Tall Ball: How the Milwaukee Bucks are Separating Themselves in Today’s Small Ball Era

In a league that is predicated on teams copycatting championship-caliber teams’ recipe for success, it’s not surprising to see the majority of teams buying into Golden State’s small ball strategy. The Warriors are the best team in the National Basketball Association, and they might be the best team of all time. After having the greatest regular season of all time and coming up short of winning a championship last season, the Warriors added future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant to their roster. Although there have been a few bumps along the road, the Warriors look poised to win their second championship in three seasons. Teams around the league are using Golden State as a case study for creating a dynasty.

The Warriors start Zaza Pachulia, a 6’11” center whose primary job is to rebound and play with physicality. Although Pachulia is considered a starter, he plays roughly eighteen minutes a game and isn’t part of their small ball lineup. Their 2016 small ball lineup was dubbed the “death lineup” because of how easily they would kill the other team’s chances of winning. Now in 2017, the death lineup is even deadlier with the addition of Kevin Durant. The lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green has taken the NBA by storm. This lineup includes five players that can dribble, pass, and shoot on offense and defend at a high level on defense. Other than Curry, the other four death lineup members can switch any pick and roll. Curry is 6’3”, but the others are all between 6’6” and 6’9” tall (although Durant is rumored to be nearly seven feet tall). They play a positionless style of basketball that other teams are mimicking.

This brings us to the Milwaukee Bucks. They too are trying to forge their identity as a team that plays positionless basketball. Instead of copying the Warriors and the rest of the NBA, the Bucks are trying to play a completely different style of basketball. They are using length to their advantage. Having a superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo allows Milwaukee to try something different. His unique skill set is unmatched by anyone else in the NBA. He’s essentially a seven-foot point guard with the ability to do everything on the court except shoot. If he ever finds his stroke from deep, Milwaukee will have the world’s greatest basketball player on their team.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a special talent, but he cannot win games on his own. The Bucks need to surround him with players that complement his talents and fit within the system that they are trying to implement. That’s why the Bucks took a chance on Thon Maker with the tenth pick in last year’s NBA Draft. Maker was the first high school player drafted into the NBA since 2005 when the league created the one-and-done rule. Maker was allowed to enter the draft because he was 19 years old and was one year removed from finishing high school. Although he had just finished playing high school basketball, his final year was considered his fifth year of high school. Maker was born in Sudan and immigrated to Australia as a child. He attended high school in Virginia before enrolling at the Athlete Institute in Canada. The NBA allowed Maker to enter the draft after he proved that he had graduated from high school a year before the draft. There were a lot of unknowns surrounding Maker. Teams were worried that he was older than he claimed to be and were cautious because they weren’t able to see him compete against college athletes. He dominated in high school, but nobody knew if his skill set would translate to the NBA. He plays like a shooting guard but is 7’1” tall. The Bucks took a chance on Maker because he fit the identity that they were trying to create.

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Thon Maker still has a lot of room for development, but so far he looks like a star in the making. Milwaukee probably thought they were a few years away from playing Maker in key moments of games, but Maker became more than a garbage time player during the second half of the season. Coach Jason Kidd decided to start Maker towards the end of the season. He wasn’t getting starter minutes, but he was gaining valuable experience playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Maker even played in crunch time during a few playoff games. He made some mistakes, but he showed that he belonged on the game’s biggest stage.

Both Antetokounmpo and Maker are the size of centers, but have offensive skill sets of guards. They aren’t able to defend guards consistently on defense, but they have enough lateral quickness to switch onto guards in the pick and roll. This allows Milwaukee to play a positionless style of basketball like the Warriors, but with more length. The question is… can this style of basketball lead to sustained success in the NBA?

Before the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals, they were part of another series in which a team blew a 3-1 series lead. In the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Warriors found themselves down 3-1 in the series before winning the last three games. Although the Thunder didn’t win the series, they showed the league a blueprint for defeating Golden State’s small ball lineup. Now that Kevin Durant has switched teams, it’ll be a lot more difficult for teams to compete with the new death lineup. But that doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t examine this series and try to replicate Oklahoma City’s strategy against the small ball lineup.

The Thunder countered Golden State’s death lineup with 6’3” Russell Westbrook on Stephen Curry. Although they’re the same height, Westbrook is stronger and quicker than Curry. The Thunder also played 6’9” Kevin Durant (who is actually closer to 7 feet tall), 6’10” Serge Ibaka, and 6’7” Andre Roberson. Durant, Ibaka, and Roberson all have enough lateral quickness to switch pick and rolls. They’ll have some issues staying in front of Curry, but smaller guards have problems with Curry too. The fifth member of the Thunder lineup was either seven-foot Steven Adams when they wanted to go big, or 6’4” Dion Waiters when they wanted to go small. Although Waiters isn’t very tall, he’s extremely strong and has enough lateral quickness to switch the pick and rolls. One of Steven Adams’ greatest traits is his lateral quickness. This Thunder lineup allowed Oklahoma City to play five players that could switch any pick and roll. They’re also bigger and stronger than the Warriors’ death lineup. The Thunder didn’t win the series, but they showed that it’s possible to stop a small ball lineup with bigger athletes that have enough lateral quickness to stay in front of the man that they’re guarding.

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Milwaukee is taking the Thunder’s blueprint to a whole new level. The Bucks are “Team All Length.” They have five players that are at least 6’10” tall. John Henson is a 6’11” center with the lateral quickness to be able to switch onto smaller players. Greg Monroe is the same height, but he doesn’t have great lateral agility. He’s a skilled offensive big that bullies backup centers, but he doesn’t have the agility that fits the Bucks’ current defensive scheme. Michael Beasley is a 6’10” offensive sparkplug, but has major limitations on the defensive end of the floor. Antetokounmpo, Maker, and Henson are the only three bigs that fit the Bucks’ tall ball strategy. Henson can switch onto smaller players in the pick and roll, but he doesn’t provide anything on the offensive end of the floor. He needs to add strength to avoid getting bullied by bigger centers, but he has the quickness that the Bucks covet in their bigs. Beasley had one of his most dependable seasons of his career, but his defensive inadequacies won’t allow him to be part of Milwaukee’s long-term plan. Although Monroe lacks the ability to switch onto guards, he’s a valuable piece for the Bucks. He’s coming off of his best defensive season of his career, which might allow him to secure a long-term deal if he opts out of his contract. Milwaukee doesn’t have a lot of cap flexibility, so they might not be able to retain him. If he opts in, he’ll make $17.88 million next season before becoming a free agent.

It’s clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker are the bigs of Milwaukee’s future, but they need guards and small forwards to fill out the roster. Although it would be interesting to see five seven-footers playing at the same time, it’s not very realistic. The Warriors use their small ball lineup so they can play five-out basketball and clear the lane. When the defense is spread out to the three-point line, the Warriors can penetrate the lane and kick the ball out to open shooters if a defender decides to help off of his man. If the Bucks played five seven-footers, they wouldn’t be able to stop small ball lineups. Maker and Antetokounmpo can switch onto smaller players, but they cannot play them full-time. Antetokounmpo and Maker play like guards on offense, but they should guard power forwards and centers on defense. But if the Bucks are going all-in on their tall ball strategy, they’ll need bigger guards and small forwards to fill out their lineup.

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The Bucks got the steal of the 2016 NBA draft when they picked Malcolm Brogdon in the second round. Brogdon is a 6’5” point guard that fits Milwaukee’s tall ball strategy. Brogdon is tall for a point guard, and has the strength to match up with bigger players. He’s the perfect point guard to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo. With Antetokounmpo often being the team’s primary ball-handler, Brogdon can play without the ball and be a spot-up shooter. He’s an above average three-point shooter than can be a secondary ball-handler to Antetokounmpo.

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With the Bucks’ point guard situation being solved in last year’s draft, they need a long-term option at the other guard position. After missing more than half the season due to a hamstring injury, Khris Middleton returned to form towards the end of the season. Although Jabari Parker tore his ACL in Middleton’s return game, Middleton helped lead the Bucks to the postseason. Most people believe that Jabari Parker is Milwaukee’s second best player, but the Bucks were better with Middleton than with Parker. Middleton is a 6’8” shooting guard with the ability to defend at a high level. He’s extremely tall for his position, which fits in with Milwaukee’s tall ball strategy. He can play as a small forward, but he’d be best utilized as a tall ball shooting guard.

This just leaves the small forward position open, which most people would assume belongs to Jabari Parker. Although he’ll miss a large portion of next season recovering from his second torn ACL, Parker was one of the emerging stars in the NBA before getting injured. He’s a 20-point per game scorer with the ability to stretch the floor. He expanded his range out to the three-point line this season, which is crucial for anyone that wants to play with Antetokounmpo. Since Antetokounmpo struggles mightily from beyond the three-point line, he needs everyone else on the floor to have three-point range. Otherwise, the defense will collapse and make it harder for Antetokounmpo to attack the rim. As a 6’8” combo forward, Parker seems like the logical choice to be the Bucks’ small forward of the future if his knee fully recovers. There’s only one problem… he is a major defensive liability.

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Prior to his injury, Jabari Parker was one of the worst defenders on the Bucks. Now that his ACL has been torn again, there’s a chance that he won’t fully regain his explosiveness and athleticism that made him one of the best up-and-coming offensive stars in the NBA. Even if he regains his athleticism, he’ll still be a defensive liability. For a team that is forging an identity based on length and the ability to switch defensively, it’s hard to imagine that Jabari Parker will be in Milwaukee long-term. He’d make a great sixth man off the bench that can take over games offensively, but he’s too talented to not be a starter somewhere in the league. I can’t imagine him being happy as a backup. Parker and Antetokounmpo have great chemistry on the court, so it’ll be a shame to see them split up. If Parker does fully recover, Milwaukee might keep him as their small forward and work around his defensive limitations. If Thon Maker develops into the shot blocker that Milwaukee hopes he’ll become, the Bucks might be able to survive with Parker as their starting small forward. This is a decision that they’ll have to make after he returns from injury.

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The Bucks made a great trade before last season started acquiring Tony Snell from the Bulls for Michael Carter-Williams. Although he’s a 6’6” point guard with the length to fit their tall ball strategy, Carter-Williams didn’t live up to the hype after joining the Bucks. He has length and defensive versatility, but was a major offensive liability. With Antetokounmpo being the primary ball-handler, the Bucks need point guards that can operate without the ball. Carter-Williams cannot shoot and had issues creating for his teammates. He was Milwaukee’s biggest problem, and was traded for Chicago’s biggest problem. Tony Snell hadn’t lived up to the hype after being drafted by the Bulls in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft. He had the potential to be a two-way wing, but struggled with consistencies on both ends of the floor. After being traded to Milwaukee, he finally showed the ability that convinced Chicago to draft him in the first place. Snell is a 6’7” shooting guard that shot 40.6% from three-point range this season and was a defensive stopper. Since Middleton and Parker only played one game together this season, Tony Snell was able to start in their absences. He would’ve come off the bench if both Middleton and Parker were healthy, but was given a bigger role because of their injuries. Coming off of the best season of his career, Snell might cash in this offseason in free agency. Snell is a restricted free agent, so the Bucks will have a chance to match any contract that he signs with another team. But they don’t have a lot of cap space, so they might not be able to afford to re-sign Snell.

The Bucks will have to make a few decisions this offseason that will have a major impact on their long-term plans. The first domino that will fall will be completely out of their hands. This decision will be made by Greg Monroe. He can either opt in and make $17.88 million before hitting free agency next year or opt out and become a free agent this summer. After that domino falls, the Bucks will have to decide if they want to retain Tony Snell. Although they might have trouble keeping both Monroe and Snell, they can get rid of other players to shed salary. They’ll also have to make a decision about Jabari Parker, but they should wait until after he returns from injury. Whether or not he’s able to fully recover will have a major impact on their decision. The Bucks will also have to make decisions in free agency and during the draft. With limited cap space, they’ll likely target cheaper free agents that fit their tall ball strategy. The Bucks own the 17th pick in the first round of the draft. If their past drafts are any indication, the Bucks will likely swing for the fences with a player that has a lot of length and upside. This strategy helped them land Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker, so they might go back to the well one more time.

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Although they didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs, the Bucks seem poised to become championship contenders in the near future. With Giannis Antetokounmpo looking like a future MVP and Thon Maker exceeding expectations, the Bucks have a foundation set for their tall ball future. While other teams are embracing small ball, the Bucks are consciously zigging when others zag. This is a risky strategy, but it could pay off handsomely if the Bucks maximize their potential. They are still a few pieces away from becoming contenders, so this next offseason will be crucial for their future. They probably won’t be able to compete with the Warriors or Cavaliers next season, but they are quickly closing the gap. They’ll be one of the most intriguing teams to watch over the next few seasons. Their tall ball strategy might change the game of basketball forever. This might be the end of the small ball era. Only time will tell if this tall ball strategy will bring Milwaukee a championship. If they are able to fulfill their destiny, the rest of the league will take notice and mimic their strategy just like they have with Golden State’s small ball lineup. Although teams try to copy the Warriors, they don’t have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, or Draymond Green. If teams start to copy Milwaukee’s tall ball strategy, they’ll struggle to reach the Bucks’ level of success. There’s only one Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he’s the biggest reason why this tall ball experiment might work. The Bucks have coined the slogan “Own the Future” because of their youth and potential, but it’s clear that the future is now. It’s not certain yet if the Bucks will live up to the hype, but it is certain that teams will be watching to see if tall ball is a fad or the future of the NBA.

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