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 move up the Eastern Conference. We’ve now broken to the deal into three parts over the past three days in order to tackle all the factors involved. In our final installment, we’ll examine how the Bucks can utilize Bledsoe in order to make this deal a turning point for the franchise.
Whether or not you are a fan of Bledsoe’s unique game or think Milwaukee factored in the wrong variables when making this deal, Eric Bledsoe’s Bucks' career starts in a matter of hours. At this point, it’s on Milwaukee’s coaching staff to utilize him in a way that catapults the team toward the upper echelon of the East. With that in mind, we’ve identified three key ideas that head coach Jason Kidd should consider in order to get the most out of the team’s big ticket acquisition.
1. Be creative and consistent when it comes to the rotation.
Across all levels of basketball, head coaches love to operate their benches by feeling out the flow of the game. Matchups, foul trouble, fatigue and performance all blend together to create the rotations that emerge on a nightly basis. Of all NBA coaches, Kidd is probably the worst offender when it comes to the volatility of his nightly rotations. Because Bledsoe’s quirky game is about to paired with an emerging megastar, that has to stop.
The first thing that Kidd needs to identify is that with the departure of Monroe, he can’t get too gung-ho about pairing his two offensive studs together. When Kevin Durant was with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, their coaches (Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan) both caught major flak (for good reason) for doing little to stagger the minutes of those two superstars in an effort to prop up outgunned reserve units. On top of that, Bledsoe’s strengths don’t seem to clearly mesh with Antetokounmpo, so Kidd should want to start by keeping those two separate from each other as much as possible.
Bringing Bledsoe off the bench would have been the easiest solution, but the team has already announced their new point guard is claiming the starter’s role. This doesn’t mean the Bucks can’t find a path to staggering minutes, but Kidd will now have to borrow a page from Terry Stotts in Portland. With two dynamic guards in CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard but a surrounding cast lacking great depth, Stotts had to find a way to keep lineups afloat. His solution was to sub McCollum around the six minute mark (very early for a starter) then bring him back in with bench heavy units.
Kidd should strongly consider starting off Bledsoe’s tenure with this approach. And if it works, Milwaukee’s head coach should resist the urge to constantly tinker with his rotation. Not only would it allow Bledsoe to run wild in pick-and-rolls (more on that in a second) while the team’s franchise star regains his energy on the bench, but it’d help find long stretches for one of Milwaukee’s most productive duos…..leading us to our next point.
2. Keep Malcolm Brogdon paired with Antetokounmpo
Although there is a lot of noise behind lineup data this early in the season, the Brodgon-Giannis duo is outscoring opponents by 4.1 points per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com. That’s nearly seven points better than the team’s overall season mark of -3.3 per 48.
Even more impressive is that Milwaukee’s pre-Bledsoe starting lineup of Brogdon, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Jon Henson is smashing opponents by 14.7 points per 48 in the 85 minutes they've played together. While that number obviously comes with a small sample size alert, it’s very promising. There’s also no reason that Bledsoe’s arrival should stop the Bucks from going to it as much as possible. Especially considering that the success is rooted in how the duo of Brogdon and Antetokounmpo complement each other.
One of Milwaukee’s bread and butter sets involves Brogdon and Giannis working together in pick-and-roll:
While the Bucks obviously run other other actions, this is something that the team should lean on plenty throughout the season. But before assuming that Bledsoe swapping spots with Brogdon in this play will only make it tougher to stop, it’s important to factor in the incoming veteran’s skillset.
As we covered Wednesday, Bledsoe is an attacking guard with a mid-range specialist’s approach. Bledsoe isn’t a great shooter off the bounce, lacks a touch/floater finish and isn’t a natural playmaker. Brogdon is pretty much the exact opposite. Though it’s a small sample size, Brodgon is 7-of-10 this season on runners, per Synergy data. He’s got a natural feel for his floater and more importantly, Brogdon knows his job on the floor isn’t to score 20 point a game but rather set up his teammates. That’s why most of Brogdon’s shot attempts in pick-and-roll often come when the defense is daring him to score -- something that happens a lot when Antetokounmpo is the roll man.
It’s important to reiterate that because a player runs a single play better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better option in all respects. But when it comes to Brogdon and Bledsoe’s relationship with Antetokounmpo, this play is a microcosm for why Brogdon might just generally fit better alongside the Bucks franchise cornerstone.
Even though Brogdon (and other Milwaukee players) obviously get shots out of this play, it is completely designed around getting Antetokounmpo the ball -- whether for a quick dunk finish or to attack a mini-closeout in space. The way the team shifts players into the ballhandler’s path, leaving all kinds of space around Antetokounmpo’s roll path is a dead giveaway. The general description of this play is basically, “pass to Giannis if he’s open and get the hell out of the way.”
That is not exactly the role Bledsoe will want to assume possession after possession. Nor is it one the team should want him to play. This is part of why Brogdon and Giannis work well together as a duo and the team’s most recent starting lineup is successful. Brogdon is well-equipped and mentally at peace making smart, simple plays and getting out of the way. When you have an offensive talent like Antetokounmpo on the roster, that’s precisely the type of point guard a coach should be doing his best to put around him.
For Bledsoe, his job description should come in a different context….
3. Go all-in on 5-out
As you can see, this all goes hand in hand. Brogdon playing more with Antetokounmpo means staggering minutes and more Bledsoe with backups. But instead of trotting out a currently overmatched Thon Maker or untested Joel Bolomboy, the Bucks should commit to go all-out on offense when Bledsoe is with the second unit.
The obvious personnel choice for such a move is sticking Mizra Teletovic at center and living with the high variance route of simply trying to outscore teams when he’s in. Putting Bledsoe in pick-and-rolls with the lane completely open would encourage him to do what he’s best at -- drive to the rim and draw contact. As a head coach, Kidd will have to swallow hard with a defensive quintet anchored by Teletovic, but part of why coaches like Mike D’Antoni are so great is they stay committed to a process.
It’s uncomfortable for a coach to remove the perception of defensive solidity. Kidd would likely be no different. But when it comes to making Bledsoe work with reserve heavy units, Milwaukee’s head coach needs get comfortable being uncomfortable.