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The Planets Align for Pat Connaughton

A deeper look at the sharpshooter’s career year (so far)

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched even just a few Milwaukee Bucks games this year, it’s plain to see how much Pat Connaughton has kept the team in games while they weathered absences and/or ineffectiveness from two key offensive players: Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Connaughton is on pace for a career year in quite a few statistical categories and appears to have taken a leap entering his seventh season.

In light of this, let’s have a little fun with player comps courtesy of Basketball-Reference...

Before I reveal who B and C are (some of you may have already guessed), let’s consider the roles each guy plays. Both are role players on a contending team who are heavily relied on for catch-and-shoot threes, not shot creation. Anything else they provide their team is seen as a bonus, but in Connaughton’s case, we’ve come to expect some more: rebounding, defense, and finishing. For the record, Connaughton converts at 27.5% and 9.3% better rates within 3 feet of the rim than players B and C (respectively) on higher volume.

While B is hurt right now, these two mystery men are coming up on a quarter of their minute load in each of the past two shortened seasons. Connaughton is on pace to set a new career-high in minutes played, which may put him in the same area of playing time as B and C. A lot of these big numbers are thanks to increased minutes, so since Middleton and Holiday reassumed their typical workload, Connaughton’s numbers may trend downward. As long as he’s averaging starter’s minutes, though, it’s instructive to compare him with other fourth and fifth starters.

Connaughton is the clear choice among these three players for that volume shooter role this year, right? Sure, he’s not the best shooter among the group, but that 41.4% 3P% includes a 5/19 cold snap on treys earlier this month (he’s 47.8% since). He’s the best rebounder and defender of the trio; several advanced stats think most highly of him, though perhaps not to the level of a great defender, an area we’ve never thought of him more than solid. We’ll see how he holds up as the season progresses, but right now he’s comparing rather well—or even exceeding the production of—to two of the most (perhaps the most?) heralded three-point gunners since 2019: B is the Nets’ Joe Harris and C is the Heat’s Duncan Robinson.

Harris provided his typical low-usage, volume shooting prowess before going down with an ankle injury (he’ll miss 4–8 weeks after undergoing surgery on it yesterday). Robinson has had a rough start to the year by his standards, but some of that can be blamed on a handful of games with brutal shooting lines like 5/17 or 3/13 from downtown. He’s likely to bounce back and Harris is likely to stick around that mark (he’s shot 47.4% or better from deep twice in the past four seasons) upon his return, but Connaughton is in their realm if he keeps sinking over 40% of his threes.

Oh, and let’s not forget that contract. Harris makes $17.4m this year and has two years left on a deal that will top out at a $19.9m salary. Robinson pulls in $15.6m and has four years remaining, also topping out around $19.9m in his final year. Connaughton is making $5.3m this year and can opt out of a $5.7m salary to test free agency next summer. For all the hand-wringing from some fans over Connaughton’s contract (and if you’re still holding this contract against Horst, just why?) back in the 2019–20 offseason, his was never a bad contract, so still crowing about it is ludicrous. Now it’s a steal and I’d argue it also was a steal last year once they got deep into the playoffs. Some may call this dumb luck by GM Jon Horst, but maybe the front office saw Connaughton’s current level of play coming before it arrived, acting quickly to secure what would become a bargain.

In spite of all this, we can’t overlook some puzzling on/off numbers. The Bucks are basically even when he plays, being outscored by 0.2 per 100 possessions with Connaughton on the court, a stat that has trended upwards lately. Their defense, however, is giving up a whole 10.1 fewer points per 100 when he’s off the floor. That 110.8 defensive rating when he plays would rank 23rd in the league this season, between Atlanta and Toronto. They’re also scoring just as much when he sits (110.6 ORtg on versus 110.7 ORtg off), so they’re outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 without Connaughton in the lineup.

Put those numbers together and he has a -10.3 net rating—also a number that has actually improved in recent games—and though the sample size is still small, this is not good! These numbers are often reflected in single-game plus-minus figures too.

What gives? By this important metric (you obviously don’t want the team to play better against opponents when you’re off the court), why does it look like Connaughton is not helping the team during a career year?

For one, this isn’t unprecedented. For the first time in his Milwaukee tenure last year, Connaughton had a positive net rating at +2.6; during his first two seasons in hunter green, he was -4.8 and -7.6. The Bucks were always comfortably outscoring opponents when he was in, but prior to last season, they do so to a greater degree when he sat.

That being said, Connaughton was certainly a lesser version of his current self as a player back then, when he shot just 33.1% cumulatively from the outside on far lower volume. In that regard, it’s not very surprising that the Bucks used to play better when he was on the bench. Today, he’s a part of all but one of Milwaukee’s best 9 five-man lineups this year by net rating (minimum ten minutes played), yet his own net rating belies that.

We’ve long seen how well Giannis gels with his lifting buddy on the court and this season is no different: Basketball-Reference has them at +9.2 in nearly 400 minutes together. So let’s see how Connaughton is doing alongside other teammates, courtesy of stats.nba.com...

Maybe we’re onto something here, so let’s see how the team is doing without Giannis on the floor next to him. Per Cleaning The Glass, in the 208 minutes Connaughton has played sans Giannis, the Bucks are a terrible -24 as compared to +8.1 when they’re together. While that’s definitely not all Connaughton’s fault since he was just one of five men in the game, it’s plausible that general team-wide struggles when Giannis sits tank that net rating.

It’s worth noting that some of Connaughton’s specific defensive numbers don’t look great either. His individual DRtg of 108.5 is the worst of the rotation players and his defensive box plus/minus is -0.3, indicating he’s been a below-average defender relative to the league.

Due to the Bucks’ frontcourt injuries, Connaughton has found himself in the post a bit more on defense. Yes, he’s shown the length to guard taller players and the strength to switch onto big men over the years, but again, we usually don’t think of him as more than an average defender and certainly not a rim protector. Opponents are averaging 27 points in the paint per while Connaughton plays, a jump of nearly 8 PPG from his figure last season. As a team, the Bucks are giving up 43.9 points in the paint each night this year, only up by .8 PPG as compared to 2020–21. Those individual opponent points in the paint numbers have fallen for Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday; they have risen for Connaughton and Bobby Portis.

As previously stated, these on/off numbers are moving upward and will likely end up looking a lot like last year’s, if not better. What most will see when watching Connaughton is a high-volume sharpshooter, sensational rebounder, and athletic wing who has a knack for exciting plays. He’s become a more legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate with each passing week and while the Heat’s Tyler Herro already seems like the favorite to win that award, Connaughton should get some votes if he keeps this up.

In all likelihood, Connaughton will opt out of his contract next summer—as any player having a big contract year should—and become an unrestricted free agent. Milwaukee holds full Bird rights on him, meaning they can exceed the salary cap line in order to re-sign him on a new deal. With good health and this kind of production, he seems like a lock to command an eight-figure salary on a multi-year contract in free agency, perhaps even approaching a $15m average annual value. With Portis also due for a significant raise with the deal the Bucks could offer him in the summer of 2022, ownership will likely face a luxury tax penalty approaching $85m to retain both players on new contracts. If the first quarter of this season is any indication, it would be money well-spent on both players.