared to expected averages across the league...in the regular season. Both George Hill (50.75) and Eric Bledsoe (49.39) got high marks, though neither one of them cracked the top twenty-five (in part because of the roles they play for Milwaukee). Hill had one of the highest eFG% among all guards (62.4%) and was generally positive in all other categories, but had a low Usage rate (15.2%). Bledsoe was decidedly less impressive in any one offensive area, but actually performed above-average across the board. Donte DiVincenzo (40.23, just under the median) solidified himself as the team’s third guard, posting respectable efficiency results in his sophomore season. Wes Matthews (35.46) was a solid starter and Kyle Korver (38.96) a decent bench piece, neither of whom were expected to initiate much in the offense. Pat Connaughton (34.07) was up and down, as his numbers reflect, and Sterling Brown (30.11) and Frank Mason (4.50) didn’t play enough meaningful minutes to have any real impact.
In the postseason, both everybody took a major dip in their numbers. Hill’s production fell by 29% (36.11 total points, down from 50.75), and Bledsoe’s by 26% (36.45 total points, down from 49.39). The main cause was a massive decline in their effectiveness running the pick & roll; both players were decidedly worse in terms of points-per-possession and effective field goal percentage when acting as the ball-handler. Bledsoe’s above-the-break shooting also tanked, falling from 36.7% to 25.0%, further cementing his poor reputation in the playoffs, but it was the combination of poor play from both of the Bucks’ lead guards that put Milwaukee into such a bind.
That was only one part of the story, though. Hill and Bledsoe both struggled, yes, but they also had nobody to pick up the slack behind them. The stagnant offense we saw from Milwaukee in the playoffs was partly due to scheme, but also due to available personnel. All of the personnel were available, since Milwaukee had no major injuries to their guard corps, but even so, those personnel simply lacked the skills required to step in to stabilize the backcourt. Who else among the Bucks’ guards can be trusted to run P&R in high-pressure situations? Donte DiVincenzo may have been a popular theory, but his P&R numbers plummeted; on similar usage, his playoffs points-per-possession was cut nearly in half and his effective field goal percentage was down by 20 percentage points. So if not the Big Ragu, then who? There wasn’t just a bad answer...there was no answer.
Where do the Bucks go from here?
The huge gap of gray space in the chart above is where Milwaukee was simply not set up for success, given the route through the playoffs they found themselves in. Perhaps the results would have been more favorable with different matchups; had they avoided the Miami Heat, maybe things simply would have gone better. But they didn’t, and a path forward must be forged, because there is no other choice.
Entering the playoffs, it was clear that guard was the Bucks’ weakest of the three main positional groupings, but they had four to five reasonable options at the two backcourt spots. Once things got started, it became evident that Milwaukee really only had three playable guards in the postseason. Three, and one of them (Matthews) was a defensive specialist, necessarily sacrificing his offensive output for effort on the other end. Mike Budenholzer, with only three playable guards, consistently played six guards. Six.
It’s not just that each of the Bucks’ guards struggled to achieve even the median level of performance at their position. It’s that the Bucks as a franchise have not kept pace with the rest of the league in maintaining a respectable corps of players, and against the Heat, they got burned for it.
Our own OldResorter has been beating this drum for a while now: the Bucks are in desperate need of a talent infusion at the guard positions, and they are not in an obvious position to acquire one due to the relative lack of assets available to Jon Horst and the Milwaukee front office. This is why the Chris Paul trade rumors are so captivating, or why Malcolm Brogdon’s name keeps popping up; the Bucks need to make a big splash for their backcourt, and they need to do it now. The margin for error involved for running it back with most of the same players as this year is razor-thin, and Giannis isn’t going to wait around forever.
Fortunately, there are options. None of them are ideal, but the Bucks need to be flexible this offseason, now more than ever. Here is a list of players that reasonably might be worth considering, and what they would bring to the table.
- Chris Paul. Let’s get this out of the way: yes, CP3 is an excellent player and remained productive even at 35 years old. But he is 35 years old, and owed $40M+ over the next two season, making his acquisition a difficult task and his retention a bitter pill to swallow. The Bucks need someone to fill the role Paul fills...but affording Paul himself seems to be a pipe dream.
- Derrick Rose. He’s a former MVP who has thrived in a limited role on the woeful Pistons, but his jump shot is suspect, his injury history is lengthy, and he may not fit the personality type that Milwaukee usually adds to the roster. Still, he is one of the league’s best pick-and-roll operators and a capable distributor (37.3% AST%), and with only one year left at $7.7M next season, the Bucks could acquire him in a trade.
- Tyus Jones. Historically a lower-usage player in terms of overall minutes, Jones will be 24 next season and appears to be a capable point guard. He doesn't play many minutes, but he’s a solid caretaker with the ball (AST/TO ratio of 5.18) and checks all of the P&R boxes. With Morant firmly affixed to the starting role and Jones due an average of $7.7M for the next two seasons, there may be a deal in which he ends up in Milwaukee.
- D.J. Augustin. Orlando relied on Augustin for offense as a backup to Markelle Fultz, and though he’s undersized (5’11” and 183 lbs.) and an older player (he’ll be 33 next season), Augustin is the type of quick-twitch ball-handler that the Bucks could really benefit from. He earned high grades in this exercise across both the regular and postseason, by virtue of his P&R expertise (over 50% P&R BH frequency, both before and during the bubble) and ability to protect the ball (AST/TO ratio of 3.05). He’s coming off of a deal that paid him $7.25M annually, so it’s hard to know what his range is...but the Bucks ought to kick the tires and find out, if he could be added as a scorer off the bench.
- Goran Dragic. We don’t need to rehash what Dragic is capable of; he was quite possibly the Heat’s best offensive player against Milwaukee, and he ranks highly in all of the categories we considered above. Dragic is a steady performer who can handle higher usage, but is equally comfortable in a less prominent role. He’s a free agent but will turn 35 next season, and may have no interest in leaving Miami anyway.
- Allonzo Trier. He was waived by the Knicks in June, which is already a weird red flag considering Trier was originally signed and converted from a two-way deal and is only 24 years old. He’s an unrestricted free agent with three-level scoring ability and P&R skills, and could be a viable bench scoring option if the Bucks gave him a chance.
- Zach LaVine. If Milwaukee wants to make a splash, here’s one way to do it. LaVine is young (25), athletic (see here), and a borderline All Star talent. His shot chart is trending in the right direction, and right now he’s stuck on a Chicago Bulls team that is actively rebuilding. He’s miscast as a primary option, but might thrive in a lesser role that allows him to do what he’s good at (scoring) and less of what he’s not (playmaking), but his questionable defense and contract (due $19.5M through 2021-22) make it difficult to see how to land him in Milwaukee.
- Bogdan Bogdanovic. The 6’6” Serbian was a fan favorite leading into the 2014 NBA Draft, and during his time in the NBA he’s demonstrated the type of scoring punch Bucks fans wanted. He’s not a heavy P&R operator (only 24.8% frequency as a ball-handler) but he posts decent playmaking results when he does. His offensive profile is favorable, with 57.6% of his shots coming behind the three-point line, and the vast majority of those are above the break (only 14.4% of his threes are in the corners). However, at 28 years old and coming off an average annual salary of $9M, he’s likely seeking a payday from a team with cap room; Sacramento might pay him, but the Bucks likely won’t have space to do so.
- Patty Mills. The 32-year old Australian has been a fixture with the Spurs forever, but given their downward trajectory it may be time to part ways. Mills is not a notable distributor as a point guard, but is well-versed in getting buckets, having scored over 14 points per-36 and shooting above 37.0% from deep for the past five years. His contract runs out after next year, and at $13.3M his deal is eminently getable.
- Derrick White. If San Antonio won’t move their veteran Aussie, maybe they’ll consider clearing the way by moving White. This is unlikely, since White is still on his rookie scale contract, but with Mills, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and Bryn Forbes all in the mix at the guard spots, there may be an odd man out among them. White has some Brogdon to his game; he’s a stout guard at 6’4” and 190 lbs, and may have underrated three-level scoring ability.
- Jrue Holiday. There is no shortage of love for Holiday in basketball circles, and not just for what he does on the court. But with Lonzo Ball in the fold for New Orleans, Holiday (30) may end up getting moved to coalesce the young Pelicans around other pieces. This destination doesn't immediately make sense if your priority is moving Eric Bledsoe...but if Brook Lopez is on your trade block, Jon Horst may find a welcome partner in the Big Easy. Of course, this creates other issues, and Lopez alone doesn’t come close to matching Jrue’s salary ($26.1M) for next season. Still, it’s fun to dream...
Is the guard position the one most in need of a renovation for the Bucks? Which reasonably available players would you want to add to Milwaukee’s backcourt, in the interest of avoiding a third consecutive postseason letdown? Who else is out there that you want to see in a Bucks uni, and how do we get them? Who on the team already is worth keeping? Let us know, in the comments or on Twitter!