Milwaukee Bucks: There are silver linings in slow start to the season – Behind The Bucks Pass

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 02: (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DETROIT, MICHIGAN – NOVEMBER 02: (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Things have taken a negative turn among Milwaukee Bucks fans after the team dropped their eighth game of the season to the Atlanta Hawks. Many were displeased that the Bucks lost to a team that was on a long losing streak and the Bucks struggled to get stops against them.

It’s certainly a frustrating start to the season after fans had such high hopes that the Bucks would come out and steamroll the entire league following the championship. But things aren’t always easy and you had to figure that they would face adversity at some point.

Granted, no one could have seen the early string of injury woes that have plagued the Bucks coming with Khris Middleton testing positive for COVID-19, Jrue Holiday spraining his ankle and then dealing with an illness of his own, or Brook Lopez’s back injury that has cost him all but one game this season.

The Bucks are once again two games under 0.500, are coming off of a five-game road trip against East playoff teams from last season and went 2-3 in those games. People are not happy and although not everyone is ready to hit the panic button yet, lots of folks are getting dangerously close. Please allow me to give you some reasons for optimism with silver linings through their 6-8 start.

Silver linings from Milwaukee Bucks slow start to the season

Right away, the first thing to be optimistic about is that the Bucks have had their four best players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez — together for a total of 10 possessions and were plus-90.0 per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass (subscription required).

Holiday got hurt on opening night, missed the second half of that game, and since then it has been a cobbled-together group around Antetokounmpo. Sometimes he has both Middleton and Holiday (36 possessions without Lopez, plus-30.2), sometimes just Middleton (221 possessions without Holiday and Lopez, plus-1.4), and recently just Holiday (260 possessions without Middleton and Lopez, plus-5.0).

There’s a trend in those possessions and it’s that the Bucks are still better than their opponents with their best players on the floor (I’m as shocked as you are, quite frankly). I understand not wanting to give excuses but the fact of the matter is that the Bucks need their best players as every team does, and when they’re off, then they have trouble filling in with their role players.

Speaking of the role players, no one should be more excited to see Middleton and Lopez return to the lineup than guys like George Hill, Pat Connaughton, and Jordan Nwora. They’re being asked to do more than they should for what they’re best at, which is a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, they’re being stretched a little thin and you’re seeing what happens when you rely on depth players to score consistently — they got a combined 15 points off the bench against the Hawks. It’s going to fluctuate from game to game, but there is a benefit to them playing in an extended role now.

Former NBA assistant coach (and co-host of the Dunker Spot podcast) Steve Jones Jr. made a good point earlier this month that has stuck with me. The idea of role players getting more minutes early in the season and playing in an extended role now will show its value later in the season. They’ve used a ton of unique lineups, more than any other team, and things like that will provide upside down the line for the new role players in particular.

You’re seeing it with Pat Connaughton in particular where he has been asked to do more and has responded with career-highs in his efficiency numbers like true shooting and effective field goal percentage. This will come in handy in the playoffs, knowing Connaughton can give you more in minutes where the Bucks are resting one of their stars.

In a similar vein, the Bucks have been able to get Antetokounmpo more reps as a center or pseudo-center with Portis on the floor. For all the hand-wringing about the rebounding without Lopez (which is still somewhat of a concern), lineups with Antetokounmpo and Portis are plus-9.6 in over 240 possessions and are crushing opponents on the glass.

It’s not a look that will work for long stretches at a time due to Portis’ limitations defensively (him being targeted on the perimeter late in the game against the Boston Celtics and by Trae Young for a lot of the game against the Hawks, are examples), but getting these reps in now will pay off in the playoffs as those two have a better familiarity with each other.

It’s frustrating to see your team lose any game, regardless of circumstance. Especially so when it’s against teams that you could see in the playoffs. Everyone wants to win games, but there’s also value in taking the long view and that is what fans need to remember with the Bucks.

The only thing that matters is how this team will perform in the playoffs and the more ways they can make themselves better prepared for situations in the playoffs, the better. The core of this team has played together enough that there isn’t a chemistry concern, it’s about acclimating the role players. There are still three players out who combined for 88 minutes per game last season, that matters.

One more reason for optimism? A five-game homestand that includes the Bucks playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic (twice), and the Detroit Pistons. Three teams with a combined 11-26 record, including the Thunder being somewhat frisky.

No team or fanbase wants to be under 0.500 at any point in the season, but this is the time to be figuring things out and not when it matters most.