The Milwaukee Bucks won’t repeat as champions without Brook Lopez

Jul 17, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 17, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

"When it comes to most things in life, I’d like to consider myself an optimist. For basketball, in particular, I tend to look at the upside of an acquisition more than the downside, I look at what a prospect can do as opposed to what they can’t, and I try to be patient and find reasons to be optimistic if a team starts slowly as the Milwaukee Bucks did this season."

Throughout the season, I’ve given reasons to be optimistic about players who are struggling (Jrue Holiday in particular) and the team as a whole. It’s a long season, why focus on the negatives with a team that has aspirations bigger than a game in early January against the Detroit Pistons, right?

But how about we look at the worst-case scenario for a rather large looming question over the defending champions: what if Brook Lopez doesn’t return this season or isn’t close to the player we saw him be pre-surgery?

Can the Milwaukee Bucks repeat as champions with Bobby Portis as a starter?

I mean this as no disrespect to what Bobby Portis has done the last season and a half as a member of the Bucks, but if they don’t have Lopez at least at 70 to 80 percent of what he was last season and he can’t be relied upon to give them at least 20 to 25 minutes per game in the playoffs, it’ll be hard to repeat.

Portis has been wonderful as a starter this season for the Bucks, a revelation if you will. In 26 games as a starter, Portis is averaging over 16 points on 60.6 percent true shooting as well as nearly 10 rebounds per game.

The Bucks have done a terrific job morphing their defense to fit the skill set that Portis possesses and becoming more aggressive in covering pick and rolls. Traditionally, with Lopez, the Bucks played a very conservative pick-and-roll defense where Lopez would drop back and deny attempts at the rim, allowing good pull-up jump shooters to expose that coverage.

Inserting Portis into the starting lineup has forced the Bucks to play more aggressively, with Portis playing much closer to the level of the screen and trapping ball-handlers in pick and roll. This does two things, it forces the point of attack defender (Holiday, primarily) to get over the screen faster to help trap and thus, allows for more 4-on-3 situations for the offense.

Granted, the Bucks have done well defending in this type of coverage. Specifically, with Portis, he has allowed 0.81 points per possession when defending pick and rolls, a lower number than last year (0.94 PPP) and it has come with a higher frequency, per

However, although they have done a good job in changing their coverages and adapting to the personnel, it’s hard to ask Portis to do all of the things that Lopez did so well when it comes to defending the rim.

Although they typically played more conservatively with Lopez, he has such a great feel for defense that they were able to mix up coverages at times. We saw multiple occasions where Lopez would play higher against pick and rolls and be able to stay with the ball-handler. It’s not ideal, but Lopez was able to do it in spurts.

The other benefit is that having Portis come off of the bench gave the Bucks more varied looks in their coverages. They could play more aggressively and be more switch-heavy with Portis on the floor because of his mobility, but it was a good counter to play off of what the Bucks did with Lopez.

The only counter that the Bucks can really throw out there right now is the lineups that have Giannis Antetokounmpo at center and can switch one through five (as they did against the Celtics to close that game). Those lineups have dominated, specifically when it’s the Bucks’ big three along with Wesley Matthews, but it’s been in a limited sample.

As we saw against the Brooklyn Nets in last year’s playoffs, Portis can be played off the floor in certain matchups. He has gotten better on defense this season and I doubt that he’d be taken out of the rotation again if those two teams met up in the playoffs, but having Lopez being himself would be a huge help.

For all of the debate as to who should be the Bucks’ backup center behind Portis, the point is moot if Lopez isn’t back and performing at a solid level.

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If the Bucks expect to repeat and defend their title, they’ll need to be as versatile and malleable as possible, just as they were last season.