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Joe Ingles’ debut approaches, as does a tipping point

Milwaukee’s trade deadline and postseason strategy hinge on the Aussie

Milwaukee Bucks Media Day Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Among the more pressing matter of Khris Middleton’s ankle injury, we got another tidbit after Sunday’s loss in Houston from coach Mike Budenholzer about the Bucks’ continued pursuit of roster actualization, courtesy of The Athletic’s (and Brew Hoop alum) Eric Nehm:

How close is “close?” That’s a matter of debate, but it’s much more than Bud said ahead of Middleton’s recent return. For what it’s worth, I watched Ingles go through some warmups from courtside before the Sacramento game last week, and he looked as advertised. By that I mean: a rather unathletic yet crafty 35-year-old. He’s never moved quickly but he dipped into his bag of floaters on the several drives he attempted and of course, he shot threes. He may not need too much further conditioning to resemble his pre-ACL tear, Utah self.

It seems decently possible that we’ll get our first taste of Ingles before the holidays, which is both ahead of schedule given his late-January injury—hat tip to Suki Hobson and Milwaukee’s training staff—and just in time for this team. As some voices have noted at varying volumes, the Bucks would benefit from another reliable option at forward because outside of Middleton, Giannis, and Bobby Portis... they really don’t have any. After injuries to Middleton and De’Andre Bembry, another forward-capable player may have been useful back in May against the Celtics, so GM Jon Horst deepened Bud’s choices at the 4 (and the 3, to a lesser extent) by signing Ingles this offseason using the taxpayer portion of their mid-level exception.

However, we don’t yet know if Ingles will indeed fill what might be a hole in the rotation. It’s reasonable to be optimistic about how he can benefit this team, given his unique blend of playmaking (5.1 APG over his last four full seasons) and shooting (40.1% career beyond the arc), two areas that Milwaukee’s offense was severely lacking in during that Boston series. He’s several years removed from being a plus defender, notably shutting down Oklahoma City’s Paul George way back in 2018’s first round, but with his length and well-known antagonism, you can squint and still see a decent defender in spite of the significant injury.

It’s also reasonable to be bearish on Ingles’ prospects given that he tore his ACL at age 34. He came stateside at 27 and has fewer NBA miles on his legs than most 35-year-olds around the league, but started playing at the top levels of Australian and European ball way back in 2006. Though in 2021 he finished runner-up in Sixth Man of the Year voting to teammate Jordan Clarkson, his half-season stats a year ago looked like those of a declining player:

After two years as a starter in Utah (from 2017–19 he started all but one of the Jazz’s 180 regular season and playoff games), maybe you prefer his per-36 numbers after he moved to the bench, or maybe his advanced stats. Those both took hits across the board too:

What version of Ingles will the Bucks be getting in the coming month or two? You can wave your hand to some degree at last season’s smaller sample size, you can buy his decline, or you can expect something in between. That last one may be the reality, but in any event, how Ingles looks is going to determine Milwaukee’s path forward this year in a number of ways, with or without the big fella from down under.

First, let’s imagine how this squad might look with its bells a-jingling (sorry). Another halfcourt initiator takes further pressure off Jrue Holiday and Middleton, and as mentioned, that’s something they desperately needed last postseason upon the latter’s injury. As Utah’s de facto backup point guard/point forward (get ready to hear a lot of that from Marques Johnson on broadcasts), Ingles had a lot of chemistry with shoot-first guards like Clarkson and Donovan Mitchell in pick-and-roll, so it’s easy to see him meshing well with the likes of Grayson Allen or Middleton as either a screener or ballhandler.

For many years, he was a lethal marksman from downtown, and that often held in the postseason (career 39.2% playoff 3P%). While we’ve seen a few too many great outside shooters come through Milwaukee and turn into pumpkins come April, well... it’s still better to employ a guy with historical success than someone without any. Like all those ex-Bucks, he’ll get plenty of looks in both transition and halfcourt sets.

Defensively, his measurables (6’8” 220 with a 6’10” wingspan) are what you look for from a frontcourt player who sometimes will be tasked with the Tatums and Durants of the world. Though he’s not someone you want as a primary defender on an elite scoring forward/wing, he has the right combination of size and guile to switch onto such players or take that assignment from Holiday or Middleton for brief stretches. The Bucks have a number of smaller bodies (mainly Holiday, Wesley Matthews, and Jevon Carter) who are trustworthy options on that player type too, but I think many would feel more comfortable with a bigger guy checking those long opposing scorers.

We shouldn’t underestimate the intangibles Ingles brings to this team either. By all accounts, he was well-liked within a Jazz locker room which fell apart down the stretch last year after he was traded to Portland (where he never suited up). He seems to be well-respected around the league and has some legit playoff mettle. Then there’s the chirping. Find any list of best trash-talkers in the NBA and you’ll see his name. This pairing of toughness and rep as a good teammate seems to jive well with the Bucks’ culture and current roster.

While that’s all well and good, it’s eminently possible that none of those benefits come to fruition. Even after a ten-plus month layoff, Ingles might be unable to provide much value for Milwaukee on the court. That’s certainly not what the Bucks are hoping for, and he’ll get every chance to prove himself over the coming months. It will take a healthy sample size of game action to make any judgment on Ingles as a Buck, so if he manages to come back before the holidays, we might not have a feel on this until a bit into 2023.

Importantly, Ingles becoming healthy sooner rather than later has a benefit to the front office too. Should he have a dozen or two games under his belt by February, and the Bucks determine he might not be what they need or would prefer someone else in his role, they’d be in a good position to still get value from their marginally-risky investment. This year’s trade deadline falls on Thursday, February 9th, and with his $6.48m expiring contract, Horst has a solid salary matching piece for any deal. If Ingles isn’t performing as they hoped, Horst can and should flip that salary or aggregate it with others for a 3-and-D forward to replace him.

Who that player might be is another question. As lightning-rod-man noted, there aren’t too many of those guys 6’6”–6’10” guys available who fit the bill. Complicating the matter is that trading for any of them likely requires sending out draft compensation. The best names—and probably the only ones really worth sniffing around on—might necessitate Milwaukee parting with a first-round pick, which they cannot trade until 2029, too far in the future to trust that it would fall in the twenties.

As ever, Jae Crowder is the obvious name here, but the Bucks would take a big offensive hit swapping him for an Ingles (and another player would be needed to match salaries), even if he’s not at his best. Should the Bucks manage to land a flashy name like Kyle Kuzma—whose market is heating up—or a more speculative trade candidate like Dorian Finney-Smith, it’s worth examining what the roster would look like in the aftermath of such a trade. Grouping in Ingles with more obvious trade candidates like Grayson Allen, Jordan Nwora, or George Hill, a trade of any or multiple of these Bucks could leave the team with a similar dilemma to the one they faced in May.

At full health, Milwaukee’s current roster has plenty of shooting and playmaking. Ingles joins Allen, Middleton, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton (hopefully... since returning his shooting has been rough), and even Carter as reliable deep threats. Beyond them, there are three players who each can shoot the three ball, though their numbers are down big time this year: Portis, Matthews, and George Hill. Furthermore, between the trio of guards they have who can switch between off-ball and the point (Holiday, Carter, and Hill) plus the forwards who often initiate the offense (Giannis and Middleton), the Bucks are well-stocked when it comes to ballhandlers. If he’s on top of his game, Ingles would be yet another option in that regard among the frontcourt rotation.

Without him, that’s one less creator, a problem that would become more serious if Hill or a secondary ballhandler like Allen also is traded away. Kuzma has some chops in that area, but not to the degree of Ingles, and lacks a reliable three-point shot. Is the defensive upgrade from Ingles enough to make up for that dropoff, and will the Bucks be hurting from deep since they’d likely need to trade a shooter alongside Ingles to get Kuz? You’d feel confident about Finney-Smith checking any elite scorer, and he’s a prolific maker of corner threes, but does a lineup with him camped out over there move the ball enough? If the Bucks are losing a guard in any trade‚ Ingles or not, I’d feel much better if a point guard comes back to them or they land one in the buyout market. Ingles is one of the league’s few non-star players that provides both shooting and reliable playmaking from the forward spot.

At his best, Ingles is a good, though imperfect fit for what the Bucks need between now and June. It’s possible that the missing piece some fans see is already on the roster. Even if Ingles sticks, flipping Nwora for a defensive-oriented forward to be somewhere between the 10th and 13th man is a quality idea. Whether the version of Ingles that Milwaukee hopes for will appear... we’ll find out soon enough. The good news is that if he can’t be who the Bucks currently need, his contract will help the front office acquire someone who can be.