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Next Steps: How the Bucks Build Contending Lineups

Milwaukee changed their clocks to Dame Time, but who do they put around Giannis, Lillard, and Khris for the playoffs?

2020 NBA All-Star - Saturday Night Presented by State Farm Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The court is ninety-four feet long. The rim is ten feet high. The Milwaukee Bucks may have shocked the basketball world when they landed Damian Lillard, but they did not change the immutable laws of the sport. While the geometric arrangement of defenders will change as teams try to deny Dame, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton, the fact remains that the Bucks and their opponents will each deploy five players at all times.

While rudimentary, this point is lost in the whirlwind of post-blockbuster transaction euphoria. And that’s fine, it’s Dame Lillard! Euphoria is an appropriate reaction! But the devil is in the details, and one of the details left over from Milwaukee’s deal is the open roster spot that remains after sending out Grayson Allen and Jrue Holiday.

I know what you might be saying. “We needed a backup point guard anyway, just sign Cam Payne and we’re set!” And the first part might be true; Milwaukee does not have a backcourt player outside of Dame signed to a standard, playoff-eligible contract that can be considered a primary ball-handler. We all have high hopes for Lindell Wigginton, Omari Moore, and TyTy Washington, but as two-way players, their contract precludes them from taking the floor after the regular season.

But let’s revisit that premise anyway. Payne is an experienced NBA point guard (8 years in the league) who knows how to take care of the ball, find open teammates, and hit threes just often enough to be dangerous. He fills a need and could fill in on the court whenever Damian Lillard is off. But is Payne going to be a major contributor for Milwaukee in the postseason? As I consider that question in the afterglow of the Dame news, I am less convinced.

Let’s look at the current Bucks roster again, excluding our two-way contracts because we’re considering only postseason eligibility. Of those 14 names, we can safely assume that only about half of them will actually play minutes in April, May, and (hopefully) June. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is a locker room leader who is best leveraged on the bench. Chris Livingston is almost assuredly not going to be ready for NBA playoff basketball, and the same goes for Andre Jackson Jr., if only with slightly less certainty. Robin Lopez will play less than Brook, if at all, even as Brook’s minutes likely decrease in the postseason. AJ Green and Malik Beasley are off-ball shooting specialists who should get the Bryn Forbes treatment: play when the offense needs long-range shots and get pulled when the defensive liability is too great. MarJon Beauchamp loudly declares that he’s ready with his Twitter profile, but is he?

That leaves us with a shorter list of playoff players we can currently trust based on their skillset, player profile, and experience to build a seven-game series rotation from: Giannis, Dame, Khris, Brook, Pat Connaughton, Bobby Portis, and (gulp) Jae Crowder. Of those seven names, Portis is the most likely to get dropped because of his defensive weaknesses, leaving new head coach Adrian Griffin with one guard, three wings, and two bigs. Pursuit of “balance” may suggest that yes, the Bucks need another playoff-caliber guard to round things out, but are we sure that’s the case?

There are two types of lineups that Milwaukee needs to fine-tune and have ready for production by the postseason: a small-ball “Giannis at center” lineup, and a “put out your best five” closing lineup. Because the Bucks have become more top-heavy, the names chiseled into stone for either option are Giannis, Lillard, and Middleton. Obviously, Brook Lopez takes the pivot position in a traditional closing lineup and it’s difficult to argue that Pat Connaughton is not the team’s fifth-best player, giving him the nod for the fifth and final spot. But in a small-ball lineup that takes out Brook in favor of more versatility and switchability on defense, without sacrificing floor-spacing on offense, the only feasible current option on the roster is Jae Crowder as the nominal power forward, surrounded by Dame, Pat, Khris, and Giannis.

Remember the (gulp) from a few paragraphs ago? Jae Crowder, acquired in the middle of last season after holding out on the Phoenix Suns for months, is the only playoff-tested player available who can toggle between SF and PF while serving as a credible threat from behind the arc... but his 2023 postseason was bad. Granted, everybody was bad against Jimmy Butler in Milwaukee’s unceremonious dismissal in the first round, but faith in Crowder as a playoff closer is not as strong as it could be.

So with that in mind... what postseason problems does Cam Payne—or another point guard who would sign a veteran’s minimum contract—solve? When the chips are down and rotations tighten up, does Payne get minutes? Is he one of the five players who will see the court in the final stages of a tight playoff game? Does Cam Payne give you what you need to seize control of a seven-game series?

Maybe. He’s not a bad player, and he could provide support for Lillard and help keep Dame fresh. But if the Bucks are tasked with keeping the Eastern Conference’s premier two-way wings in check—Butler, Jayson Tatum, or Jaylen Brown in particular—wouldn’t Milwaukee be better served by using their open roster spot on someone who could shore up those defenses?

Going into a tough playoff matchup with only one “true” point guard is absolutely a concern. And perhaps Crowder’s full offseason (and a new coaching staff that works for him better) is enough to put him in a position to be more successful with the “PJ Tucker” role that the Bucks seem to sorely need from their fifth man. Or perhaps some surprise development from Beauchamp or Jackson Jr. results in a home-grown solution, thus affording the front office the luxury of bringing in a backup point guard.

These are the biggest questions remaining after Milwaukee shook things up and brought in Damian Lillard. How will they answer them? How do you think they should be addressed? Let us know in the comments; we won’t have to wait too long to find out!