With the trend of small ball taking the league by storm, what exactly can the Milwaukee Bucks do to implement the strategy?
Anyone who follows the Milwaukee Bucks or the NBA knows that the league is dynamic. Trends come and go as years go by, and successful teams are often ones that occupy the leading edge of whatever concept is effective at the time.
The modern league is no different, as the Golden State Warriors have blown the rest of the league away in past seasons, popularizing the notion of “small ball” while doing so.
Exactly what this tactic means isn’t explicitly outlined, at least consistently, but the general trend can be recognized, and more importantly, replicated.
Small Ball: How Does It Work?
In short, small ball is defined as the strategy of removing traditional big men from the court in favor of (usually smaller) players with different skills, typically ball-handling and shooting.
The Warriors have made their bones by eschewing traditional low-post touches to their big men in favor of a higher volume of three-pointers, at times spreading the floor to include five capable shooters.
The so-called “Lineup of Death” was put forth by Golden State featuring 6’7” Draymond Green at the center position, a configuration the Warriors enacted 20 percent of the time Green was on the floor. Of course, this strategy would not have inspired imitation had it not been successful; this particular lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 47 points per 100 possessions.
Obviously this shift in traditional thinking does not succeed at all without the proper players, which is what makes Green’s unique abilities so valuable. Although undersized even for the power forward position, the former Michigan State Spartan has been runner-up Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons due to his ability to hold his own when matched up with much larger players and switch onto guards in the pick and roll when need be.
On the offensive end, Green is one of the most versatile players in the league, able to shoot, pass, and rebound at a high level, to the tune of 13 triple-doubles last season.
Draymond is an ideal player for this type of scheme, his presence is a large reason why Golden State was home to three of the best ten small ball lineups last year.
Beyond the extreme example brought forth by the Warriors, other teams have utilized a form of small ball more similar to the LeBron James-era Miami Heat. Like last year’s Warriors, the Heat started a more “traditional” lineup including Lebron at the small forward, Chris Bosh at the four, and big men like Udonis Haslem or Chris Anderson at the center position.
Obviously, much like in the Warriors’ case, these lineups worked primarily because of the talented players operating within the system, but there’s no doubt that the strategy as a whole provides an advantage in today’s league.
What Does All This Mean For the Milwaukee Bucks?
One look at the Bucks’ roster should immediately reveal that the Warriors’ style of removing entirely any iteration of a traditional big man from the floor is simply not possible.
As we’ve written on many times before, the Bucks’ three centers – Greg Monroe, Miles Plumlee, and John Henson, with apologies to Thon Maker – make up a lineup conundrum that will likely result in at least one of the trio being short-changed in terms of minutes. In fact, the Bucks spent only 45 total minutes without one of their three centers on the court last season, according to nbawowy.
If, for the time being at least, playing without a true center is not an option, the Bucks can still co-opt the tactics of small ball in a less invasive sense. In fact, the way the roster is currently constructed suggests that the Bucks front office has, perhaps unknowingly, bought into the notion of small ball already.
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With the exit of Johnny O’Bryant this offseason, the Bucks no longer have a back to the basket player a la Monroe rostered at power forward. Beyond that, all of Jabari Parker, Mirza Teletovic, Michael Beasley, and Steve Novak are best described as either stretch fours (in the case of Teletovic and Novak) or combo forwards (Beasley and Jabari).
The former case, simply altering the function of the power forward within the offense to that of a floor spacer, does represent a change in strategy, but not one particularly relevant to what we’re looking at.
In the latter case however, the Bucks have found success in playing more versatile combo forwards such as Parker at the four, in a model similar to the Heat’s I mentioned earlier.
Considering his 6’8”, 250 pound frame and ability to explode, the parallels between James and Jabari are fairly easy to see, at least in terms of bodytype and playstyle. Beasley is also very versatile, and although he may not be elite in terms of efficiency, his skill-set should provide some necessary scoring off of the Bucks’ bench.
Especially considering the absence of Khris Middleton, who in 2014-2015 spent 46 percent of his time at power forward, it’s unlikely that the Bucks will be able to implement many aspects of small ball this season beyond what they already have.
Looking farther ahead, however, presents a different outlook.
Today’s Bucks roster is most often associated league-wide with length, which is fair, considering the Stretch Armstrong-like proportions of players like Giannis, Henson, and the newly acquired Thon Maker.
This element of length has led some to portray Milwaukee as the antithesis to the small-ball wave, which may not be the case. Remember, the central principle of small ball is replacing limited (often bigger) players with more versatile (usually smaller) guys, where the skills of the players in question is more important than their respective heights.
Antetokounmpo is extremely effective in his role as point forward because of the mismatches he creates; there aren’t many other near-7-footers with his combination of speed, athleticism, and ballhandling ability.
However, in those days where Greg Monroe has moved on to greener pastures and the lineup allows for such a move, the already-weird Bucks could reach a never before seen plane of uniqueness by slotting the 6’11”, 222 pound Antetokounmpo as a point center.
Obviously, the mismatches created on the offensive end would be near impossible to stop, provided the Bucks place the appropriate players around Giannis. Assuming a capable jump shot, no center in the league would be able to stay in front of Antetokounmpo, and any help would open up wide open jump shots for shooters like Khris Middleton, Matthew Dellavedova or Mirza Teletovic.
The defensive end figures to pose more of a dilemma. Even though we have never seen Giannis in the role being proposed, we know that he is at the very least a good defender, posting the second highest defensive box plus-minus on the team last season.
His length also plays a factor around the basket; according to Nylon Calculus, Giannis held opponents to just 45.8 percent shooting against a contest, good for the second lowest mark on the Bucks and the seventh lowest among small forwards.
Just from the visual, one could likely predict these abilities from Giannis, but what we don’t yet know is how he would do defending big men in an isolation post-up situation. Luckily, this brand of center is disappearing from the offensive framework of the NBA (just ask Greg Monroe), and Giannis may not find himself disadvantaged in this way often.
Obviously, taller players will have a future in professional basketball, but young players would do well to adapt the development of their skills to fit the demands of the NBA.
The next great big man may look a lot more like Thon Maker than Greg Monroe, and Bucks fans should be pleased to know their team is prepared for a future as such.