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Big trouble for little Chicago: the Bucks’ dangerous size advantage

Milwaukee’s front court could be nightmare for the Bulls’

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks have dominated the Chicago Bulls across their four regular season matchups, with only one encounter, the first (a 94-90 Bucks win in January) proving somewhat competitive. When it comes to assessing the many ways in which Milwaukee will outclass Chicago as the teams’ first-round playoff confrontation kicks off tomorrow, one of the most glaring Bucks advantages is its size.

It’s been clear all season, even when the Bulls were the top seed in the Eastern Conference, that Chicago has had size issues in its front court depth, specifically at the four spot. Day one starting power forward Patrick Williams, at 6’7” and with a 7-foot wingspan a reasonable size for a modern four, was hurt for a vast majority of the season with a wrist injury, and Bulls head coach Billy Donovan opted to start 6’4” Javonte Green in his stead. Technically, 6’6” DeMar DeRozan would line up at power forward and Green would be small forward, but Green generally handled the defensive responsibilities of the power forward, and often manned the paint while DeMar worked the midrange.

When everyone aside from Lonzo Ball was available at the end of the 2021-22 regular season, Donovan trotted out this undersized and underwhelming starting five: 6’5” Ayo Dosunmu at the point, 6’5” Zach LaVine at shooting guard, 6’4” Alex Caruso at small forward, DeRozan at power forward, and 6’10” Nikola Vucevic at center. Again, Caruso generally deals with power forward assignments on defense. Williams had started at power forward for his first five healthy games with Chicago to begin the season last fall, but has been relegated mostly to a bench role since returning last month. Rob Schaefer of NBC Sports Chicago expects that to change, and anticipates that Donovan will reinsert Williams as the club’s starting four when the series begins tomorrow in Milwaukee.

Last month, Billy Donovan had an insightful explanation for his decision to start Caruso at power forward in a fully-healthy (Lonzo aside) Bulls lineup. “I thought maybe putting Ayo back at the point and getting Alex at the power forward spot where he could defend and now the ball finds him and he’s able to make the next play, the next pass,” Donovan said. “That’s where he had been playing for us when we were whole... He came off the bench, closed games for us at power forward. Lonzo handled or Zach or DeMar handled.” Revising that plan in light of the overwhelming power of the competition would be a wise move. Our fingers are crossed that the new starting five heading into these playoffs will be Caruso at point guard and Williams at power forward, with Dosunmu returning to the bench. Playing Caruso at spot power forward on occasion could still be a fun (if tiny) look.

At least to start the series, Green will serve as the primary power forward backup, while Tristan Thompson has supplanted Derrick Jones Jr. as the main reserve center.

Milwaukee’s top three front court players have been nightmarishly effective against Chicago. Beyond 6’11” two-way superduperstar Giannis Antetokounmpo at power forward, admittedly a tough matchup for anyone, the Bucks also sport a finally healthy seven-footer Brook Lopez at center, who has evolved into an excellent two-way role player in Milwaukee following his offense-first All-Star days with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. The Bucks’ prime power forward/center reserve is old pal Bobby Portis, the face-breaking 6’10” vet who despite middling defense emerged as a critical bench scorer for the Bucks’ 2021 championship run and has only improved his output for the club this year.

The three-point shooting ability of Lopez (35.8% on 4.1 looks per game) and Portis (39.3% on 4.7 attempts a night, though that volume number may be a bit inflated because Portis started for most of the season in Lopez’s stead) has helped neutralize Nikola Vucevic on defensive actions. The Bulls’ starting center is forced to respect the jump shooting of this duo of Bucks bigs (both of whom play center alongside Giannis, though Portis also slides over to power forward in tandem lineups with Lopez), and is drawn out of the interior to cover them along the perimeter. Vucevic’s lack of lateral quickness often leaves him stranded in no man’s land when other Bucks players (like, oh, I don’t know, Giannis) crash the paint.

As was mentioned on the latest Cash Considerations podcast previewing the series, the Bucks allow the most opponent three-point looks per game this year, as their defensive effort is optimized for protecting the interior. On paper at least, the Bulls’ front court could capitalize on this with some three-point makes of its ow. Williams could help spread the floor for the Bulls, but in practice that has proved to have its limitations. Williams, a career 41.3% three-point shooter, averaged just 19.2% from long range in his two healthy games against Milwaukee. Vucevic, at least, is connecting on 40.9% of his triples against the Bucks.

At least Serge Ibaka, no doubt expected by Milwaukee team president Jon Horst to spell Lopez at center as a regular rotation contributor, has instead become more of a fringe piece ever since Lopez returned from a back injury that had kept him out for all but 12 games in the regular season. Ibaka was inactive or a DNP-CD for six of the team’s final nine contests. Even Raptors-era was an athletic, intimidating presence who would’ve given this Bulls team fits.

This writer’s fingers are crossed that Billy Donovan will do his darnedest to resist the temptation to give much time to lineups that include both Tristan Thompson and Nikola Vucevic. Thompson has been a massive minus for Chicago on both ends of the floor since joining the club off waivers in March, and despite his size (6’9” and 254 pounds) will not be an effective foe for either Antetokounmpo or Portis, who will exploit his declining athleticism for easy buckets all night long, especially alongside the similar slow Nikola Vucevic. Lineups with Green alongside Vucevic, despite Green’s massive size disadvantage against either Antetokounmpo or Portis, would at least help counter Milwaukee’s edge in speed.

It’s going to be a slaughter. Only Patrick Williams taking a massive leap in two-way output can save Chicago’s front court for a total annihilation.