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Now What? Bucks’ Playoff Backcourt Revisited

The Milwaukee Bucks have a most inopportune opening in the starting lineup.

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks went four up, four down in their NBA playoffs series against the Miami Heat, but folded into the waves of good vibes (and outright hubris, in some cases) was the disappointing news that guard Donte DiVincenzo was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason, due to injury.

As Adam noted in his news piece, Donte has been a divisive figure amongst Bucks fans for years. Some love his gritty upside, while others hate how inconsistent he can be. No matter what, nobody is happy that he suffered a seemingly serious injury, and it’s comforting to know that Donte is in an environment where he’ll be supported and able to heal and rehab fully. His impending extension negotiations are a problem for the offseason (and it’s difficult to imagine that an extension will happen at all); more urgently, head coach Mike Budenholzer has to sort out what he’s doing in the second round against the Brooklyn Nets. (No, Brooklyn hasn’t officially beaten the Celtics yet, but let’s not pretend the Celtics will come back against the Nets.) Pat Connaughton got the nod in Game Four of the first round, but with plenty of time to rest and recombobulate, who should take the court at tip-off next time alongside Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

As we turn our attention to Brooklyn, let’s get one thing out of the way: what worked on defense against the Heat will not work against the Nets. Miami had tons of court time devoted to two non-shooters (Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo) and relied heavily on a third (Dwayne Dedmon, who was their best reserve at times), making it easy for Brook Lopez to drop into the lane and simply wait for the offense to come to him. In this series, the ball will be dominated by a trio of Hall of Fame players (Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving) supported by a collection of more than capable three-point role players (including Joe Harris, Landry Shamet, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, and the ailing Jeff Green). The only two non-shooting rotation players are DeAndre Jordan and Nic Claxton, who won’t share the floor together and don’t play a ton to begin with. The geometry of the floor against Miami provided the Bucks with a wide margin for error; against Brooklyn, that two-lane road becomes a tightrope. Here is the Brooklyn starting lineup, ranked by regular season three-point percentage (with three-point rate for reference):

  • Joe Harris (47.5%, 3PAr of 0.628)
  • Kevin Durant (45.0%, 3PAr of 0.313)
  • Kyrie Irving (40.2%, 3PAr of 0.348)
  • Blake Griffin (38.2%, 3PAr of 0.429)
  • James Harden (36.6%, 3PAr of 0.437)

So your task is taking on a lineup featuring one of the three NBA players who is more accurate than Bryn Forbes, an all-time offensive force, another all-time offensive force, a third all-time offensive force, and the mostly-washed-but-still-useful Blake Griffin...and scoring more than them by the final buzzer.

Good luck!

I won’t embarrass myself by trying to predict how the Bucks will pull it off; that is the job of head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has (so far) established himself as a coach who is up to the moment the Bucks need to seize. This entire week will be spent preparing for what the Nets present, and winning the series will be geared around one thing: outscoring the Nets. To that end, let us leave no stone unturned and consider all of the Bucks’ available players as we ponder who will have his name called alongside the starters.

LOL just kidding, there’s no conversation here.

  • Thanasis Antetokounmpo
  • Mamadi Diakite
  • Jordan Nwora
  • Sam Merrill
  • Elijah Bryant
  • Axel Toupane

These guys weren’t in the regular season rotation, much less in the playoffs, and they only took the court in the first round once Miami waved the white flag. Thanasis is the only player who has anything resembling relevant professional experience, and he’s recovering from a knee injury. No, these six dudes are squarely in the cheerleading section until further notice.

You can see something if you squint real hard...but, no.

  • Bobby Portis
  • Jeff Teague

Let’s start with Portis, the most important player on the roster who is a lock to not join the starting lineup at this time. First of all, his presence would throw the Bucks’ positions into complete disarray; Brook stays at center, Giannis moves up to small forward and Khris to shooting guard. That lineup is nonsensical; Brook, Giannis, and Portis have all shared the court for 37 minutes this year and produced a defensive rating of 127.2. Portis is a fantastic fit as a bench big who can hustle, rebound, and score; as a starter, he would be a defensive liability that has no place to hide against the Nets’ historic offense. The only upside to Portis’ insertion into the starting lineup would be the massive size advantage it would create, but the Bucks are already a great rebounding team and have found ways to create possessions off the offensive glass. As Big Perk will undoubtedly say, carry the hell on...

Jeff Teague has a few more things going for him to replace Donte than Bobby does. For one thing, he’s actually a guard, and replacing one guard with another seems logical. He hasn't yet lost the quickness that keeps him relevant at the NBA level, and slotting him next to Jrue would simplify the Bucks’ defensive matchups; Teague on Kyrie, Jrue on Harden, Khris on Harris, Giannis on KD, and Brook on whichever fifth player Brooklyn trots out. That’s about the end of the list of positives here: Teague lacks the size or defensive chops to survive on switches, he’s too shy with his three-point shot on offense, and in general isn't enough of a needle-mover to improve the Bucks’ chances. The only path to starting Teague that makes sense is to make him a Johnny O’Bryant Memorial Starter; a token starter that plays relatively few minutes (less than 10 total) at the beginning of the first and third quarters just to eat minutes and space out the rotation for the rest of the bench players. Teague’s job would be the basketball equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm.

As the section heading notes: you can see the shape of something if you squint hard enough, but ultimately that “something” isn’t something that puts the Bucks in a position to win. Teague isn’t in the main playoff rotation and shouldn’t be in the playoff rotation unless injury or foul trouble demands his presence. Milwaukee’s margin for error is razor-thin in this series, and Teague doesn’t offer enough upside to make the risk worthwhile.

The main contenders

  • Bryn Forbes
  • PJ Tucker
  • Pat Connaughton

These three represent the most realistic options to replacing DiVincenzo. As usual, The Athletic’s Eric Nehm has already covered this territory, and notes that each of the candidates provides something that Donte offered in one package. Forbes gives you the only upgrade in the group by way of his offensive production, but his defensive limitations make him a much higher risk choice. Tucker gives you very little on offense but provides grit, communication, defensive instincts, and maximum switch ability. Connaughton is somewhere in between; he’s better on offense than Tucker, better on defense than Forbes, and shoots, cuts, and rebounds similarly to what the Bucks expected with Donte as a starter.

For a moment, let’s explore what starting Forbes or Tucker in Connaughton’s place might look like, starting with Forbes. At 15.0 points per game in the playoffs, Forbes’ hot streak is a tempting ingredient to add to the Bucks’ starters. His per-game scoring is 50% higher than his regular season mark (10.0), and his per-minute scoring went up from 0.52 to 0.75. Putting that kind of pressure on Brooklyn’s defense from the jump would be interesting, but would have two major side effects, one immediate and one downstream.

On defense, Forbes held up against Miami because he got help from both his teammates and of Miami’s lack of dynamic perimeter talent. The Heat were not able to effectively target Forbes (and credit to Bryn for putting up as much fight on that end as he ever has) during the four-game series. Against a much more isolation-heavy Nets offense, Forbes presents too easy of a crack in the armor. He would be the smallest starter (6’2” and 205) by far, therefore earning the Kyrie Irving (6’2”) assignment. It’s either that or task Forbes with chasing Joe Harris (6’6”) around on the perimeter, or ask him to check James Harden (6’5” and also lol).

On offense, it’s clear that Forbes can thrive in this Milwaukee system, but moving him up in the rotation takes away the built-in advantage of playing against other reserves. It’s not that Forbes can’t survive against other starters (he logged only 67 minutes with the other four Bucks’ starters, which had a Net Rating of +5.5), but maximizing Forbes’ strengths in an environment that allows him to lean on those strengths. With an 8-man rotation, Forbes should be able to share the court with at least two other starters at all times, which suits him: two-man lineups featuring a starting player and Forbes each have a positive Net Rating. In the regular season, Starter Bryn shot 41.0% on threes, but as a reserve he managed 46.0%. He will play heavy minutes out of both necessity and opportunity, and keeping him coming off the bench helps Milwaukee make the most of those minutes.

Switching gears, let’s talk about PJ Tucker’s case to join the starters. As with most things regarding Tucker, you can’t necessarily quantify what he brings to the table. He is a dogged defender, capable of switching onto nearly any opponent, and communicates constantly. This series is Tucker’s series in which to shine; the reason he was brought in was for this series. As a replacement for Donte, Tucker gives the Bucks a player who has a shot at credibly covering James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving all in the same possession. HIs presence allows Milwaukee to switch just about everything 1 through 4, and he can be counted on to at least take open corner threes.

But these aren’t opener duties, these are closer duties.

Where Tucker excels is in short bursts where you just need to out-grind the other team. Adding him to the starting lineup feels like a misuse of his skills, where he would be largely ignored on defense (giving someone like Harden ample opportunity to rest on that end) and his substitution would need to come sooner rather than later. Tucker just turned 36 and his toughness might be endless, but his stamina isn’t. Milwaukee will need his defense in a true “switch everything” lineup, likely to consist of him, Giannis, Khris, Jrue, and probably Pat Connaughton. Tucker will have limited minutes where he’s performing at peak effectiveness, it would be unwise to use those minutes when not absolutely necessary for playoff survival.

If you want consistency, then sticking with Connaughton (as Budenholzer did for Game Four of the Miami series) as the replacement starter makes sense. He replicates a lot of (but not all of) what Donte did well, does less of what Donte struggled with, and stabilizes the rotation by keeping both Forbes and Tucker solidified in their current roles. Planet Pat might not raise the ceiling for the Bucks’ chances, but he doesn’t lower the floor either. At least for Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Brooklyn, this is the option that makes the most sense and presents the least risk.


Who should be the Bucks’ fifth starter against Brooklyn?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Bryn Forbes
    (86 votes)
  • 79%
    Pat Connaughton
    (859 votes)
  • 11%
    PJ Tucker
    (121 votes)
  • 1%
    Someone else! (make your case in the comments)
    (21 votes)
1087 votes total Vote Now