So who’s going to start at center for the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night?

Dalembert has started the majority of Milwaukee’s preseason games. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

So we’ve established that the Milwaukee Bucks have a healthy number of bigs, even if they don’t always have healthy bigs. But there are essentially six guys vying for regular minutes in what should amount to a four or five man rotation on a fairly regular basis. You could include Joel Przybilla and make it seven, but logic indicates he’ll be there in emergencies if the Bucks even need to break the Gorilla Glass.

Furthermore, there appears to be three players vying for the one starting position in the Bucks front court that remains open. We know who will compose the Bucks backcourt, and we can assume Tobias Harris has the edge at the small forward position, but it sounds like the starting center position is more available than we may have originally imagined.

Skiles indicated the starting center and small forward positions have yet to be decided. The other three positions appear set with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt and Ersan Ilyasova at power forward.

“We haven’t made a final decision but definitely leaning in the direction of Ersan up front,” Skiles said. “We’re fortunate enough to have multiple options to choose from (at center and small forward) and we’ll just make the best decision we can when the time comes.”

Since Samuel Dalembert was acquired right before the NBA Draft, it was assumed he’d have little trouble claiming Milwaukee’s starting center position. But it’s been an interesting preseason. Specifically it’s been interesting for Larry Sanders. Before a suspension kept him out of Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, Sanders had been doing an admirable job up front.

Dalembert, Ilyasova and Gooden have played six games. Sanders has played five. Udoh has played four and Henson has played three. We’ve seen the lion’s share of the minutes go to Ilyasova, the obvious starter at the power forward position after a strong 2011-12 and contract extension last summer. From there, we see a pretty even distribution of minutes between Dalembert, Sanders, Udoh and Henson. Henson’s missed the past three games with an injured left leg, but he’s reportedly making progress. That being said, it seems all but assured he won’t be taking the opening jump for the Bucks this season.

Drew Gooden’s minutes have been limited, but it’s safe to say Skiles knows what he’s getting in the third year Buck. He’ll slide in at the four more than he did at the five last season, but he’ll probably sneak in some backup center minutes as well. It’s tough to take too much out of Gooden not playing a lot during the preseason given how familiar with him the Bucks brass is, but more than a few Bucks fans wouldn’t mind seeing that trend continue in the coming months.

The real battle here appears to be between Dalembert, Sanders and Udoh. And if we’re using preseason numbers, it’s hard to look away from Sanders. He’s been a better shot-blocker, rebounder and scorer than Dalembert in his five games. Plus he has a mobility that Dalembert lacks – even if he doesn’t have the same awareness defensively. And defense is where this battle will be won. The Bucks didn’t go crazy for shot-blocking this offseason to ignore it come November. They want a center that provides support defensively first and foremost.

Udoh’s thought to be almost an in-between of Dalembert and Sanders. He appears to have a great understanding of positioning and a keen awareness on defense and while he isn’t the track star Sanders appears to be, he has far more athleticism than the aging Dalembert. But Udoh isn’t without his flaws. He may as well be invisible on offense and he’s a brutal rebounder. Since none of the bigs are getting a ton of minutes in the preseason stats are going to be a bit exaggerated, but even with the benefit of small sample size, Udoh’s rebounding issues really stand out when you look at his per-36 numbers from the preseason.

On the left, we have preseason per-36 numbers for the Bucks bigs. On the right, we have their per-36 numbers from last season. Per-36 numbers are an average of what a player does per minute multiplied out over 36 minutes, what’s considered minutes a starter would receive. Through four games, Udoh is grabbing 4.4 rebounds per-36 minutes. For comparison’s sake, while Stephen Jackson was sleep walking through 26 games in Milwaukee last season on the perimeter, he grabbed 4.1 rebounds per-36 minutes. That’s brutal and the rebounding problems aren’t new for Udoh. He only grabbed 8.3 per-36 last season, which left him on the bottom of the Bucks rebounding board.

Meanwhile, Sanders has been something of a revolution. He’s kept his shot-block rate consistent with what it was last season, but he’s grabbing nearly four more rebounds per-36 minutes and scoring more too. But the fouls. My goodness Larry, the fouls. Perhaps the fouls and Sanders’ increasingly tense relationship with officials played into Sanders’ suspension. Surely the Bucks are starting to see something with Sanders here and maybe they want to provide the structure to make sure he can continue to develop without hindering himself.

Given his foul rate, it’s tough to envision Sanders starting. He’d be digging the Bucks into far too big a hole immediately. The safe choice is Dalembert, who has pretty much replicated his performance from last season this preseason. He’s a vet and  he’s playing with the consistency of a vet. His highs may not be as high as Sanders’ or  Udoh’s, but his lows won’t scrape theirs either.

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  1. then I don’t get it.. why did we bring in Dalembert if not to be our starter? I’m glad Larry is having a nice preseason, but does anyone expect him to maintain a steady level of play? And in light of recent events is LS mature enough to stay on the team’s good side anyways? Didn’t like the Dalembert trade on draft day and if he isn’t starting I just hate it.. Essentially we are playing the same guys we already had, and complained about, plus Henson

    • I thought the Dalembert trade was a win-win. We moved down in the draft, picked up Dalembert, and drafted the guy the Bucks liked anyway. That was a Ted Thompson-like move–we improved our horrible D at the 5, and got a young piece we can groom, without having to throw him to the wolves prematurely. Are you salty about including Leuer, Justin?

      • first of all “yes” I didn’t like the Leuer part of the trade, but you need chips to get chips.. but don’t act like the plan was flawless to move back and get Henso.. that was just luck.. hey if you like having a $7 million backup center on the decline then more power to ya.. I do, however, think that there were better avenues to take

        • Hey, when it comes to this franchise I’ll take all the “luck” we can get. Care to expand on the other avenues portion of your comment?

    • I have to agree with you that Dalembert has to be the starter. Otherwise it confirms that it wasn’t a good trade. I can’t say I didn’t like the trade at the time, in the same way I can’t say I don’t like a cruddy cookie, it’s cruddy, but it’s still a cookie. But if he doesn’t start, the trade looks a lot less appealing, unless he somehow becomes a great guy off the bench, but I really don’t see that happening. Just another stale cookie…

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  3. Dalembert hasn’t changed the equation, Sanders has. Sanders is performing better than expected this preseason. His foul trouble is still a big concern for Bucks. If and until Sanders’ game matures, Dalembert will be expected to carry the load. Can’t hurt having these guys practice together also.

  4. Dalembert is a 20-25 minute player. Having him come off the bench makes a lot of sense when Larry is playing so well. It wouldn’t make the trade bad at all, It just means we are deep up front. Im sure Larry is learning a lot from Sam and benefiting from the competition.