Milwaukee Bucks: The injury advantage has gone away

The Milwaukee Bucks avoided major injuries most of the season, but as the 2019 NBA Playoffs approach, a number of injuries are challenging their rotation.

The Milwaukee Bucks have had an advantage over their competition for most of the season — an advantage largely out of their control and one that looks to have come to an abrupt end. Its effect on the Bucks may determine whether they are able to make and win the NBA Finals.

With all due respect to the Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, the most unexpected result in the standings will be the Milwaukee Bucks finishing with 60 or more wins and the top record and net rating in the league. From a .500 team run out of the postseason by the Boston Celtics’ backups to the top team in the league, the Bucks have had a truly dominant one-year turnaround.

In addition to dominating on the court and in the standings, the Bucks have dominated in another key area as well: health. Until March, the Bucks had not suffered a major injury to a key rotation player on their roster, with the exception of John Henson, a backup center whose removal from the rotation helped the team and who was subsequently traded.

Injured competition

The same cannot be said about the other contending teams across the league. The Golden State Warriors, still the odds-on favorites to win the title, have been beset with injuries all year. They began the season without All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins, and his fill-in at starting center, Damian Jones, went down for the year with a pectoral injury. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry missed 11 games with an injured groin, and the combination of Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have missed 18 games with injuries of their own.

The Denver Nuggets have weathered injuries of their own, losing Paul Millsap (11 games), Gary Harris (25) and Will Barton (39) from their starting lineup for large chunks of time. The Portland Trail Blazers are currently without their second- and third-best players in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic; the Houston Rockets played 24 games without Chris Paul and 15 without Clint Capela.

On the Eastern side of the ledger, the Toronto Raptors have had to manage Kawhi Leonard’s workload to ensure his muscle issues don’t resurface, leading to 22 missed games. Sixth man Fred VanVleet missed 18 games with a thumb injury, while Kyle Lowry has missed 16 games of his own with various minor issues.

The Boston Celtics have had to make their way through the season without Kyrie Irving (14 missed games) and Al Horford (13) for much of the time, all while max-player Gordon Hayward struggles to completely return from his injury. Backup center Aron Baynes has missed 30 games with differing injuries.

The Indiana Pacers lost their All-Star shooting guard, Victor Oladipo, for the entire year. The Philadelphia 76ers have managed nagging injuries to Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, not to mention losing this year’s first round pick to a bizarre allergy attack (Zhaire Smith has just returned after missing 75 games) and last year’s, Markelle Fultz, to something more bizarre and more unknown before trading him to the Orlando Magic.

Yet the key observation for the other Eastern Conference contenders is that, other than Oladipo and the Pacers, their rotations are all returning from injury and rounding into form. Between Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia, all of their starters should be available for the start of the postseason. The same cannot be said for Milwaukee.

Bruised Bucks

Now that the season is drawing to a close and the all-important postseason nears, the Bucks are experiencing the injuries they have avoided this long. The most important injury, and the one with the most uncertain timetable, is starting 2-guard Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon has been a key part of the Bucks’ success this season. After being replaced last season by the Eric Bledsoe trade, Brogdon worked on the parts of his game necessary to play alongside Bledsoe, and he earned a spot in the starting lineup.

He is the team’s most accurate long range shooter, hitting 42.6 percent of his 3.8 attempts per game. Although he is not a frequent customer at the free throw line, he is deadly accurate, draining 92.8 percent of his attempts. In fact, with his 50.5 percent mark from the field, Brogdon is the only qualifying player this season on pace to join the illustrious 50-40-90 club.

Yet on March 16, it was announced that Brogdon would be out 6-8 weeks with a minor plantar fascia tear in his right foot.

At the earliest, Brogdon is expected back two weeks into the postseason; assuming a first round victory, that means he could be available for a second round matchup, likely against either the Boston Celtics or Indiana Pacers. If his recovery takes longer, or he is not at 100 percent when he returns, the Bucks will be hard-pressed to play at the same elite level — although they do have some options to replace him.

Some of those options have gone down themselves with injuries. Nikola Mirotic came on board at the trade deadline and initially replaced Brogdon in the starting lineup for a bigger “jumbo” look with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 3. Mirotic is out indefinitely with a fracture in his left thumb and his return is expected sometime around the start of the postseason.

Tony Snell was the starter the last two years at the 2, but he has a left foot sprain that will keep him out until the start of the postseason. Rookie guard Donte DiVincenzo has battled heel issues all year and has been shut down due to bilateral heel bursitis in his right foot. The options to replace Brogdon are thinning out.

The myriad of injuries has not doomed the Bucks to mediocrity. Their four best players are still healthy, although Antetokounmpo has had a litany of minor injuries. The scheme still works. The roster was built for depth, so even with all of the injuries, the team has George Hill, Sterling Brown, D.J. Wilson and the newly-signed Tim Frazier to fill in.

Testing ground

Head coach Mike Budenholzer will be tested forming new rotations that maximize the team’s production while pieces are missing, all without sacrificing anything when players start to come back. The most likely player to start in Brogdon’s place is Tony Snell, assuming he is back healthy for the start of the postseason.

D.J. Wilson has made major improvements in his second season and can fill in for Mirotic as the backup power forward, while Sterling Brown and George Hill can run the bench unit well with Pat Connaughton on the wing. Brogdon returning will then give Budenholzer a bevy of options off the bench to play the matchups accordingly.

The most important player to the Bucks’ postseason success is Giannis Antetokounmpo. After him it will be whether Eric Bledsoe is the All-Star level guard from the regular season or the liability from last season’s playoffs. Also, can Brook Lopez stay on the court against stretch-bigs?

To win titles, a team needs all hands on deck, and the Bucks will need contributions from the likes of Brogdon, Snell and Mirotic. With the rest of the Eastern Conference getting healthy at the right time, the Bucks’ success will need to come despite getting injured at the wrong time.