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.