Despite undergoing yet another significant roster restructuring in the offseason, the Milwaukee Bucks will enter this season with a fairly concrete plan for the starting lineup and much of the bench rotation. The only starting position still in question is the small forward spot, vacated by the departure of frequent starter-by-default Carlos Delfino. Last season, the 3 was Milwaukee's second-worst position in terms of "raw" production, despite getting a full season of strong play off the bench from Mike Dunleavy.
Milwaukee's starting small forward is likely to be asked to do many things. The backcourt is sure to dominate much of team's scoring, but they'll need balance. They'll also need defense and "physicality" out of the position, especially with the presumptive starter at power forward being more of a stretch-4 who doesn't typically bang inside on offense.
Versatility like that is difficult to find. Many of the best players in the game fit the bill as do-everything wings, but none of them play for the Bucks. Instead, Milwaukee employs three players who bring very different skills to the position:
The Shooter. Ersan Ilyasova's three-point barrage last season was astounding to see, but in terms of pure shooting and effortless scoring, it was tough to top Mike Dunleavy. His 39.9% from behind the arc was still terrific, and he actually made a higher percentage of his two-point shots than Ersan, giving him a team-best 59.7 true shooting percentage. He also looked like the Bucks' best passer for stretches, helping facilitate the team's improved ball movement. Normally he'd be a shoo-in for the starting spot, but he was so good as a Sixth Man last season that Scott Skiles is reluctant to move him out of that role. Keeping the Udrih-Dunleavy pairing together makes plenty of sense, as it should repeat as one of the NBA's best bench combos. One simply has to wonder if Milwaukee can justify keeping Mike's well-rounded game out of the starting lineup.
The Stopper. I'd warrant none of us really remembers what it's like to see Luc Mbah a Moute shut down the NBA's best scorers night after night. The best we can do is examine the data, film, and sworn testimony saying he's really quite excellent at doing so. Honestly, there might not be another player on the roster who does anything as well as Luc does perimeter defense. But he's, uh, pretty limited on offense. Can his value be maximized as a starter? Fair question. Running a designated stopper out with the starters has worked in certain situations (Thabo Sefolosha with the Thunder being the obvious example), but it's questionable whether the Bucks can really afford to do so. Luc's good at moving without the ball and scoring off cuts, but he's not a great fit for the transition attack Milwaukee wants to emphasize. The Bucks would have to get a ton of reliable scoring out of the other four positions (realistically it's more like three) to make it work.
The ...Something-er. I couldn't think of an "s" word to describe Tobias Harris, but "something-er" actually has some truth to it. Who is Tobias Harris? At times he looks like a tweener forward who will forever be plagued by an unclear role. At other times he legitimately looks the highest-ceiling player on the roster. He's a good rebounder, can score in the post and draw fouls, and looks like he possesses a good combination of strength and speed. But if he's going to be a small forward as Milwaukee hopes, then he's missing some key skills. He's not a great ball-handler or passer and his outside shooting is suspect at best, but the mismatch his skillset creates could work wonderfully next to Ersan Ilyasova, himself a matchup nightmare. Harris has already shown significant improvement in his young career. He's earned a bigger role, and the Bucks look eager to give him one. Does he fulfill the most pressing needs they'll have at the 3, though?
Three choices, one answer. Position battles are typically seen as a good thing, and each guy has obvious potential. Right now it seems like Tobias Harris is the leading candidate by default, with Dunleavy operating off the bench and Luc rehabbing his knee. Even the eventual resolution could raise further questions. If Tobias settles in and plays well, what does the team do with Mbah a Moute? Would the Bucks be better off putting Luc on the market if he's not playing significant minutes? The power forward position gets all the quagmire-themed headlines, but the rest of the roster might just hinge on who starts at small forward.