Bucks

What Are the Bucks Missing?

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The Milwaukee Bucks have struggled to establish a defensive identity to start the 2023-24 season.

That’s a big reason why they are 20th in the NBA in defensive rating.

Part of that struggle can be attributed to the expected setback that comes with having a first-year head coach along with a handful of new players. It seems likely, given the defensive ability of players like Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, that Milwaukee will improve as the season progresses. That much has to be true if Milwaukee is going to be a contender. 

It’s important to keep a level head this early in the season, but sometimes you can tell when an early-season problem could turn into a ticking time bomb that’s set to explode in the playoffs.

That bomb is Milwaukee’s perimeter defense.

The longer the rotation remains as is, the longer the struggles will persist. The longer the problems persist, the bigger the inevitable explosion will be.

With the current rotation, all I can hear is tick, tick, tick, tick.

Time is the most important cure for Milwaukee’s early-season woes — and once more I will reiterate just how early we are in the season. Time is the obvious factor that will help alleviate the growing pains, but the defense on the wing is one problem time might not fix. 

Griffin is trying to find a solution

There have been some obvious attempts to bandage some of Milwaukee’s defensive wounds. When All-NBA defender Lopez struggled to find his place amidst head coach Adrian Griffin’s new scheme, the players spoke up. Hedging Lopez on the perimeter is a mistake. He does not have the speed to keep up with more mobile bigs. While many have criticized former coach Mike Budenholzer for his inability to adjust, there’s one thing he was keen at: creating an effective defensive system.

That system utilized drop coverage with Lopez and maximized the 35-year-old’s defensive potential. When Griffin’s players presented the idea of pushing Lopez into drop — he listened. He adapted. Bucks fans had been asking for adaptability for years. They felt stuck in the same system. Now they have a new coach who is willing to adjust his new system. 

The question is: how much adjustment does Griffin’s defensive scheme need? More than moving Lopez into drop, I can tell you that. Even once the Bucks fixed Lopez’s role, and even with an elite defender like Antetokounmpo alongside him, there’s only so much the two of them can do. Someone needs to stop the ball from getting into the paint and prevent an onslaught of rain from beyond the arc.

The solution to that problem comes from the backcourt, which is severely lacking in experienced defensive ability like it has boasted in past years with Jrue Holiday and other veterans like Wesley Matthews.

Alleviating this problem starts with moving Malik Beasley to the second unit.

Beasley can’t start in the postseason

It’s been said time and time again, and I will say it once more: moving from Holiday to Damian Lillard is a considerable downgrade defensively. It’s undeniable. However, the difference between Lillard and Holiday is not where the entire problem lies. The perimeter defense wouldn’t be bad if Milwaukee was able to put an efficient and tough defender next to Lillard on the perimeter. 

Beasley isn’t that player. 

In his first five games as a Buck, Beasley was extremely inconsistent offensively. He scored five points in the squad’s opener, but then followed it up with 18 points the next game — which is great. But, then he scored five the following game, which is not so great. He put up 20 points in a loss to Toronto on Nov. 1, but then proceeded to lay a goose egg the very next game.

It’s a good thing the first five games don’t dictate the season though. As the season has progressed, Beasley has proven himself a viable offensive weapon due to his shooting ability. He’s had stellar scoring performances, including a season high of 30 points at Toronto on Nov. 15. However, his offensive productivity has not been good enough to ignore his defensive mishaps.

While his offensive struggles have lessened, his defensive woes have not.

Milwaukee has given up a lot of big nights to a lot of guards and wings. Here’s a few examples from the early season, just to name a few.

These are not exclusively Beasley’s fault— defense is a collective effort. But with Khris Middleton still on minute restrictions (and battling Achilles tendonitis) a lot of the defensive burden on the perimeter is falling on Beasley’s shoulders, and he’s just not a good enough defender for that.

There is one viral clip of Beasley defending against Indiana that I would be remiss if I did not include. It’s one play and it’s important not to read too much into a single play — but it’s painfully bad. 

I’m not anti-Beasley. He has a role on this team, especially as the season progresses. But due to his defensive struggles, that role should probably be as a reserve.

Holiday isn’t locking down the backcourt in Milwaukee anymore. With this current roster, Beasley isn’t the man to put next to Lillard. So, who is?

Crowder injury

A few weeks ago, my pick was Jae Crowder. However, the team announced that Crowder was set to undergo surgery on Tuesday, Nov. 14., to repair a left adductor and abdominal tear. The recovery is expected to sideline him for around eight weeks from the time of the surgery, which would put him back on the court sometime in January. So, Crowder cannot be the immediate solution to Milwaukee’s defensive issues.

Still, Crowder has shown defensive promise in the past, and he’s experienced in the postseason. In Milwaukee’s 2021 championship run, Middleton slid into the two spot nicely as PJ Tucker held down the three. Tucker started almost exclusively for defensive purposes. While Crowder isn’t exactly the same player as Tucker, he is still a tough nosed veteran who can defend when given the opportunity. Unlike Tucker, Crowder brings scoring power too.

If he and Middleton are healthy, they may provide the best combination of experience, reliability and defense that Milwaukee has to offer. 

The answer isn’t on the team yet

Some subscribe to the idea that Beasley is not Milwaukee’s fifth starter, but his replacement in the starting five is not on Milwaukee’s bench either.

Again, it’s important to bring Tucker up as an example. He was acquired from Houston via a midseason trade, and his role didn’t expand until the playoffs. The Bucks could make a similar move this year. Names like Alex Caruso have been bounced around in the rumor mill. While it may not be 100% viable for the Bucks to make a trade for Caruso given Chicago’s lofty desired return, the idea is still on target. 

Somewhere out there is a defensive minded wing who Milwaukee could make a move for before the deadline and plug them into the starting lineup at the two and instantly improve their chances at reclaiming the Larry O’Brien.

Promote a young player from within

If Crowder is injured or doesn’t live up to expectations defensively, there are other players Milwaukee could promote.

With injuries to Middleton, we have already seen Griffin give the starting nod to rookie Andre Jackson Jr. on multiple occasions. Jackson Jr. doesn’t post eye catching numbers. He averages south of two points per game. However, his defensive effort and athletic ability are intriguing. The fact that Griffin already trusts the second round pick enough to give him starting nods speaks volumes. 

Another young Buck beaming with potential is MarJon Beauchamp. He is skilled and capable. It’s clear that he may need a bit more work physically to be a high-level defender, but the idea of him starting is there theoretically.

No matter where the solution comes from, there needs to be a solution. The Bucks cannot roll into April running the same sporadic jumbled defense they currently run. They need to find a lineup that works, a lineup that reestablishes Milwaukee as a solid defensive team (not necessarily elite because they may not have the personnel for that — respectable will do just fine).

Whether the solution comes from within or from some outside player, Griffin has to work toward finding that solution as soon as possible or the Bucks will be stopped dead in their tracks come playoff time.

Giannis In-Season Tournament Bobblehead!

The Greek Freak is ready to remind the league that the Bucks aren’t stopping here. Tip off for tournament action with the Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks 2023 In-Season Tournament Bobblehead.

About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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