What Does the “Right” Center Look Like for the Bucks?


At this point, whether fans like it or not, the Bucks seem to be set on a core of four players: Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jabari Parker.

Some may want to remove MCW from that list, while others would add John Henson to it. Some (Racine Times’ Gery Woelfel), even, would claim the team is trying to move both of those guys. Regardless of your position on any of these debates, a starting center is the one thing both fans and the team agree that they should be looking for.

Assuming my dreams of Giannis bulking up and playing some center in a few years don’t come true, the team is left to fill that void in the near future.

While there’s no specific archetype of a center that the Bucks need to get, there are certainly some pieces that can be put together to see how a potential big man might mesh with the assumed core.

Players like DeAndre Jordan are often suggested to be the ideal fit for the Bucks, with the line of thinking being that the Bucks are a long, defensive-oriented team. The vision becomes that long, rim-protecting assets like Jordan would take the second best defense from last year and ensure the success on that end continues for years to come.

But there’s much more to the Bucks identity than just being long and defensive-oriented. While maxing out a potential Defensive Player of the Year into an already successful defense sounds like a good idea, a more open-minded approach might yield better results. In other words, while a shot-blocking big can certainly be one of the key ingredients to defensive success, it’s far from the most important in many cases.

Look no further than last year’s Bucks for evidence. On December 23rd, fans would watch the last of Milwaukee Buck Larry Sanders, also known as their version of a long shot-blocker. Before that game and including it, the Bucks sported a respectable 103.1 Defensive Rating, that ranked 12th in the league.

Following Sanders’ departure, Zaza saw much bigger minutes and replaced Larry as the starter in most games. The post-Sanders Bucks earned a Defensive Rating of 97.2 for the remainder of the season, ranking first in the NBA during that stretch.

This shift in defensive performance surely doesn’t prove that Zaza Pachulia is a better defensive threat than Larry (because he isn’t), as there were many other lineup shifts that also share some responsibility (Jabari’s departure and MCW’s arrival). What it does suggest, however, is that a player that knows where and when to help can still be a part of an elite Sean Sweeney-influenced defense with this group.

That’s the first component for the Bucks’ center of the future, and a pretty necessary one, too: He needs to be fundamentally sound and smart on the defensive side of the ball. Any shot-blocking that could be added to this would almost surely guarantee an elite defense, but defensive positioning and discipline comes first.

(Side-note: If Jabari continues to be mediocre defensively, perhaps rim-protection that can mask his mistakes will be more valuable. I’m more optimistic, though, as I see Jabari becoming at least average and Giannis sliding over for help-side blocks more than people might imagine.)

As for the other side of the court? Well, it’s no secret that as the team is currently constructed, there is much to be desired in terms of spacing. While this is far from a pre-decided doom for the team in the future, jump-shooting certainly isn’t the featured aspect of any of the core players’ offensive games.

If this continues to be true, a center that can be respected from the elbow or the baseline figures to have a palatable effect on the offense, opening up the floor for Giannis, Jabari, and Michael Carter-Williams to attack the basket, as they do best.

Once again, look no further than Zaza Pachulia for support to this idea.

Mar 11, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Zaza Pachulia (27) holds the ball as Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) defends during the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What this year’s Zaza lacked in athleticism and finishing ability, he made up for in competent jump-shooting and offensive orchestration. On a team that clearly lacked a consistent source of offense, Zaza operating from the high elbow was often the best option, whether it was passing to cutters or utilizing dribble hand-offs.

The spacing he created with his shooting and passing ability proved to be incredibly invaluable to a Bucks starting group that lacked in that department. Arguably, this was the main reason Jason Kidd stuck with Pachulia in the starting lineup throughout the year, even when John Henson started to come on in the playoff series against Chicago.

With Pachulia being more than viable defensively and providing necessary spacing to the starters, Kidd had no choice but to continue using Zaza with the starting lineup despite his deficiencies around the rim.

That’s the second component: The future center needs to be able to finish around the rim, effectively space for creators like Giannis, Jabari, and MCW, or at least not be a liability in that department. Those players may very well end up being decent to great shooters, but a spacing center figures to mesh well with their projected skillsets.

The last feature on this list is a good basketball IQ. When it comes to free agency and the draft, athleticism and playmaking can often be overvalued while a good feel for the game can be frequently overlooked. Last year, two of the top three players on the team in terms of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus were two that are far from physically gifted; Zaza and Jared Dudley.

A large part of this came from the marginal effect their smarts had on a very young team that was still learning (and will eventually learn the game very well themselves). But it stands to be observed that Milwaukee’s core certainly benefits from players that both know their role and are able to share their knowledge with their teammates to make them better.

One last thing that should be added is that the Bucks have shown they don’t necessarily need a strong, bulky player to play defense in the post. Nearly every game this year that featured an opposing threat on the block, Milwaukee aimed to neutralize that players by throwing hard double teams at him when he had the ball with his back to the basket.

And they were quite good at it. Similar to their blitzing against the pick-and-roll, their athleticism and length seems to allow them to be aggressive on post-scorers. Obviously being able to hold his ground and defend in the post will help the center’s effect on the team’s defense, but this past year has shown us that it certainly isn’t a necessity.

As of right now, the team’s best fit at center looks to be a smart, disciplined defender who can effectively space the floor and make the right play when needed. To be honest, that kind of actually looks like a prime Zaza Pachulia, but he probably shouldn’t be a very big part of the “Own the Future” movement at this stage in his career.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many other free agents this summer that currently fit this mold, and unless Marc Gasol decides he wants to spend four years in Wisconsin, they aren’t getting one. Whether a player in the upcoming draft fits this outline remains to be seen.

My realistic pick is Frank Kaminsky. I know, I know, I’m a homer. But I really do think Frank fits this profile really well. He’ll obviously space, even if he never really develops an NBA three-pointer, and he’s a much smarter defender than many realize. He may get beat up on the block from time to time, but that’s when the doubles will come. If you’re drafting in terms of “fit”, Frank is the way to go.

If the team feels there are no viable options for the center position in free agency or the draft this year, so be it. Zaza is on contract for another year, and the team can really get a feel for John Henson’s future in the league.

But if there are options, we can certainly see what those options should resemble in the coming years.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks Should Go All Out For DeMarcus Cousins

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