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The Bucks Traded Away Their Finals Secret Weapon for Cash

Milwaukee’s best stretch in Game 1 came when it went small. Unfortunately for the Bucks, they don’t have the wings to do it regularly. The Suns do, in part, because their Finals opponent handed them one for next to nothing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Torrey Craig is easy to miss. The fourth-year wing is the last man in the Suns’ rotation, averaging 4.2 points and 12.8 minutes per game in the playoffs. He had just two points and three rebounds in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday. Even hardcore fans might not have realized that he began the season with the Bucks before being traded to the Suns for cash at the deadline. But Craig plays an important role for Phoenix, one Milwaukee is desperately lacking in the series. His absence reveals underlying flaws in the Bucks’ organization that could keep them from winning a title.

Craig is an undrafted free agent who spent three seasons overseas before signing with the Nuggets in 2017. Like most players with a winding road to the league, Craig is an unselfish role player willing to sacrifice his body. He’s a defensive specialist who makes just enough 3s (career 33.1 percent on 2.2 attempts) to stay on the floor. He has stuck in the NBA because he has the size (6-foot-7 and 221 pounds) and athleticism to guard players at four positions.

His role with the Suns is to defend and space the floor for their second unit. He’s the fourth wing behind Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson, and never has plays run for him. Craig is valuable mainly for what he doesn’t do. The types of players with the physical tools to defend elite perimeter scorers often aren’t good enough shooters to function in an NBA offense. Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who has the same role for the Bucks, is a perfect example. He’s 7-for-40 from 3 (17.5 percent) in three seasons. Mike Budenholzer usually brings him in to defend for only one or two possessions because opposing teams don’t respect him on the other end of the floor.

One of the biggest looming problems for the Bucks in the Finals is that they may actually need to rely on Thanasis. Bud had already cut his rotation down to eight players even before Giannis hurt his knee in the last round. Two of them are stretch big men in Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. Both have the shooting ability to space the floor, but neither is the kind of plus athlete who can move his feet in space and stay in front of elite perimeter scorers. They were sitting ducks for Chris Paul and Devin Booker in Game 1.

The Phoenix stars got whatever they wanted when they came around screens and faced Lopez and Portis. It didn’t matter whether they were in drop coverage or bravely trying to defend past the 3-point line. It’s no coincidence that Lopez had the worst plus-minus of the Bucks’ starters (minus-17 in 23 minutes) and Portis had the worst of the reserves (minus-10 in 14 minutes).

The encouraging sign for Milwaukee is that it mounted a comeback once it went small in the fourth quarter. Giannis moved to center, giving them a more mobile and athletic defensive presence at the position. The Suns no longer had an easy source of offense every time down the floor. The question now is how much Bud can use those lineups given his lack of options on the bench.

Playing Giannis at the 5 creates a glaring hole on the wing. Milwaukee used only six players—Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, P.J. Tucker, Pat Connaughton, and Bryn Forbes—in the fourth before emptying its bench in the final seconds. That’s not enough bodies for a whole game, especially this early in the series. The Bucks were lucky Giannis played 35 solid minutes in Game 1 when it was unclear whether he would even play coming into the series. And even if he can play more, they’ll still need to fill the minutes created by the absence of Lopez and Portis.

That brings us back to Craig. He’s exactly the kind of player the Bucks could use in that spot. But he never saw consistent playing time in Milwaukee. He missed about a month with a broken nose at the start of the season and had nearly as many DNP-CDs (12) as games played (16) after coming back. Bud never really gave him a chance to get comfortable. Craig logged more than 20 minutes only once with the Bucks. He has done that 13 times with the Suns already.

There’s no way to know what Bud’s issue with Craig was from the outside. Per-game stats don’t tell us much about a player in such a limited role. His per-36 minute averages in Milwaukee—8.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.3 blocks—were mostly in line with what he has done in Denver and Phoenix. He still shot a respectable 36.4 percent from 3 with the Bucks. The difference was his scoring went down, but that has never been a big part of his game in the NBA.

The point is that Bud should have been able to find a way to keep Craig on the floor, like both Mike Malone and Monty Williams were able to. It’s not that he’s a special talent, or that it would have made a big difference in the regular season. Fringe players fall in and out of favor with coaches all the time. Craig may have just not fit into Bud’s system. That wouldn’t be such a big deal for a team with lower expectations than the Bucks. But Milwaukee is a title contender that should have spent all season preparing for the kind of problem it currently has against the Suns.

That lack of foresight has caught up with the Bucks. How Bud distributed minutes at the end of his rotation in November and December isn’t a big deal in and of itself. But the way he was making decisions reveals clear holes in his thought process. He should have been looking for 3-and-D wings like Craig who could fill out his rotation when he needed to go small in the playoffs. The last thing he should have done was write a player like that off without a clear replacement.

A title-contending coach has to always operate with the big picture in mind. Their primary concern should be working hand in hand with the front office in order to get their team ready for a deep playoff run. The reason NBA coaches make millions of dollars isn’t to put together a system that only certain players can succeed in. It’s finding ways to make a limited player like Craig successful because his skill set will be necessary at some point down the road.

Milwaukee is lucky to have gotten this far without its limited number of small-ball options being a bigger problem. Both Brooklyn and Atlanta exploited Lopez and Portis at the beginning of their past two series. My colleague Zach Kram wrote about the Bucks going small and mounting a comeback in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals after Trae Young exploded for 48 points. He could have changed the names of the opponent and turned in the exact same article this week.

Bud has long been criticized for not making enough adjustments in the playoffs. But he did a good job of thinking on his feet in the past two rounds. He benched Portis against Brooklyn and went to a seven-man rotation to win games 6 and 7. When Giannis went down against Atlanta, he started Lopez and Portis together and had them switch screens and play aggressive perimeter defense. The question is whether either of those plans would have worked if the opposing stars had stayed healthy. James Harden and Kyrie Irving went down in the second round, while Trae Young missed games 4 and 5 of the conference finals before returning as a shell of himself in Game 6.

Bud still has options against the Suns. He can do more to protect Lopez and Portis on defense and hope they survive for limited stretches. Maybe he can squeeze a few minutes out of Thanasis and Jeff Teague, who have had their moments in the playoffs, or even turn to some of the younger players at the end of their bench. The most important adjustment will be getting better play from his stars. Giannis should be better as he gets back into a rhythm, while Holiday wasn’t nearly as good in Game 1 as he was against Atlanta.

The underlying issue is that the Bucks should have been more prepared for a team like the Suns. The margin for error in the latter rounds of the playoffs is razor-thin even before injuries. Everyone in the organization needs to be working together with the same goals in mind. It all worked out for Torrey Craig. He will receive a ring no matter who wins this series. But he should still be in Milwaukee. The Bucks can win a title without him. They just made it harder on themselves than it had to be.