Milwaukee Bucks: Exploring the team’s few question marks moving forward

Mar 31, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Mar 31, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Milwaukee Bucks: P.J. Tucker
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 05 (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

The defense only has one hole, but it’s a P.J. Tucker-sized one for the retooled Milwaukee Bucks

The calculus behind P.J. Tucker’s departure has been debated ad nauseam, but that’s neither here nor there. Don’t misunderstand this: Tucker is absolutely not an irreplaceable piece, especially given his age and the dropoff in his shooting numbers. The Milwaukee Bucks will likely be fine without him moving forward in the regular season.

At the same time, though, his contribution to the championship-winning squad will definitely be difficult to replace. Tucker’s brazen, inflammatory approach to defense left opposing bucket-getters largely inert. He wasn’t exactly the best at bucket-getting himself, but the Bucks’ +8.29 playoff net rating in minutes he played versus +0.51 with him benched shows he made up for it just fine.

Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 245 pounds, Tucker had the heft to stave off bigger, more athletic forwards but the agility to keep up with quicker guards. From Chris Paul to Jimmy Butler, opposing scorers routinely scored less than 35 percent of their shot attempts when Tucker was the closest defender in the playoffs, according to tracking data.

Defense wins championships, but as it currently stands, the Bucks may not have the versatility to trot out the same kind of defense that just won them a Larry O’Brien trophy. The question is this: with Tucker’s departure, who takes on the toughest defensive matchup, particularly against larger wings, this time around?

Giannis has the tools for it, but it’s an established fact that his defensive ceiling is best utilized as a help defender. Just look at his now-famous block on Deandre Ayton in the NBA Finals.

Depending on how Mike Budenholzer chooses to go about it, Antetokounmpo may not get the reps in as a perimeter defender during the regular season, either. Per, Giannis is only in the 23rd percentile in his position when defending isolation plays. Opponents scored on 49.0 effective field goal percentage against him on those plays. On spot-ups, he’s in the 26.9th percentile after giving up 59.2 percent effective field goal percentage on those shots.

Khris Middleton might be the logical next choice due to his size and length. On paper, his 6-foot-7 frame and his 6-foot-10 wingspan should make him a fine defender against wing players. Unfortunately, he seemed to regress in that area this past season. According to matchup data, he gave up 46.3 percent shooting against forwards and 47.9 against guards when he was the closest defender. Against Middleton, Devin Booker shot 14-of-27 or 51.9 percent in the NBA Finals.

Jrue Holiday is easily the best on-ball defender on the Bucks. He famously forced the game-winning airball from Kevin Durant in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Against playoff scorers in his weight class, he surely held his own: Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, and James Harden all shot below or around 38 percent of their shot attempts.

But give the matchup a bit more bulk and brawn, and things get a bit more complicated over a seven-game series. Kevin Durant shot 10-of-18 (55.6 percent) with Holiday as the closest defender; he routinely took advantage of the size mismatch by taking Uncle Jrue into the post. It was the same story with Jimmy Butler, who shot 4-of-10 from the field on Holiday.

To be sure, Mike Budenholzer proved just a season ago that small-but-stout defenders like Wesley Matthews are enough to steal close games from the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. However, it remains to be seen if putting Jrue Holiday on the bigger Jimmy Butlers and Kevin Durants of the world can win a seven-game series.

Whether any of the other Bucks can take on that challenge is ultimately moot, as their roles from the past championship run are clear. But what isn’t is who takes on the opposition’s wing scorers night in and night out.