It’s Donte out, and Serge in for the slightly new-look Milwaukee Bucks as the NBA’s trade deadline expired. First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the defending champions offloaded a wing-sized package of Donte DiVincenzo, Rodney Hood, and Semi Ojeleye for Clippers center Serge Ibaka, two second-round draft picks, and cash considerations.
It was certainly not the trade we thought the Bucks were looking at, but in hindsight, it was definitely the trade they needed. On paper, Ibaka ticks all the right boxes for Milwaukee: he’s a big, imposing defensive presence on the interior who can also stretch the floor with his outside stroke. This is precisely what the Bucks needed.
Off the bat, this is excellent news for a Bucks team that has needed both size and bench depth of late. To put it bluntly, the Milwaukee Bucks just a few short weeks ago did not look like a team that just won a championship. At one point, they were fresh off losing five of their last ten, and sank to a very average 5th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Where it was easier to make excuses for them after starting the season with a litany of injuries, it now is becoming increasingly difficult to explain away their losses in games where their Big 3 have played. Fans at the time were (rightfully) asking: is it time to hit the panic button for the defending champions’ second unit?
The Bucks’ trade moves in the past few years seem to have all been based on fit rather than merit. It’s why the trade landing PJ Tucker was not as celebrated as it should been; most fans around the league didn’t see it for what it was: a championship-winning acquisition that quietly tipped the scales for the eventual champions.
Can the Ibaka move do the same thing for Giannis and company? Here’s a quick look at what the stats say.
It wasn’t looking good without size
On paper, the Bucks initially looked like they should not have had any trouble when it comes to their depth chart. They had strong, dependable guards like Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, and George Hill coming off the bench.
This is likely why the front office at the time was content with letting big man DeMarcus Cousins go after a brief stint with the Bucks — a move that many would argue was a mistake at the time. Without Boogie, the team’s center rotation was back to its usual blend of staggered Antetokounmpo and Portis minutes. Predictably, their defense suffered, and they started to drop games against much weaker competition.
According to NBA.com/stats, the Bucks bench has the second-lowest scoring output per game in the association. Bench players on the team thus far have combined for just 26.9 points per game, which would make the Bucks bench among the five worst bench units in the league despite their sixth-ranked output of 112.9 points per game overall. This means that the team’s bench makes up less than a fourth of their scoring output with just 23.8 percent. Though the team’s Giannis-and-shooters offensive identity has proven to be effective when shots are falling, it’s also evident that the team can eventually rely on Antetokounmpo’s gravity to make plays on the offensive end.
The need for size in the absence of starting center Brook Lopez is clear. The Bucks are also 25th in points in the paint with just 43.3 points in the interior per game — not ideal for a team with arguably the most dominant and efficient paint scorer not just in the league today, but in recent memory.
The fit is there, now the Bucks just need the results
This is why, for example, having former Milwaukee Buck Greg Monroe come in on his ten-day contract was significant for Milwaukee. The sub-15 minutes per game he put in to allow Antetokounmpo and Portis more time to recuperate without giving up size was already an upgrade for the Bucks, who essentially had just those two to cycle in both the power forward and center positions.
It’s been proven true time and again that playing with Giannis brings the best out of shooters. His All-World gravity creates shooting opportunities that seem to reward competent floor-spacers practically every trip down the floor, provided the Bucks make the extra passes to get them the rock. Ibaka, currently a 38.7 percent shooter from downtown, is sure to get a lot of open looks owing to the inward gravity of Antetokounmpo.
Assuming Ibaka starts, super-sub Bobby Portis should come off the bench once more, which is a role he’s seemed tailor-made for his entire career thus far. His addition to the team’s bench mob gives them an offensive boost worth 15.5 points per game, which would mean their bench would rank first in that statistic instead of 28th.
On the other hand, Ibaka is a competent scorer in the paint while also being an excellent rim protector. Per his matchup stats, he’s held guards to 40.5 percent efficiency, forwards to 49.3 shooting, and 50.0 shooting for centers. Those aren’t the best numbers, but in his championship-winning season, Ibaka also held opposing scorers to a collective 42.5 percent shooting as the closest defender. Considering the Bucks run a conservative sort of defensive philosophy that relies on deep drops on the pick and roll to maximize the size of their relatively slow-footed bigs, Ibaka should definitely fit in on the defensive end as well.
If the Bucks were looking for a replacement for Brook Lopez, they can’t do much better than Ibaka. Now it’s a matter of getting the best out of him and hoping he moves forward from his injury.
“I kind of feel like I fit perfect, you know. With Giannis on the court, I can kind of do a bit of everything. Rolling inside, shooting inside. I kind of feel like it was a perfect fit for me,” Serge was quoted as telling reporters upon his arrival at Milwaukee.
“I have been a hundred percent the last couple of months…I’m ready to go.”
Bucks are much more formidable with Ibaka in tow
At the same time, the past few championships have shown us that bench depth doesn’t matter quite as much late into the postseason.
For now, there are still signs for optimism that fans would do well to keep in mind. The Bucks are still elite when their three best players share the court together. Despite the relative lack of size for much of the season thus far, the Bucks are still fourth in the league in limiting opponent points in the paint. The opposition has only scored 43.2 points per game in the painted area against Milwaukee.
Still, getting more production out of their second unit would do wonders for their title chances. The defending champions in recent years have prided themselves on having an extremely competent bench mob. Their depth was a huge reason for their steamrolling through the regular season in the first two years of the Mike Budenholzer era.
Whether their bench pulls it together or not, the Milwaukee Bucks are still an extremely formidable team when their big three plays together, as evidenced by their record tied for the third seed in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference.
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