Milwaukee Bucks: Small-Ball Lineup Has Big Upside


With a strong showing from a small ball unit against Detroit, have the Milwaukee Bucks discovered a new weapon in their arsenal?

It has not always been easy to watch the Milwaukee Bucks this season.

Okay, maybe that is an understatement. Between their complete disregard for defense, immense rebounding woes, cold outside shooting, and ever changing lineup pairings, some games the Bucks have played this season have seemed downright unwatchable.

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Monday night against the Detroit Pistons however, was quite the contrary. The Bucks came out hungry from the opening tip and blew the game open by the end of the third quarter. They managed to do so by flying around on defense all night. With much improved communication and ball pressure, they forced Detroit into 17 turnovers and held them to 34 percent shooting from the floor.

Rebounding may have been an even bigger surprise, keeping the battle of the boards close against the NBA’s third best rebounding team.

The offense followed the defenses lead and poured 109 points on with an impressive 51.8 percent shooting night. Most importantly, the Bucks moved the ball beautifully all night, racking up 30 assists on 43 made field goals. This however is nothing new for the Bucks this season, as they are currently seventh in the NBA, averaging 22.9 assists per game.

As noted before, this game was well under control heading into the fourth quarter. Milwaukee was leading by 26 points and they had dominated the third quarter, the rest of the game would be a coast to the finish line, no need to watch…right?


Up by 26, the Bucks opened the quarter with John Henson, Johnny O’Bryant, OJ Mayo, Greivis Vasquez, and Jerryd Bayless on the court together. Yawn.

For the first three minutes John Henson fouled people, Jerryd Bayless continued his push for the three-point contest, and John Henson fouled some more (three fouls in under two minutes to be exact).

So, with 8:38 remaining in the game Coach Kidd subbed Giannis in for Henson, in a 23 point game. Wait… what?

Nearly one minute later, Coach Kidd subbed Jabari Parker in for O’Bryant, in a 23 point game. What was he thinking?

This put Giannis at center and Jabari at power forward, leaving three guards (Mayo, Vasquez, and Bayless) playing together in the backcourt.

This was, in fact, a small ball lineup!

Five players who can space the floor, hit jump shots, penetrate, pass, and switch all over on defense…. I might recall that as being a recipe for success for a certain team that is playing decent basketball right now. You know, that Golden State team who just so happens to be 15-0.

November 20, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes (40) celebrates with guard Stephen Curry (30) during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Bulls 106-94. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last year the Warriors unleashed a small ball lineup on the league that has given opposing teams nightmares ever since. When on the court together, the lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green, has an NBA best offensive rating…. of 160.9!!

For those of you unfamiliar with the offensive rating statistic, it is how many points are scored by a team, or lineup in this case, per 100 possessions. In comparison, Milwaukee’s best lineup in terms offensive rating, is a respectable 120.1, a far cry from the insane numbers being put up by Golden State and their small ball lineup.

Golden State is able to flourish with this lineup because all five players on the court are able to shoot threes. This creates a ton of space on the court for the Warriors, and most notably one of the NBA’s best playmakers, Steph Curry.

With open driving lines due to the spacing, Curry and his four teammates are able to penetrate at will. When defenses try and help off the outside shooters and stop penetration inside, the ball handler has an arsenal of shooters around the perimeter waiting to punish opponents scrambling on defense.

So if this formula is so successful, why doesn’t every NBA team utilize one? Well first off, many teams do not have five players who can be a threat from the outside. And most importantly, even those teams that do have that threat would never be able to stop an opposing team on defense.

So how does Golden State manage to succeed? Well, outside of Steph Curry, the remaining four players (Barnes, Iguodala, Thompson, Green) are all 6’7″ or taller. Besides being an overall lengthy unit, they are quick and able to defend multiple positions.

This allows the Warriors to switch on ball screens, rotate on defense, and make life for opposing offenses very difficult. It would seem that with such efficient offense being produced by this unit, they would be only be average on the defensive side of the ball. Well, their defensive rating of 90.0 would disagree with that statement.

As a matter of fact, this lineups defensive rating would be the third best of any Bucks lineup used this season!

But enough about the Warriors, you get it by now, they are amazing. But how did the small ball lineup work for the Bucks on Monday night?

The first possession with the Bucks small ball lineup on the floor showcased exactly why I think this lineup can be devastating to opposing teams.

Vasquez brought the ball up the floor and passed it to Giannis on the right elbow. Jabari Parker immediately came and set a ball screen for Giannis forcing Detroit to switch the slow footed center Aaron Baynes onto Giannis. This created an easy mismatch for the Greek Freak, who looked to attack the basket.

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This is normally where defenses would bring a double team to help Baynes guard Giannis. Unfortunately for Detroit, with this lineup Milwaukee had three solid shooters spread outside the three-point line. This forced the defenders to guard the Bucks perimeter shooters, leaving Giannis to take Aaron Baynes one-on-one, draw a foul, and nearly finish a spinning layup.

The next trip down for the Bucks Giannis was given the ball in an isolation set on the left wing against Anthony Tolliver. The Greek Freak took advantage of Tolliver’s lack of quickness and again got right to the rim, but this time missing with a left handed layup.

After a steal on defense Milwaukee utilized spacing and mismatches again the next possession. This time Giannis set a ball screen for Vasquez who penetrated and kicked the ball out to O.J. Mayo behind the three point line. Meanwhile Giannis rolled to the rim following his ball screen, and when the defender closed out hard on Mayo, he simply drove past him, drew Giannis’ defender near him, and dished a pass to the Greek Freak for an easy finish.

After a trip down the floor in which Bayless converted two free throws, he again had the ball in his hands with six seconds left on the shot clock, a sight Bucks fan usually grow weary of. However, Bayless was able to drive past his defender and force Anthony Tolliver, guarding Giannis, to sink into the paint just a little to help defend. Bayless immediately recognized the open Giannis and kicked him the ball on the right wing.

This is where this Bucks group becomes lethal. In this same situation for the Warriors, one of their wing players would probably hoist an uncontested three from the wing. But what differentiates the Bucks small ball lineup from the Warriors, is Giannis.

He crept toward the rim as Tolliver’s attention was drawn to Bayless and caught the pass from Bayless moving towards the rim. He immediately attacked the out of position Detroit defense and threw down a quick dunk before Detroit could even react.

Spacing, what a beautiful thing.

With 4:13 left in the fourth quarter O.J. Mayo was replaced by Rashad Vaughn and this unit’s night was over after only three minutes on the court together. But in those three minutes the Bucks scored on 4-5 possessions, and all five possessions created easy, high percentage looks for the offense.

Nov 23, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) moves towards the basket around Detroit Pistons forward Marcus Morris (13) during the third quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It is no question that this group of players for the Bucks should be able to light up opposing defenses with their shooting, spacing, and playmaking abilities. The real question will be to see if they are able to hold up on defense, and most notably on the boards.

The unit did a good job on Monday of crashing the boards as a team when on the floor together. They also only gave up 2 field goals during their tenure on the court, as their only real issue was sending Detroit to the line a few times.

One can only hope the Coach Kidd goes back and looks at the tape from this game and realizes that he may have something special with Giannis and Jabari on the court with three shooters complimenting them.

The beauty of the situation is that it could be a combination of any three guards/wings outside of Michael Carter-Williams (sorry Mike).

All of this was done on Monday without arguably Milwaukee’s best shooter, Khris Middleton. He could fit perfectly into the Bucks smaller lineups with his ability to space the floor and guard multiple positions. Heck, who knows, a lineup featuring MCW may even prove to be effective as well with his defensive versatility.

The point is, with our personnel, Coach Kidd should be able to find three players to pair with Giannis and Jabari who can create space on offense for the two of them, while also holding up on defense at the same time.

Quotes accredited to Kidd in Zach Lowe’s Tuesday column about small-ball in the NBA, should act as encouragement to Bucks fans that Kidd at least feels it’s a legitimate option. As reported by Lowe:

"Kidd has already (briefly) used a big-man combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, and Kidd is confident the Greek Freak can guard most centers — with help from a swarming defense. “You’re going to see more of that,” Kidd said. There just aren’t a ton of back-to-the-basket scorers skilled enough to scare teams out of guarding them with smaller guys."

It may have been a small sample size Monday night, but it was a glimpse of exciting things that could come in the future for the Milwaukee Bucks. It will be interesting to see on Wednesday against Sacramento if these smaller lineups grace the court again soon. Until then, one can only hope.