The Bucks had a quietly busy offseason. They traded for Greivis Vasquez and selected Rashad Vaughn on draft night. They re-signed Khris Middleton and traded away Ersan Ilyasova, Jared Dudley and Zaza Pachulia. Combined with the mid-season trade that brought in Michael Carter-Williams for Brandon Knight, the franchise has made a lot of moves that severely changed the complexion of the roster.
While all the decisions will have an impact, the biggest gamble of the offseason by far has been the addition of Greg Monroe in free agency, as it has the potential to make the Bucks one of the more unique teams of the last few years.
Monroe’s contract is short and he was a productive player in Detroit when things weren’t a mess, so the Bucks taking a chance of him was seen as a low-risk move. The reality is the Milwaukee front office and Jason Kidd have jeopardized what made the team special last season — their great defense — in an effort to boost the team’s offense. It’s a worthy gamble but one that might not pay off immediately.
Monroe will be replacing Pachulia, a greatly underrated defensive player. Pachulia isn’t the most athletic player around, but he’s physical and knows where to be at all times, something that’s key in the Bucks’ über-aggressive defensive system. The numbers confirm what the eye test suggests, as the Bucks were four points better per 100 possessions on defense with Pachulia on the floor, per NBA.com, and the Georgian center finished seventh among his peers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
The man replacing him doesn’t fare as well in any defensive metrics. While he ranked at a solid 15th place in DRPM, the Pistons allowed 104.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court without a center next to him, according to NBAwowy.com. That number is around the team’s average and would’ve kept them ranked 21st in the league in defensive efficiency. On the surface, the downgrade will be huge, as the stats only seem to reflect what anyone who’s seen Monroe play can attest to: there’s been no evidence in his five-year career that he can be a defensive anchor.
The hope around Milwaukee has to be that the team doesn’t need a traditional rim protecting center. With four long perimeter players flying around the court tagging roll men and providing help before recovering back to their assignments, Monroe could be in a way hidden on that end. As long as he’s big and near the rim, that’s enough for Milwaukee’s schemes. It’s a strange proposition to build a defense from the outside in instead of the other way around, but if there’s a team that has the personnel to pull it off, it’s the one featuring Carter-Williams, Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker on the perimeter.
On the offensive end things will also be unique but almost in a throwback way. As the league continues to trend towards emphasizing three-point shooting, the Bucks are going the other way, bringing in a traditional post scorer. Two of their best shooters — Ilyasova and Dudley — were traded for marginal assets, likely in the hope that Parker will make up for their floor spacing at the forward slots. Parker should be a plus shooter in time, but Milwaukee will need someone to create room for Monroe to operate inside.
In last season’s playoff series against the Bulls, defenders were playing off Antetokounpo and Carter-Williams so much that the paint was extremely crowded. Under similar circumstances in Detroit when Josh Smith was killing the team’s spacing, Monroe couldn’t really reach his full potential as a post player.
He’s still a huge upgrade over Pachulia but might not give an offense that ranked 25nd last season the big boost it needs to become average. The bench has shooters and Monroe will share the court with them some, but John Henson also needs to spend his minutes surrounded by marksmen to hurt teams on dives to the basket.
The interest the team is showing in stretch 4 Chris Copeland shows they understand they need more shooting, and The Greek Freak has vowed to work on his stroke over the summer. Kidd’s substitution patterns will make sure everyone plays in units built to maximize their talent, but that’s improbably gotten harder to do now that there’s a big-time free agent who will require touches and minutes at center.
The Bucks shocked people last season by taking a leap few projected would come so soon. The decision to target a free agent to complement their core makes a lot of sense given the circumstances, and with Milwaukee not being a free-agent destination, getting Monroe feels like a coup, flaws and all. The Bucks have been bold and are going all in on Kidd’s vision. It remains to be seen if their unique approach yields the results they crave. What’s certain is they’ll be one of the most fascinating teams to watch next season.