Feb 22, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) grabs a rebound ahead of Milwaukee Bucks small forward Mike Dunleavy (17) during the first half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-US PRESSWIRE

Picking The Milwaukee Bucks' Starting Small Forward: Defense, Shooting or Potential?

The Milwaukee Bucks have four-fifths of their starting lineup pretty well cemented for next season. Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Ersan Ilyasova will almost certainly resume their starting gigs from last season, while Samuel Dalembert will likely replace the overmatched Drew Gooden as the starting center. Carlos Delfino’s departure to Houston, however, leaves things a bit murkier at the small forward position.

The Bucks will ask Luc Mbah a Moute, Mike Dunleavy Jr. or Tobias Harris to fill the vacancy at the starting small forward spot, barring an unforeseen trade or free agent acquisition. Each of those three players brings a unique, if not entirely contrasting, set of skills to the table. They all fill a much-needed role for the Bucks: Dunleavy is a pure shooter, Mbah a Moute is an elite one-on-one defender and Harris is a talented finisher at the hoop, who can actually draw contact (A Maggette-lite, if you will…*shudders*).

Although Mbah a Moute, Dunleavy and Harris all fill a specific need for the Bucks, they also have their fair share of deficiencies. Thus, the Bucks have an interesting decision to make. Scott Skiles will have to determine which small forward candidate is the better fit sandwiched between a talented (but undersized and inefficient) starting backcourt and a frontcourt that possesses a limited post game.

Here’s a closer look at your candidates. It’s election season, after all.

Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Why you should vote for him: Dunleavy was one of the Bucks’ most consistent shooters on a team that struggled to score the ball efficiently last year. Dunleavy could be a nice alternative option in a starting rotation that features two high-usage, low-efficiency guards. His 59.7 true shooting percentage led the Bucks by a considerable margin. It also doesn’t hurt that Dunleavy stands at 6’9”, especially with an undersized starting backcourt.

Oh, and he *never* misses a jump shot when rolling to his left off a pick.

Why you shouldn’t vote for him: Dunleavy appeared very comfortable in his sixth-man role last season, and the Bucks might not want to mess with that success. He still played 26.3 minutes per game last season, which is right in line with his career average. Perhaps more importantly, Dunleavy stayed relatively healthy the entire year for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Too much may have went right for Dunleavy off the bench to justify shifting him from that role.

Starting experience: 426 regular season starts (has started 62.5 percent of games played), three starts last year, and zero playoff starts.

My take: I vote to use him in a similar role as last year. The Bucks desperately need a scorer and reliable shooter off the bench. We don’t want Drew Gooden as the leader of the bench mob, do we? (There can’t be an election-themed article without unnecessary mudslinging…sorry, Drew).

Tobias Harris

Why you should vote for him: Harris earned the right to be in this discussion with a dominating showcase in Summer League. Harris was a man among boys, as he averaged 20.8 points per game on 53 percent shooting. The 20-year-old forward’s rookie campaign wasn’t too shabby, either. He averaged 5.0 points, on 46.7 percent shooting, in 11.4 minutes per game and scored in double-digits seven times. There remains to be seen how much more untapped potential Harris possesses, but he already has an impressive knack for controlling his body and scoring around the rim. His upside, potential and will to improve make him an intriguing candidate for the starting rotation next season.

Why you shouldn’t vote for him: While Harris certainly showed flashes of his scoring abilities in limited action last year, most of his success came in garbage minutes. When Skiles plugged the rookie into the starting lineup mid-season, Harris’ garbage time success was less visible. His numbers dropped across the board in his nine starts (45.8 percent field goal percentage, 0-6 on three point attempts, 5.5 points in 19.7 minutes per game).

In addition, his defense has significant room for improvement, and Skiles might opt to start a player who is more familiar with the defensive scheme.

Starting experience: Nine regular season starts, all last year, and zero playoff starts.

My take: If you haven’t checked out Steve von Horn’s in-depth piece from Brew Hoop on why the Bucks should add another three-point shooter, I urge you to do so.

I tend to agree with his following statement:

The Bucks badly need a wing player to space the floor on offense and hit corner threes, because it’s a real stretch to think Tobias Harris can step in and keep the defense honest. If Harris is forced into the starting lineup, he could struggle to produce [as a floor spacer in the corner]. Another wing shooter would allow Harris to slide into a hybrid offensive role in specialized second-unit combinations.

I don’t think Harris is ready to start yet – especially with the Bucks going “all-in” for a playoff spot – but Skiles ought to find a way to give Harris consistent burn off the bench.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

Why you should vote for him: Mbah a Moute is a defensive specialist, who can effectively guard the 1 through 4 positions. With an undersized backcourt, who struggle defensively, his perimeter defense would be a welcome addition to the starting five. He would be able to protect Jennings and Ellis by matching up against bigger guards, creating better defensive matchups for the offensive-minded Bucks backcourt. Dalembert can’t block or alter every shot, so someone needs to shutdown access to the paint. I can assure you that certain someone is not going to be Jennings or Ellis. Dunleavy and Harris can’t really help in that department, either, as neither of them are special individual defenders. Harris needs to improve his defensive awareness, as Skiles was quick to point out last year, while Dunleavy simply lacks lateral quickness to defend explosive scorers. As a result, with a defensive-minded coach, Mbah a Moute might earn the starting small forward spot by default.

Why you shouldn’t vote for him: While Mbah a Moute can virtually guard any player in the NBA, virtually any player in the NBA can guard him. Although he now has some offensive prowess around the basket, the Prince still lacks a reliable jump shot, which is concerning because Ersan Ilyasova was the only Bucks starter who efficiently shot the ball from the perimeter last year. Mbah a Moute hit just 22.8 percent (21-92) of his jump shots last season, and 109 of his 133 made field goals last season came at the rim. Milwaukee might want a better outside shooter at small forward, to keep teams from constantly sagging into the paint.

The Bucks could potentially avert this problem – as well as hide Mbah a Moute’s inability to spread the floor – by swapping his role on offense with Ilyasova. While Mbah a Moute would play the 3 position on defense, he could occupy the conventional 4 position on offense, and vice-versa with Ersan. That could be logistically tough to pull off, especially with different lineups, but it could prove to be an answer to the starting lineup question.

It’s also to be determined whether Mbah a Moute is healthy enough to play starter’s minutes. He only played in 43 of the Bucks’ 66 games last year, because of nagging knee problems. Mbah a Moute underwent knee surgery following the season to address the tendinitis in his right knee, but should be back time for training camp.

Starting experience: 188 regular season starts (average of 47 stars per year), 22 starts last year, and seven playoffs start.

My take: I cast my vote for the Prince. Mbah a Moute isn’t the ideal, prototypical starting small forward in the NBA, but the Bucks need perimeter defense added to the starting lineup more than anything else. I’ll also go out on a limb and say he will shoot better than 22.8 percent on jump shots next season. Optimism!

In the alternative Bucks-are-looking-to-rebuild universe, where they develop their youth and tank for a high draft pick, I’d consider voting for Tobias Harris as the starter.

But, in our actual Bucks-are-eighth-seed-hunting universe, it makes more sense to give Mbah a Moute the starting nod.

Who do you think the Bucks should start at small forward?

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Tags: Luc Mbah A Moute Mike Dunleavy Milwaukee Bucks Tobias Harris

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