• Just when we thought the Bucks could pull off their first playoff series win since 2001, they blew a 2-1 lead and erased hope for Milwaukee fans. The immediate future looks bleak, but this team is setup for long-term success. There is still hope for fans eyeing a comeback, but they will need to make some adjustments.

    Let’s take a look at how the Bucks got here, what needs to happen for them to pull off an upset and what the future holds.

     

    HOW DID THEY GET HERE?

    After a rocky start to the season, the Bucks improved drastically from the beginning of March onward. So, what changed? One of the team’s less familiar superstars, Khris Middleton, returned and brought this young squad back to life.

    In games in which Middleton started, Milwaukee went 17-6. The flexibility that he gives the team by spacing the floor and defending multiple positions is extremely valuable – some might argue that he is more important than star-player, Jabari Parker. Middleton ended up as the team’s most efficient three-point shooter and second best perimeter defender (based on Defensive Real Plus-Minus). In the pace-and-space era, Middleton is a highly desirable player.

    This was not the only significant change – Jason Kidd also became more consistent with his center rotation. Specifically, he played Greg Monroe a lot more from March to mid-April than he did from late-October to February.

    In games that Monroe played 25 or more minutes during the regular season, the Bucks went 22-8. They were 9-2 from March to April and 13-6 from October to February. Essentially, Kidd played Monroe 25 or more minutes half of the games down the stretch and a third of the games earlier in the year.

    It is possible that the Bucks were lucky and played well in the games where Monroe played 25 or more minutes. You cannot infer that by playing Monroe more, the Bucks would have won additional games since it is possible Monroe’s production would have dropped off when he shouldered a heavier workload. However, in the 10 games where Monroe played 30 or more minutes, his field goal percentage was .585 – 5.3 percentage points higher than his season average.

    The slight tactical improvements can be credited to Kidd, but there is still meat left on the bone.

     

    HOW CAN THEY IMPROVE?

    Now the team finds itself in a position where they are down 3-2 to a Toronto team that many consider the second best in the Eastern Conference. ESPN’s BPI gives Milwaukee a 12 percent chance of pulling off the upset. This does not mean that strategic improvements would keep their odds the same – we have seen this team blow the Raptors out of the water in this series. To paint a clearer picture, we have to dig a little deeper into the team’s most effective lineups and most heavily used lineups.

    As the graph above proves, Monroe had a strong impact on the team’s success when he was on the court – he was included in nearly all of the top lineup combinations for the Bucks this season. In contrast, he did not appear in any of the five lineup combinations with the highest usage. Additionally, when he was on the court, the team had a +6.9 ORtg (+2.4 in playoffs) differential compared to when he was off the court.

    Is there a reason Kidd would refuse to play Monroe more minutes based on the irrefutable evidence of his regular season impact?

    Some of the hesitance from fans and coaches is based on the preconceived notion of Greg Monroe’s passive defense. While he does not have the defensive prowess of a Rudy Gobert, the Bucks don’t need that from him as they allowed the fewest shots in the paint per game this season at 9.7. It is nice to have interior defense, but if it is not required because the perimeter defense does not allow the opposing team to shoot shots inside, then a defensive anchor on the low-block becomes moot. As a cherry on top he out-did Andre Drummond in Defensive Win Shares and was top-five in steal percentage amongst qualified centers.

    Does all of this mean the key to winning the series is playing Greg Monroe more?

    Not necessarily, but the lineup data from the playoffs backs up what we saw in the regular season. The best five-man rotation (in a 10-minute sample size) in the playoffs is the Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Matthew Dellavedova, Khris Middleton and Greg Monroe mix with a +59.9 point differential per 100 possessions. Given that the sample size is small, we can drill-down and see that two-thirds of the four-man rotations contain a familiar face – Monroe – both of which logged nearly 27 minutes together. From a lineup perspective, the data from the regular season suggests that Brogdon, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Monroe all individually present the best opportunity for the Bucks to win. Brogdon was the sixth best shooting guard in Real Plus-Minus (RPM), Middleton (in a smaller sample size) was seventh in Defensive RPM amongst shooting guards, Giannis was top-five in RPM for small forwards and Monroe was top-five in offensive RPM for centers. Each of the team’s most impactful players rank amongst the top of their positions in one or both phases of the game.

     

    SERIES AND FUTURE OUTLOOK

    Overall, the chances of winning two games in a row against the Raptors is slim, but by making smart adjustments to the rotation there are opportunities for the Bucks to optimize their odds.

    Fortunately, if things fail this season, the future is bright – of their core, only Greg Monroe (player option) might not be with the team beyond this season. Middleton is on a team-friendly deal that has him locked up for at least two more years. Giannis is signed for at least four more seasons. Brogdon has a very team-friendly deal for two more years. Jabari Parker’s contract extends into next season – he is a restricted free agent beyond that. Thon Maker has at least three seasons left on his deal – two of which are team options. What is more exciting than the contracts is that the average age of these six players is roughly 23 years old.

    We may see the last of this team on Thursday, but something tells me they will remain competitive for years to come.

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