The beginning of February saw two of the brightest young stars in the NBA, Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine, go down with torn ACLs. Both in their third seasons, Parker and LaVine have established themselves as flame-throwing scorers who can take over games. It was a devastating blow for both players. Parker had torn the same ACL two years before, so this injury raises significant questions about the long-term stability of his knees, while LaVine’s tear is a huge concern for a player whose game is built around his jaw-dropping ability to launch himself into the air. In the short term, the unexpected loss of their firepower meant the Bucks and the Wolves were expected to slip out of the playoff race.
Instead, Milwaukee and Minnesota have quietly kept pace in the race for the no. 8 seeds in their respective conferences. The Bucks are 8–4 without Jabari, and they are a half game behind the Bulls and the Pistons, who are tied for the no. 7 seed in the East. The Wolves, meanwhile, are 7–6 without LaVine, 2.5 games behind the Nuggets for the final playoff spot out West. In their last three games, they beat the Jazz by 27, lost to the Spurs in OT, and beat the Clippers by 16. Over the past 10 games, the Wolves have the second-best net rating in the NBA (plus-9.3), while the Bucks have registered an eighth-best plus-3.6.
One could argue that each team has been helped by their players’ absences: Parker has the second-worst net rating (minus-2.5) of anyone who has played at least 1,000 minutes for the Bucks, and LaVine’s is the worst (minus-3.5) of any Wolves player who has logged at least 100. The biggest issue for both players is on defense, where they are men without a country. LaVine doesn’t have the floor game to be a full-time point guard, but his slight build makes it difficult to match up with bigger and stronger shooting guards. Parker doesn’t have the quickness to get out and defend small forwards on the perimeter, and he doesn’t have the type of rim-protection skills that teams want from a power forward. However, that alone doesn’t explain why their teams have played so well in the past few weeks. So what is happening in Minnesota and Milwaukee?
The Timberwolves Know Who They Are Now
Rather than juggle the rotation in LaVine’s absence, Tom Thibodeau opted to move Brandon Rush, who had barely played for most of the season, into his spot in the starting lineup. Rush is far more limited offensively, but he’s a nine-year veteran who doesn’t make many mistakes and is an excellent spot-up shooter (shooting 37.3 percent from 3 on 2.3 attempts per game this season). At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Rush is much bigger than LaVine and he’s more capable of sliding between positions defensively and handling tougher assignments on the perimeter.
With Rush in the game instead of LaVine, the Wolves have redistributed their offense to give more opportunities to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. One of the things that separates star players is their ability to handle more offensive responsibility without sacrificing efficiency. Every player in the NBA can score more if given more field goal attempts, but very few can do so while maintaining the same shooting percentages, much less improving them. That hasn’t been a problem for either Towns or Wiggins. Over the past month, Towns has been one of the best players in the NBA, and Wiggins has been playing some of the best basketball of his young career.
Roles are clearly defined from top to bottom on this version of the Wolves. LaVine was averaging 15.1 field goal attempts per game this season, the only Wolves player other than Towns and Wiggins averaging more than nine. Minnesota has essentially become a younger version of the Thunder when they had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, except even more lopsided in terms of field goal distribution. Last season, Westbrook and Durant combined to take 39.8 percent of Oklahoma City’s total field goal attempts and score 43.2 percent of its points. In the past 13 games, Towns and Wiggins combined to take 46.5 percent of Minnesota’s total field goal attempts and score 51.7 percent of its points. Towns and Wiggins are the alpha and omega on offense, while Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, and Rush play defense, set them up, and stay out of their way.
Thibodeau came to Minnesota with a reputation as a defensive mastermind, but the Wolves have been essentially the same on that side of the ball (with a defensive rating of 107.2) as they were last season (107.1). It’s almost impossible to orchestrate a good defense when your most talented players are all 21 years old. In the 1,262 minutes Minnesota’s Big Three played together this season, the Wolves had a defensive rating of 112.6, 1.8 points worse than the Nuggets, the league’s worst-rated defensive team. Ever since LaVine has been out, though, the Wolves have been playing defense like some of Thibodeau’s old teams in Chicago. They had a defensive rating of 101.1 over the past 10 games, which is a rate that would be good for second best in the league, behind only the Spurs, over the course of the season.
However, it would be unfair to pin all of the blame for their poor defense on LaVine. While they have been really good defensively with him off the floor this season (103.4), they have been even better without Wiggins (102.6) or Towns (101.4). The advanced statistics don’t paint a pretty picture on defense for any member of the Wolves’ Big Three. LaVine, whom ESPN lists as a point guard in its real plus-minus leaderboard, has the third-worst defensive RPM at the position (minus-3.00), in front of Brandon Knight and Isaiah Thomas. Wiggins is third-worst at small forward (minus-2.40), in front of Brandon Ingram and Doug McDermott. Towns is also third-worst at center (minus-0.98), in front of Boris Diaw and Jahlil Okafor. Imagine a defense with Thomas, McDermott, and Okafor playing the vast majority of the minutes.
There appears to be a network effect going on: The Wolves defense can sustain having two bad defenders on the floor, but not three. Their normal starting lineup of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio, and Dieng has a defensive rating of 109.7. Replace LaVine with Rush and it improves to 105.3. Thibs is also staggering Wiggins’s and Towns’s minutes to keep one of them on the floor the entire game, meaning there are more lineups with only one defensive liability. LaVine’s absence has also created more of an opportunity for Tyus Jones, a gifted playmaker with a high basketball IQ who can set up teammates without turning the ball over, which has moved rookie Kris Dunn off the ball on the second unit, allowing him to focus on harnessing his considerable physical tools on defense. Towns is irreplaceable, but it’s possible that, had it been Wiggins instead of LaVine who was out for the season, the Wolves would be seeing similar results with LaVine getting a boost in his offensive role.
The hope in Minnesota is that all three of the team’s young stars will eventually improve defensively under Thibodeau’s tutelage. They are all elite athletes with the physical tools to at least be decent defenders, although LaVine’s relatively slender frame means he has the least amount of defensive upside. In theory, the benefits of having three such gifted offensive players on the same team is that sharing the workload would allow them to save more energy for defense. For now, though, what has happened in Minnesota is a textbook example of how three isn’t always greater than two in the NBA.
The Bucks Look Like an Entirely Different Team
The situation in Milwaukee is more complicated because it wasn’t just a matter of switching out one player and keeping everyone else’s roles in the rotation constant. At almost the exact same time they lost Parker for the year, Khris Middleton returned from a hamstring injury that had kept him out for the first few months of the season. Middleton and Parker were two ships passing in the night: The Bucks’ second- and third-best players played a grand total of six minutes together this season.
Middleton was a second-round pick who doesn’t get much publicity because he has played on bad teams in Milwaukee for most of his career, but he’s one of the most well-rounded players in the league. At 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he is a prototypical 3-and-D player who is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter (he’s hitting 48.4 percent from behind the arc on 2.8 attempts per game this season) and swings among three positions on defense. That alone makes him insanely valuable, but he can also serve as a primary option who can score either off the dribble or in the post, and he can set up his teammates as a playmaker. If you prorate his production over 36 minutes of playing time this season, he’s averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals a game on 48.4 percent shooting. Middleton was their only player last season even close to being out of the red in net rating (minus-0.1), and he’s continuing where he left off, helping Milwaukee outscore its opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
The other big change Jason Kidd made to the rotation in early February was inserting promising rookie Thon Maker into the starting lineup. After moving Greg Monroe to the bench before the season following his disappointing performance during his first year in Milwaukee, the Bucks have not gotten much consistency at the position, rotating through John Henson and Miles Plumlee, whom they traded to Charlotte in February. Maker, who the Bucks took with the no. 10 overall pick in this year’s draft, has been up and down since becoming a starter, but he’s shown flashes of potential. He’s shooting 42.0 percent from 3 on 1.3 attempts per game this season, and the Bucks think he has a lot of room to grow once he adds some weight to his rail-thin frame of 7-foot-1 and 223 pounds. I talked to Jason Terry when the Bucks came to Dallas earlier in the season, and he told me Maker had the potential to be a perennial All-Star.
Before Milwaukee could get settled with its new rotation, Michael Beasley, who has had a revival playing for Kidd, went down with a knee injury on February 27. Beasley is averaging 9.7 points per game on 54.2 percent shooting this season, and he had picked up a lot of the scoring slack in Parker’s absence. He will reportedly be out for at least two more weeks and, partially as a result of his absence, on Saturday the Bucks signed Terrence Jones, who had been waived by the Pelicans in the aftermath of the DeMarcus Cousins trade. There are a lot of moving pieces in Milwaukee at the moment, and few coaches in the NBA are more prone to try unconventional lineups than Kidd, so it’s unclear what the team will look like in a few weeks.
This version of the Bucks is much smaller and faster than the one that started the season. Without Parker and Henson (whose picture is currently on milk cartons throughout the Milwaukee area), the Bucks have one of the slimmest starting front lines. Giannis Antetokounmpo is guarding power forwards and playing next to three 3-and-D wings in Middleton, Tony Snell, and Malcolm Brogdon, while Maker spends most of his time in the high post and along the 3-point line. The extra speed in the rotation has made it easier for Kidd to find more playing time at center for Monroe, who has been reborn in a sixth-man role this season. The Bucks bench has actually been the strongest part of their team this season, as Mirza Teletovic (plus-6.7), Terry (plus-6.6), and Monroe (plus-5.9) lead the Bucks in net rating.
Over the past 12 games, the Bucks are playing better on offense (with an offensive rating of 111.2 compared to their 107.7 mark this season) and slightly worse on defense (with a defensive rating of 107.6 compared to 106.7 for the season). However, it’s difficult to untangle how much of that is the result of losing Parker and how much is adding Middleton, much less the other changes they have made to their rotation. Kidd would have even more options if he could play Middleton and Parker together, as Parker’s presence would push Giannis back onto the perimeter on defense, giving the Bucks one of the longest and most athletic wing rotations in the NBA. Either way, the combination of Giannis, Middleton, and their powerful bench might be enough to get the Bucks back into the playoffs, even without Parker.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Khris Middleton’s injury. He hurt his hamstring, not his elbow.