In the first major blockbuster trade of the season, the Milwaukee Bucks nabbed a big name to pair with their franchise star. After first glance, this trade seems like a no-brainer for both teams. But the more you look at it, the more fascinating it becomes for a Milwaukee franchise trying to make moves. We’ll break to the deal in three parts over the next three days in order to tackle all the factors involved. After taking a look at the man in the middle of it all in Part I, we now focus on the franchise bringing him into the fold.
Part II: Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Dynamic. High Character. Core. Toughness. These are the words and phrases used by new Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst when talking about the Bledsoe deal. Horst made it clear that Bledsoe fits exactly what the Bucks are trying to accomplish with this roster. By swapping out Greg Monroe for another athletic, versatile player the Bucks are hoping to build a roster capable of competing with the today’s NBA. But by adhering to this idealistic vision, Milwaukee might be missing out on the best way to improve a struggling team.
It seems basic, but the recipe for success at any level of basketball is simple: be near the top of the league when it comes to both scoring points and stopping them. Occasionally, success can be found by tilting to extremes, selling out for an elite offense while sacrificing defensive stability or vice versa. A front office can have all these grand plans for what a team should look like, but in the end, the recipe needs to add up to the aforementioned formula of winning.
It’s in this light that the Bucks decision to chase Bledsoe becomes a little more curious. Though Bledsoe may represent a marginal defensive upgrade, it’s pretty clear he was brought in to boost the team’s non-Giannis offense. But that’s why this deal is so interesting. Milwaukee’s 11th ranked offense (per our RealGM database) isn’t really a problem. Teams can make the playoffs and maybe win a round with an offense hovering around the top 10. They cannot, however, expect to compete with their dreadful, 29th-ranked defense.
While swapping Greg Monroe for Bledsoe, in a vacuum, is a move that improves a defense, it’s not so simple when put in context. The ripple effect of losing Monroe might actually make it harder for to plug their leaky defense. Jon Henson will now claim the lion’s share of minutes at the 5 and that’s mostly a lateral move. Last year, the Bucks posted a slightly better defensive rating with Monroe. This season, Milwaukee has been better defensively when Henson has played but it’s not as if he’s been the second coming of 2013 Roy Hibbert for the franchise.
Where things get dicey for Milwaukee now is who fills in those minutes behind Henson. Despite a promising rookie campaign from Thon Maker, the Bucks have posted a defensive rating of 117.0 in the 168 minutes their callow big man has played so far this year. Though long, thin, lanky kids typically get linked to be mobile, Maker is kind of anomaly. Though it’s subjective, the second-year player doesn’t move particularly well -- something that likely attributed to his move to center to begin with. Given the demands of the Bucks defense (that’s in flux), being immobile is not a helpful tool when asked to chase NBA guards 30 or so feet from the basket.
No Monroe means more of Maker, at least at first. If these early numbers hold up, Milwaukee will likely have to shift to more unconventional lineups, with someone like Mizra Teletovic or Antetokounmpo as the nominal center. Now that isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it definitely requires the Bucks to rethink the role of their offense in the team’s overall success. Stopping teams while doling out minutes with Teletovic as a nominal 5-man is, well, not happening. And the Bucks' coaching staff needs to hold firm in realizing that the goal of that approach is to simply outscore teams.
On top of that, the loss of Monroe won’t just be felt in the defensive domino effect. Monroe was also a fulcrum for the Bucks when Antetokounmpo sat. In general, Milwaukee more than held serve when their franchise superstar was out and Monroe was on the floor -- outscoring opponents by 2.8 points per 48 minutes.
When Monroe went down with a calf injury, the Bucks went 1-3 and the drop off of the Giannis-less lineups became much more apparent (weirdly it’s because their defense has absolutely fallen off a cliff when Antetokounmpo sits this season, per NBA.com). In theory, Bledsoe essentially plugs the Monroe hole. Eating up the minutes Antetokounmpo rests and keeping the Bucks in games for their closing lineups comes in to finish off wins.
The hope for Milwaukee fans is essentially that lineups with Bledsoe operating without Antetokounmpo fare better than the Giannis-less units Monroe anchored. Drawing it back to the big picture, that’s where, in general, the Bucks offense leaps from 11th to somewhere near the top five or six teams in the league. Combine that with some internal improvement on defense and that’s how this Bledsoe trade makes this franchise better.
The additional perk of that outcome is Bledsoe, unlike Monroe, is now under contract for an additional season. That would eliminate the team’s need for finding a Monroe proxy next summer, not a bad bet considering the veteran big man would likely leave in free agency and getting quality free agents to head to Milwaukee is a hard sell. The added perk is that Bledsoe fits the general vision for the type of player’s the front office desires. It’s the problem the Bucks front office likely knew they were trying to solve within the confines of their vision.
But when zooming back to the big picture, the team’s fastest route to ensuring another playoff berth this season is making a marked improvement to a defense that’s been problematic for much longer than just the early part of this season. When looking at it through that lens, it’s hard to see where Milwaukee dealing for Bledsoe made positive strides. Now that the dust has settled, it’s clear the Bucks are counting on internal improvement, a tactical change and maybe a reversal of some bad, early season luck to fix their biggest issue. And unless that happens, this blockbuster trade for Bledsoe may show that the team’s front office was too preoccupied with a grand vision to realize they were fixing a problem the Bucks never really had.
Part III: Making It Work