Milwaukee Bucks: Ahead of the curve at power forward

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 9: (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 9: (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images) /

As the philosophies and styles of the NBA change, the Milwaukee Bucks are set up to reap the benefits of progress at one position.

In the late 1990’s, the NBA was hit with a new wave of innovation with the advent of the stretch four, which forced defenses into areas they had never had to worry about before with extra shooters on the court.

Now that floor spacing and shooting talent are more prevalent than ever, with almost every offense playing 4-out or even 5-out at times, the novelty (and therefore peak effectiveness) of one-dimensional stretch bigs has more or less stagnated.

Teams are now employing lineups featuring combo forwards in place of big men in order to take advantage of the often-shoddy perimeter defensive skills of the stretch bigs.

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His struggles from three-point range notwithstanding, Mirza Teletovic‘s defense was a huge reason for his inability to produce consistently last season. He ranked in just the 22nd percentile defending isolations and the 11th against post-ups, according to Synergy.

Joe Johnson, a 16 year veteran now with the Utah Jazz, is a prime example of this positional shift. At 6’7″, he began his career as a combo guard, settling into the role of a swingman at an All-Star capacity with the Atlanta Hawks.

However, in his current role, Johnson is most effective slotted at power forward, where he can act as a bailout option or instant offense, given he’s almost always facing a mismatch.

Bringing two valuable skills to the table in dribble-probing ability and spot-up shooting makes his offensive impact that much more deadly. Of course, there will be drawbacks to playing small consistently; players get beat up, rebounding becomes an issue, and most teams don’t have enough wings to make it work consistently.

Combining size and defensive acumen with a guard-like skillset is a trait that many of the league’s best power forwards have, whether it be Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, or Paul Millsap.

This is precisely the formula that led the Bucks to have success in the latter half of the season with a lineup utilizing Giannis Antetokounmpo in this manner.

From Khris Middleton‘s return on February 8 onward, the lineup of Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Middleton, Giannis, and Thon Maker had an encouraging plus-11.9 net rating over 135 minutes together.

Still, there’s other factors that prevent the Bucks from playing Giannis down low all the time.

For one, it’s fatiguing for Antetokounmpo to have to deal with bigger bodies on a consistent basis, but the more pertinent concern is Milwaukee’s roster construction.

Jabari Parker and the newly acquired D.J. Wilson will need time at the 4 as well, and although both will be on a development curve next year, the Bucks have to plan ahead for when all their assets are ready to go.

Luckily, Parker and Wilson both fit this prototype of the creating power forward. Jabari can and has played both the 3 and the 4, but he’s best used offensively as a big man, where his ball-handling becomes a strength rather than a weakness.

Including passes, he ranked in the 62nd percentile on isolation attempts, accounting for 0.918 points per possession, per Synergy. His best offense still comes in transition and on cuts, but he has the potential to become a standalone scorer once he adds a little finesse to his game.

Considering he has yet to play in an NBA game, it’s much too early to declare Wilson ready to serve as a main weapon. but early returns from his Summer League play are encouraging.

He’s a shooter first and foremost, but his willingness to let it fly at a moment’s notice gives him the chance to lope his way into one-dribble pull-ups or funky runners around the hoop.

Parker and Wilson both have their weaknesses on defense — Jabari gets lost defending the pick-and-roll, while the rookie is, at least for now, a dreadful rebounder. Should he gain the requisite size and strength, the latter could also function as a small-ball center in lineups that would pair him with Giannis at the 4.

The Bucks guards, particularly those who will see the most time, aren’t playmakers themselves. Most function best as floor-spacing 3-and-D outlets that complement creators on the offensive end.

With the main cogs of their offense at the forward positions, Milwaukee has constructed their offense backwards, where they will be able to exploit mismatches against big men out of their element or force opponents to downsize their lineups.

The Bucks are young, but they’re also very modern when it comes to their plan to own the future, a vision that should be further approaching reality.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks: The importance of remaining patient

Milwaukee has been bucking convention for years now, and with the direction the league is taking, they look to be set up to reap the benefits down the road.