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Sputtering: Bucks’ Championship Defense Off To a Rough Start

Milwaukee is 4-6 with another four games on the road.

NBA: White House Visit-Milwaukee Bucks NBA Champions Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks got to bask in the afterglow of their NBA championship in our nation’s capital yesterday, but that’s been the high point of things for the squad lately. Everything went right in the playoffs last year, and thus far more has gone wrong than not. I’m not saying that the Bucks used up all their karma to capture the title...but it sort of feels that way, doesn’t it?

Of course, there are some obvious causes of the problems Milwaukee has experienced on their way to their worst start in the Mike Budenholzer era. Jrue Holiday has missed more than half of the Bucks’ games with heel and ankle injuries. Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night, nursing a mysterious back injury. Khris Middleton has been out for four games (and counting) due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Bobby Portis just returned to the court after recovering from a hamstring issue. We haven’t even seen Donte DiVincenzo yet as he continues working his way back from ankle surgery.

To put it bluntly, you can’t win basketball games when you’re missing so many key pieces. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be one of the league’s very best, but we’ve seen how transcendent talents fail when they’re saddled with a subpar supporting cast. He can’t do it himself, not over a sustained period of time. And even that characterization is unfair; the Bucks’ active roster isn’t bad, they’re just outmatched relative to everyone they’re playing against right now.

None of this excuses the fact that the Bucks have played sloppy basketball for the opening ten-game set of the season, and they look every bit of their 4-6 record right now. Here are some of the early themes that are worth exploring as Milwaukee tries to get back on track.

Smallball: Not A Panacea (in the regular season)

Teams play smaller in the playoffs because they want to exploit mismatches and capitalize on their opponents’ weaknesses. There are times in the regular season where this happens, but the Bucks aren’t playing small because they’re trying to win; the Bucks are playing small out of necessity, both due to their injury woes and roster construction.

Milwaukee’s roster (15 players total) has played 2400 minutes of regulation basketball so far this season, a nice even number thanks to the lack of overtime periods across these first 10 games. Of those minutes, Milwaukee’s group of wings have taken on a larger share of the load to compensate for the absences elsewhere in the rotation, and because Milwaukee’s group of wings is also depleted, the Bucks are simply getting a lower quality of replacement player because everybody is being moved up more notches in the rotation than they can handle in a competitive environment.

Giannis leading the team in minutes is no surprise, but look at the names that follow him. Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, and 35-year old George Hill are simply not at the same level as the Bucks’ normal range of players who are at the top of the Minutes Played leaderboard. Missing Jrue, Khris, and Brook for as much time as they have is a major blow, and there’s no amount of energy or effort that could overcome the temporary talent drain the Bucks have suffered.

Moreover, let’s consider the quality of player at the Bucks’ center position. Giannis is Giannis and as a result he doesn’t really fit into any of the categories (the perks of being a super-duper-star), but he’s closest to ‘big’ than the others. According to basketball-reference, Giannis has played nearly three-fourths of his minutes at center over these 10 games, by far a career high. Other than him, we’ve got a half hour of Brook Lopez from the season opener, a decent chunk of Bobby Portis (who just got back into the regular rotation), and over an hour of two-way quality play from rookie Sandro Mamukelashvili. That’s it, that’s the entirety of the Bucks’ big man rotation this season. Coach Bud has gotten creative to try and pair Giannis with “nominal centers” such as big brother Thanasis, Semi Ojeleye, and even Pat Connaughton...but it hasn’t worked. It just hasn’t.

Giannis is somehow still improving his game (particularly as a passer and playmaker), but his supporting cast simply isn’t getting it done. The Bucks are getting out-rebounded with regularity, they can’t protect the rim or the point of attack, their shooting has been inconsistent, and it’s bringing all of their advanced metrics down to league average or worse.

The New Guys...

It has been particularly rough goings from the get-go for Milwaukee’s newest additions. Grayson Allen is perhaps the exception, as he’s scoring at a decent clip now that he’s pushed his three-point percentage back up to the 40% range. Outside of that, the wing duo of Semi Ojeleye and Rodney Hood have simply not hit their stride yet. Ojeleye was late to get started with a calf strain, as was Hood with lingering foot pain; these kept each player off the court during training camp and robbed them of precious acclimation time. But would that have made a difference? Ojeleye was a former first round pick who unceremoniously parted ways with the team that drafted him, with no illusions about an extension of his rookie-scale contract. The Celtics could have kept him if they wanted...but they didn’t. Hood is a scrappy score-first wing...who’s approaching 30 and has never really been the same since a ruptured Achilles. There’s a reason each of them were available for the minimum, even if it was to join a winner like the Bucks.

The rookies are rookies, and are (rightfully) spending time with the Wisconsin Herd anyway, so that brings us to George Hill, who was always going to have a spot in the rotation as a favorite of Mike Budenholzer’s. An upgrade from Jeff Teague, Hill has been...merely fine, at best, in his return stint in Milwaukee. He still plays the same way he always did, but he’s a step slower and not quite as crisp with his reads and rotations. This is what you expect from a backup point guard, generally, and an older backup being thrust into a more prominent role is a risky recipe for success.

Too Small?

One of the main concerns before the season from some (certainly not all, shout out to oldresorter) Bucks fans was the team’s lack of depth at center. Bobby Portis can play the 5 often enough to be called a center, but his role and skillset makes him much closer to the 4 in terms of “combo bigs” across the league. So there’s Brook Lopez and...that’s it, if we’re leaving Mamu in the “maybe someday” category. As we mentioned earlier, Giannis can’t do everything, and “small ball center” is a totally different job than “regular center.”

Brook Lopez has been something of an ironman since joining Milwaukee; really, since getting himself right in Brooklyn, Brook hasn’t played less than 70 games since 2013-14 (with the exception of the shortened 19-20 season, where he logged 68). That’s a lot of basketball for a Big big man, making his first injury absence with the Bucks a bit of a system shock. Without Brook, the Bucks don’t have another box-out specialist, or zone drop specialist, or non-Giannis rim protector. This has forced the defense to flex in directions they haven’t flexed before, and the offensive struggles the Bucks have suffered are likely a direct symptom of their defensive issues. They need him back.

“But, for sure, I need Brook to get back. I need Brook to get back,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile before shifting his attention from the reporters in the room to the lens of the camera filming the postgame media session in the back of the room. “Brook, I don’t know, maybe you are at home right now, Brook, please come back. We need you to rebound the ball, brother.”

With tonight’s game against the suddenly-ailing Philadelphia 76ers coming up fast, along with another three road games before the Bucks return home to Fiserv Forum (where they’re off to an underwhelming 1-4 start), the Bucks aren’t anywhere near trouble yet. But the longer these doldrums drag on, the less time Milwaukee will have to put themselves in advantageous seeding position in the East, which will start mattering sooner than you realize.