Question Week: Will the addition of Greg Monroe hurt the Bucks defensively?

There are a variety of questions the Milwaukee Bucks will have to answer heading into what should be an exciting 2015-16 season. We’ll tackle one a day the rest of this week as we begin actually thinking about next season. – JS

When a player hits the open market, there’s almost always a catch. Greg Monroe is no exception.

Milwaukee’s biggest free agency signing since (gulp) Bobby Simmons is known more for his low-post scoring and interior passing than his abilities on the defensive end. Monroe isn’t necessarily a bad defender – the effort is there, by most accounts – but he’s slow-footed and slightly undersized to play the center position he prefers.

With apologies to Zaza Pachulia, the Bucks didn’t have anything remotely resembling a rim-protector in the starting lineup last season, yet they finished with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating. Monroe isn’t a rim-protector by trade, and the Bucks know that. Monroe, all 6’10” of him, blocked eight fewer shots than Kyle Korver last season and just two more than Jeremy “Baby Mutombo” Lin.

But turning away would-be drivers to the hoop is not necessarily what Milwaukee is going to ask Monroe to do. The Bucks got away with the similarly slow-footed Pachulia playing half of last season’s minutes at the center spot, and it worked because of the help he had around him. Pachulia blocked only 21 shots, 13 less than Monroe, but registered the team’s second-best defensive rating (100), trailing only John Henson (98).

Traditionally, teams aim to build defensive schemes around centers who patrol the rim. Tyson Chandler and Robin Lopez, two other big men Milwaukee targeted this summer, are so good at what they do that they mask the deficiencies of others around them. In Dallas, Chandler was compensating for Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. For Lopez, it was LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. In signing Monroe, the Bucks are essentially flipping that notion on its head. Instead of counting on a center to bail them out defensively, the Bucks are instead relying on a strong cast of defenders at three or four other positions to bail out a relatively average defender at center,

Milwaukee operated so effectively as a unit, defensively, last season that it was able to survive quite well without a big man policing the paint. Length on the wing and in the backcourt forced teams into turnovers – Milwaukee led the league in opponents’ turnover percentage (15.9%) – and minimized drives from the perimeter into the lane.

Even when teams were able to get deep into the paint, the Bucks’ interior defense held up surprisingly well. Opponents shot only 56.3% (4th-best in the NBA) within five feet of the rim, per NBA.com/stats, and the Bucks ranked fifth in overall opponents’ field goal percentage (43.7%), due in large part to that abundance of length (or “linth” — What up, Sid? Hope you’re having a nice summer!). This isn’t to say Milwaukee’s defense was perfect last season. The Bucks gave up a ton of three-point looks and struggled to rebound against bigger teams, but Monroe figures to help with the latter as one of the top 20 per-36 minute rebounders in the league.

Returning to the original question, it’s difficult to justify why Monroe would negatively impact the Bucks defensively. His addition alone surely isn’t an improvement – Monroe’s defensive rating (109) backs that up – but he’s not being asked to replace an elite defensive center, nor is he quite enough of a liability to expect Milwaukee to take a significant step back. Besides, Monroe won’t be on the floor in high-leverage defensive situations, for which Henson is a much better fit.

If there’s one thing working in the Bucks’ favor here, it’s that Monroe will finally be allowed to return to his natural position after playing mostly power forward alongside Andre Drummond for the past two seasons. While Monroe profiles as more of a true power forward, his game, on both ends, is best suited for the center spot. Stan Van Gundy offered some insight on that as a recent guest on The Lowe Post, essentially admitting Monroe had been misused in Detroit.

“Greg is a pretty smart guy and knows what his best game is, and if you ask Greg what he is, Greg will tell you he’s a low post scorer and a rebounder. That’s where he wants to get and so basically what we were trying to do is play with two centers […] As much as it was a little bit tough on the offensive end, the real problem was at the defensive end. We put Greg in some tough situations, and he did a good job, as good a job as he could, but you’re asking him to guard stretch-fours like Kevin Love and things like that.”

Milwaukee doesn’t have its own 280-pound behemoth levitating to the rim as a roll man, so the minutes at center are Monroe’s for the taking. He’ll play alongside Henson in specialized situations, but those figure to be few and far between, as the goal is prevent him from landing in mismatches where he’s pulled away from the basket. That should help alleviate some of the spacing issues on offense Milwaukee experienced last season, but it also puts pressure on Jabari Parker, or whoever is playing power forward, to improve defensively.

The Bucks struggled to protect the paint with Parker in the lineup. Per NBA.com/Stats, opponents shot 62% at the rim with Parker defending. Albeit a limited, 25-game sample, that’s not good. Chances are, nine months of watching from the sideline and studying film will have helped Parker from a mental standpoint, but we won’t know for sure until he’s playing in actual games.

  • Part II: Who plays power forward if Jabari Parker isn’t ready to start the season?
  • Part III: Can anyone other than Khris Middleton be a reliable outside shooter?

Categories: 5 Questions

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6 Comments

  1. I think you guys lost a few faithful followers due to the lack of updates for such a long period. I must say for myself it was a bit of a disappointment. I know you guys have lives and have other things going on besides Bucksketball, but that was pretty bogus to just not update with even a small heads up of ” okay, we are probably not going to update the site until around this date.” I listened to the podcast and all that but overall still kinda let down.

    • Sorry, Nobel/everyone else who nodded in agreement when they read what Nobel wrote.

      I had some unexpected life changes that took precedence over Bucks coverage. In hindsight, what you suggested would have been a better way to handle it. But we’ll continue to post when we’re able to bring something insightful to the table. There’s been very little that’s mattered to me in terms of big picture Bucks news outside of Monroe’s signing and the departures of Dudley and Zaza this summer, so I haven’t been motivated enough to find the time around everything else that came up for me.

      But I appreciate you still being here and reading in early August. When the pre-season starts and the games begin, we’ll be the same Bucksketball as ever.

      Thanks.

        • Nobel, in my opinion you’ve expressed yourself well, and Jeremy had a good response, with a couple of small reservations.
          I wonder why other of the Bucksketball staff couldn’t have filled in to cover summer league and the signing of — what’s his name, Jae Crowder?
          Plus, seemingly little things can become big things, such as Khris Middleton going from anonymous trade acquisition to a big free agent who is fortunately staying with the Bucks. I get that Giannis and Jabari, plus newcomer Greg Monroe, are major players of interest, but please don’t forget the other guys, such as Rashad Vaughn’s apparent promising debut in July.
          Most of all, it’s good to have Jeremy back, and I genuinely hope all is well, or will be getting better.
          Hope all the staff, and the visitors to this site, are having a good summer. God bless!

          • Couch Potato Scout

            Swisch, unless I’m mistaken the Bucks signed Chris Copeland, while Jae Crowder went back to the Celtics.

  2. I don’t see why there should be much difference defensively with Monroe starting at center instead of Za Za. Both are slow footed and neither blocks shots. Both are strong but Monroe is a superior rebounder. Plus for the Bucks!

    I think the bigger question is will the return of Jabari significantly change the Bucks defense abilities and schemes? He had a lot to learn in that regard before going down with the injury. If his movements are obviously slower than last year that might limit his minutes more than injury caution.

    Look for Kidd you answer all of our questions sooner than later. Kidd is defense first …. so I think we see a lot of Henson at both 4 and 5 and the “super long armed” Bucks roaring up and down the court will be a nightly thing.