If there was one opponent that flummoxed the Bucks the most last season, it was the Memphis Grizzlies. They beat the Bucks by double-digits in November, then repeated the feat in December. Even in the preseason, a piecemeal squad of Memphis backups beat the Bucks starters. The personnel matchups could not have paired more poorly for Milwaukee.
Tony Allen and Mike Conley hounded the now-departed Swag Twins into poor shooting nights. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph neutralized the Bucks best advantage — their interior athleticism and defense — with burly rebounding and clever interior passing. Everything that should have gone against Memphis wrong did, but fortunately for the Bucks, they only had to face the Grizz twice in games that actually counted.
The additions of Zaza Pachulia and O.J. Mayo this year should act as fairly potent antidotes to their Memphis problems, but the new roster has its own set of issues.
There are two All-Star combo forwards in the Eastern Conference who shift seamlessly between the two forward spots on their respective teams. Their coaches slide them to and fro based on advantages and mismatches. Against the Bucks, that usually means that they play the power forward spot because Ersan Ilyasova cannot guard either of them (or for that matter, any other small forward) and it takes him and his 40+% three-point shooting off the floor for extended stretches.
So who will the Bucks use this year to guard them? Let’s call it the CarBron Ames Problem. Or the LeMelo J’Anthony Problem. Who will guard LeMelo J’Anthony? Now you might answer, ‘O.J. Mayo’, because J’Anthony is his middle name. (No, really. It’s literally his middle name.) But Mayo is a shooting guard and even if he’s quick enough, he’s too small to pester their shots regularly. The Bucks need another option.
Going into last season, the Bucks had three options to deal with it: Luc Mbah a Moute, Marquis Daniels, and the Promising Young Orlando Combo Forward Who Shall Not Be Named (PYOCFWSNBN). While it’s obvious that no one was going to completely shut down the talented twosome, these were three palatable choices to counter with. The Bucks may have a new trio of options this season, but in its current form, the roster offers far scarier choices. And instead of getting two games against their Kryptonite, like they did last season, the Bucks play seven total games against the Heat and Knicks (though an encore #1 vs. #8 playoff tilt would net them even more.)
So who will guard LeBron and Carmelo this season? The minuses outweigh the plusses.
- Strength: Played some power forward for Houston last season.
- Weaknesses: He’s too short, he gambles for steals, he’s not actually good at defense anymore and his broken foot is still in the process of healing.
- Strength: His Synergy numbers look promising
- Weaknesses: The Synergy numbers come from a very small sample tainted with a chunk of late-game minutes in blowouts.
- Strength: WINGSPAN!
- Weaknesses: Weighs 75 lbs. less than LeBron and lacks NBA-level experience at team defense/rotations/defending pick-and-rolls.
So the early answer among the small forwards is likely Middleton, but it’s not much of an answer. The other option is to go bigger, a move that brings us into John Henson/Larry Sanders/Ekpe Udoh territory. Could the Bucks shuffle their deck of bigs and pluck one out who can “guard smalls”, as former coach Scott Skiles would have termed it?
Henson has huge reach but limited quickness, and he wouldn’t be effective when lured out to the perimeter. He’s too slow to keep up with James, which invites dunks on his head. Sanders could do the deed, but he would need more than six fouls to function in that role. That leaves Udoh, who is probably the best option among the bigs. But you’ve got to give something to get something, and Udoh is the most desirable target among opponents who are shopping the Bucks’ tradable players. If Udoh stays, it’s likely because of his effectiveness guarding James and Anthony, but if the Bucks want more of a traditional small forward, Udoh may be part of the package sent out in exchange.
Also, as Eric Buenning of Brew Hoop pointed out on Twitter, Udoh was curiously absent from John Hammond’s enthusiastic youth rant at the Brandon Knight press conference. Hammond noted the young core, including the ages of Knight (21), Henson (22), Sanders (24), Antetokounmpo (18), and even Ilyasova (26), but he failed to mention Udoh (also 26) even once through the duration of the presser.
Of course the other option here would be for the Bucks to stick with what they have, give Khris and Giannis extended minutes at forward and let the losses fall where they may. But in the same press conference, Hammond adamantly denied being in tank mode, and I believe him.
In other words, expect a move.