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Round and Round Again: Forecasting the Bucks’ Rotation

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The Bucks’ offseason is coming to a close, so let’s look ahead to the quickly-approaching new season.

NBA: NBA Champions-Milwaukee Bucks Victory Parade Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Milwaukee Bucks are reigning NBA champions and with the league pushing for a return to normalcy, the offseason is startlingly short and the regular season is just around the corner. Furthermore, the 2021-22 season brings a return to the full 82-game schedule, meaning that there’s even more minutes and more games that the Bucks will need to suit up for.

The lesson the Bucks have learned the hard way is that the regular season, to a certain extent, doesn’t matter when you’re competing. The most important objective for contenders is to stay healthy, win enough to maintain a high-enough seed (the higher, the better), and prepare yourselves for the playoffs. Home court advantage does play a part, but as the Bucks showed this past playoffs it is an obstacle that a good enough team can overcome.

So now that the roster is essentially locked in, what might the Bucks’ regular season rotation look like?


In order to get a holistic view of what the minutes distribution might look like, we need to recognize that playing time, as a resource, is inherently scarce. There are only 48 minutes of regulation play per game, 5 slots for players to be on the floor, and 82 games in a season. That comes out to a maximum of 3,936 minutes (individually) and 19,680 (team total) that the coaching staff has to work with. If you factor in some overtime, those numbers get pushed close to 4,000 and 20,000, close enough to round up our casual estimates at least. But of course, few players are going to log 82 games in a season, and even fewer can handle a 48-minute workload every night, so the functional limit is much lower, before we even get to differentiating starters, backups, and reserves.

What this all means is that head coach Mike Budenholzer has a unique challenge coming down the road. Not only does he need to put together a winning rotation using the players available at the outset of the season, but he needs to be able to compensate for injuries, rest, and he’ll eventually need to reintegrate Donte DiVincenzo into the mix (more on that later). This is alongside the year-long tweaking and tinkering that coaches already do, as well as navigating the ebbs and flows of individuals’ hot and cold streaks. It’s remarkably similar to adjusting the minutes distribution when the roster is shaken up following a trade, so at least Bud knows who he’s working with already.

With that in mind, the Bucks need to allocate just under 4,000 minutes to all five positions on the floor by the time they get to the postseason. To get the most out of this conversation, we’ll go position by position and see how things shake out. The method I used to estimate playing time was to take the last few NBA seasons worth of games and minutes played for each player, increased or decreased based on age and injury probability, and then combine it with basketball-reference.com’s position estimation to break up those minutes between the five main positions. For example, if a player logs 1,000 minutes, with 50% of their minutes at point guard and 50% at shooting guard, then each position gets 500 of that player’s minutes.

Center

Primary: Brook Lopez / Bobby Portis

Reserve: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks are well-situated in the middle with their two mainstays at the center position. Brook Lopez remained as steady as ever in his third year with Milwaukee, and the return of hometown hero Bobby Portis secured a major part of last season’s rotation. Still, Lopez’s age figures to slowly erode his minutes while Portis weaknesses on defense limit how effectively he can run the defense as a 5, even when sharing the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo. There are 48 minutes of center to go around, and while the Bucks have one of the league’s stronger pairings in Lopez and Portis, there is still a certain thinness to the depth chart.

The obvious solution is that Giannis will assuredly play some center minutes, and the Bucks should be comfortable with that going forward. Because of his unique skillset, a lineup should be able to succeed with Giannis playing nominal C but “doing PF things” while another player acts as a nominal PF but “does C things” like box out and set screens. Any lineup where Giannis is the biggest big man will probably defend with more aggression than the basic zone drop scheme, and they’ll be good at it. The only hangup is that Giannis shouldn’t be expected to do everything (even if he’s capable) all the time, and more help is an investment in keeping him fresh for the playoffs.

Thus the perceived need for a competent fourth big emerges, and Semi Ojeleye figures to be the most likely candidate. Ojeleye has historically played only a fraction of his minutes at center, but he has the frame (6’6” and 240 lbs) to give it an honest attempt, and the Bucks have enough size and rebounding talent elsewhere to account for his otherwise poor fit for the position. Besides…if not Ojeleye, who else can moonlight at center on this roster?

Rotation (minutes/game): Lopez (24.0), Portis (19.8), Giannis (3.4), Ojeleye (1.6)

Power Forward

Primary Giannis Antetokounmpo / Semi Ojeleye

Reserve: Bobby Portis

This position is one of the most clear-cut in the league, by virtue of Giannis’ excellence. He’s got a stranglehold on one of the All-NBA First Team’s two forward spots for the next half-decade, at least, and it seems that nothing can keep him from maintaining the primary load of playing time at his natural PF position.

Ojeleye was ostensibly brought in to try out for the top backup PF spot, doing his best PJ Tucker impression on defense while staying out of the way on offense. He just needs to be competent in this role to maintain a regular allocation of minutes, because there’s very little competition here. Portis is inarguably a better player, but is both better-suited and more needed at the 5, and Thanasis is…Thanasis. The elder Antetokounmpo brother will play spot minutes here and there, but an over-reliance on his frenetic energy would be a symptom of a serious issue. After that, there are a handful of names who might be capable of playing the 4, specifically Middleton and Connaughton, but they are the primary options at SF and therefore shouldn’t be expected to log much time at a larger position.

Rotation (minutes/game): Giannis (30.6), Ojeleye (12.8), Middleton (3.2), Portis (2.2)

Small Forward

Primary: Khris Middleton / Pat Connaughton

Reserve: Rodney Hood / Semi Ojeleye

Regularly forgotten in the rankings of NBA wings is Khris Middleton, one of the steadiest and most consistent players in the league. He scores with a high degree of efficiency and does a fair amount of everything else – and does it well – while also remaining healthy and available on a regular basis. He’s reliable in his role, and can be counted on to play a primary role in the rotation at small forward.

Behind him is Pat Connaughton, who stepped up in a big way during the 2021 playoffs and was one of the few non-starters who was able to get minutes on the biggest stage. Beyond his improved three-point shooting, Connaughton’s ability to rebound above his size combined with his overall mobility make him a natural fit in the middle of a lineup, shifting up and down from the 3 as needed.

Behind them, the two newcomers Hood and Ojeleye offer very different things when playing the SF role. Hood, more of a SG, helps the Bucks play smaller while Ojeleye, more of a PF, would help them play bigger. Thanasis will probably factor into this at some point as well, but he should remain a tertiary option.

Rotation (minutes/game): Middleton (25.6), Connaughton (15.4), Hood (4.8), Ojeleye (1.6)

Shooting Guard

Primary: Grayson Allen / Donte DiVincenzo*

Reserve: Pat Connaughton / Rodney Hood

The two-guard role is the one that affords the Bucks the most flexibility, and general manager Jon Horst further solidified that role when he swapped Sam Merrill and some future 2nds for Grayson Allen. Allen was chosen only four spots after the Bucks selected Donte DiVincenzo in the 2018 NBA Draft, and there is a ton of overlap between what the two twos offer. Since DiVincenzo is expected to continue his rehab at the start of the season, Allen is the natural choice to replace him in the starting lineup, though he still needs to earn Mike Budenholzer’s trust in training camp.

This is a natural opportunity to mention one of the most intriguing sub-plots of the season coming up: the inevitable positional battle between DiVincenzo and Allen. One of the Bucks’ few recent draftees that actually became something, Donte was an excellent fit as both the Bucks’ shooting guard and fifth starter over the course of their run to the NBA Finals. When he went down in the first round against Miami, the team was able to recover by shortening the rotation and going big, replacing DiVincenzo with PJ Tucker while assigning Khris Middleton additional backcourt duties. Milwaukee will need more guard minutes for the marathon that is the regular season, saving the upsizing for the playoffs. Donte, unfortunately, won’t be available for some time, and Allen should be the presumptive favorite to keep his seat in the starting lineup warm. Grayson Allen looks the part of a solid starting guard anyways, especially in Milwaukee with a low usage rate, high three point attempt rate, and enough size, speed, and strength to avoid becoming a target on defense. What happens when Donte returns is anyone’s guess at this point.

One person who feels like a sure thing is Pat Connaughton, who had a stellar shooting performance in the postseason and can effectively split time between the 2 and the 3. But because of his consistency, he acts as a stabilizing force in reserve lineups, making him an unlikely choice to start early and almost guaranteed to come off the bench when both Allen and DiVincenzo are healthy.

Rodney Hood is the biggest wildcard of the group, both because of his own availability concerns and the unique niche his skillset fills. Standing at 6’8” but weighing just over 200 lbs, Hood has the height and length to toggle between SG and SF (similar to the stouter Connaughton), but his Achilles injury in December 2019 is a dark cloud hanging over him. In 21 games with Portland pre-injury, Hood managed 11.0 points in 29.5 minutes per game on 0.506/0.493/0.778 shooting splits. Will the Bucks’ training staff help him regain the strength needed to get back to that level of efficiency? And if so, is Hood’s shot profile one that fits with the Bucks’ offense? For his career, Hood takes only 11% of his field goals within 3 feet of the rim (43.4% of his shots are threes), and less than a third (31.3%) of his career shots are assisted. These ingredients combined give the impression of a capable isolation scorer; is that what the Bucks need?

Rotation (minutes/game): Allen (19.8), Hood (11.2), Connaughton (6.6), Holiday (6.4), Middleton (3.2)

Point Guard

Primary: Jrue Holiday / George Hill

Reserve: Donte DiVincenzo* / Grayson Allen

As things stand right now, point guard might be the Bucks’ biggest position of need, but not for obvious reasons. With Holiday and Hill as the primary options at the 1, the Bucks boast one of the league’s better point guard duos. Jrue and George are versatile, but availability is going to be a factor; Holiday is coming off a truncated offseason (congrats on the gold medal!) that followed a demanding postseason run, and Hill is 35 years old and is a safe bet to miss 25 games every season. If healthy in the playoffs, these two will be absolutely fine as the main players...but there’s 82 games to play before we even get there. Having no third-string ball handler behind Hill is cause for some concern.

Admittedly, the Milwaukee Bucks have less need for point guards than most teams, simply because they have Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. This year, though, falling back on their playmaking forwards seems less likely; Khris is coming back from the same exact experience as Jrue (congrats again on the gold!) and Giannis does literally everything when he plays, heaping more responsibility on him seems unfair.

This illustrates the quandary facing Mike Budenholzer as he builds his rotation. At some point, Holiday and Hill are going to need load management, either as a precaution against or a response to minor injury. So when that happens, who’s the next man up? Donte DiVincenzo would be the natural choice to become the nominal point guard, but there is no timetable for his return and no guarantee that he’ll be capable of handling ball-handling duties...which he already struggled with. So who else is there? Grayson Allen moonlights as a point guard on occasion, so he’d be the natural choice to fill in when things get thin. After that? It’s slim pickings.

What feels most likely is that the Bucks simply will avoid stretches where both of Holiday and Hill are not on the floor. If one of them is absent, this will of course force a change of plans,

Rotation (minutes/game): Holiday (25.6), Hill (20.0), Allen (2.2)

Deep Bench

Jordan Nwora, Georgios Kalaitzakis, Mamadi Diakite (NGd), Elijah Bryant (NGd), Sandro Mamukelashvili (two-way)

There is no reasonable expectation that any of these players turn into bastions of the rotation this year. Mamukelashvili had a pleasantly surprising Summer League and will spend most of his time with the Wisconsin Herd, and hopefully Georgios Kalaitzakis follows suit. The team won’t keep both of Mamadi Diakite and Elijah Bryant beyond training camp, and whichever one sticks around (likely Diakite) will be glued to the end of the bench unless disaster strikes.

That leaves Jordan Nwora, the only deep reserve with a whisper of an argument for rotation minutes. In 30 games last season, Nwora made the most of his opportunities by producing 22.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes, while shooting 0.459/0.452/0.760. The lineup data is cacophonous considering Nwora logged only 274 minutes in his rookie year, but the eye test confirms that his offense, while impressive, leans “me-first” and his defense leaves much to be desired. As a combo forward who can eat minutes and produce points, it’s easy to see how Nwora could forge a path to playing time. On this Milwaukee Bucks team, where defensive ability and offensive versatility are a priority, and the vast majority of minutes at both forward spots are spoken for? He may move up a spot or two in the case of injury to someone else, but otherwise Nwora will likely be on the outside looking in.

Overall Roster

The Bucks’ big three figure to be the only ones to break the 2,000 minute mark next season, which makes sense given they are the center of everything that happens on the court for Milwaukee. With the schedule returning to 82 games, it’s reasonable to assume that each of Giannis, Khris, and Jrue will miss anywhere between 7-10 contests, hopefully as a preventative measure. The flexibility of this roster provides for a plethora of options for the supporting cast; the chart above includes per-game minute estimates for a 10-player rotation, but doesn’t count any minutes that will eventually go to Donte DiVincenzo and the the deep reserves, including Thanasis.

Another necessary caveat is that this rotation, built in August, is wildly premature and does not account for any changes that may happen during preseason or the eventual changes that are sure to happen over the course of the year. For instance, PJ Tucker logged less than 400 minutes last season. 400 minutes! And he was a pivotal member of the Bucks’ playoff rotation! How things look now is not how things will look when they matter, but every step along the path matters in terms of building towards the destination, which in this case is a return to the NBA Finals.