Milwaukee Bucks: Center position may ultimately hold them back

Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images /

The Milwaukee Bucks are getting subpar production from their center rotation. Their problems at the position may ultimately hold them back.

The Milwaukee Bucks ended last season with a clear answer at the center position. Thon Maker replaced John Henson in the starting lineup and started all six playoff games for the Bucks. Greg Monroe, under contract for one more season, would slowly cede his minutes to Maker and serve as part-time offensive juice from the bench.

Fast forward to the end of February and nothing looks as expected. Monroe has already passed through Phoenix en route to a smaller role for the Boston Celtics. Maker has lost his starting spot to Henson, and the team added depth with Tyler Zeller just prior to the trade deadline.

As the league seems to move toward smaller pace-and-space lineups, the value of centers has never been lower across all 30 teams. The unfortunate reality for Milwaukee is that centers still matter, and trying to win at a high level without a consistent contributor in the middle is fraught with problems.

John Henson took over as the starting center early in the season, and other than time missed due to injuries, has started every game since. A 6’11” lanky big man, Henson has a slight frame and overall good defensive instincts. He has been Milwaukee’s best big man by far this season.

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Defensively, Henson has made the biggest impact, with a +2.4 mark in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, 29th in the league among all players. Lineups with Henson at center are holding teams to below-average effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding and scoring per possession, per Cleaning the Glass.

But Henson is the epitome of a vanilla defender, without the tools to be truly elite. His lack of lateral agility means he has to guess correctly on where an offensive player is heading, as he often cannot recover to stay in front of him. This was highlighted in a play against the Washington Wizards Tuesday night, where Kelly Oubre Jr. submitted a Dunk of the Night candidate in Henson’s face.

Henson’s slight frame also hinders his ability to be a true rim protector, as larger bigs can post him up and back him all the way into the paint. Henson gives up 36 pounds to Jonas Valanciunas, leaving him virtually no chance to hinder the big man’s hook shot.

The holes in his defense make his lack of offensive contributions even more damaging. His Offensive RPM is -1.58, outside the top-50 at his position. Henson has just a 15.6 percent usage rate, taking 9.2 shots per 36 minutes — both the lowest marks of his career.

On a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo capable of destroying opponents inside, the Bucks need to surround their star with shooting. Henson is unable to provide spacing of any kind. While Henson is efficient around the rim and as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, he cannot score reliably from anywhere else or on any other play type.

From 3-point distance, Henson is a non-entity, just 0-for-4 this season and 0-for-10 for his career. Henson makes a catch-and-shoot jumper from anywhere on the court just once in every third game, and is shooting just 39 percent on such shots. By playing Henson, the Bucks significantly crowd the paint and make things harder for Antetokounmpo and the other stars.

The problem is that interim head coach Joe Prunty has nowhere else to turn. Second-year big Thon Maker was supposed to be the starting center of the future, and he may still be. But after an exciting and hope-filled rookie season Maker has come crashing back down to earth.

In nearly every area Maker is regressing significantly from his rookie season. From per 36 minutes box score stats — points, rebounds, assists, blocks — to more advanced numbers such as true shooting percentage and Player Efficiency Rating, Thon Maker is a worse player this season than last.

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The one advantage he holds over Henson is in long range shooting, and it’s because of that the Bucks may end up giving Maker more minutes anyway. The sophomore is at least able to hit from outside, averaging one make every two games. The promise of last season — 37.8 percent from beyond the arc — has given way to disappointment, as Maker is hitting just 30.7 percent from deep this year.

Small moves made to shore up the position were grabs at mediocrity. Tyler Zeller was acquired at the cost of a protected second round pick, and his limitations are such that Milwaukee cannot look to him for answers. Marshall Plumlee has seen spot minutes on a two-way contract, and outside of a moment or two, has not proven himself NBA-worthy.

This Bucks team is on the rise, with solid wingmen around Antetokounmpo in Khris Middlton and Eric Bledsoe. Malcolm Brogdon and Jabari Parker are young, talented and can fill key roles, and Tony Snell is the perfect role player for the modern NBA.

Unfortunately, the pivot is where the Buck are currently being held back, and the clock has all but run out on finding a replacement option. Barring a midnight buyout, no centers are available to step in and help, which means the Bucks will have to lean on Henson and Maker (and hopefully not Zeller) when the postseason rolls around.

It could be that the Bucks find success despite the weakness at center. Henson has his flaws, but he is not the league’s worst starting center — JaVale McGee and Emeka Okafor are currently starting for playoff teams. Milwaukee could also turn to more lineups with Antetokounmpo at the 5, although those lineups have largely failed in limited minutes.

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Ultimately the Bucks are walking into the postseason this year with a serious weakness, and that will cap their ceiling as a team. As the offseason approaches and decisions have to be made from draft selections to free agent targets, the Bucks will have to evaluate whether they have the right men for the job. Most likely the answer will be no, and the next big question will become how to find a replacement.