A great team is only as strong as its weakest link. At least that’s the consensus among every motivational coach I’ve ever heard. But for the sake of this space, it’s true for NBA contenders as well. I’ll examine the weak spots in some of the most iron-clad lineups in the NBA entering the 2023 season from upper-echelon teams stuck with recycled players playing vital roles to cardboard cutout coaches.
On Monday, Damian Lillard couldn’t stop cheesing as he, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton posed for a Media Day photo shoot. “I ain’t never been in no photo like this man,” Lillard beamed.
That Bucks foursome is the first time Dame hasn’t been the underdog, but conspicuously missing from Milwaukee’s Four Horstman was the fifth player who will start and close out games for the Bucks. For years, Golden State’s five-man Death Lineup has been the holy grail every roster has pursued.
The Milwaukee Bucks upgrade from Jrue Holiday to Lillard was the NBA’s most significant since Golden State traded Harrison Barnes to make way for Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016. General manager Jon Horst swooping in off the top rope to swipe Lillard from the Miami Heat’s grasp was scintillating. The NBA community was so sure Lillard would end up in Miami, ESPN cameras during Colorado’s late-night matchup against Colorado State caught Kyle Lowry, who could have been a throw-in because of his exorbitant salary, and Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups engaging in some possible light tampering before they retreated to separate corners like they were being tracked by Cheaters’ Joey Greco.
The only thing preventing Lillard and Antetokounmpo from being considered a perfect union is the gap on their wing between Lillard and Khris Middleton. The 2-guard has been a dead spot in the Bucks foundation for years now. Milwaukee still hasn’t fully recovered from the original sin of trading Malcolm Brogdon for a trio of firsts. But now that the Bucks are front and center as Vegas’ title favorite, their warts are magnified, and that perimeter sinkhole looks even deeper under the microscope.
Finding an array of shooters who can accept dribble handoffs and shoot 40 percent is becoming increasingly common. Finding a guard who can defend and shoot is really difficult. That’s why Klay Thompson was more valuable than CJ McCollum for so long. Milwaukee has neither right now.
For his part, Jrue Holiday spent a third of his defensive possessions velcroed to the shoe of forwards. Teams are going to be licking their chops in an effort to switch Lillard onto a bigger forward or a wing-scoring dynamo. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by stoppers and one of the league’s best on-ball defenders in The Greek Freak.
Holiday wasn’t the only loss Milwaukee has to adjust for defensively. A year ago, Grayson Allen and Jevon Carter were the other point-of-attack defenders in Budenholzer’s best perimeter defensive lineups. However, Carter quietly signed with the Bulls this summer while Ted Cruz’s replicant clone was shipped to Phoenix as part of the three-way trade for Lillard.
Allen’s final play as a Buck was an ill-fated drive into the paint that ended with the clock running out in Game 5 and on the season. Allen started a majority of Bucks games alongside Holiday for the past two seasons, but in the void left behind, new head coach Adrian Griffin has a panoply of subpar choices.
There’s long-time Buck reserve Pat Connaughton, who does all the dirty work and plays with more energy than a power plant, but probably would have been a more highly sought-after pitching prospect than NBA free agent as a swingman who doesn’t create shots for himself, others, or drain open shots at a high percentage clip. However, Connaughton played the fifth-most minutes among Bucks in the last two seasons, and Budenholzer’s trusted emergency starter will likely be pressed into action again.
Newly signed guard Malik Beasley is one of the NBA’s purest shooters, but also a low-effort defender who can get tunnel vision focused on getting his own shot off. But like most high-volume shooters, his efficiency can fluctuate from extremes.
The Bucks’ most recent draft picks MarJon Beauchamps, a 2022 first-round selection, and Andre Jackson Jr. could step up, but neither has proven they’re ready for primetime yet, nor should they be expected to. Jackson excelled as an on-ball playmaker for national champion UConn, which makes him a better fit alongside Lillard’s stroke than he would have been playing beside Holiday. More importantly, he’s a serviceable defender. All this could wind up being moot when some rangy, perimeter defender or 3-and-D specialist winds up on the block at the deadline and the Bucks could out Beauchamps, or Jackson as trade assets. Despite the uncertainty, Milwaukee is in an enviable position.
Defensively, Lillard can be a liability. But he’s no more problematic than Donovan Mitchell playing alongside Darius Garland for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ No. 1 defense. That unit had the benefit of being supplemented by the duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, who spearheaded a Cavs defense that allowed the fifth-lowest field goal percentage within eight feet of the bucket. Milwaukee’s defense was third.
Milwaukee has done more with less before. In 2021, Milwaukee won a title with Donte DiVincenzo barely scraping by logging double-digit scoring averages, and minimal playmaking. The level of concern is minimal. On a scale from pothole to crater, their lack of options is a pothole, but the expectations are massive, for whomever earns that final slot.
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