MILWAUKEE — Scott Skiles is not one to sit back and watch his team struggle, waiting for things to get better on their own.
In his fifth season in Milwaukee, the Bucks coach is going to make changes until he finds a winning solution. It’s what he’s done his entire coaching career, and that’s certainly not going to change now.
Milwaukee has used five different starting lineups in its past 10 games. Some players have gone from starting to out of the mix completely as Skiles and the 10-9 Bucks search for a rotation that will click. Guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have started every game, but there has been change at every other position in the starting lineup. Milwaukee started the season 6-2 but is 4-7 since.
“When you lose four out of five and things are slipping, you have to do something, you have to take action,” Skiles said. “… At some point, it is time to mix it up and see if you can’t find something else that is working.”
At small forward, Tobias Harris has gone from starting to getting only limited time late in games that aren’t close. Skiles made that change prior to last Wednesday’s loss to New York, inserting 31-year-old forward Marquis Daniels into the starting lineup. With Mike Dunleavy’s injury and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute just returning from offseason knee surgery, Daniels was the only available choice when the coach decided to mix things up.
Inside, the Bucks have gone through even more changes. Last season, Milwaukee didn’t have any reliable size after Andrew Bogut went down with an ankle injury; now the problem is an abundance of big men. The season opened with Samuel Dalembert and Ersan Ilyasova starting at center and power forward. That eventually changed to Dalembert and rookie John Henson, then to Ekpe Udoh and Henson and now to Udoh and Larry Sanders.
“We have a lot of big guys, and that’s an issue,” Skiles said. “They can’t all play and yet they are all good, they can all do something to help you. So we are trying to find some consistency in there with the rotation.”
Skiles took Ilyasova out of the starting lineup because he had to. The Turkish forward was struggling so mightily that the coach was left with no choice. The duo of Udoh and Sanders was a potent weapon off the bench, and both players, especially Sanders, wanted to stay in that role.
“In an ideal world, Larry really didn’t want to start,” Skiles said. “He was reluctant to give up his (bench) role. In an ideal world, you’d be cruising along and everybody would have their role and be comfortable in their role. I’m hoping I don’t ruin Larry and Ekpe’s comfort level and what they were bringing by putting them in the starting lineup.”
So far, the results of the latest changes have been positive, though it’s only been three games. Though it is way too early to judge this stat, the current starting lineup of Jennings, Ellis, Daniels, Udoh and Sanders have a plus-minus of plus-26.7, which means the Bucks have outscored opponents by an average of 26.7 points with them on the court (projected over 48 minutes). Take it with a grain of salt, simply because they’ve only played a total of 40 minutes together.
On the flip side, the original starting lineup of Jennings, Ellis, Harris, Ilyasova and Dalembert has a plus-minus of minus-3.3. That lineup has played 117 minutes together, the most on the Bucks but the sixth-fewest in the league by a team’s top lineup.
The numbers prove that Skiles is turning to players who give him the most on the defensive end.
Harris has a personal plus-minus of minus-7.7, and opponents are shooting 50.7 percent when he’s on the floor. His replacement, Daniels, is at plus-4.9, and opponents shoot just 41.5 percent when he plays, compared to 46.5 percent with him on the bench.
The numbers trend similarly at power forward and center. Henson is a staggering minus-13.4, and foes shoot 51.4 percent with him on the court. Coming to Milwaukee this offseason, Dalembert was known for his defense, but opponents are shooting 50.9 percent when he plays.
No one needs numbers to prove the best defensive duo is Sanders and Udoh, but stats do show it isn’t close. When Dalembert and Ilyasova are on the floor together, teams are shooting 51.4 percent and would score 104 points per game if they played the entire game. Dalembert and Henson together are allowing 54.7 percent opponent shooting and would allow 111 points per game.
Opponents are shooting 36.6 percent with Udoh and Sanders playing together and would score just 84 points per game. With every big man a wash offensively so far, Skiles’ reasoning for going with Udoh and Sanders is pretty obvious, even if Sanders would prefer coming off the bench.
“I talked with the coaches, and it was what they saw was best for the team,” Sanders said. “I’m willing to put us in the best position that we can to win as many games as we can. If they think that can help, I’m all for it.”
There’s little doubt Skiles’ alterations and probing for the best rotation will bother some players. Harris and Henson are talented young players but must improve flaws in order to be consistent. There are too many significant parts of this year’s team – including Skiles and general manager John Hammond — who are in the last year of their contracts to wait around and experience the growing pains of young players.
Though Dalembert’s minutes have disappeared and he’s voiced his displeasure, Skiles says there’s a way for him to get back into the rotation.
“Just learn what we are doing, that’s about it,” Skiles said. “Our plays, the coverages, get a comfort level with it so that we feel confident that we can rely and the players can rely (on) that he knows exactly what we are doing. I’m sure over time that will happen.”
With so many interchangeable parts, the Bucks don’t have the luxury of a set rotation with defined roles that the best teams in the league have. The Oklahoma City Thunder have used one starting lineup for 348 minutes and another lineup with sixth man Kevin Martin subbed in for 142.
“Early in the season, we are trying to find something that will consistently work for us,” Skiles said. “Things have worked for a game or a half or a quarter, but we haven’t been consistent enough yet. Hopefully we can find that and become a consistent team.”
It’s a fact that there are players who haven’t performed consistently enough to get steady minutes. Now, whose job is it to see that a player becomes consistent?
“It depends on how you view the world,” Skiles said.
He sees it as the player’s job, which doesn’t mean he’s not going to help them achieve that, but he views his role as then finding the best combination of player to help the team win. It’s always been his philosophy, and it isn’t going to change.
With pressure to win now, Skiles has to shuffle the rotation to find a winning solution. He has orders to win now, and that’s exactly what he’s going to try to do.